Atlanta Opera is building a Ring Cycle over the next several seasons – the city’s first – and has made an auspicious start with Das Rheingold – again, the city’s first. It is an exciting and promising project.
Rheingold was staged by the organization’s General & Artistic Director, Tomer Zvulun. When he appeared in front of the curtain before the performance began, he greeted the audience as a host and was welcomed as an admired friend. Clearly, during his 10-year tenure at Atlanta, Zvulun has built not just a loyal audience but a comfortable one, proud of what the community had accomplished. I’ve seen this phenomenon only once before, at Longborough, where the relationship of the audience to Martin Graham was that of guests to a generous host. When Graham welcomed an audience of 500 as “friends” he meant it, and they regarded themselves as such. So it seems to be in Atlanta, and it’s infectious.
The Rheingold production is straightforward, and intentionally so. Zvulun trusts the work, and trusts the audience to entertain its many nuances once the work is staged without interpretive intervention. In his program notes, Zvulun emphasizes two attributes of the Ring: its reliance on mythology, and its embrace of various forms of love. Thus, this Rheingold was the story of gods, giants and dwarfs in a world removed from our own. But they behave towards each other in ways resonant of our own experience. When deals are struck and promises broken, when pride leads Alberich to overreach, when Wotan’s desire to attain power – and prevent others from doing so – leads to catastrophic moral misjudgment, we recognize it. It’s moving to us, in the same way that a Tolkien trilogy or an epic saga like Game of Thrones is moving. Myth becomes a way to strengthen narrative, not to divert it or make it distant from us. In its unfussy presentation of the story, Atlanta has offered Rheingold to us directly, for us to consider on Wagner’s terms rather than through the perspective of a director or dramaturg, however stimulating that perspective may be.
The musical component of the production was similarly transparent and satisfying. The prelude was sweet, flowing, and ominous. Arthur Fagan conducted a fine band of musicians who played with assurance, and without brassy blares or any sense of sensationalism. Veteran Greer Grimsley as Wotan headlined a cast who had, by and large, performed their roles at the Met, Covent Garden, Seattle and elsewhere. Their experience provided the production with a feeling of unquestioned confidence and excitement. Zachary Nelson (Donner in the Chicago Ring) as Alberich and Julius Ahn as Mime both brought uncommon lucidity and humor to their interpretations. It was particularly gratifying to see Jessica Faselt, a recent New York Wagner Society Springer awardee, as Freia.
The Cycle continues with Die Walküre in April-May 2024. All are encouraged to attend – both for the strong musical and dramatic rewards that are promised, and in support of a vibrant and ambitious American company.