David Pountney's new production of Die Walküre for the Lyric Opera of Chicago incisively charts the tectonic shift of control over the future from Wotan to Brünnhilde. Wagner struggled to find a way to portray his meddling, but weakening, god effectively, ultimately relegating him to the musical background of Act I instead of placing him onstage. Visually foregrounding Wotan at the outset (together with the Norns), Pountney does not overestimate the god's potency. Rather, and to riveting dramatic effect, he invests the Wälsung twins with agency and urgency, complicating Wotan's plan. With a penetratingly nuanced and flexible orchestral foundation shaped by Sir Andrew Davis, the opening act of this production in particular is an inspiring example of the ways that Wagner's 19th-century nationalistic drama can speak compellingly to a 21st-century audience.

Christine Goerke (Brünnhilde) © Cory Weaver
Christine Goerke (Brünnhilde)
© Cory Weaver

Hunding, as Wagner pointedly named him, is bound up with a vicious canine realm, and the portrayal of Sieglinde as a chained animal is apt. Elisabet Strid embodied the role with searing and compelling intensity, vocally and physically. Her sympathetic response to Siegmund's plight was coupled to her desperate desire for freedom, painfully rendered when she rushes toward him but is cut short by her restraining links. She served up bold resistance to Hunding in pointing out that their guest was weaponless, her defiant confidence growing from that point forward. As Siegmund, Brandon Jovanovich did not languish in vague thoughts that a sword will miraculously come his way, but actively scoured Hunding's hut for means of defense. When his powerful burnished timbre erupted at first mention of the Neidungs, revenge openly became the name of the game. As the axe-bearing Hunding, Ain Anger's menacing presence was vocally resplendent across his range.

Eric Owens (Wotan) © Cory Weaver
Eric Owens (Wotan)
© Cory Weaver

Eric Owens' entrance as Wotan (his role debut) scored a theatrical coup, descending on a flown in set-piece that initially highlighted his authority but ultimately framed him as severely restricted. Anja Ariane Baumgartner cut a moving Fricka, gloriously costumed as a 1940s socialite, rendered complex and human through vulnerable touches. Wotan's own weaknesses were fully exposed in his Act 2 monologue, which began as if rooted in the earth's underbelly in Owens' sombre interpretation, supported by Davis' potent orchestral characterization. Persuasive as a striving, frustrated god, Owens' sympathetic side– potentially a more lyrical one – was less evident in this production.

Brandon Jovanovich (Siegmund) and Elisabet Strid (Sieglinde) © Cory Weaver
Brandon Jovanovich (Siegmund) and Elisabet Strid (Sieglinde)
© Cory Weaver

As Brünnhilde, Christine Goerke's vocal strengths and reserves amply secured her tenure in the Wagnerian landscape, but I also deeply appreciated her quieter moments of reflection, which threw Wotan's stern inflexibility into sharp relief. Brünnhilde too was slow to embrace change, appearing on a great equine machine when Siegmund declined her offer of passage to Valhalla. Six dancers – funeral wreath bearers – accompany her ritualistic appearance, visually tracking the reversal of her plans and threat of chaos. The final showdown with Hunding is stylized and dynamic, involving moving platforms, with the gods – Fricka as well as Wotan – as witness in framing towers.

Christine Goerke (Brünnhilde) and Brandon Jovanovich (Siegmund) © Cory Weaver
Christine Goerke (Brünnhilde) and Brandon Jovanovich (Siegmund)
© Cory Weaver

Realized by Robert Innes Hopkins, the set designs of the late Johan Engels magnify key moments of the drama, as when Brünnhilde's sisters rear up on their mechanical horses when she reveals her willingness to defy Wotan. Openly maneuvered by stagehands, the impressively buoyant machines help energize the musically supercharged opening to the final act. With its wall of corpses strung up in the rear, and much drenched in bright red – a color that elsewhere marks the rope of fate and the Wanderer's coat, with its tree outline formed by spears/branches – the scene might be too graphic for some but the grim reality of Wotan's enterprise is transparent. When he later learns that Brünnhilde has saved the fragments of Siegmund's sword, Wotan slams his spear in a great show of anger, but by this point the Valkyrie is clearly driving the action.