Category Archives: Live Review

‘Siegfried’ at Lyric Opera of Chicago

The Lyric Opera of Chicago‘s new production of Richard Wagner‘s Siegfried is a triumph. Considering the production as a whole, it’s the strongest installment yet of the company‘s new Der Ring des Nibelungen, all of which is directed by David Pountney.

Pountney’s Siegfried continues tropes and themes from earlier installments while also, occasionally and more boldly than before, cleverly punctuating the story with his own narrative decisions. In my review of Die Walküre, I wrote:

In a similar vein to Das Rheingold, Pountney’s conceit here is less of a Regietheater-esque reinterpretation than one of a theatrical telling of the “original” story—or at least largely staying out of the way in order for you to come to your own interpretive conclusions. The twist, though, is that, as an audience member, you’re not watching and listening to a story so much as you are watching a story being told (likely decades ago). The stagehands-as-characters—moving sets, operating spotlights, etc.—is critical to this. Also welcome is the fact that the production is self-aware enough to not take itself too seriously.

While this largely applies to Siegfried, Pountney asserts himself narratively a bit more than before, and for the better—first, via the production’s visual language, and second, through the stage direction.

In stark contrast to the overall more muted tones of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, the curtain opens for Siegfried to reveal a bright white stage and neon colors aplenty—greens, reds, yellows—with childlike writing and drawings on the wall and floor (visible to those in the balconies). Also visible is a crib (or cage?). Alas, we are in Siegfried’s room. Mime’s workstation, which is more practical and less playful, is also visible, but, as with most any child, the little one has the run of the place: toys everywhere, their room or designated play area spilling out into the rest of the abode. And when Siegfried finally appears, the infantilization is complete. Our nascent hero wears a baggy striped t-shirt, baggy cargo shorts, and sneakers. Instead of leaning into the young and strapping, but naive and simple, warrior, Pountney and the rest of the production team lean into Siegfried’s youth and naive confidence.

Adding to the caricature of an infantilized Siegfried is Mime, the Nibelung dwarf who raised him after the death of his parents Wälsung parents. Here, he’s wearing a dirty, tattered dress and, when we initially see him, work gloves that closely resemble rubber (dish-)washing gloves. He appears to the audience as both mother (visually) and father (vocally) to Siegfried, toiling away both forging swords and cleaning the kitchen. And while I could take umbrage as an at-home father of a toddler, I understood the visual caricature the team was going for—seeing Mime and Siegfried go back and forth in the messy play area was almost cartoonish.

The production team includes original set designers Robert Innes Hopkins and the late Johan Engels (who also designed Lyric’s Parsifal in 2013), costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca, and lighting designer Fabrice Kebour. It’s worth mentioning this team not only in relation to its work on Chicago’s new Ring cycle, but also because this is a team that’s worked together for years. Throughout the evening, I was regularly reminded of the same team’s (sans Hopkins, before Engels’s death) production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the Bregenzer Festspiele in 2013-14, which I saw both years while teaching in Bregenz. Pountney et al. took that approach of heavily emphasizing the fairy tale elements and perfected it for Siegfried. (Complete with growing grass and a dragon in Act Two! I felt like I was sitting on the Bodensee shore, only watching a better production and performance.)

For quick reference, here’s an image of Siegfried confronting Fafner in Act Two of Siegfried:
chicagosiegfried
And here’s an image of the same team’s set for Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the 2013-14 Bregenzer Festspiele:bregenzzauberfloete

Other light-hearted visual cues abound throughout the first two acts and a little of the third. A prime example, pun intended, is the reforging of Nothung, Siegfried’s sword. Instead of using Mime’s workstation, the little tike receives packages (delivered by stagehands-as-couriers) from “Rhein Logistik,” complete with the familiar logo of a black background, white font, and that familiar orange arrow. Fafner is also given cartoonish treatment that is rather effective. (It’s certainly better than trying to seriously portray an onstage battle with a dragon.) Once again, he’s operated by the visible stagehands.

In the program’s Director’s Note, Pountney emphasizes Siegfried’s place as the Ring‘s “Scherzo,” and that “it is the story of a child.” The end result is an entertaining romp for two acts that is capped off by an emotionally anguished third.

Act Three, by contrast, is much more visually subdued. Although Erda’s emergence and dress are a sight to behold, the red/white/dark motif is reminiscent of the final act of Die Walküre, and of course both acts end in the same place: Brünnhilde’s rock. Also, Siegfried’s appearance is made to seem that much more out of place when his youthful outfit is juxtaposed against the austere background and Brünnhilde’s formal, minimal attire. She’s clearly more mature, both emotionally and in age.

Separate from the set design and costumes, Pountney’s direction for Wotan gives the aging god a more malicious bent, particularly in Act Two. As an example, when Siegfried is able to understand the forest bird’s song after tasting the slain dragon’s blood, it’s not simply a conversation between our hero and his woodland acquaintance. Instead, Valhalla partially descends from the top of the stage, and we see Wotan working the forest bird’s voice (sung beautifully by Diana Newman) like a hand puppet while Siegfried interacts with the bird below. This, along with other appearances in the second act, make more explicit Wotan’s scheming and behind-the-scenes machinations, particularly when Siegfried is viewed as a standalone work instead of in conjunction with Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, both of which feature Wotan more prominently.

The musical performances were strong across the board. Burkhard Fritz‘s Siegfried was energetic and youthful, but also quite moving when in dialogue with Christine Goerke‘s Brünnhilde in Act Three. Goerke was soaring and passionate, and offered a nice complement to Brunnhilde’s much younger soon-to-be lover. For me, it was one of the standout performances of the evening. Mattias Klink portrayed a frustrated and tired yet scheming Mime while maintaining a full and resonant sound. Vocally, Act Three is hard to beat. Not only does it end with Brünnhilde and Siegfried, but it begins with Wotan/The Wanderer and Erda, and here Eric Owens and Ronnita Miller really upped the production’s already strong musical game, eventually giving way to Goerke and Fritz to bring it home. Although Owens now feels very comfortable and powerful as Wotan, Miller’s anguished Erda nearly stole that first scene. And though their parts are small by comparison, Samuel Youn continued to entertain as Alberich, Patrick Guetti‘s Fafner was formidable and rich, and Diana Newman’s forest bird was playful and elegant, offering a nice respite from the male-heavy first two acts. Enveloping it all, of course, was the Lyric Opera orchestra, led by Sir Andrew Davis.

After three successful productions, I’m quite looking forward to seeing how next season’s Götterdämmerung unfolds, as well as then seeing this new full Ring cycle in its entirety in early 2020.

‘Die Walküre’ at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago‘s new production of Die Walküre is a success. Go see it! The company’s new Ring cycle is now officially full steam ahead.

Last year’s Das Rheingold not only started this new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, which will culminate in three full cycles in the spring of 2020, but it also symbolized a break from the past. Whereas 2005’s cycle featured marquee names in signature roles (most notably James Morris as Wotan, and also Jane Eaglen as Brünnhilde), this 2016-2020 production is visually rich and centered around two marquee names in newer roles, Eric Owens as Wotan in a role debut and Christine Goerke hitting her stride as Brünnhilde. (I saw her in Canadian Opera Company’s Götterdämmerung in February, in which she commanded the stage. Ain Anger, who portrayed Hunding in Die Walküre, gave a masterful performance as Hagen in that same Götterdämmerung.) This is also director David Pountney‘s first full cycle, and he is accompanied by the late Johan Engels—carried on by his successor Robert Innes Hopkins—and costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca, lighting designer Fabrice Kebour, and choreographer Denni Sayers. The production has traded stark minimalism for captivating sets and costumes that fill up every inch of stage and bar of music—even during the vorspiels, some sort of action is occurring to propel the story forward.

Pountney, Engels et al. put together a visually compelling production. There is some continuity with Das Rheingold that I’ll now expect to see in some fashion in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, namely the aspect of making some of the stagehands characters themselves, thereby acknowledging that this is a theatrical work through and through. Also, whereas the gods in Das Rheingold dressed as eighteenth-century patricians, they now appear as nineteenth-century aristocracy in Die Walküre. Which makes sense, considering that we’re now at least a generation removed from the events of Das Rheingold. The contrast in color throughout, coupled with the attention to detail for both costumes and set design, makes for a vivid presentation. This is perhaps most apparent in the third act, with the red Valkyries against the set’s whites, blacks, and grays. (The hues, though bold in contrast, are themselves worn, suggesting that the Valkyries have been at this a while.) But other acts and scenes also made their marks: Hunding’s pale quarters giving way to the warm and sensually bright springtime of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s love; Fricka’s red dress and Wotan’s white coat against Valhalla’s austere hall; Loge’s consuming fire. The contrast in color becomes more apparent in each successive act.

And the acting! Generally, even when the score, libretto, and set design work well together on the opera stage, what passes for “acting” often has a much lower bar. This production, however, has the right mix of personnel and direction. Movements were often organic. Perhaps a subtle facial tick from Goerke’s Brünnhilde or Tanja Ariane Baumgartner‘s Fricka (a role she continued from Das Rheingold) as opposed to grand gesture, or the passionate caressing between Elisabeth Strid‘s Sieglinde and Brandon Jovanovich‘s Siegmund instead of the more typical glacial embrace. The hypnotic, almost desperate love between the Wälsung twins was believable, which only amplified their high passions and low grief. As a viewer, I nearly felt as if I were witnessing private moments between them.

In a similar vein to Das Rheingold, Pountney’s conceit here is less of a Regietheater-esque reinterpretation than one of a theatrical telling of the “original” story—or at least largely staying out of the way in order for you to come to your own interpretive conclusions. The twist, though, is that, as an audience member, you’re not watching and listening to a story so much as you are watching a story being told (likely decades ago). The stagehands-as-characters—moving sets, operating spotlights, etc.—is critical to this. Also welcome is the fact that the production is self-aware enough to not take itself too seriously. When the spotlight instantly shone on Nothung in the ash tree for the first time, it’s as if the production team did it with their tongues firmly in cheek. And, though I won’t spoil it, Loge’s in-person appearance hours later had a similar effect without intruding on the drama too much. Dare I say that it’s a fun production of Die Walküre? All I know is that the audience laughed with the production far more than I had expected.

Pountney and other members of the team have made reference to Henrik Ibsen in discussions of any sort of approach or interpretive framework, citing “intimate relationships within a family” as well as the feminist leanings of A Doll’s House. Given that, I’d be remiss to not at least briefly address the viewing experience in November 2017. This tale of romantic, familial, and power politics rife with emotional and sometimes physical abuse is particularly resonant right now, given that every news cycle is now saturated with what hopefully becomes a necessary, though grievously belated, reckoning regarding sexual harassment and abuse as well as skewed gender dynamics in general.

After I left the theater I read Anthony Tommasini’s review in the New York Times, an overall positive assessment that otherwise chides Pountney for Hunding’s literally chaining Sieglinde to the ash tree running through his home, arguing that her captivity was more emotional than literal. (As a general rule, I try to avoid all reviews beforehand.) I disagree. It not only restricted her movements, making for an interesting staging device, but it made painfully obvious that Sieglinde isn’t just in a loveless marriage with Hunding, but rather she is his slave for all intents and purposes. (Nothing wrong with beating that point home with a sledgehammer.) In a way, this is similar to the Valkyries being scolded by their father Wotan in Act III. Within minutes, the Valkyries regress from triumphant warrior-goddesses with weapons and horses to disobedient schoolgirls being reprimanded while seated in comically small chairs, all while Wotan—seemingly all-powerful father and god, but ultimately just a man behind his own curtain—scolds them from Valhalla above. The visual infantilization was powerful. This context creates extra resonance for the most threatening and insulting remark over the course of the work: when Wotan tells his favorite daughter Brünnhilde that she will submit to a husband and honor his will. Goerke’s reaction was clear; she may as well be chained to a tree like her half-sister Sieglinde.

The vocal roster was superb and delivered powerful performances across the board. Owens’s Wotan was richer and more powerful than in last year’s Das Rheingold. And Goerke’s Brünnhilde was youthful and energetic, and a definite contrast to her portrayal in Canadian Opera Company’s Götterdämmerung—a Brünnhilde that is older, wiser, and vengeful. (And apparently Goerke was fighting a cold Tuesday night. She sure fooled us!) Both Jovanovich’s Siegmund and Strid’s Sieglinde were lyrical across the full emotional spectrum, and I followed them wherever they led. Anger’s Hunding was dark and oppressive to great effect, whereas Baumgartner’s Fricka was guarded and vulnerable. And then the Valkyries1…whew! There were a couple moments in which I couldn’t believe just how mightily big those warrior-singers could get.

Sir Andrew Davis led the Lyric Opera Orchestra through a rousing performance, and I was struck by just how well the voices and orchestra blended with one another. So many graceful transitions of melodic lines throughout. It was sometimes difficult to tell where an instrument would end and a voice would begin. Tuesday’s performance marked Davis’s 30th anniversary since he first stood at Lyric’s podium, and he marked the occasion with a strong, moving delivery.

A few performances remain through November 30th. Don’t wait until 2020 to see this production of Die Walküre for the first time.


1.  Despite an illness and understudy being announced twice before the performance, I regret to write that I know neither which vocalist was ill nor her replacement. (Neither did the gentleman sitting next to me, as we immediately tried clarifying with another.) That said, the official casting includes: Whitney Morrison as Gerhilde, Alexandra LoBianco as Helmwige, Laura Wilde as Ortlinde (and Freia in this cycle’s Das Rheingold), Catherine Martin as Waltraute, Deborah Nansteel as Siegrune, Lindsay Ammann as Rossweisse (and Flosshilde in this cycle’s Das Rheingold), Zanda Švēde as Grimgerde, and Lauren Decker as Schwertleite.