A new beginning

rheingoldLyric Opera of Chicago’s 2016-17 season got off to an exciting start on Saturday night with Wagner’s Das Rheingold, the first opera in the much anticipated new Ring cycle directed by David Pountney

The well-turned out crowd, giddy from the red carpets and glasses of Champagne, enjoyed a clever, witty, colorful, wonderfully designed if a bit cluttered production, very well sung by a mostly debuting cast including many European singers unfamiliar on the Lyric stage.

The opera began with Pountney’s finest idea, the appearance of the silent Norns, appearing out of the mist like Macbeth’s witches, carrying a large pouch from which springs the Rhine itself, giant swaths of blue cloth manipulated by numerous white-faced stagehands, all identically dressed, who serve throughout the production as scenery movers and manipulators of the various contraptions.

But the Norns, silent witnesses throughout, provide a haunting image of the Ring to come. The Rhinemaidens arrive on ingenious small platforms that rise and fall to create the swimming effect, connected to “cranes” moved about by the stagehands. I have to say that this effect seemed a bit derivative of the way the Gods were handled in the recent Valencia Ring, but it worked well here, with the complex patterns of movement handled perfectly.

The very cluttered Scene 2 begins with the arrival of the Gods, each riding on his or her own large movable cart, decked out with every conceivable piece of décor symbolic of each God—a giant ram’s head for Fricka, huge hammer for Donner, etc. Though again the stagehands do a marvelous job of moving the carts around, the audience eye became distracted by what could by chance resemble a giant “bumper cars” ride.

With the arrival of the huge tall wooden scaffolds of the giants, there was real scenery overload, and for a while it was difficult to figure out who was singing. It was a genuine relief when the action moved to Nibelheim.

For Niebelheim, the scene became a steamy, industrial hell where robotic workers are the slaves of the tyrannical Alberich, now possessor of the Ring. The gold-clad Alberich blusters and brags of his power, and the allusion to Trump is very clear. The most shocking moment of the evening came when Wotan, claiming the Ring, tears off Alberich’s entire arm to obtain it. It is an effective moment of cruelty that shows Wotan’s ruthless side.

The glory of this production is the singing, as it should be. Most of the voices were very fresh and clear, representing a welcome new generation of Wagner singers. Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn was a standout in his American debut as Alberich, singing the oft-barked role with a smooth and powerful delivery, sometimes surprising with the purity of his tone in moments of high volume.

Youn also showed fine dramatic and comic acting instincts, and if he mugged a bit too much, he made up for it with his total commitment. Stefan Margita’s familiar Loge was a wonder of physical and vocal glamour, entering the scene on a trick bicycle and performing with wit and charisma. Margita’s Loge even pops up from the orchestra pit to sing directly to the audience as he comments cynically on the Gods’ preparation to enter Valhalla.

Another welcome American debut came from German mezzo Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, a very sympathetic and lovely Fricka, never falling into the trap of shrewishness. Her chocolate mezzo sound helped create a very human and touching character. Tenor Jesse Donner sang Froh with absolutely ravishing beauty of tone, as did baritone Zachary Nelson as an assertive and powerful Donner.

German mezzo Okka Von Der Damerau brought lush sound and strong presence to Erda’s fearful warnings, helped by the presence of the Norns rising from the earth with her. Wilhelm Schwinghammer was an unusually sympathetic Fasolt, and Tobias Kehrer snarled winningly as the greedier giant Fafner.

Laura Wilde sang prettily as Freia, though her performance was a bit too perky throughout. I did like the choice that Freia was perhaps a victim of Stockholm syndrome, falling a bit in love with her captor giant. The three vocally resplendent Rhinemaidens were soprano Diana Newman and mezzos Annie Rosen and Lindsay Ammann. Rounding out the supporting cast was Rodell Rosel as a delightfully pitiable Mime.

This brings us to bass-baritone Eric Owens’ Wotan. For me, the jury is still out concerning whether he has the vocal heft and stamina to carry Wotan through the Ring. Much of his singing was very potent and yet refined, but he tired noticeably in the final scene. His Wotan is a more deeply flawed and human God than usual, and occasionally he lacked the gravitas and dignity that he will need as we move to Die Walkure next season. This Wotan is off to a good start but still a work in progress.

Conductor Sir Andrew Davis was masterful throughout, and drew a rich, powerful, moving sound from the Lyric Opera Orchestra, supplemented by brass players from Washington National Opera. Every detail of Wagner’s remarkable music was clear and potent.

Pountney and his designers gave us a visually exciting Rheingold, with strikingly effective sets by the late Johan Engels, later fulfilled by Robert Innes Hopkins, and lush, brilliantly colored costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca. The lighting by Fabrice Kebour was quite beautiful and provided a variety of mood and texture.

I was quite surprised when a few boos mixed with the cheers at the curtain call of the production team, as I think this Ring is off to an impressive start. Pountney’s direction is clear, inventive, and, above all, tells the story vividly and clearly, letting Wagner’s glorious music drama work its magic.

It should be noted that the performance is bit over 2 hours and thirty minutes without an intermission, so a “pre-emptive” bathroom trip is a good idea before the proceedings begin. A few older audience members around me just couldn’t make it.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography