Monday, October 3, 2016

Review: Wagner's Rheingold at Lyric Opera of Chicago

On Saturday night, Lyric Opera of Chicago began its 2016-2017 season with an opening night gala performance of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Lyric has committed to new productions of each opera of Wagner’s monumental Der Ring des NibelungenDie Walküre (2017-2018), Siegfried (2018-2019), and Götterdämmerung (2019-2020). The massive project will culminate with full four-night cycles of the entire series beginning in April 2020.

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

Even before the low E-flat of the prelude was sounded, it is made abundantly clear that this production profoundly breaks with Wagner’s conception. In complete silence, an added prologue introduces the Norns three full operas early. The three spinners of fate enter with a bag, attached red threads to its contents, then pull out a blue cloth representing the waters of the Rhine.

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.”

In the new production, however, the second scene begins with the gods entering on oversized and overfull carriages, dreamily dozing as they are pushed along by servants. The “Director’s Note” in the program states that “Rheingold deals with historical time when the gods were nomads but intent on walling themselves up in a pompous castle worthy of the Habsburgs, dressed to match.” To move the prelude from mythological time to historical time is a rewrite rather than an interpretation, as is adding the non-Wagnerian element of the gods wandering the world as the scene begins. Whether or not one can literally put a mountain in a theater, to delete a scene direction asking for two Norse gods sleeping on a mountainside and replace it with a convoy of nomadic nobles being ferried about by servants is closer to recomposition than to realization.

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).

The design and lighting of the scene is quite similar to that of the subterranean factory in “The Next Doctor,” a notably steampunk 2008 episode of the British TV series Doctor Who that features children being forced to labor underground in a setting of oversized gears, scaffolding, and steam. The Lyric scene also features the Germanic dwarves of Wagner’s libretto transformed into semi-robotic creatures wearing de-individualizing welding masks and mechanically moving in synchronized lockstep. Their appearance and movement in the scene was strongly reminiscent of the well-known march of the Cybermen – themselves a form of robotic hybrid – in the same Doctor Who episode. As Pountney told me, the “imagery and visual representation [of Wagner’s Ring] are things that are very strongly influenced by fashion.”

Steampunk Nibelungs

In a second added scene, Freia and Fasolt appear on stage between the third and fourth scenes. The captive goddess makes abundantly clear that she has fallen in love with her abductor. When I asked Pountney about this complete rewriting of Freia’s character during our interview, he said, “It’s not explicitly in Wagner, but it’s a legitimate interpretation. These days, we would call it Stockholm Syndrome.”

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.

In the “Director’s Note” of the program, Pountney insists that this production features “a ‘naked’ narration” presented “in clear contrast to many contemporary versions of the Ring which are acts of interpretation.” When scenes are added that do not exist in the libretto, and when characters are portrayed in ways that directly contradict the libretto, is the result a “naked” narration, an act of interpretation, or a rewrite that places the director over the composer?

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.

He told me that the interaction of Alberich and the Rhinemaidens is a “very funny” scene “about a kind of primeval class conflict between gorgeous, careless, aristocratic girls and a fumbling, ugly, stinky, working-class bloke.” Indeed, the water-spirits are presented as identical blondes in white who hold tennis rackets, apparently to represent the pastimes of Paris Hiltons of a bygone era. Alberich is played in the broadly comic mode of Benny Hill, lecherously posing and mugging for the audience as he inevitably shoves his face between the shaven and oiled legs of the young women.

Annie Rosen (Wellgunde), Diana Newman (Woglinde),
Lindsay Ammann (Flosshilde), and Samuel Youn (Alberich)

The presentation of the second and fourth scenes is closer to Mozart’s Don Giovanni than to anything described in Wagner’s stage directions. The Norse deities are dressed in three-cornered hats with oversized feather plumes, in riding pants and knee-high boots, in embroidered coats with elaborate waistcoats, and in beautiful ballroom gowns. Wotan and Loge’s descent into the Nibelheim of the dwarves is represented using the standard staging of Don Giovanni’s descent into Hell – by opening of door in the stage, from which red light and smoke emanate. The comedy element was emphasized by large letters on the underside of the door spelling “Achtung!” The Giovanni connection continued throughout the performance, as the production freely mixed comedic and supernatural elements – indeed, making the supernatural elements themselves into comedy.

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.
Throughout the production, oversized props are manipulated by crewmembers dressed as zombie-like workers who look like Andy Capp in the robbers’ face-paint from Dead Presidents (1995). The outsized reactions of the crew to the dialogue and action of the main characters guides the audience to respond to the opera in a comedic vein. The gala audience responded as directed, and laughter rang through the hall throughout the evening.

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.

Much of the comedy comes from characterizations of the deities. Froh is presented as a figure out of Oscar Wilde’s work – a fop in a fez, continually fussing with his fan in the style of a decadent dandy. In the libretto, he “take[s] Freia into his arms,” orders the giants to back off, and declares her under his protection. Here, his actions and delivery are in the style of Monty Python as he is portrayed using old-fashioned English stereotypes of an ineffectual and effeminate upper-class twit attempting to stand up to manly working-class tough guys.

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.

Loge’s first entrance is played for laughs as the fire-spirit arrives riding a decidedly silly bicycle and wearing outsized driving goggles. Throughout the opera, Loge is played as the comic consigliere to the godfather-like Wotan. While the libretto states that Loge “remain[s] at the front of the stage and look[s] back at the gods” as he delivers his penultimate speech, the Lyric Loge directly addresses the crowd while leaning into the front row from where he stands in the orchestra pit. The similarity to Puck’s speech to the audience at the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is likely intentional, given Pountney’s assertion to me that this production is designed to be “like a Shakespearian theater.”

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.

Whether this comic approach distorts or ridicules the original work is up for debate. The final image of the evening, however, seemed to turn its satirical gaze upon the Lyric Opera itself. As the gods slowly enter their new fortress to the sarcastic laughter of Loge, multiple reproductions of the Lyric’s beloved fire curtain (with its painting of the parade from Verdi’s Aida) descend to frame Valhalla, the Rainbow Bridge, and the deities.

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,
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…
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.

Pountney told me that he believes “the end of Rheingold is intended to be ironic, is a description of ludicrous bombast.” Yet he also insists that the opera is “about the Marxist division of labor” and the portrayal of Alberich is “connected to the whole Marxian thing.” In his article “I predict a riot” for The Guardian, he hoped that his 2011 opera Kommilitonen! (Young Blood!) would inspire today’s students to take to the streets, suggesting he identifies more with the “burn it all” philosophy of Loge than with the self-justifying power plays of Wotan. Perhaps the appearance of the fire curtain as Loge sings of burning down the hall of the wealthy was a socialist’s jibe at the patrons joyfully laughing in their $249 seats.

The "ludicrous bombast" of fancy dress: Wotan (Eric Owens)
and Fricka (Tanja Ariane Baumgartner) on the Rainbow Bridge

Powerful Performers

The breakout vocal performance of the evening was clearly Samuel Youn as Alberich, making his American debut after an impressive career abroad. He and fellow bass-baritone Eric Owens (Wotan) here switched roles, having played the other’s part in a 2013 Berlin production of the Ring. On Saturday, Youn’s consistently projected his impressive voice over the orchestra. During one brief a capella moment in the Nibelheim scene, his powerhouse of a voice rang out with an awesome power. Given the comedic rewrite of the opera, Youn’s bawdy and over the top Alberich consistently stole every scene he was in.

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’s Loge turned to the audience for laughs throughout the performance, as the Slovakian tenor played the character more as a devious trickster than, for example, the seductive spirit of Siegfried Jerusalem. Like the flame he represented, Margita jumped about the stage, scaffolding, and orchestra pit with an astonishing energy. However, his dedication to the mercurial nature of the character sometimes worked against him, as when his repeated use of hairpin dynamics (swelling into and out of notes) sometimes caused the beginnings and ends of phrases to be lost in the orchestral texture.

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.

Both Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Fricka) and Laura Wilde (Freia) were wonderful in their roles, making the most of the admittedly little music Wagner gave them. Similarly, Jesse Donner (Froh, but another one clearly born to play Donner) and Zachary Nelson (Donner) also brought great artistry to what are unfortunately slight parts. Rodell Rosel brought a suitably bizarre and Gollum-like nature to his portrayal of Mime and will be a wonderful part of the upcoming Siegfried.

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.


Julia Ergane said...

Oh, my! Now, I understand the importance of dramaturgy to any production, be it play or opera. (I remember a wonderful staging of Shakespeare's All's Well That End's Well in 1972 on Broadway done ala the Gilded Age.) Some are able to withstand any number of restagings, others, not so much. This one sounds like a mistake -- a huge one. Of course, the Niebelungs were a part of the Germanic mythos, and I am an Hellene so I don't know all the ins and outs of the differing lores. Thank you for the heads up on the new productions.

Unknown said...

Oh my gosh. I'm honestly so sorry you had to see this, it sounds like an embarrassing rendition of a great opera!! It makes me kind of (ok, really) mad that the Gods were portrayed in this joking and frankly disrespectful manner. And of course now people are going to think that the Rheingold is a joke (it's kind of a separate thing with the Thor comics/movies, but this doesn't really separate the real stories from this terrible adaptation). To hoping the others will be better?

Charles Martel said...

I saw this production today (October 16, 2016) and I must say this review nailed it very well. The orchestra, the singing and the acting were all first rate, even sublime at times. However, except for subterranean scenes, which were excellent, the staging was simply a disaster. Clever, yes, but too clever by half and therefore annoyingly distracting. The costuming wasn't even clever; it was incoherent.

Two things especially detracted from the piece: the concept of Freia succumbing to the Stockholm Syndrome, which simply doesn't do justice to the text, and Fasolt's murder by his brother, which even though I've experienced it a hundred times in the opera house, on video or on audio recordings, has always shocked me--until this production, where it was comic book, Punch & Judy stuff.

Anyway, in the end, the music conquered all, as it always does. And I'm not sorry I drove 200 miles each way to see how Eric Owens, who was so brilliant as Alberich at the Met, and similarly brilliant a few years back at the Lyric as Hercules, would do as Wotan. While nobody does Wotan quite like James Morris did, Eric Owens was very convincing in the role despite having to swim against the tide of a bad production. At the Met with better acoustics than the Lyric (why don't they tear that barn down and start over??) and a decent production, he would have been great in the role, not just convincing.

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