Lyric Opera of Chicago inaugurated its highly anticipated new Ring cycle with a bracing, dramatic account of Das Rheingold, the saga’s so-called Vorabend – only for Wagner is a two-and-a-half hour work considered mere prelude. David Pountney's staging of The Ring is the second to be undertaken during Sir Andrew Davis’ tenure; one installment will be featured in each upcoming season, culminating in the tetralogy performed in succession as intended on three occasions in April 2020. Such long-range planning is certainly an indication of the massive scope of this daunting project.
As the season’s opening night, it also served as Lyric’s annual gala, drawing a veritable who’s who of Chicago, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Also spotted in the audience was a gentleman sporting a homemade Tarnhelm, as perhaps any true Ring devotee ought to do. As per the festivity of the evening, the first notes to be heard were not of the famous E flat major drone, but The Star Spangled Banner; tastefully done as it was, I couldn’t help but wonder if Wagner would have scorned at the idea of something as pedestrian as a national anthem being juxtaposed with his high-minded drama.
The curtain opened to an eerie silence, the stage only illuminated by the primeval light of a lone torch. The drone began in due course – easily the most ambitious piece of music ever written opens in such utter simplicity – shimmering, and swelling into the depths of the Rhine. The first scene takes place underwater, suggested here by billowing blue sheets in Robert Innes Hopkins' set designs. We were then introduced to the three Rhinemaidens, dressed in the purity of white and hoisted on mechanical cranes. The Nibelung dwarf Alberich appeared in what was Samuel Youn’s noteworthy American debut. Convincing interplay ensued as his advances on the Rhinemaidens were continually rejected, but the scene ended with his maniacal, demonic laughter as he cunningly stole the cherished, mystical Rheingold, thereby setting the drama into action.
The second scene opened with the first presentation of the Valhalla leitmotif, played with a majestic grandeur blissfully devoid of the foreboding that’s to come, the formidable brass section alight in a glowing radiance. The giants Fafner and Fasolt have completed this new palace for the gods, and come seeking their agreed upon payment. They were depicted through a giant puppet head atop a rig of scaffolding – visually striking to be sure, in one of Lyric’s most complex stage productions to date, but quirky enough that someone unfamiliar with the characters would likely have been perplexed by the intended symbolism. It often felt as if visual spectacle was favored over a more thorough probing of the work’s philosophical depth.
After their predictable altercation with Wotan, Loge arrived on a tricycle, looking like a character from Alice in Wonderland to draw uncomfortable laughter from the audience – in Wagner, as sure a sign as any that something has gone awry. Nonetheless, Štefan Margita’s Loge was first class in what became a common theme throughout the evening where the singing needed to compensate for some bizarre staging decisions. Fortunately, it did so gloriously, and in spades. The descent to Nibelheim was most dramatic, with a quartet of on-stage percussionists striking the anvils, filling the Civic Opera House with metallic resound. Nibelheim itself was shown as a fiery hellscape.
The last scene closes with the gods entering Valhalla by way of a rainbow bridge – this has the potential to be one of the most visually arresting scenes in all of opera, yet here it was simply portrayed using colored ropes in a disappointing anticlimax. The Rhinemaidens were to be heard in a final and desperate plea for their treasure before the music soared one last time into a blazing close.
For many, the most exciting prospect of this Ring foray is Eric Owens’ role debut as Wotan. He undoubtedly possesses one of the most powerful and imposing voices of his generation, and while this was on display, I still felt there some missing heft for as monumental a character as Wotan. In prior Rings, he has played Alberich; perhaps there were some growing pains which I’ve no doubt will be ironed out as the cycle proceeds.
Most worthy of mention is Davis – who got the heartiest applause of all – and the 91-piece orchestra. Wagner’s vast orchestral demands necessitated the brass section be augmented by three members of the Washington National Opera orchestra, as well the sumptuousness of four harps (although modest compared to Wagner’s request for seven). The playing was supremely polished and intensely dramatic, without lapsing into mere bombast. Things might not bode well for the gods, but as far as the remainder of Lyric’s Ring cycle is concerned, there is much to anticipate.
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