Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Strong performances lend power to an abridged "Götterdämmerung" at Union Avenue Opera

L-R, foreground: Neil Nelson and Clay Hilley
Photo: JohnLamb
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This weekend, Union Avenue Opera concludes its 22nd season with "Götterdämmerung" ("Twilight of the Gods"), the final installment of the most ambitious project in the company's history—Wagner's mammoth operatic cycle "Der Ring des Nibelungen" ("The Ring of the Nibelung"). It's a strong production, thanks to tremendous performances by the singers and clear, focused stage direction by Karen Coe Miller.

Using editions of the operas prepared in 1990 by British composer Jonathan Dove and director Graham Vick for companies that lacked the facilities and budgets necessary to produce Wagner's massive "music dramas" in their original form, Union Avenue Opera has proved that you can retain the narrative drive and much of the dramatic power of these works while still making substantial cuts. "Götterdämmerung" has the most drastic edits of them all, eliminating several characters and cutting the overall running time in half, from over six hours to just under three.

L-R, foreground: David Dillard, Rebecca Wilson
Neil Nelson, Clay Hilley
Photo: John Lamb
That makes the plot-heavy second act, with its memory-erasing magic potions and backstabbing (both metaphorical and literal), so quick that it feels almost telegraphic. And the smaller orchestra can't quite produce the impact required for big moments like Brünnhilde's famous "immolation scene" or Siegfried's Act I Rhine journey and his Act III funeral music. But everything is sung and acted with such conviction that those are ultimately secondary considerations. Solid dramatic values go a long way towards compensating for a lack of spectacle.

Besides, as I noted back when the series began, to a certain extent the lack of theatrical flash sharpens the focus on the plot, the characters, and their implicit commentary on matters of morality and power. Wagner's libretti for the "Ring" operas starkly illustrate the cost of abusing power and personal trust—highly ironic, given the way Wagner the man did both.

Alexandra LoBianco
Photo: John Lamb
Heading the cast is the remarkable Alexandra LoBianco as Brünnhilde, the role she played in "Walküre" and "Sigfried." If there's any justice in this world she will, at some point in her career, get a chance to sing the full-length version of this role on a major stage. She has the vocal power and sheen of a first-rate dramatic soprano and the acting skill to make even the biggest moments credible.

Tenor Clay Hilley returns as Siegfried, once again matching a heroic voice with a convincing character. Bass-baritone Neil Nelson's Hagen is a captivating study in emotional conflict and avarice, delivered with a big, powerful voice that easily handles the low notes of this bass role.

Brünnhilde's sister Valkyrie Waltraute could almost be a throwaway part since she's essentially there just to deliver a lot of exposition about how Wotan is pining away in Valhalla, but alto Melissa Kornacki makes her fascinating nevertheless—beautifully sung with real depth of character.

Clay Hilley and Vassals
Photo: John Lamb
Baritone Timothy Lafontaine schemes and wheedles wonderfully as the dwarf Alberich. David Dillard and Rebecca Wilson round out the supporting cast in fine form as Gunther and his sister Gutrune, both of whom are undone by their dishonorable plotting.

Conductor Scott Schoonover has apparently beefed up Dove's reduced orchestration a bit and, some intonation issues in the brasses not withstanding, the ensemble as a whole played quite well on opening night. I missed the big emotional catharsis of the final moments, but the responsibility for that mostly lies with Mr. Dove and the small size of the orchestra pit.

Patrick Huber's unit set is the same one used for the first three operas. It's dominated by a huge screen on which images and video (designed by Michael Perkins, whose innovative work has graced many a local stage) take the place of the elaborate scenery envisioned by Wagner. They generally work well, especially in the Gibichung palace scenes in the second act, and are very effective in creating the right moods and sense of place. The screen, the catwalk above it, and the stairs to either side take up so much room that most of the action is played out in a fairly shallow area downstage. Still, Ms. Miller manages to create decent stage pictures most of the time, which is impressive.

Melissa Kornacki
Photo: John Lamb
Teresa Doggett and company have done their usual fine work with the costumes. Hagen and the pedestrian Gibichungs are done up as early 20th-century European royalty, complete with brown-shirted Vassals who look eerily like Hitler's infamous paramilitary Sturmabteilung. That immediately sets them apart from country boy Siegfried and emphasizes their division from the supernatural characters who surround them.

Union Avenue Opera has done local opera fans a real service with its four-year traversal of the Ring operas. Yes, Dove's scaled-back versions are no substitute for the real thing, but taken on their own terms they're compelling theatre. And in any case, no local opera company has a theatre equipped for the Full Richard.

If you have any interest in Wagner's "Ring" operas at all, you definitely owe it to yourself to see this "Götterdämmerung." If nothing else, it will give you bragging rights when Ms. Lobianco goes on to her inevitable stardom; you can say you saw her when. Final performances are this Friday and Saturday, August 28 and 29, at 8 PM at Union Avenue Opera, 733 Union at Enright in the Central West End. For more information, visit the company web site. Note that there is a parking lot but it tends to fill up quickly, so you'll want to get there not later than 7:30 if you can.

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