By Richard Wagner
Lyric Opera of Chicago
By Lori Dana
There really is nothing quite like opening night at the opera. Awash in a sea of crisp tuxedos and glamorous gowns, the glittering Art Deco lobby of the Civic Opera House was the ultimate spot for people watching. An air of anticipation, not unlike that of a holiday eve, hung in the air above massive urns of blue hydrangea. The crowd queued up for slender glasses of sparkling wine as they eyed a constant parade of silks and satin, jewels and lace. Gone are the days when this event felt more like an insider’s convention, a cosplay of kilts and top hats, horned helmets and musty gowns. (Although we will admit to being disappointed at not seeing at least one dress kilt. This is a performance of Wagner, after all!) The diversity and volume of Saturday’s opening night audience spoke well of Lyric Opera’s ongoing outreach efforts. This crowd made it clear that a night at the opera in Chicago is an exciting and highly anticipated community event.
For their part, our opera company presented us with a compelling new interpretation of one of the genre’s most hallowed and daunting works. Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold is the first in his four opera “ring cycle” which Lyric Opera plans to present, one opera per season, between now and 2020. The ring cycle (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdammerung) is the Valhalla of self-styled opera fanatics, for whom the works of this venerated German composer are now as legendary as the Teutonic myths that inspired them. Despite Wagner’s exalted position in the opera pantheon, fans tend to fall into two camps: Wagnerians and everybody else. However, every true student of opera must put aside all they may have heard and read about Richard Wagner’s personal philosophies, social and political views, and experience his music on its own merit. Das Rheingold, with its evocative score and manageable performance time (2 hrs. and 30 min.) is the perfect introduction to the composer’s work. The listener is not overwhelmed or distracted by themes that have become cultural clichés, but drawn by a plot line that is both familiar and timeless. (Wagner and J.R.R. Tolkien were inspired to write their “ring sagas” by the same Norse mythology, albeit from very different perspectives.)
The plot of Das Rheingold is a familiar one for fans of the quest adventure story: a lustful dwarf, rejected by the beautiful Rhinemaidens who protect an underwater cache of gold, steals their treasure. The caveat: he must renounce love forever and forge the gold into a ring which will make him master of the world. Meanwhile in the realm of the gods, Wotan’s dream of a permanent home for the wandering deities is realized, as the giants he hired to build a grand palace have completed their work and are now demanding remuneration. Wotan has promised as payment the sister of his wife Fricka (Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, in a marvelous turn as feminist goddess), never intending to make good on his bargain. The lovely Freia, (Laura Wilde) goddess of youth and beauty, is also in possession of golden apples that ensure perpetual youth. The giants expect to get both Freia and the apples as compensation. Wotan is in a bind. As he struggles to find a solution to his dilemma, Loge the demigod of fire appears, and relates to the assembled gods and giants the story of the dwarf Alberich, and the stolen gold. Stealing the ring from Alberich will resolve a lot of issues for Wotan. He and Loge head into the underworld in search of the land of the Nibelung dwarves, as the giants Fasolt and Fafner take custody of a terrified Freia.
Lyric’s new production has done a masterful job of integrating the musical, dramatic, and visual elements of Das Rheingold into a seamless and compelling whole. A sterling international cast, many making their American or Lyric Opera debuts, give universally outstanding performances. Although Wotan (Eric Owens), Loge (Štefan Margita), and Alberich (Samuel Youn) are most central to the plot, each character makes key contributions to the fabric of Wagner’s tale. Characters (as well as certain situations and even objects) are each acknowledged by a musical leitmotif (think theme song), that helps guide us through the fast moving plot twists. Woven together by the subtly excellent playing of the Lyric Opera Orchestra under the baton of music director Sir Andrew Davis, the pacing of the production has a contemporary, cinematic feel.
Designer Johan Engels brings to Das Rheingold a post-apocalyptic aesthetic similar to that he used so successfully in the 2015 Lyric production of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger. With a tip of several hats to the popular steampunk look, costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca alternately dresses the Gods as 18th Century nobility and Renaissance ecumenicals, in funky contrast to Engels’ bare-bones industrial set pieces. The visual discord, and the fact that the mechanics of the visual effects are in the open for all to see rather than hidden behind scrims and set pieces, serves to enhance the feeling of fantasy. Director David Poutney has stated that his intention in approaching stagecraft in this manner was to prompt the audience to fill in the details of a relatively empty set, rather than overwhelm viewers with effects that detract from Wagner’s powerful score. It is a bit disconcerting at first to see the hydraulic lifts (operated by stage hands dressed in the drab dungarees and whitened faces that identify mortal beings) carrying the Rhinemaidens gracefully back and forth across the stage. But soon enough, we are so engrossed in the story and music, that we suspend our disbelief. Even though the sea of rippling blue parachuting is bit trite and the inflatable amphibians a little hokey, the giants are surprisingly real, helped in no small part by the powerful singing actors who give voice to these towering puppets. Wilhelm Schwinghammer, as the soft-hearted Fasolt and Tobias Kehrer as his greedy and heartless brother Fafner, are able to create two compelling and fallible characters, while confined for most of the performance to small platforms inside the framework of each puppet. When they finally do emerge onto the stage during the climactic battle scene, it is as if the giants’ spirits have left their bodies. In Fasolt’s case the condition is permanent. He has fallen in love with Freia, but Fafner sees an opportunity to trade the goddess for the gold Wotan and Loge have managed to steal from Alberich, and he does not intend to let his brother stand in his way. As Freia mourns the death of Fasolt, Wotan turns over the gold, all of it but the ring. At the direction of the ancient Mother Goddess, Erda (Okka Von Der Damerau) to “heed the curse of the Ring” (Alberich warned Wotan that “the ring’s magic breeds death for him who wears it.”), Wotan finally tosses the Ring to Fafner. As the story closes, the reunited gods ascend to the glorious new palace of Valhalla. The Ring and its power are still at large however, and we know their time of glory cannot last.
A cursory study of Wagner reveals a basic tenet of his personal philosophy reflected in the Ring operas, as well as many others of his early works. The composer believed that the existence of love was key in preventing a society from spiraling into a never-ending quest for personal power. In that regard, Das Rheingold presented Saturday’s Lyric audience with a surprisingly contemporary political parable, one that the opera company could not have anticipated when they began planning their Ring Cycle performances several years ago. As commentator Paul Mason observed in the UK’s Guardian newspaper in 2013, … “George Bernard Shaw had noticed 90 years earlier… that the Ring is actually about “shareholders, tall hats, white-lead factories and industrial and political questions looked at from the socialistic and humanitarian points of view.” It is an allegory of capitalist society doomed by greed and of humanity redeemed by love.” It seems that even after 162 years, Wagner’s Das Rheingold more than great storytelling, spectacular singing and glorious orchestration; it is still relevant commentary on the human condition.
(“Das Rheingold,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, 4 more performances only! Through October 22 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive 312-827-5600)
Das Rheingold production photos by Todd Rosenberg.