Cher Public

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

  • Please: not the giant puppets again! Off the top of my head Pountney used them in “Guillaume Tell” at Wiener Staatsoper, the Salzburg “Turandot” which premiered the Berino ending, and the horrid “Zauberflöte” on the lake at Bregenz. Is this his only idea? He also did the Staatsoper “Forza” which Ioan Holender considered the worst production of his 18 years as Intendant.

    • spiderman

      Haha! I remember ALL of them, too! Especially the horridly stupid Forza!

      • Bill

        it seems to be a problem with Forza -- neither the last production in Vienna of which you speak or the last on at the Met (Sweet, Domingo for Pavarotti) was very successful and both productions were taken out of the repertoire. Hopefully the new Forza at the Met
        upcoming is tolerable.

        • Perhaps it’s jinxed. I’ve seen two and neither was up to much.

        • Porgy Amor

          When I think of the worst operatic performances I’ve ever sat through (limiting it, of course, to major works with people of significant accomplishment and reputation involved) the Florence Forza with V. Urmana, M. Giordani, and C. Guelfi, a production by Nicolas Joël, with highly esteemed Italian set and costume designers, and Zubin Mehta conducting, comes to mind. It’s one of those where while it’s going on, you start questioning if the opera is any good. By the time it’s over, you’re wondering if opera itself is any good.

          (Yes and yes, of course. But…what a dog.)

          • grimoaldo2

            I had a very similar experience at Covent Garden in 2004, also with Forza del Destino, also with the selfsame V.Urmana, but with S.Licitra and A. Maestri. It was absolutely atrocious, vile in every way except for Furlanetto as Padre Guardiano. It was a production from La Scala, modified for the Covent Garden stage, totally without any ideas to it but the worst thing was the performance of the leads, I remember one review said they acted with the animation of “tranquillized slugs” and they couldn’t sing their music. I left that performance feeling that every opera house in the world should be burnt to the ground.

    • Bill

      Incidentally I have never been to a Das Rheingold
      performance anywhere (Met, Koeln, Budapest, Vienna and other houses where Das Rheingold certainly did not have an intermission.
      For Capriccio yes, when Kiri sang it,

      That said, in the old days, usually there was an intermission after every act of a 4 act opera (such as Rigoletto even or
      Figaro or Don Carlo) at the Met -- not 45 minutes, but an intermission. But now quite frequently due to more modern stage techniques in changing scenery, 2 or more acts are linked together without a pause so over 2 hours sitting in one’s seat is actually more the norm.

      • Bill, I remember this practice well: Act II of “La bohème” (18 minutes) preceded and followed by 25-minute intermissions; Act I of “Rigoletto” (15 minutes) followed by a 25-minute intermission, and probably the worst: “Wozzeck” with two 25-minute intermissions (and in English at that)! I also recall the brouhaha when Ponelle announced that his new (1979) “Der fliegende Holländer” would NOT have any intermissions! In retrospect, it’s kind of amazing that (as far as I know) they never did try to insert one into “Das Rheingold!”

        • Lohenfal

          Jungfer, when the Met first presented Rheingold in 1889, it was done with a 15 minute intermission between scenes 2 and 3. According to Kolodin’s history, this was justified by the “practice of the Imperial Opera House in Vienna.” I don’t know how long that “practice” lasted at the Met, but by the Bing era it had already disappeared.

          • Perusing the Met archives, there was indeed
            “a fifteen minute intermission between Scenes 2 and 3” at the Met premiere on 04 January 1889; it is not clear how long this intrusion prevailed, but you can see that it came and went: on 04 January 1917 it was given with “Intermission between Scenes 2 and 3,” but on 01 February 1917, “Without intermission.” When it was next performed a decade later, the listing states “Program announcement: ‘Intermission after the Second Scene.’” A review from 1927 mentions, “Of course there was the useful intermission after the second scene, and to this concession not even the most implacable Wagnerians could reasonably object.”

            • Lohenfal

              Jungfer, I did some further research in the Met archives. According to a review of a Feb. 3, 1916 performance:

              “It was decided after the performance to give ‘Das Rheingold’ later in the season as a regular subscription performance at the Metropolitan. As the music drama was written and as it was presented yesterday there is no intermission in the work which begins the “Ring” cycle, but when it takes its place in the subscription repertoire there will be an intermission between the second and third scenes. To effect this there will be a finale brought to the music at this point. The work is given abroad with one intermission in some opera houses, but it will be a novelty at the Metropolitan.”

              That seems to have been the rationale. When Rheingold was part of the entire cycle, it was done without a break, for the benefit of Wagnerians. Since regular subscribers couldn’t probably tolerate that, they were able to enjoy an intermission.

    • Martin

      Hahahahaha. Amazing comment.

  • Krunoslav

    ” I did like the choice that Freia was perhaps a victim of Stockholm syndrome, falling a bit in love with her captor giant. ”

    I’d say this is about as innovative as Cavaradossi realizing he is indeed to be shot “come Palmieri”. I’m not sure Ive seen a RING in 20 years that didn’t channel the Freia as Patty Hearst idea.

    • actfive

      Oh, the idea is not innovative…but it is extended to the end in this production with Freia furious at being “rescued.”

    • La Cieca

      My issue with these two particular choices is that there is nothing in the text or music to support them; that is, no moment when Cavaradossi can make this discovery, for example.

      It also opens up a whole can of “why” questions, such as “if Cavarodossi knows the fix is in, then why is he detaining Floria, knowing that after the execution she will certainly be arrested and executed?”

      Understand this is different from a variation from the standard action that can be coordinated with the piece as written. I remember a lovely moment toward the end of the second acted of Corsaro’s production of Butterfly when the heroine — who has chosen to wear American clothing in her husband’s absence — dresses for Pinkerton’s return (“E un papavero rosso nei capelli…”) The director had the singer put on the wedding kimono and flowers in her hair, look at herself in the mirror and shake her head, and then remove the Japanese garments, singing “Cosi.” The implication was that she wanted her husband to see her as she really was, not as a fantasy recreation of what she had been before, and it was a wonderful effect.

      But it could only work right the, with the long pause before the “Cosi” and the resumption of the music’s movement afterward.

      • Armerjacquino

        You’ve touched on the problem I’ve always had with ‘the Cavaradossi twist’- it makes him weirdly, fatally selfish. To hear Tosca talk about the safe conduct and join in her rapturous plans for the future, rather than saying ‘Look, you’ve been duped, they’re going to kill me, get out of here’ borders on the sociopathic. And I don’t think it makes the scene more interesting dramatically either- surely the more interesting dramatic take is that WE know he’s going to die and THEY don’t?

        Slightly off-topic, but it reminded me of the debate which has long raged about whether Gertrude knowingly drinks from the poisoned cup in HAMLET. I was in a production of the bad quarto version- basically a touring version cobbled together from memory by the original cast- and it replaces much of the folio Act 4 with a scene between Horatio and Gertrude in which he informs her that Claudius killed old Hamlet and plans to kill young Hamlet. That kind of suggests that, to Shakespeare’s original cast, her death was unequivocally a suicide.