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‘Das Rheingold’ at Lyric Opera of Chicago — The ‘Ring’ Begins Anew

Lyric Opera of Chicago‘s current season opened on Saturday with a new production of Richard Wagner‘s Das Rheingold, kicking off a four-year unveiling of a new Ring cycle, which will culminate in full proper cycles in 2020. Having attended their last Ring cycle in 2005, I was glad to be a part of this double-opener.

This production of Das Rheingold, as well as the cycle overall, is noteworthy in several ways. Whereas 2005 featured James Morris as Wotan (in one of his signature roles), this production features Eric Owens in his role debut. (He sang Alberich in the Met’s 2013 production.) Adding Wagnerian heft to Das Rheingold‘s playbill, bass-baritone and Bayreuth staple Samuel Youn made his American debut as Alberich. (In later installments, Christine Goerke is to play Brünnhilde.) Visually, Das Rheingold (and presumably the rest the tetralogy) is a clean break from 2005’s minimalist aesthetic. Director David Pountney, continuing with the original designs of the late Johan Engels (1952-2014) with current designer Robert Innes Hopkins, has conjured up a playful and visually rich staging, particularly in contrast to ’05’s Ring. As someone who saw the Pountney/Engels production of Die Zauberflöte at Bregenzer Festspiele (of which Pountney was the Intendant from 2003 to 2014, and which I attended 2011-16), there are certainly shades of that in this Ring, namely the use of color and frivolity. (Their production of Die Zauberflöte was in the vein of a child’s dream or fantasy. And while that’s not the exact course here, a related whimsy is present throughout Rheingold.) Related, Engels’s use of color was also striking in Lyric’s 2013 production of Parsifal.

Notably, this production of Das Rheingold begins before the Vorspiel, with the three Norns, onstage and in silence, laying the groundwork for the Rhine — a golden satchel that gives way to the river (which in turn houses the gold) — and by extension the drama of the entire cycle. (I presume they will again play some role once the ring finds its way back to the Rhine at Götterdämmerung‘s end. We’ll see in 2019.) The river then begins to flow with the orchestra’s opening churn, with the rapids’ intensity increasing with the musical texture’s density and volume. From the opening scene until the final curtain, Pountney made use of the entire stage, manipulating the width, depth, and height for a more expansive view. The Rhinemaidens themselves were both singing and “swimming” in three dimensions (a task often left to two separate trios) via wheeled, levered platforms. Diana Newman, Annie Rosen, and Lindsay Ammann blended beautifully as Woglinde, Wllgunde, and Flosshilde, respectively. This use of height of course helped also to demonstrate both the depths of Nibelheim and the heights of Valhalla. Further, Wilhelm Schwinghammer and Tobias Kehrer, who sang Fasolt and Fafner, respectively, spent most of their time tastefully singing while stories above the stage, drawing both the eyes and the ears upward as if they actually were the giants they embodied. My only quibble with such staging is that occasionally those singing near the stage’s ceiling didn’t project as strongly as others, likely a consequence of the natural acoustics. (It was less of an issue for the same singers when placed elsewhere, particularly in the case of Flosshinde.)

There was far more humor in this production than I had anticipated, most of which worked quite well. Sonically, this was achieved via more vocal utterances from the characters — laughing, coughing, yelling — than I had expected. Some of the visual elements, I believe, are a consequence of having come fresh off the heels of the Pountney/Engels Die Zauberflöte. (The original announcement of this cycle’s production team was in 2014, and Zauberflöte premiered July 2013.) For Alberich’s transformations while wearing his magical helmet Tarnhelm, he became a dragon and then frog via instantly inflatable backpacks. (I immediately thought of Zauberflöte‘s inflatable grass.) There were the Norns who suddenly appeared with a mop to clean up after Alberich’s severed arm, and Loge’s near-caricatured portrayal as a carefree dandy. (As an example, while the gods initially made their entrances on carts symbolizing their powers, Loge casually rode in on a passenger bicycle.) The gods themselves — including the demigod Loge — were portrayed less as powerful entities and more as hapless patricians. Upon reading the Director’s Note afterwards, it made sense to learn that Pountney likened Valhalla’s inhabitants to the likes of the Habsburgs. Also, Pountney’s describing Rheingold as a “political cartoon” adds to the comedic and structural elements. Many non-singing cast members were mimes who performed a lot of the “behind the scenes” work — operating the Rhinemaidens’ levers and Fasolt and Fafner’s giant limbs — while onstage and visible. In total, it could be seen more as a fantastical reading of Das Rheingold than a cerebral re-telling.

Musically, the cast gave strong performances across the board. While Owens has received top billing as Wotan, he was joined by an excellent cast and by no means the show’s only star. Owens sang and emoted well throughout, though I would’ve preferred more volume. For me, Štefan Margita nearly stole the show as Loge, a role that’s become a regular for him as of late. His fanciful yet emotional tenor soared above the orchestra. And I wouldn’t have guessed that it was Youn’s role debut as Alberich, as he sounded natural throughout. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner‘s Fricka and Laura Wilde‘s Freia commanded attention as Wotan’s wise, seasoned wife and her youthful sister, respectively. Each sang with both power and nuance that really broke through to another level beyond an already strong production and performance. Rounding out the cast were Okka Von Der Damerau as Erda (whom I saw excel as Mary in Der fliegende Holländer in Munich this past July), Rodell Rosel as Mime, Jesse Donner as Froh, and Zachary Nelson as Donner. Sir Andrew Davis led the Lyric orchestra in an exciting rendition of the score, with the brass particularly shining in the later scenes.

Performances continue through October 22, with the new Die Walküre debuting in the 2017-18 season and Siegfried and Götterdämmerung following in kind. Whereas Lyric’s previous Ring featured more marquee names (e.g., Morris, Placido Domingo) and a rather traditional (though minimalist) staging, this new production seems to be going in a new direction in both regards, and I’m excited to see it unfold over these next several years.