Chicago, Lyric Opera: “Das Rheingold”

Chicago, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2016-2017 Season
Music drama in one act in German. Libretto by the composer
Music by Richard Wagner
Orchestra of Lyric Opera of Chicago
Conductor Sir Andrew Davis  
Director David Pountney
Original Scenery Designer Johan Engels  
Scenery Designer Robert Innes Hopkins
Costume Deisgner Marie-Jeanne Lecca 
Lighting Designer Fabrice Kebour   
Choreographer Denni Sayers  
Stage Band Conductor Eric Weimer  
Fight Director Chuck Coyl  
Chicago, 1 October 2016   
Lyric Opera of Chicago launched its current season with DAS RHEINGOLD, the initial installment in a new production of Richard Wagner’s epic DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN.  The four operas comprising the cycle will be presented piecemeal, one per season, culminating in three complete offerings of the RING in April 2020.  These cycles will mark Lyric Opera’s third RING presentation in its history.  “Another RING, another concept,” exclaims the seasoned Wagnerian.  And yet Lyric Opera has steadfastly avoided productions redolent with references to world history–both during and after Wagner’s lifetime.  In contrast, many other opera houses took their cue from the groundbreaking 1976 Patrice Chéreau production for the Bayreuth Festival, eschewing mythological trappings for a new and provocative visual lexicon, steeped in imagery of the Industrial Revolution, urban suffering and even nuclear war.  Instead, Lyric Opera borrowed from science fiction.  Its first RING in the 1970’s featured a “timeless” STAR TREK aesthetic, while the succeeding production by August Everding paid tribute to STAR WARS with a laser beam lighting scheme.  In both cases, the stage pictures were abstract, geometric and free of clutter.   Wagner himself wrote:  “To make my intention too obvious would get in the way of real understanding.”  In the words of M. Owen Lee:  “He didn’t want explanations.” Lyric Opera’s stage director David Pountney obviously concurs with this viewpoint.  In a program note, Pountney states:  “Of course it is not possible to tell a story without simultaneously giving it some element of interpretation—we all like to pretend we are objective, but we are not.  But the emphasis in our case will be to tell the story, rather than to tell you what the story means.  That is your job to decide.”  Pountney and his design team served up a Wagner staging quite unlike anything in this writer’s experience.  With its objective of functioning as narrator, the production does not strive after illusion or magic.  Indeed, it celebrates theatricality and makes explicit the “play within a play” logic of its thesis.  The three Norns appear before the opera begins, setting up lighting instruments and unpacking their red chord of fate from a weathered piece of luggage.  They are assisted by a corps of stagehands, dressed as factory workers, who manipulate a staggering array of set pieces, machinery and props in seamlessly executed choreography. The Rhinemaidens are first seen atop cranes, trailing gowns suggestive of mermaids.  The image is both reminiscent of early attempts to stage this notoriously challenging scene and convincing in its representation of underwater life.  By liberating itself from the burden of achieving cinematic realism, the performers are free to work within a convention that is poetic and persuasive on its own terms. The production gathers cumulative force as it moves forward, layering color, ideas, associations and movement into a dazzling totality.  Costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca has attired the gods in a wardrobe suggestive of baroque opera, commedia dell’arte and the court of Louis XIV.  Each deity occupies a stage wagon, outfitted with objects and symbols associated with his or her godhood.  Set designer Robert Innes Hopkins (building on the original vision of the late Johan Engels) has realized the giants Fasolt and Fafner as enormous heads and arms attached to moving towers that convey power and menace.  Loge is dressed as a circus ring leader, making his entrance on a clown bicycle.  Nibelheim and its denizens are a synthesis of Mad Max and Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS.  Fabrice Kebour’s lighting delineates the various realms of water, sky and subterranean earth effectively and atmospherically. Pountney is adept at humanizing the mythic.  Borrowing from Stockholm syndrome, Freia grows increasingly attached to her captor and seems traumatized by his eventual murder.  Erotic passion and longing are clearly evident throughout Fricka’s arguments with her husband.  Pountney is also unafraid to interject notes of farce and whimsy into his work.  The blowup dragon and toad in Nibelheim are an unexpected solution to a perennial staging problem, matching the tongue-in-cheek musical rendering of these creatures with their own charming goofiness.  Wotan and Loge “high five” one other like exuberant frat boys after capturing Alberich.  There are many moments of wit and humor in DAS RHEINGOLD and Pountney successfully illuminates these elements alongside the noble, cosmic aspects of the story. Not every directorial choice works well.  Wotan takes possession of the ring by amputating Alberich’s arm.  A moment that could be devastating in its depiction of hypocrisy and humiliation is here treated as cheap Guignol and the audience guffawed accordingly.  But Pountney and his design team are willing to take chances and the collective result is one of immense stimulation. The large ensemble was mostly cast from strength.  As Loge, Stefan Margita delivers a performance of stunning range, full of seemingly limitless inflection and nuance.  Resembling Martin Short in appearance and movement, the Slovakian tenor embodies the suave and sinister aspects of the trickster to perfection.  Margita also seemed to be enjoying himself immensely onstage.  His fellow character tenor Rodell Rosel also impresses mightily, exuding a determined ruthlessness as Mime, which makes him almost as dangerous as his brother Alberich. Eric Owens and Samuel Youn are well matched in terms of vocal and interpretative ability as the respective lords of light and darkness but neither is wholly convincing.  As Wotan, Owens’ singing was variable throughout the evening, his imposing bass-baritone losing focus and consistency.  Sadly, there was little sense of expansion or commanding majesty in his final monologue.  As Alberich, Youn was overly reliant on exaggerated Sprechstimme and straight-toned howling to score dramatic points.  The basic instrument is quite handsome but one wished he would have let it speak for itself. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner possesses a clean, incisive mezzo-soprano that made something compelling of Fricka’s every utterance.  As Fasolt, Wilhem Schwinghammer was a figure of pathos but his singing was unsteady and lacking in legato.  In contrast, Tobias Kehrer’s resonant, black-toned bass made for an unusually fascinating Fafner.  Okka Von Der Damerau, resembling Miss Havisham, intoned Erda’s warning powerfully while Laura Wilde’s Freia was refreshingly forceful in both voice and presence.  Jesse Donner sang with mellifluous tenderness as Froh but seemed a trifle embarrassed by the director’s fey take on the rainbow god.  Zachary Nelson made the most of Donner’s invocation, his sonorous vocalism recalling the American stage debut here of Bryn Terfel in this role 25 years ago.  The three Rhinemaidens were performed with panache and polish by Diana Newman as Woglinde, Annie Rosen as Wellgunde and Lindsay Ammann as Flosshilde. The evening’s biggest disappointment was Sir Andrew Davis in the pit.  He favored a brisk, swiftly paced approach to the score, appreciable for its taut, compact qualities.  But the opening vorspiel, a depiction of the “beginning of the world” as Wagner described it and one of the most innovative passages in all of music, was devoid of awe and wonder.  Similarly, the orchestral playing was prosaic here, the brass tentative throughout and the whole lacking impact and sonority.  Davis’ musical leadership registered as choppy and episodic, without a sense of climax or well-managed crescendo.  In short, this is a theatrically triumphant production of DAS RHEINGOLD featuring a strong cast but disappointing conducting.  More importantly, it whets the appetite for what is to come and this was brilliantly anticipated in the staging:  the gods cross their rainbow bridge through a replica of Lyric Opera’s famous deco fire curtain, entering a Valhalla of creative possibility that will hopefully insure the remaining works of the cycle are realized with equal brilliance. Photo © Todd Rosenberg