|Eric Owens (Wotan) in Lyric Opera of Chicago's|
new production of Wagner's Das Rheingold
Bewilderingly, some critics have accepted at face value the assertions by Lyric general director Anthony Freud and Rheingold director David Pountney that this new production is presented “in a manner faithful to Wagner’s text.” To anyone familiar with Wagner’s Rheingold libretto, it should be quite clear that this version goes far beyond interpretation as it rewrites fundamental aspects of the work and recasts the drama as a comic opera.
Despite these issues, the power of Wagner’s music came through in the strength of the young cast and the artistry of the always-excellent Lyric Opera Orchestra. With the brilliant bass-baritone Eric Owens leading the ensemble onstage as Wotan and Sir Andrew Davis conducting the instrumentalists in the pit, the spirit of the music was served with dedicated integrity.
Rewriting the Ring
|The Norns and Erda (Okka von der Damerau)|
as they appear in Das Rheingold's fourth scene
In his famous account of his “La Spezia vision,” Wagner writes that “the pure triad of E flat major [of the Rheingold prelude] never changed, but seemed by its continuance to impart infinite significance to the element in which I was sinking.” In his conception, the gold guarded by the Rhinemaidens is the mystic element that affects the fates of all who come into contact with it. Primeval lack of change and change through the vicissitudes of fate are at opposite ends of Wagner’s mythology, so this added bit of stage business actively muddied the waters of the work right at the outset.
Referring to Wagner’s stage directions, director David Pountney told me in our interview that what the composer described is “unrealizable” – the description of Wotan and Fricka asleep on a mountainside at the opening of the second scene is impossible to create, since “there is no such thing as any mountainside that will fit on any theater stage.” Because “what is written down in the stage direction is not something that could ever actually exist on a stage,” the director and designer faced with the libretto must “start interpreting.”
|Giants, goddesses. and the chariots of the gods|
The design of Alberich’s underground realm in the third scene breaks with the aesthetics of the first scene (empty stage, Rhinemaidens on mechanical lifts) and scenes three and four (mostly empty space, dominated by the movable scaffolding representing the giants). Nibelheim, with its Blue Man Group quartet of percussionists, hydraulic platforms, gear-filled catwalks, and red-lit billows of smoke, evokes industrial imagery to underscore a presentation of Alberich-as-industrialist grounded in Bernard Shaw’s socialist reading of the opera cycle in The Perfect Wagnerite: A Commentary on the Niblung’s Ring (1898).
|Freia (Laura Wilde) and one of her golden apples of youth|
Whether or not the interpretation is legitimate or not, it directly contradicts the libretto. As written by Wagner, Freia’s fear of the giants remains consistent from the first threat of abduction to her final liberation. In the fourth scene, the composer writes that – when Fasolt “angrily pull[s] Freia out from behind the hoard” – the goddess cries out for help, just as she had done in her first appearance in the second scene. When she is finally set free from her captors, the stage directions state that “joyfully she hurries over to the gods, each of whom embraces her at length in an excess of joy.”
In a staging that goes directly against Wagner’s characterization of the goddess, Pountney’s Freia gazes longingly at her captor after being ransomed, disdainfully spurns the outstretched arms of the welcoming gods, and storms angrily to the side of the stage. Even during the final ascent into Valhalla, she resists holding hands with her fellow deities.
|Freia (Laura Wilde) and the hand of her beloved Fasolt|
Rewriting is the prerogative of every director who presents a text visually – from Fritz Lang to Peter Jackson – but to pretend that this production is “faithful to Wagner’s text” is unsustainable.
Das Rheingold as Comic Opera
After Pountney insisted in our interview that Das Rheingold is “pure Karl Marx” and “a grand opéra which could have easily been composed by Meyerbeer,” the last thing I expected was a production that presents the Ring’s mythic prelude as opera buffa.
|Annie Rosen (Wellgunde), Diana Newman (Woglinde),|
Lindsay Ammann (Flosshilde), and Samuel Youn (Alberich)
|Wotan (Eric Owens) in his finery|
The decision to foreground the actions of stagehands in the production added to the comedic feel. Pountney described the concept in our interview:
This is more like a Shakespearian theater in which you see the people in the room manipulating the scenery, and they’re part of the action, and they’re even part of the story, and they react to the story, and they are in the story, but they are also telling the story, in terms of operating the elements of scenery and figures and so on.
|Wotan (Eric Owens), oversized props, and stage crew|
The abbreviated and simplified translation used in the supertitles also directs the audience to view the work as comedy, often using American colloquialisms to transform Wagner’s admittedly heavy and tortured alliterative German verse into much lighter and more humorous exchanges.
|Jesse Donner as Froh|
Donner, the powerful god of thunder, is reduced to a puffed-up and posturing Marvel Comics character in wig and red cape, literally pushed around the stage by a taller and more substantial Wotan. The deity of the Icelandic myths that Wagner turned to for inspiration, a robust figure known for his furious and repeated smiting of giants, is here a strutting figure in ridiculously oversized breeches.
|Štefan Margita as Loge|
The comic tone of the production, often bordering on operetta, is perhaps at its most extreme at the very end of the work. As the Rhinemaidens repeatedly interrupt the gods’ attempts to finally enter Valhalla, the deities make outsized expressions of frustration, bringing peals of appreciative laughter from the Saturday audience.
|Entry of the gods into the fire curtain|
Is this an attempt to assert ownership of the new production, two seasons after the Lyric reproduced the Covent Garden Tannhäuser with an onstage reproduction of the Royal Opera House’s proscenium? Anthony Freud, the Lyric’s General Director, recently told Opera News that he “very much want[s] this to be identifiably a Lyric Ring that takes an approach to the piece that is individual, engaging and has our artistic identity stamped on it.” Pountney brushed aside the idea that the new Ring is particularly associated with any specifically Lyric style, telling me “I think what [Freud] means by that is that it’s an individual interpretation created for Lyric.”
Given Pountney’s distancing of himself from Freud’s artistic goals, was this final image a tweaking of Lyric patrons? As the gods turn to enter their new dwelling, Loge sings:
They’re hurrying on towards their end,As the audience hears Loge’s sarcastic words about burning the gold-owning gods he serves, it sees the scene framed by the fire curtain so loved by fans of the Lyric.
though they think they will last for ever.
I’m almost ashamed to share in their dealings;
to turn myself into a guttering flame
I feel a seductive desire.
To burn them up
who formerly tamed me,
instead of feebly fading away with the blind…
|The "ludicrous bombast" of fancy dress: Wotan (Eric Owens)|
and Fricka (Tanja Ariane Baumgartner) on the Rainbow Bridge
|Samuel Youn as Alberich|
Eric Owens brought his usual Brando-like method acting to the role of Wotan, bringing out a depth of character and motivation that hinted at developments to come in the succeeding operas of the Ring cycle. Even when others were the center of the action – as in the interaction of Loge and Alberich before the capture of the dwarf – Owens remained resolutely focused on projecting the fierce desires raging within Wotan. His quiet internal struggles were often as interesting to watch as the performers doing the actual singing.
Unfortunately, Owens’ voice was sometimes buried by the orchestra. This was due to neither his ability to project nor to the sensitivity of Sir Andrew Davis’ conducting. The low vocal range of Wotan’s bass-baritone part as he mused on the complexities of the dramatic action simply could not compete with Wagner’s thick and heavy scoring.
Just how much Davis was carefully controlling the orchestra’s volume of sound became obvious during the musical interludes between scenes, when the instrumentalists doubled their power output and reveled in the lushness of the score. As always, the orchestra was impeccably balanced, with clear performances from the strings, focused intensity from the brass, and beautiful solos throughout the ensemble.
|Štefan Margita (Loge ) & Rodell Rosel (Mime)|
Wilhelm Schwinghammer (clearly born to play Donner) and Tobias Kehrer as Fasolt and Fafner were impressive in vocal power and subtlety of characterization, even as they were restricted by bizarrely Sontaran-like makeup (again with the Doctor Who design influences) and having to stand in mobile scaffolding high above the rest of the cast.
Okka von der Damerau was an amazingly eerie Erda, turning her brief appearance into a mystical and mythic miniature. I look forward to seeing and hearing more of her in the Lyric production of Siegfried.
Diana Newman (Woglinde), Annie Rosen (Wellgunde), and Lindsay Ammann (Flosshilde) were fantastic as the trio of Rhinemaidens. Both individually and in ensemble, their shimmering voices evoked the mystic nixies of Wagner’s imagination. Vocally and physically, they underwent a fantastic transformation from the untouchable beauties of the opening to the heartbroken victims of the opera’s conclusion.
|Zachary Nelson as Donner|
The disappointingly slight program notes only included one essay, Richard Rothschild’s “A Vote for Das Rheingold.” For the one work in the operatic repertoire that dives deepest into Norse mythology, it was frustrating to see no discussion of the roots of the work. Rothschild seems unaware of Wagner’s Erda being a combination of the Norse goddess Jörð (“earth,” the meaning of Erda) and the mystic völva (“seeress”) of Old Icelandic poetry, instead connecting her to “a long-ago epoch that geologists call Deep Time.” His odd comparison of Das Rheingold to The Hobbit (“Tolkein’s [sic] brief introduction to the epic saga”) misses the more obvious comparisons to The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, both of which contain major elements Tolkien created under Wagner’s influence.
Das Rheingold runs through October 22. Tickets and more information are available on Lyric Opera of Chicago's website. All photos in this review are courtesy of Lyric Opera.