Das Rheingold

Andrew Davis
Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra
1 October 2016
Lyric Opera Chicago
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanEric Owens
DonnerZachary Nelson
FrohJesse Donner
LogeStefan Margita
FasoltWilhelm Schwinghammer
FafnerTobias Kehrer
AlberichSamuel Youn
MimeRodell Rosel
FrickaTanja Ariane Baumgartner
FreiaLaura Wilde
ErdaOkka von der Damerau
WoglindeDiana Newman
WellgundeAnnie Rosen
FloßhildeLindsay Ammann
Chicago Tribune

Pure gold: Lyric Opera’s new ‘Rheingold’ opens the season with vocal splendor

This is the way the world begins. On a darkened stage, lit by a single floor lamp. From the depths of the orchestra emerges the E flat major chord representing the rolling currents of the Rhine River. Life stirs.

Three mute figures representing the Norns, or fates, fearfully deposit a golden satchel at center stage. It is soon hoisted into the flies to become a billowing blue sheet swaddling a golden globe. The shining orb is the Rhinemaidens’ precious treasure, whose theft by the Nibelung dwarf Alberich sets into motion the music dramas that make up Wagner’s epic tetralogy “Der Ring des Nibelungen.”

Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its 62nd season Saturday night at the Civic Opera House with “Das Rheingold,” the first music drama of a new “Ring” cycle by the admired British stage director David Pountney. The tetralogy, with Lyric Opera music director Andrew Davis conducting, will unfold one opera per season through 2019-20, when three complete cycles of Wagner’s masterpiece are to be presented as a pendant to the season.

And the first installment did not disappoint expectation.

This “Rheingold” is nothing short of a triumph on all fronts, intelligently conceived by the creative team, brilliantly executed by a top-flight international cast representing the new generation of Wagner singers. There’s not a weak link in a vocal ensemble led by the admirable bass-baritone Eric Owens, in his role debut as Wotan, the morally bankrupt king of the gods.

Wagner’s glorious score is played with rich, glowing, finely detailed sound by the splendid Lyric Opera Orchestra (augmented by extra brass players from the Washington National Opera) under Davis, who maintains supple musical continuity and alert synchronization with the stage.

Complementing these virtues are whimsical, eye-filling sets designed by the late Johan Engels and further realized by Robert Innes Hopkins, ornate costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca and multitextured lighting by Fabrice Kebour. As with Pountney’s stage direction, the designs often treat serious matter playfully, letting us in on all the moving parts, inviting us to suspend disbelief as the show takes shape before our eyes. We believe, we believe.

Basic to the director’s conceptual conceit is a team of 18 actors, made up to resemble mimes, who move set elements in and out of the dramatic action. A kind of grand “political cartoon” (Pountney’s words) unspools, not all that different, in some respects, from what is playing out in the current presidential campaign. (The temptation to depict the billionaire businessman Alberich as a Donald Trump-like plutocrat must have been acute.)

In interviews given before the opening, Pountney and Lyric general director Anthony Freud stressed their intention of returning Lyric’s new “Ring” to the world of the theater, in a manner faithful to Wagner’s text, without allowing modern theater technology or polemics to intrude on the storytelling. This adherence to theatrical values, in an age of radicalized “Rings,” comes across as almost radical in itself.

Portraying Alberich, Wotan’s adversary in this prologue to the “Ring,” was a real discovery: The superb Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn, making powerful American and role debuts. “Rheingold” also brought the American debut and U.S. operatic debuts, respectively, of German mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner as Fricka, Wotan’s nagging wife; and the impressive German mezzo Okka von der Damerau as Erda, the all-seeing earth goddess.

Slovakian tenor Stefan Margita brought his definitive portrayal of Loge, the crafty demigod of fire, to Chicago for the first time and nearly walked away with the show. The excellent German basses Wilhelm Schwinghammer and Tobias Kehrer were making Lyric debuts as the giants Fasolt and Fafner.

The rest of Wotan’s clan included the fresh-voiced soprano (and Ryan Opera Center alumna) Laura Wilde as Freia, goddess of youth and beauty, a young innocent who becomes infatuated with her abductor, Fasolt; baritone Zachary Nelson as the hammer-wielding thunder god Donner; and Ryan Center tenor Jesse Donner as the effete Froh, god of spring. Each deity had his or her self-propelled carriage. Loge rode in on a tricked-up red cycle. Fricka’s chariot sported ram’s horns, per Wagner’s specifications.

Blithely batting the air with tennis racquets, the spirited Rhinemaidens perched atop individual cranes that were pushed around the stage by the aforementioned crew of actors. The vocally mellifluous trio consisted of Diana Newman, Annie Rosen and Lindsay Ammann.

The designers quite outdid themselves with their depiction of Alberich’s Nibelheim domain: a hellish, smoke-filled factory in which zombielike workers were packed into iron cages that rose from and descended into the subterranean mines. (The visual allusions to Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film classic “Metropolis” surely were intentional.) Through the power of the magical tarnhelm (helmet) fashioned from the Rhinemaidens’ gold, Youn’s sadistic Alberich transformed himself into a comical, storybook dragon and a hopping toad.

Attached to the towers housing the singing giants were huge, bulbous puppet heads and detached hands and feet manipulated by the stage crew. For the scene in which Wotan surrendered the plundered gold to the giants as Freia’s ransom, the sacks traveled up a conveyor belt and were dumped over the goddess as she crouched in her corsetlike carriage.

Owens has been widely praised for his Alberich in the Robert Lepage production of the “Ring” at the Metropolitan Opera, so the bass-baritone’s first assumption of Wotan was widely anticipated. Although he sounded a bit tired by the end of the evening, he sang this touchstone Wagnerian role with nobility, depth, lyricism and surpassing tonal beauty, and he acted it with dignity.

Beyond that, one wasn’t always quite sure what Pountney wanted to make of the manipulative, duplicitous Wotan. The god’s vicious removal of Alberich’s entire left arm, not just the ring, came out of the blue. No doubt later performances of “Rheingold,” and succeeding operas in the cycle, will allow this major American artist to reveal more of Wotan’s sorrow, pride and wit. But this was an imposing start.

Dressed like a tramp in a rumpled black suit and bowler hat, Youn scored an imposing U.S. debut with his first Alberich. The power-mad dwarf is more often growled than sung, but Youn delivered the vocal goods handsomely, with spot-on clarity and firmness of projection. Alberich’s fury when tricked by Wotan and Loge registered as formidably as the dwarf’s misery when he was humiliated and stripped of his power, as the gods snatched the gold for themselves.

With his clear, velvety tenor, Margita scored a tour de force in his signature role of Loge, the demigod popping up in the orchestra pit to bid a cynical adieu to the Wotan clan as they ascended to their new mountaintop fortress. Seldom has any Loge been this funny or this beautifully sung.

Baumgartner’s warmly vocalized Fricka was not nearly so verbally acute as Margita’s Loge, but she did manage to avoid the shrewish clichés usually assigned to Mrs. Wotan. Von der Damerau intoned Erda’s dire warning with dark-voiced splendor. Ryan alum Rodell Rosel whined and cowered in a portrayal of the enslaved dwarf Mime that was as much vocal as physical.

Lecca’s rich costumes were all over the place — opulent Victorian finery for Fricka, plumed formal wear for Wotan (he looked rather like a fugitive from Louis XIV’s Versailles), foppish, vaguely Elizabethan-era togs for Donner and Froh, drab proletarian attire for others. The director’s intent clearly was satirical, but those heavy duds made the gods’ rainbow-bridge ascent to Valhalla a heavy trudge. (Don’t miss the sly allusion to the Civic Opera House’s famous fire curtain at the end.)

No doubt some dramatic fine-tuning will be done by the time this “Rheingold” takes its place alongside the other “Ring” operas — “Die Walkure,” “Siegfried” and “Gotterdammerung” — in 2020 when Lyric rolls out three full cycles. For now, the saga is off to a shining start, modern Wagnerian music theater at its most compelling. Please note that the show runs 2 1/2 hours and has no intermission. Don’t be late or you’ll miss the entire thing.

John von Rhein | October 3, 2016

Financial Times

Following the Metropolitan Opera’s Tristan just days before, Lyric Opera of Chicago also opened its season with a work by Wagner, the initial instalment of a projected Ring cycle by David Pountney. The experienced director, in his first complete Ring, aims to treat the saga (he explains in a programme note) as “an act of narration” rather than one of “interpretation”.

For Das Rheingold, which he views as a political cartoon, he endeavours to draw viewers into the storytelling process by setting it in an old-fashioned theatre (scenery by Robert Innes Hopkins after designs by the late Johan Engels), but what unfolds is nearly as much about the mechanics of telling as about the story. Stagehands push around wooden towers that look like relics from the Crusades. Rhinemaidens are held aloft by machines suggestive of the original Ring production. The gods’ first scene is so cluttered it looks like a prop warehouse. Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costumes have the characters in stock fairytale attire.

Almost halfway through, when Wotan and Loge descend to Nibelheim (bathed in red by Fabrice Kebour’s lighting) and steal the gold from the dwarf Alberich, you finally sense you’re watching a performance rather than a rehearsal. Pountney’s proven abilities come to the fore with arresting stage movement and deft, if flippant, touches, such as having the two aforementioned gods sit down for a celebratory drink after Wotan wrests from Alberich the ring (and his entire left arm).

The production’s flaws would be easier to take were the musical performance better, but, although the orchestra plays handsomely, Andrew Davis’s conducting is surprisingly prosaic and metronomic. Eric Owens seemed out of sorts as Wotan, offering a portrayal of the chief god that has presence but sounds undernourished. Štefan Margita’s oily Loge, however, is distinguished by vocal clarity and flashes of irony, and Samuel Youn, though lighter of voice than most Alberichs, is also excellent. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner and Laura Wilde do well as the goddesses Fricka and Freia, and Rodell Rosel whines affectingly as Mime.

In his note, Pountney stresses the individuality of each Ring opera, calling the next to come, Die Walküre, “Ibsenesque”. A new approach will indeed be welcome.

George Loomis | October 3, 2016

Classical Voice North America

Wry Spirit Rules As Chicago Lyric Launches Its Ring

On the subject of high-tech approaches to opera, the South African theater and opera designer Johan Engels once told an interviewer that his function was “merely to suggest the dots of an idea,” and that it was up to each audience member to connect them into what they wanted the image to be. Although the designer was open to nifty tools that made old ideas look new again, he insisted that the audience’s imagination was “more vivid than anything I can put before them.”

Engels had just completed the initial design work for the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s upcoming cycle of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, of which Das Rheingold is the prologue, when he died in late 2014 at age 62. Dedicated to Engels’ memory, the Lyric’s nimble new production of Das Rheingold was unveiled on Oct. 1, directed by David Pountney and conducted by the company’s music director Andrew Davis. (Das Rheingold runs through Oct. 22. Die Walküre and Siegfried are slated for the next two seasons, and in April 2020 comes Götterdämmerung, along with the Ring in its entirety.)

British designer Robert Innes Hopkins is carrying his late colleague’s designs forward, but it is the Rheingold, with Engels’ characteristically eclectic array of visual aphorisms, that keeps the audience guessing. Some tricks do literally come out of a bag. As the show began, haggard women (the foretelling Norns from Götterdämmerung) lugged their suitcase onto an empty industrial-era stage. The scene initially seemed to divert attention from the music’s first whispering undercurrents of E-flat churning up from the orchestra’s depths. But soon the concept of the production took hold. The Norns pulled wide swaths of blue silk from the suitcase, conjuring the River Rhine’s vast watery realm with the aid of kabuki-style helpers in full view of the audience.

A mesmerizing aerial ballet ensued in the form of an underwater flirtation between the Rhinemaidens and the grasping, lusting Nibelung dwarf Alberich. The Rhinemaidens teased Alberich from their perches on cranes that are actually movie-camera dollies, each operated by a member of the Lyric Opera stage crew and two onstage actors, to variously manipulate the platform heights and move the units around the stage so that the Rhinemaidens appear to swim, circle, rise, and fall in sync with each other and the music. The trio of young singers — soprano Diana Newman and mezzo-sopranos Annie Rosen and Lindsay Ammann — achieved a beautiful siren blend while delivering some high-flying humiliation that drove Alberich crazy and set him on course to steal their gold.

In a typical example of the time-shifting and place-shifting that Pountney’s approach allows, Wotan and the other immortal gods are just hanging out when we first see them in the opera. Their furniture is stacked around the set, pending the completion of Valhalla, Wotan’s new palace. Various iconic items signifying “empire” are piled high in the storage bins — a perfect Versailles topiary here, an ancient Mesopotamian ram’s head there, a Greek capital or two. What’s a treasure for, if not to become somebody’s collectible? Save that spear, a golden apple, and the eye patch, too.

Davis moved the musical elements along at a welcome swift and spirited pace. The Lyric Opera Orchestra, enriched with extra brass, sounded particularly fine. There were 91 musicians in the pit, plus four percussionists on the stage in costume among Alberich’s miserable laboring Nibelungs, creating piercing anvil effects.

The electrifying new Alberich on the scene is bass-baritone Samuel Youn, in his American debut and role debut both. He came across as youthful, burly, angry, and given to explosive bursts of voice when expressing particular fury at the unfairness of his lot.

Youn’s Alberich was conniving, too, still gaining in cunning even as he was cornered, cursing the future owners of the ring as he yielded its power. Youn is well known at Bayreuth and highly sought in other European houses. It was a pleasure to hear him match wits with Wotan’s slick-talking, fast-thinking Number Two — the fireball Loge — a role that fits Slovakian tenor Štefan Margita like a glove. These two should be allowed to go at it for 15 rounds.

Bass-baritone Eric Owens, who has sung Alberich at the Met, was undertaking Wotan for the first time, a huge task with many possible ways into that complex character.

Owens took the tack of the philosopher-king, reflective and brooding, giving off the vibe of a tyrant in late-middle age accustomed to ordering people around but unaware he had lost the strength to back up his threats. It was a tragic, ruminative arc; some of his most beautiful singing revealed brilliant tenorial overtones in the upper register. I found it deeply thoughtful and touching despite a lack of robustness in the home stretch. The physical challenge of stamina and pacing in an arduous new role may have been a factor.

In a beautiful performance, the German mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, as Fricka, made a sympathetic case for the long-suffering wife of Wotan, for whom romantic sparks still fly. And mezzo-soprano Okka von der Damerau was glorious in her American operatic debut as Erda, Wotan’s forbidding oracle.

Grounded in a storyteller’s fanciful touch, the production overall was musically strong and theatrically savvy. Among the novel ideas, Fasolt and Fafner — the giants who build Wotan’s new palace for an agreed-upon price that Wotan does not intend to pay — appear as huge puppet heads, with hands and arms affixed to high towers, the actual singers perched somewhere partway up. The puppet heads were so big that it was actually disconcerting to hear German basses Tobias Kehrer and Wilhelm Schwinghammer sing without amplification. It’s not that their voices weren’t stentorian. They were. It’s just that they sounded underscaled in this context.

The super-sizing of the puppets also led to some Kong-style humor when it appeared that Freia – the goddess whom the giants abducted — developed a total crush, obviously requited, on gargantuan Fasolt, in a delicious twist played out by soprano Laura Wilde for all it was worth.

The costumes of Marie-Jeanne Lecca were flamboyantly tongue in cheek as well. Alberich donned a Liberace jacket once he renounced love and became rich on Nibelung gold. (Check out the Magic Flute that Lecca did with Engels at the Bregenz Festival in 2014 for similar flights of fancy.) And Wotan was accoutered like a military general, but maybe from an older war.

When his modern sidekick Loge rode into view on a snazzy three-wheeler, attired in red duds and dripping disdainful asides, you could tell what this smug firebrand thought of his boss.

Although the pick-up sticks that purported to represent Valhalla in the sky weren’t very impressive, resembling something more like a two-bedroom cottage than a celestial palace under construction, history may look kindly on the Lyric’s proud reference to its own palace worthy of the gods: The final approach to Valhalla, at the very end of the opera, was lined with images of the triumphal scene from Aida, as depicted in gilded glory on the beloved Jules Guérin fire curtain at the Civic Opera House.

Nancy Malitz | October 4, 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 | 08 Nov 2016


A Luxurious Das Rheingold to Open Lyric Season

Inaugurating the 2016–2017 Lyric Opera season, a new Wagner Das Rheingold simultaneously set a celebratory tone for the year ahead and offered a preview of the company’s new Ring cycle. The production, designed by Johan Engels, came to life in the hands of director David Pountney, whose steampunk-influenced scaffolding surrounded the stage. High production values included special effects like the lifts that move Rhine maidens and others, and other details including safety warnings for trap doors in German. The costumes, such as Loge’s motoring goggles, also inhabited the steampunk world. Stage hands were always nearby, interacting seamlessly with the cast.

Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn (in his American debut) gave a vivid performance as Alberich. Youn’s full, resonant voice made each phrase clear and audible, while his acting masterfully supported his character. If at times the pitches bent for emphasis, the result was always effective. The final scene was most impressive in the way Youn not only played into Wotan’s hand, but gave the ring’s curse the proper musical and dramatic execution.

Štefan Margita was equally vivid as Loge, persuasive vocally and dramatically. Margita showed a sure sense of pitch, dynamics, and timing crucial to the responses he elicited from Wotan and the other gods.

In the role of Erda, Okka von der Damerau gave a powerful reading, with her richly textured voice ringing clearly throughout the hall to command “Weiche, Wotan” with dramatic and vocal authority. Also making her American debut, she made a strong impression in this short but crucial role.

Eric Owens was a subtle Wotan. His diction was clear, but sometimes his voice was overshadowed by the orchestra, which often swelled in symphonic style. Nevertheless, in the final scene, his ringing tone came through. As Fricka, Tanja Ariane Baumgartner was nuanced, if somewhat deferential, to Wotan, with a lovely, supple voice.

As the giants Fafner and Fasolt, Tobias Kehrer and Wilhelm Schwinghammer delivered admirably, matching each other well in somewhat declamatory roles. And as Freia, Laura Wilde offered a lithe voice and acting.

Other members of the cast were equally strong, with Jesse Donner as Froh; his limber tenor suggested a performer who could take on other Wagner operas. Rodell Rosel gave Mime physicality without resorting to caricature, and with fine vocal delivery. As Donner, Zachary Nelson made his part in the final scene work well in the satisfying staging of the gods’ entry into Vahalla.

Sir Andrew Davis led the orchestra with style and clear leadership, pacing the story with remarkable concision and poignant delivery. Notable orchestral details included the burnished sound of the brass. Horn playing was usually spot on, even though it sometimes flagged near the end. All in all, though, it was a powerful opening night that will remain in memory for a long time, an enviable Rheingold for any house.

James Zychowicz | Chicago. 1.10.2016

New York Times

In This ‘Ring’ Cycle, Gods Dwell in an Old Theater

David Pountney is hardly the first director to assert that his production of Wagner’s epic “Ring” cycle will focus on telling the story, rather than telling audiences what it means. Yet is it possible to tell any story without interpreting it, even inadvertently?

Mr. Pountney admits as much in a program note for his new production of “Das Rheingold,” the first installment of a complete “Ring” for the Lyric Opera of Chicago (in a coproduction with Teatro Real, Madrid). It opened here on Saturday night, with a strong cast and Andrew Davis conducting a lean-textured and urgent performance. (The next three operas in the cycle will be presented, one per season, through 2020.)

Though he has a long record of acclaimed work in opera, Mr. Pountney had never directed the “Ring” when Anthony Freud, the Lyric Opera’s general director, asked him to take on this challenge. The most compelling elements of “Das Rheingold” arise when Mr. Pountney’s few interpretive ideas come through.

The production sets the opera in the skeleton of an old theater, with wood scaffolding on both sides of the stage. (The set designs by Johan Engels, who died in 2014, were developed and carried out by Robert Innes Hopkins.) Three ghostly old women, perhaps the spirit guides to this theater, appear from the wings. They unpack a frayed travel bag to begin the opening scene of the opera, which takes place at the bottom of the Rhine. To suggest the river’s flowing waters, the women unfurl large swaths of billowing blue cloth.

The Rhinemaidens (Diana Newman, Annie Rosen and Lindsay Ammann), wearing white lacy dresses, appear on small circular platforms atop three rolling cranes operated by stagehands who remain visible. The nasty dwarf Alberich (the bass-baritone Samuel Youn, in a chilling performance) wears dingy miner’s garb but has a slightly reptilian face. You feel for this pathetic character when he falls prey to the mock seductions of the Rhinemaidens.The opera’s magic gold simply descends from on high: a black box containing a glowing rock. When Alberich learns of its powers — anyone who renounces love and makes a ring from the gold can become master of the universe — he brutally wrestles one of the Rhinemaidens from her platform and, lifted higher by the crew, steals it.

So here we have the story of “Das Rheingold” told by a theater troupe that has clearly presented it many times before. This suggestion is made manifest in the next scene, atop the mountain where Wotan and the other gods dwell. They look like 18th-century aristocrats in decline. Wotan (the bass-baritone Eric Owens) could be some European prince, with a gaudy tailcoat and a plumed hat. There is a hint of Strauss’s Marschallin, fallen on bad times, in the elaborate dress for Fricka, Wotan’s aggrieved wife (the mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner).

Loge, the demigod and clever trickster (the bright-voiced tenor Stefan Margita, in a dynamic performance) bustles about on a giant tricycle. In the final scene, when Erda, the all-knowing goddess of the earth (Okka von der Damerau), appears with a warning for Wotan, she looks like Marie Antoinette gone to seed.

The giants Fasolt and Fafner are depicted through monumental contraptions. Each has a huge puppet head at the top of a tall wood tower moved by the crew. Enormous puppet forearms and hands protrude from the sides. The actual singers (Wilhelm Schwinghammer and Tobias Kehrer), dressed as drab workmen, perform from a midlevel tier of the tower.

The idea of Wotan and his dysfunctional family of gods as aristocrats losing their hold on power is not new. But it lends poignancy to this concept to present them as old actors in a theater company dusting off a familiar play.

I only wish Mr. Pountney had offered a little more in the way of interpretation. His one daring touch comes with Freia, the goddess of youth (Laura Wilde), who is held for ransom by the giants as they await their payment from Wotan for having built the gods’ castle, Valhalla. In this production, Freia’s temporary captivity has caused her to bond with her captors. Though I don’t see hints of this psychological twist in Wagner’s work, I found the idea intriguing.

Mr. Owens is singing his first Wotan in this production. When he sang Alberich in the Metropolitan Opera’s new “Ring,” starting with “Das Rheingold” in 2010, he seemed destined to play the king of the gods.

He sang with rich, deep sound and impeccable diction, and conveyed Wotan’s essential dignity. On Saturday, he lacked the power that Wotan should ideally command, the sheer vocal presence of his Alberich. But Mr. Owens is an honorable Wotan who may well grow into the role as this production continues through 2020, when three complete cycles will be presented.



Lyric Opera of Chicago launched its current season with DAS RHEINGOLD, the initial installment in a new production of Richard Wagner’s epic DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN. The four operas comprising the cycle will be presented piecemeal, one per season, culminating in three complete offerings of the RING in April 2020. These cycles will mark Lyric Opera’s third RING presentation in its history. “Another RING, another concept,” exclaims the seasoned Wagnerian. And yet Lyric Opera has steadfastly avoided productions redolent with references to world history–both during and after Wagner’s lifetime. In contrast, many other opera houses took their cue from the groundbreaking 1976 Patrice Chéreau production for the Bayreuth Festival, eschewing mythological trappings for a new and provocative visual lexicon, steeped in imagery of the Industrial Revolution, urban suffering and even nuclear war. Instead, Lyric Opera borrowed from science fiction. Its first RING in the 1970’s featured a “timeless” STAR TREK aesthetic, while the succeeding production by August Everding paid tribute to STAR WARS with a laser beam lighting scheme. In both cases, the stage pictures were abstract, geometric and free of clutter. Wagner himself wrote: “To make my intention too obvious would get in the way of real understanding.” In the words of M. Owen Lee: “He didn’t want explanations.” Lyric Opera’s stage director David Pountney obviously concurs with this viewpoint. In a program note, Pountney states: “Of course it is not possible to tell a story without simultaneously giving it some element of interpretation—we all like to pretend we are objective, but we are not. But the emphasis in our case will be to tell the story, rather than to tell you what the story means. That is your job to decide.” Pountney and his design team served up a Wagner staging quite unlike anything in this writer’s experience. With its objective of functioning as narrator, the production does not strive after illusion or magic. Indeed, it celebrates theatricality and makes explicit the “play within a play” logic of its thesis. The three Norns appear before the opera begins, setting up lighting instruments and unpacking their red chord of fate from a weathered piece of luggage. They are assisted by a corps of stagehands, dressed as factory workers, who manipulate a staggering array of set pieces, machinery and props in seamlessly executed choreography. The Rhinemaidens are first seen atop cranes, trailing gowns suggestive of mermaids. The image is both reminiscent of early attempts to stage this notoriously challenging scene and convincing in its representation of underwater life. By liberating itself from the burden of achieving cinematic realism, the performers are free to work within a convention that is poetic and persuasive on its own terms. The production gathers cumulative force as it moves forward, layering color, ideas, associations and movement into a dazzling totality. Costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca has attired the gods in a wardrobe suggestive of baroque opera, commedia dell’arte and the court of Louis XIV. Each deity occupies a stage wagon, outfitted with objects and symbols associated with his or her godhood. Set designer Robert Innes Hopkins (building on the original vision of the late Johan Engels) has realized the giants Fasolt and Fafner as enormous heads and arms attached to moving towers that convey power and menace. Loge is dressed as a circus ring leader, making his entrance on a clown bicycle. Nibelheim and its denizens are a synthesis of Mad Max and Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS. Fabrice Kebour’s lighting delineates the various realms of water, sky and subterranean earth effectively and atmospherically. Pountney is adept at humanizing the mythic. Borrowing from Stockholm syndrome, Freia grows increasingly attached to her captor and seems traumatized by his eventual murder. Erotic passion and longing are clearly evident throughout Fricka’s arguments with her husband. Pountney is also unafraid to interject notes of farce and whimsy into his work. The blowup dragon and toad in Nibelheim are an unexpected solution to a perennial staging problem, matching the tongue-in-cheek musical rendering of these creatures with their own charming goofiness. Wotan and Loge “high five” one other like exuberant frat boys after capturing Alberich. There are many moments of wit and humor in DAS RHEINGOLD and Pountney successfully illuminates these elements alongside the noble, cosmic aspects of the story. Not every directorial choice works well. Wotan takes possession of the ring by amputating Alberich’s arm. A moment that could be devastating in its depiction of hypocrisy and humiliation is here treated as cheap Guignol and the audience guffawed accordingly. But Pountney and his design team are willing to take chances and the collective result is one of immense stimulation. The large ensemble was mostly cast from strength. As Loge, Stefan Margita delivers a performance of stunning range, full of seemingly limitless inflection and nuance. Resembling Martin Short in appearance and movement, the Slovakian tenor embodies the suave and sinister aspects of the trickster to perfection. Margita also seemed to be enjoying himself immensely onstage. His fellow character tenor Rodell Rosel also impresses mightily, exuding a determined ruthlessness as Mime, which makes him almost as dangerous as his brother Alberich. Eric Owens and Samuel Youn are well matched in terms of vocal and interpretative ability as the respective lords of light and darkness but neither is wholly convincing. As Wotan, Owens’ singing was variable throughout the evening, his imposing bass-baritone losing focus and consistency. Sadly, there was little sense of expansion or commanding majesty in his final monologue. As Alberich, Youn was overly reliant on exaggerated Sprechstimme and straight-toned howling to score dramatic points. The basic instrument is quite handsome but one wished he would have let it speak for itself. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner possesses a clean, incisive mezzo-soprano that made something compelling of Fricka’s every utterance. As Fasolt, Wilhem Schwinghammer was a figure of pathos but his singing was unsteady and lacking in legato. In contrast, Tobias Kehrer’s resonant, black-toned bass made for an unusually fascinating Fafner. Okka Von Der Damerau, resembling Miss Havisham, intoned Erda’s warning powerfully while Laura Wilde’s Freia was refreshingly forceful in both voice and presence. Jesse Donner sang with mellifluous tenderness as Froh but seemed a trifle embarrassed by the director’s fey take on the rainbow god. Zachary Nelson made the most of Donner’s invocation, his sonorous vocalism recalling the American stage debut here of Bryn Terfel in this role 25 years ago. The three Rhinemaidens were performed with panache and polish by Diana Newman as Woglinde, Annie Rosen as Wellgunde and Lindsay Ammann as Flosshilde. The evening’s biggest disappointment was Sir Andrew Davis in the pit. He favored a brisk, swiftly paced approach to the score, appreciable for its taut, compact qualities. But the opening vorspiel, a depiction of the “beginning of the world” as Wagner described it and one of the most innovative passages in all of music, was devoid of awe and wonder. Similarly, the orchestral playing was prosaic here, the brass tentative throughout and the whole lacking impact and sonority. Davis’ musical leadership registered as choppy and episodic, without a sense of climax or well-managed crescendo. In short, this is a theatrically triumphant production of DAS RHEINGOLD featuring a strong cast but disappointing conducting. More importantly, it whets the appetite for what is to come and this was brilliantly anticipated in the staging: the gods cross their rainbow bridge through a replica of Lyric Opera’s famous deco fire curtain, entering a Valhalla of creative possibility that will hopefully insure the remaining works of the cycle are realized with equal brilliance.

Jason T. McVicker | Chicago, 1 October 2016

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A production by David Pountney