08 Nov 2016

A New Das Rheingold at Lyric Opera of Chicago

With the premiere of Das Rheingold on opening night of the 2016-17 season Lyric Opera of Chicago has initiated a new Ring Cycle to be staged over multiple seasons. Both cast and vision for this production of the first of the four Ring operas make a strong, individual impression. The scenic division of Das Rheingold into four parts is realized with inventive, seamless coherence, a signal for the totality of this unfolding Cycle.

The roles of Wotan and Fricka are sung by Eric Owens and Tanja Ariane Baumgartner. The giants Fasolt and Fafner are portrayed by Wilhelm Schwinghammer and Tobias Kehrer, Alberich and Mime by Samuel Youn and Rodell Rosel. The remaining figures associated with nature and the gods-Loge, Donner, and Froh-are sung by Štefan Margita, Zachary Nelson, and Jesse Donner. The roles of Freia and Erda are performed by Laura Wilde and Okka von der Damerau, while the three Rhinemaidens are Diana Newman, Annie Rosen, and Lindsay Ammann. Messrs. Schwinghammer, Kehrer, and Nelson are performing in their Lyric Opera debuts; Mr. Youn and Ms. Baumgartner are making their American debuts, and Ms. von der Damerau her American operatic debut. Sir Andrew Davis conducts the Lyric Opera Orchestra. This new production is directed by David Pountney, with set designs by the late Johan Engels and Robert Innes Hopkins. Costumes and lighting are designed by Marie-Jeanne Lecca and Fabrice Kebour respectively, while Denni Sayers has created the choreography.

On a quiet, shadow-filled stage three figures dressed in black cloaks deposit a parcel; almost simultaneously are visible three scarlet ropes, held by the Norns and representing fate, those figures who will appear later in the prologue to Götterdämmerung, the final opera of the Ring Cycle. Once the parcel containing the treasure is elevated and the orchestra begins to play the start of the prologue’s sustained chord, the Rhine is depicted by the undulations of a suspended blue cloth swathing a glowing ball of gold. The entrance of the Rhine Maidens and their subsequent playful taunting of the dwarf Alberich exemplifies this production’s innovative approach to Wagner’s text. The Rhine Maidens are perched on cranes that are wheeled about the stage by supernumeraries dressed in costumes reminiscent of those worn by office personnel in the 1920s. At the same time, the Maidens in the imagined river are well dressed, wielding tennis rackets, which they wave sportily as their positions are raised and lowered by those helpers manipulating the cranes. The elusive motion of the Maidens is facilitated by the mechanics and corresponds in Wagner’s text to the banter with which the Maidens taunt “den lüsternen Alp” [“the lascivious gnome”]. Yet they do not heed Flosshilde’s warning to guard the treasure and boast instead of the gold’s innate powers. Once Alberich renounces love to embrace instead power and wealth, a transition unexpected by the Maidens, he is able to wrest the gold from their control and flee. Mr. Youn’s depiction of Alberich’s transformation is sung with arresting dramatic commitment. After snatching the treasure Youn hurls a chilling curse at the love with which the Maidens have taunted him [“entreisse dem Riff das Gold … hör’ es die Flut: so verfluch ich die Liebe!” (“I shall wrench the gold from the rock … let the waves hear it: in this way I curse love!”)].

Many of the remaining characters in the company of the gods and their opponents are introduced in the second scene of Das Rheingold, the transformation again being accomplished with the help of supernumeraries. The open space in a mountain pass is punctuated by several mobile cranes on which are perched the royal leaders of the gods. Wotan and Fricka wore regal cloaks of dull red and complementary broad-brimmed hats signifying their station. Freia is positioned within a wire enclosure close to a stylized tree bearing the golden apples associated with her powers. In keeping with his lingering, sluggish dream, Mr. Owens responds with understated distraction to Fricka’s importunate pleas on behalf of her sister. Ms. Baumgartner’s disciplined insistence as Fricka yields a lush vocal line with effective pathos expressed on the deep pitches ending “Mir bangt es um Freia” [I fear for Freia”]. She reminds Wotan that surrendering Freia to the giants is the price for their completion of the new palatial structure. While lamenting that she was excluded from the preparatory negotiations [“allein mit den Riesen zu tagen” (“you dealt alone with the giants”)], Baumgartner’s insistent dramatic line on “Freia, die gute, geb’ ich nicht auf!” [“I refuse to surrender the good Freia!”] dominates the royal interaction. Ms. Wilde’s emotionally charged depiction of Freia [“Hilf mir, Schwester!” (“Help me, o sister!”)] meets the vocal and dramatic demands of the role ideally, just as Owens declares limpidly that Loge will arrive to solve their current dilemma.

The depiction of the giants intensifies this production’s narrative flow. Messrs. Schwinghammer and Kehrer appear perched atop separate cranes, each structure sporting - above - an oversized face and - below - giant hands able to grasp and pummel. When Schwinghammer’s Fasolt hears of Wotan’s potential reconsideration, his voice quakes with deep offense on “Sinnst du Verrat, Verrat am Vertrag?” [“Are you planning to betray our agreement?”] His continued haggling with Wotan culminates in an impatient snarl on “Ein dummer Riese rät dir das” [“A simple giant counsels you”]. The compatriot Fafner elaborates on the value of Freia’s capture: Mr. Kehrer enunciates with ringing clarity how the golden apples, which she tends, guarantee the gods’ perpetual youth. While Wotan frets over Loge’s delayed arrival, Froh and Donner, brothers to Freia, declare their continued, filial support. Here the verbal assurances are effectively sung by Messrs. Donner and Nelson, such that further time is bought from the giants. Mr. Donner’s Froh urges with lyrically aching top notes, “Zu mir, Freia!” [“To me, Freia!”], while Mr. Nelson’s Donner warns with deep resonance of the effect of “meines Hammers harten Schlag” [“the heavy blow of my hammer!”]. Both characters extend the dramatic tension until the appearance of Loge. Once he arrives with characteristic, dramatic flair Mr. Margita’s Loge dominates this scene if not the remainder of the production. The effect of Margita’s Loge is not only a vocal and dramatic success, but his character also initiates, through both gesture and facial demeanor, the actions and statements of others. This Wagnerian catalyst propels the giants’ interest in the gold in lieu of Freia as well as Wotan’s decision to descend to Nibelheim to confront Alberich. Margita’s rising, melismatic delivery of the line “die goldnen Äpfel in ihrem Garten” [“the golden apples in her garden”] focuses attention on the necessity of action, while reminding the gods of their current insecurity.

The third scene of Das Rheingold is staged to emphasize Alberich’s power and defeat. On either side of the center stage cages house the workers whom the dwarf has enslaved. After the physical confrontation between Alberich and his brother Mime, the visitors arrive in Nibelheim. Once Loge and Wotan learn from Mime the basis of Alberich’s powers, a plan for his capture is conceived. Mr. Rosel delivers the wounded monologue of Mime with declamatory fervor; Margita reacts to the information with a cautious and realistic nod to Wotan, as he pronounces the line, “Nicht leicht gelingt der Fang” [“The capture will not be easy”]. By being tricked into assuming various animal guises with the use of the magic Tarnhelm, the dwarf presumes he is demonstrating his power. Margita’s feigned terror in the face of the serpent, Alberich’s first transformation, is believably expressed with the words, “Mein Zittern mag dir’s bezeugen” [“My trembling can prove to you my fear”]. When the second request for an animal shape is made, the capture is settled. Alberich as a toad is easily snatched and held, the Tarnhelm also now in the power of the gods.

The three figures continue their possessive struggle at the start of the opera’s final scene. Alberich has been brought as a captive to the mountain-top in the godly heights. He learns from Wotan that he must surrender the gold to purchase his freedom. The Tarnhelm must remain with Loge, while the final object, the ring, is still in Alberich’s possession. When Wotan demands the golden ring from the dwarf’s finger, Youn unleashes his fury with masterful control. He sings an extended forte pitch on “Knecht” in the line “Der Traurigen traurigster Knecht!” [“of wretches the wretchedest slave!”]. The subsequent curse on the ring is delivered by Youn with ominous, chilling intensity [“Wer ihn besitzt, den sehre die Sorge” (“Whoever possesses it, may that one be fraught with care”)].

In the concluding segments the giants return Freia from her captivity but refuse to yield until they have received the desired measure of gold. In this production the height of Freia is gauged by piling the gold around her in the familiar wire cage. The final claim placed by the giants on Wotan’s ring, wrested earlier from Alberich, brings Erda into the midst of the gods. Ms. von der Damerau commands attention in her delivery of “Weiche, Wotan weiche” [“Yield, Wotan”]. Her brief appearance is cleverly staged, so that von der Damerau’s lush, emotive appeals to Wotan are heard suddenly from amidst the larger group of characters. The ring is ceded, to be sure, in keeping with Erda’s appeal; with the killing of Fasolt by Fafner the first example of predicted misfortune is complete. For now, the gods have received Freia into their fold, and they admire the fortress which they will now approach. The orchestral accompaniment, regally declarative, is here played with seamless beauty under Davis’s direction. Margita sings Loge’s prediction, “Ihrem Ende eilen sie zu,” [“They hasten toward their demise”] as an assured aside, yet one that captures his amusement as well. This glance to the future functions as an invitation to the succeeding works in the Ring, now eagerly awaited after this successful beginning.

Salvatore Calomino