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Putting a Ring on it elevates Houston Grand Opera to new heights — and accomplishes a great dare

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Houston Grand Opera Das Rheingold April 2014 Photographer Lynn Lane
Catherine Martin as Wellgunde, from left, Andrea Carroll as Woglinde, Christopher Purves as Alberich and Renée Tatum as Flosshilde in Houston Grand Opera's production of Das Rheingold. Photo by © Lynn Lane
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There’s only one Ring — Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, a mammoth endeavor comprised of four operas for which Wagner crafted both music and librettos over 26 years. With the Friday night premiere of Das Rheingold, Houston Grand Opera initiates this season on its very first Ring, a signature accomplishment for an opera company.

Of course Wagner’s Ring has many faces. To consider its legacy is daunting to say the least. According to Operabase, in the 2012-3 opera season alone, 121 productions were mounted of the opening work, or prelude, Das Rheingold, which tells the story of the beginning of the end of the reign of the Norse gods, whose greed undoes them. It all begins with a single ring, forged of stolen gold, and a power that ends up nearly destroying the world.

Rings have come and Rings have gone since the 1876 Bayreuth Festival premiere, which originated the iconic Victorian Teutonic style full of spears and breastplates — which was the only style allowed for the early life of The Ring.

As David Littlejohn reminds us, “it's sometimes hard to realize that for three-quarters of a century — from the premiere performances at Bayreuth in 1876 to the first post-World War II performances there in 1951 — most opera goers saw the Ring done by performers going through much the same motions, in much the same costumes, against sets that were altered only very gradually, all over the Western world.”

Times have changed and companies like the HGO have options aplenty. Indeed, as has been reported, the HGO pulled out of a collaboration with Opera Australia and instead opted for the already much admired Ring staged by the innovative Catalonian theater company La Fura dels Baus and directed by Carlus Padrissa.

It’s hard to deny the power of this retro-futuristic production full of arresting acrobatics, a moped-riding Loki and Rhine maidens suspended in watery tanks over the stage.

I can attest that, on a mere DVD (not even a BluRay!) on an average flat screen TV, this Catalonian Ring is nothing less than utterly enthralling. Just think what it’ll look like live.

Great works leave a mark on the world, to be sure, but how does a production leave a mark on such a great work? What makes a signature Ring?

The Ring that broke the mold was, of course, not La Fura dels Baus’s but Patrice Chereau’s centennial 1976 Ring. Staging of the Ring had already begun to shift away from Norse-Teutonic kitsch, but Chereau’s Industrial Revolution allegory, set in Wagner’s own time, pitted capitalist gods against proletariat dwarves. The Rhinemaidens aren’t shimmering creatures of golden myth but prostitutes shimmying seedily atop a hydroelectric dam.

Chereau died just last year at the tender age of 68 but his production set a bar over which subsequent productions have attempted to sail over with mixed results.

No doubt such high-flying ambition motivated many a Ring, including the Metropolitan Opera’s expensive and ill-starred Robert Lepage production. Lepage aimed for a Wagner with 21st century toys and built the production around sophisticated video projection — a 45 ton piece of stage machinery that could turn, revolve, interlock and make myriad shapes on the stage. At least, it could when it worked.

As David Karlin put it in his appraisal of the Lepage Ring: “Back in 2010 when its first Rheingold was unveiled, everything really needed to work on the first night — and it didn’t. Early performances had a catalogue of troubles, ranging from creaks and clunks to scenes in which the moving scenery failed to work at all, performers actually got injured, or, embarrassingly, one in which a large Microsoft Windows logo appeared on the scenery while a video projection computer rebooted.”

If some may have regretted HGO’s decision not to stage its own Ring, others perhaps sighed in relief after these unscheduled catastrophes seemed they might rival the world-ending plot of the Ring. At least the Met trailer seems to proceed with no malfunctions:

We could blame it all on the mischievous Loki. Or we might admit that sometimes less is much much more, which is why some love the Ring by Robert Wilson, who recently delivered three talks in the 2014 Campbell Lecture Series at Rice University. That production builds, as is Wilson’s want, out of an architecture of light and iconic gestures.

Padrissa may eschew the simplicity of Wilson, but he makes sculptures of bodies and succeeds in part with great humor about the kind of overwrought stage machinery that got the Met in such trouble. What, after all, are we to make of gods zooming around on scooters when they aren’t lurching about on what we might call a futuristic descendant of stilts, those staples of the circus?

Staging Wagner is a great dare. More productions will come and go, built of maybe even more improbable things, but they will all still somehow be Wagner’s one Ring.

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