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:
And here’s an image of the same team’s set for Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the 2013-14 Bregenzer Festspiele:
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.