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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.

‘Parsifal’ at Chicago’s Lyric Opera

Chicago’s Lyric Opera debuted its new production of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal this past Saturday, directed by John Caird. It was delightful and moving. Much like my post on Lyric’s production of Die Meistersinger, I’m not here to necessarily write a “review” of the performance, but rather to discuss my experience.

Parsifal is Wagner’s final opera. Premiering in 1882, it’s the only one to have been written after the construction of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Wagner didn’t consider it an opera, but rather a “a consecration play for the stage” (or, in German, ein Bühnenweihfestspiel). Adding to the work’s quickly mythologized status, the Wagner estate kept Parsifal from being performed anywhere save Bayreuth for its first twenty years. Such quasi-religious treatment of the work is appropriate, considering its deeply religious and philosophical themes and overtones. Centering on the knights of the Holy Grail, Parsifal is a tale of temptation, compassion, and redemption. Despite the piece’s drama, Wagner’s characteristic dissonance and aggressiveness are downplayed in comparison to his other works. It’s still dramatic, chromatic, and moving, however the sonic experiences is one of beauty, reflection, and awe. It’s a wondrous sonic experience that nicely complements the work’s nearly liturgical ambitions.

This production is Caird’s first Wagner endeavor, and I thought it a successful one at that. (“Official reviews” have been mixed to positive.) He and set designer Johan Engels created a visually striking series of images and scenes. (This was my second Engels outing this year after his David Pountney-directed Die Zauberflöte at the Bregenzer Festspiele.) The set’s centerpiece – a large circular platform with removable panels and a mechanically adjustable eye – was utilitarian and provided a focal point. Aside from the Grail, holy spear, abdominal wounds, and a trio of swans, there was little overtly Christian iconography, opting instead to focus more on philosophy and cultural symbolism. (For example, women play a an important role in Act III, adding a sisterhood to the brotherhood of Grail knights.) I enjoyed the use of color throughout: from the sullen green forests and stark blue worship hall of Act I, to Klingsor’s hellish red domain and the Flowermaidens’ vibrant garden in Act II, to the pale forest in Act III. The Flowermaidens (Act II, Scene 2) were a highlight. Call me a sucker, as I’m sure many will scoff and say that this part is an easy “go to” visually, but I thought that the brilliant colors mixed with the choreography was stunning. That, coupled with the female chorus’s impeccable performance made for an arresting second act. Having the swans played by people was a nice touch also. The three swans – the Trinity? – flying in the forest during the prelude and the lone swan – in lieu of a dove – in the finale offered not only a visual treat during the prelude but also a nice way to bring the production full circle at the end.

Vocally, recent Bayreuth staple Kwangchul Youn as Gurnemanz and Thomas Hampson as Amfortas reigned, along with Tómás Tómasson‘s Klingsor. Daveda Karanas‘s Kundry and Paul Groves‘s Parsifal were both quite good, but there were moments in which they felt stretched in their extreme ranges. That’s being picky of course. However, I can’t say enough good about the Lyric Opera chorus. The choral moments were phenomenal – deep, musically rich, and well balanced.

Sir Andrew Davis led the orchestra in a mostly superb performance. I say “mostly” due to one glaring error at the very end, in which a trumpeter opted to hold a note between the final two chords. (Perhaps he/she thought they were proceeding to Rienzi attacca?) That and a couple small intonation blips aside, the orchestra sounded lovely and offered a warm, moving reading.

Moving. And that’s what it’s all about. It’s why I don’t want to really focus on more “negative” aspects or drawbacks, as is the case with many reviews and reviewers, because, ultimately, I was moved. And greatly so, at that. Parsifal‘s gesamtkunstwerk was in full effect Saturday night. Many will quibble about the production’s interpretive qualities, and of course performances of any kind are subject to criticism. But the DRAMA is what matters. And by that measure, this new production wholly succeeds. I wasn’t checking my watch throughout the 4.75-hour event. In fact, much of the time, I wasn’t even really “there,” but rather lost in the soundworld and imagery. I understand that that’s probably too naive for some, but I doubt Wagner intended for us to attend every performance in the context of the scores of other audio and video recordings – and possibly score study – serving as a reference point. I believe that the performance can largely be judged on this simple yes/no: was the listener affected (positively, of course)? If yes, then much of the battle is already won. And it was a glorious victory Saturday in Chicago.

NOTE: This production runs through November 29 in Chicago.

Wagner

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(Photo: Wagner’s grave at Wahnfried, taken by myself)

Today is Wilhelm Richard Wagner‘s 200th birthday. The real world and cyberspace are rife with celebrations today and throughout all of 2013. Although, as Dr. Mark Berry correctly noted, “every year is a Wagner year.” This blog is but a drop in the digital ocean of related tributes, and therefore I’m going to be realistic. First, I won’t be breaking any new Wagnerian ground here. Second, there’s no point in writing what others will and have had covered already. But I would like to share something, and so I’d like to jot down a few thoughts about my relationship with my favorite classical composer.

Before going any further, I’d like to suggest a few timely and noteworthy posts and articles (published before today):
Nicholas Spice‘s “Is Wagner bad for us?” from the London Review of Books
Alex Ross‘s “A Wagner Birthday Roast” from The New Yorker
Mark Berry‘s “On entering the week of Wagner’s 200th anniversary” from Boulezian
Alex Ross’s “A Walking Tour of Wagner’s New York” from The New Yorker
Alex Ross’s “Wagner everywhere but New York” from The Rest is Just Noise blog

Being a saxophonist, I ostensibly have little to do with Wagner outside of my instrument’s namesake. (Adolphe Sax was whom Wagner turned to for the development of his Wagner tuba.) That, and Wagner’s use of the saxophone to fill out the needed twelve French horn parts for Tannhäuser‘s Paris premiere, cover most of his saxophonic bases. (Further proof that what you need a ringer, hire a saxophonist!) So what’s my deal?

Honestly, aside from a few random facts and musical excerpts, I knew very little about Wagner until covering him in my music history survey in college. I spent a number of years in my teens voraciously learning about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, and so I was also aware of some sort of Hitlerian connection, but the specifics were lost on me until later. So I was a relative novice my class’s Romantic unit. I must say that I was instantly fascinated and even a bit overwhelmed. Some reactions, as I can somewhat remember them:
1. I was instantly moved by the music. If I remember correctly, we watched both the end of Die Walküre (I still have my worksheet) and a portion of Act III (?) of Tristan und Isolde (it’s been a while since that course…). And of course listened to the Tristan prelude. Two passages and works that I’m now all too familiar with but that were completely new to me at the time.
2. The theoretical concepts – leitmotif, gesamtkunstwerk, endless melody, etc. – scratched me where I itched. Saxophone literature is largely twentieth (and twenty-first) century or bust. Chronologically, Wagner’s music and musical approach and philosophy represented the first time we covered music in a similar vocabulary (i.e., late Romanticism, highly chromatic, etc.) as some of the solo literature I’d been learning.
3. DRAMA. Wagner’s focus on drama sucked me right in. That music should serve the drama – the actual end – is something with which I whole-heartedly agree (in many contexts still, but at the time it was absolute).

A few weeks after my aforementioned introduction, I checked a recording of Tristan und Isolde out from the music library, and the rest is history. From there I moved to Der Ring des Nibelungen – the Levine/Met recording of the whole cycle – and then Lohengrin, and beyond. I was hooked. A couple years later I completed an independent study for which I researched and wrote about exclusive similarities between Der Ring des Nibelungen and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth works, separate from both creators’ common mythological sources. (Tolkien, along with C.S. Lewis, was at one time quite the Wagnerite.) While at first blush it seems like an easy target, there’s much debate surrounding this topic. Sometime I’d actually like to revisit that paper/project for revision and expansion.

The following semester I saw the full Ring cycle live at the Chicago Lyric Opera featuring James Morris, Michelle DeYoung, Plácido Domingo, Jane Eaglen, and John Treleaven. From the rushing, flowing E-flat chord that opens Das Rheingold to Valhalla’s destruction at the end of Götterdämmerung, I was transfixed. And not just when I was in the theater, mind you. For example, I saw Joshua Redman with the SFJazz Collective on the night between Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, and remember only bits of that performance. My mind was with Wagner throughout. It was my first Ring, and surely not my last. There are so many aspects of that performance I could write about here, but suffice it to say I was profoundly moved. I will say that one of the many things that stood to me was Sir Andrew Davis‘s musicianship. He phrased throughout the whole cycle. For example, the loudest and biggest moments of the whole week were Siegfried’s “Trauermarsch” and Brünnhilde’s “Immolation Scene,” both in Götterdämmerung‘s Act III. He let the music unfold with the drama, and therefore the audience and production alike grew throughout the week.

At this point, there was (and has been) no turning back. In 2008, I had the good fortune of spending some time in Bayreuth while on vacation. Having not been on the infamous years-long wait list, I didn’t attend that afternoon’s Tristan. But simply touring the grounds of the Festspielhaus and spending considerable time at Wahnfried was all I needed (and hoped for) for that trip. (And I ended up seeing Tristan that following fall in Chicago. Another moving performance.) Hopefully I’ll get a chance to return this summer while teaching abroad.

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(Photo: Yours truly at Bayreuth, 2008)

Yadda, yadda, yadda. I could go on and on, but it’s best to find a point.

So those are some things I’ve done. But what does that have to do with today’s bicentennial? The day I returned to school after seeing the Ring, I met with my saxophone professor, John Nichol, to talk about my trip. I jokingly told him that by the end of Götterdämmerung I felt like I had accomplished something just by sitting through it. After a good chuckle, he asked, “But did Wagner accomplish something?” I told him that he did. And I really meant it. Much like Beethoven with the symphony, Wagner composed a relatively “small” number of operas (13, with only 10 being performed regularly). But most of those compositions seemed to dramatically shift the music world in its own way. Most of the operas are artistic behemoths, requiring significant work on behalf of both performer and observer. Unlike Beethoven, however, he wrote very little outside of his operas. (Various orchestral works, songs, and piano work exist but are rarely performed, with Siegfried Idyll being arguably the most well known. I recommend The Other Wagner as a nice, comprehensive starting point.) He also wrote a lot of prose, and his ideas were/are just as game-changing as his music (and not all for the better).

200 years on, Wagner’s legacy continues to cast a shadow over so much in the art world, extending far beyond opera, and in ways that most people perhaps don’t notice. For instance, film music – from the early talkies to present – owes much to his lush musical style and leitmotif-laden compositional approach. Just think: The Wizard of Oz would be a very different film if it weren’t for him (e.g., the overture’s lush orchestration and play-by-play of the various melodies/characters.) And, specifically, much later, how would Apocalypse Now have fared? And how many weddings use Lohengrin‘s “Bridal Chorus”? (That’s not without controversy, as most Wagnerian things aren’t.) And how many children have enjoyed this cartoon? And without Wagner there’d possibly be no castle for Cinderella. Hell, Wagner even gave us horns, spears, and breastplates. (And, occasionally, the all-too-familiar fat lady who sings.)

Yet, despite all of this and more, we Wagnerites must often defend our love of his art and publicly state that we’re not in fact members of the Nazi party. (I didn’t really address that issue in this post. That’s not the purpose here, and it’s much too broad and muddled of a topic, though I touch on it here.) A nice, humorous encapsulation of this, especially the latter point, can be found is “Trick or Treat” from Season 2 of Curb Your Enthusiasm. (Imagine my delight upon first seeing this, considering that Seinfeld – Curb‘s older brother – is my all-time favorite show.)  Here’s a slightly NSFW clip:
[NOTE: Larry David’s brief but hilariously clever quotation of “Springtime for Hitler” is especially entertaining when juxtaposed with the Meistersinger overture at the end, the latter having a main character named Walther – the clip’s antagonist – and being closely associated with German nationalism.]

Pros, cons, and everything in between, Wagner left a huge mark. As mentioned above, his legacy extends far beyond his own music. Price asks if Wagner is bad for us, to which I strongly answer NO. Speaking for myself, his music has left an indelible impression on me. Two of my favorite musical experiences have been because of him (seeing the Ring and Meistersinger), and he’s never far from my ears and mind. And that is why his 200th anniversary is worth noting for me. I’ll of course be enjoying some of my favorite recordings and may even go through some select scenes on DVD. Who knows, perhaps I’ll wear one of my t-shirts and play with my action figure…

For y’all, I recommend and leave you with one of my favorite clips from the great BBC documentary The Golden Ring (about Solti’s recording Götterdämmerung for his landmark cycle):

And so I say, in the manner of Cosima’s tweets: Happy Birthday, R.

(Recent blog posts on Wagner here and here.)

 

Die Meistersinger von Chicago

Last week I trekked to Chicago to see my first live performance of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The Lyric Opera of Chicago is featuring the Glyndebourne production this season, and starring the Hans Sachs: James Morris. Rounding out the cast was Johan Botha, Illinois native Amanda Majeski, and Bo Skovhus. While I’m not here necessarily to write a review of the performance, I’d definitely like to reflect on my experience.

In brief, Die Meistersinger stands out among Wagner’s output. First, it’s his only comedy. (More specifically, it’s the only comedy in the Bayreuth canon.) As a loyal Wagnerite, I concede that humor is generally the last characteristic associated with the composer. He has occasional comedic moments in other works (e.g., “Das ist kein Mann!”), but weighty melodrama is often his weapon of choice. And, what’s more, it’s an actual comedy – instead of just “funny for Wagner.” (And if comedy’s not your thing, then you’ll at least find the subplot regarding arguments of aesthetics quite relevant.) Second, it’s his only opera that’s not about a vaguely Medieval – or earlier – plot or legend. It revolves around the actual singing guilds in Renaissance Europe. (And Hans Sachs, the main protagonist, was a real person, though he’s arguably more of a template than anything else in Die Meistersinger.) Third, Die Meistersinger is a structural departure from Wagner’s other works. In it he employs more traditional operatic devices – aria, chorus, ballet, a quintet, catchy melodies – albeit in his own Wagnerian manner. Finally, it’s long. And that’s saying something when discussing Wagner. Despite Der Ring des Nibelungen‘s mammoth length (~18ish hours over a week), Meistersinger is his longest standalone work. (Parsifal and Götterdämmerung aren’t far behind, however.) Including the two intermission, Chicago’s production lasted 5.5 hours, from 5:30 to 11:00 PM.

[Before going any further, it’s worth addressing the work’s controversy – something I’ll mention but not dwell on here, as it’s not the post for it. While Wagner in general was heavily propagandized by the Third Reich, Meistersinger was given particular attention by the Nazi regime. This stemmed from Hans Sachs’s final monologue, heavy with nationalistic sentiment. (It’s worth noting that the work was completed in 1868, a time rife with Franco-Prussian tension.) Also, the character of Beckmesser, the antagonist, is often considered an anti-Semitic Jewish caricature. It’s still debated today, and Katharina Wagner, the composer’s great-granddaughter and current co-director of Bayreuth along with her half-sister, has weighed in on the topic – she thinks Beckmesser probably relied on Jewish stereotypes.]

The production itself was wonderful. (See the above video for a taste.) While the staging was Walther’s peeping in on the congregation in the opening scene, the first act was “open” visually. Every inch of the stage was used in the second and third acts. From the streets and doorways and balconies of Nürnberg, to Hans Sachs’s detailed home and workshop, to the city’s celebration and contest, the sets were elaborate and helped to welcome the audience into a Nürnberg of centuries past. Perhaps what I appreciated most was the fact that the set grew in complexity throughout the work. After the prelude, the audience was treated to the opening scene’s expansive though minimal design. However, about four and a half hours later, at the start of the city’s festival, I felt as if the set engulfed the whole theater. (Did I mention that I sat in the first balcony?) The curtains rose on that final scene to full orchestra, chorus, dancers, jugglers masquerading on stilts, and other visual delights. Music and drama aside, it was a clever way to continually draw the audience in throughout such a massive work. After Chicago’s quasi-minimalist productions for 2005’s Ring and 2009’s Tristan und Isolde, it was nice to see something more fleshed out.

The performing was stellar. Botha was a joyous Walther von Stolzing and Majeski‘s Eva was heavenly. If what I saw last week was any indication, she’ll be one to watch over the next many years. She had a lighter timbre for Wagner, but the fact that it was never abrasive fit well with the piece’s tone. But James Morris towered over the rest of the cast – musically and literally (he’s 6’5″) – as Hans Sachs. He’s been arguably the world’s leading Sachs for the last number of years, as evidenced in The Met’s 2001 production (the one I enjoy at home). I saw him as Wotan in Chicago’s 2005 Ring, and he amazed me again in Meistersinger. Finally, honorable mention goes to the scene-stealing Bo Skovhus as Beckmesser. Not only did he sing magnificently, but his physical comedy throughout really brought the character’s foibles to life. I was struggling to contain my continuous laughter during and after Beckmesser’s his final, confused aria. (The rest of the audience was laughing, but I lost it.) He and Morris alone were worth the price of admission. Vocals aside, Sir Andrew Davis did wonders at the orchestra’s helm. Aside from a couple slight French horn hiccups in Act I – a farewell nod to Dale Clevenger? – the orchestra was near flawless.

Finally, the overall experience itself was transcendent. Again, Gesamtkunstwerk is better experienced firsthand rather than explained. All of the above elements, experienced together, led to my being transported out of my seat and into the story for a few hours last week. From the overture’s opening chord to the finale, I at no point looked down at my watch to check the time. I savored every minute of it, and it ranks as one of my favorite live musical experiences as an audience member. I look forward to seeing it again sometime. (Hopefully the next production and cast hold up!) Until then, I look forward to seeing Lyric’s production of Parsifal this fall!

A discussion of the piece and production by Lyric’s creative heads Anthony Freud, Renée Fleming, and Sir Andrew Davis: