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Ionarts in Florence: The Patter of Little Rheingold Feet

We arrived in Siena in enough time to catch some of the end of the magnificent series of concerts known as the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. So on Wednesday night, the bus to Florence made it possible to attend the first part of the half-Ring cycle staged in the Teatro Comunale di Firenze. What would La Fura dels Baus, the outrageous Catalan experimental theater troupe, do with Wagner's Das Rheingold? That was the question that brought a full house of enthusiastic listeners to this updated theater near the banks of the Arno.

As for the answer, take a moment to sit down, especially if you do not care for Regietheater and the re-imagining of venerable operas. As already reported when this production was premiered this spring at the Palau de les Arts "Reina Sofia" in Valencia, Spain, it is wild. Wagner's German mythological subject has already been set in the future, and so perhaps the concept of the gods as an alien master race, with outlandish silvery costumes (designed by Chu Oroz) that would not be out of place in Lost in Space, is not that shocking. (Dino Villatico called it "somewhere between Star Wars and 007" in La Repubblica.) The radical change to the story, in this version directed by Carlus Padrissa of La Fura dels Baus, comes in the decision on what to do with the Rhinegold.

How to handle the gold as a prop is often an awkward proposition. You need enough gold to be able to cover Freia, so that Fafner and Fasolt are convinced to give her back to the gods, but you also have to be able to get the gold on and off the stage easily. Wouldn't it be nice if the gold could just move itself? This is probably not how Padrissa came up with the idea of showing the gold as a floating golden fetus in the stunning backdrop of video sequences (designed by Franc Aleu). When the Rhinemaidens sing their memorable hymn to the gold ("Rheingold! Rheingold!"), the baby image appears, spinning in the background of space (right out of 2001: A Space Odyssey). The maidens, sung elegantly and athletically by Silvia Vázquez, Ann-Katrin Naidu, and Hannah Esther Minutillo, are suspended in boxes of water that rise up out of a very convincing Rhine setting combining video and a minimalistic set piece (designed by Roland Olbeter). They spread their legs and the gold color seeps into the water like menstrual blood. (I don't think this is what Wagner had in mind when he had Loge sing about the rotes Gold.)

When the scene descends to Nibelheim, we see that the fetus is being replicated into an army of golden clones. Under a girder of anvils, members of the Fura dels Baus troupe in skintight body suits hang upside down from an assembly line rail (the concept flirts with bondage imagery), as they are measured and cleaned off and have their golden color touched up. The background video shows pods moving along the upper part of the assembly line, as the golden race is cloned. When the gold is brought in to show the giants, they creep along the floor in a Dantesque mass and are heaped up into a pile. At the end, now lit by silver light (designed by Peter van Praet) and probably not to be confused with the gold, they form the rainbow bridge to Valhalla.

The gods usually are flown around the stage on levitating platforms at the end of machine-like booms. Loge zips around hilariously on a Segway-type scooter, which is an apt visual counterpart to his flickering, chromatic Leitmotif. The giants appear in giant robot machines, à la Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. Video images projected on a scrim at the front of the stage are not too intrusive, at many points giving Wotan a sort of cosmic halo. Some of the stranger parts of the staging are actually perversely faithful to the libretto, like having the Rhinemaidens actually swimming in their tanks of water in the opening scene. Others seem more gratuitous than others, like the dragon of flames, representing the shape Alberich takes, complete with a fire-breather at its head.

Whatever you may think about the production (I am reserving a final opinion until I have seen the second opera), the singing was extraordinary, beginning with Juha Uusitalo's stentorian and arrogant Wotan, whose only sin, very slight, was to put a little too much bite into his final consonants. Franz-Josef Kapellmann was a brilliant, if a little slow-moving Alberich, matched by a magnificent and pathetic Mime from Ulrich Ress. The giants were resonantly sung by the highly respected and still powerful Matti Salminen (Fasolt) and the snarling Stephen Milling (Fafner). The statuesque Anna Larsson was the sexiest Fricka in recent memory, clearly loving her thigh-high boots and riding crop cum scepter as much as I did, while Catherine Wyn Rogers was a potent and dusky-voiced Erda.

The only disappointment was the orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentine. In spite of Zubin Mehta's vivid and enthusiastic conducting, they lagged behind his beat and the singers too much. The sound was generally impressive when they were on, especially the thunderous brass, except for some early missed notes in the horns. The tuba sound in the closing pages was brashly regal. It was a nice touch for Mehta to have the entire orchestra make its way up to the stage for the curtain call.

June 27 was the final performance of Das Rheingold, but Ionarts will be back in Florence tonight, reporting on the final performance of Die Walküre.

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