Das Rheingold in Chicago

I should tell you upfront that Das Rheingold, the first part of Richard Wagner's Der Ring Des Nibelungnen tetralogy (aka The Ring), is my favorite opera. Sure, I love the rest of the Ring with the same fervor that eventually consumes nearly everyone willing to submit to its formidable length, complicated story, and unparalleled music, but as a stand-alone work, I find the combination of Rheingold's narrative concision and musical breadth an unsurpassable way to spend roughly 2 1/2 hours. That's not to say I think it's Wagner's best opera -- my vote for that would likely be either Tristan or Gotterdammerung, or that I think it's better than anything by Puccini or Verdi (Rigoletto, Otello, and La Boheme certainly come close), just that it's my favorite. 

Rheingold's four scenes (no intermissions allowed) build on each other without detours; the characters include one mean and horny dwarf, a pair of giant brothers (one lonely, the other bitter), and a gallery of flawed gods; its music begins in an undefined primordial, watery world and ends with a triumphant yet uneasy march through the doors of Valhalla. It's clear-cut relationships (uncomplicated by incestual relationships and extended family trees at this point in the story) make it the only opera in the Ring that doesn't force one to think back to what's come before. Unlike the Ring's subsequent operas, its social and political commentary can be viewed without the shadow and taint of Wagner's anti-semitism. 

If you know the plot, go ahead and skip the next four paragraphs-- for those that don't, here's what happens (with a nod to Sir Denis Foreman, who does this sort of thing much better than I in his marvelously entertaining and informative book A Night at the Opera):

In the first scene Alberich the horny dwarf stumbles across three women frolicking in a river. He takes a turn hitting on all three of them and miserably strikes out. In response to their mocking his lack of game, he steals their magic gold. It turns out that for the measly price of forever forswearing love, whoever has this magic gold can forge a ring from it that will make its wearer a master of the universe. This part should sound vaguely familiar to Lord of the Rings fans. Major themes: lust is bad; being a tease is worse; always keep precious metals locked in a safe place.

Scene 2 finds us outside the future home of the unhappily married Wotan and Fricka. Short of funds to pay for the palace, Wotan's pimped out his sister-in-law Freia to the giant brothers Fafner and Fasolt in return for building his own Mar-a-Lago. Now that it's time to the pay the bill, Fricka's distraught because Wotan doesn't have a plan to save her sister. Meanwhile, her brothers Donner and Froh sit around waiting to get inside and continue to benefit from the patriarchy. Relax, Wotan mansplains to Fricka, his buddy Loge is on his way over right now to fix things. Look, I only agreed to this place to keep you from shtupping everything that moves, she says. The giants show up to get paid. Wotan tries stalling them, but the giants are all "fuck you, pay us." Loge shows up late and empty-handed regarding a plan, but says "Nice place you have here!" Thinking on his feet, Loge tells everyone that Alberich just ripped off some gold. The giants, realizing a rich and powerful dwarf hanging around may not work out so well for them, agree to take the gold in place of Freia, but Wotan has to deliver it that evening or the deal's off. Then they stomp off with Freia in tow. Now what? asks Wotan. Simple, Loge replies, Just steal the gold from the thief --easy-peasy, he's not that bright. Wotan says You got me into this mess, so you're coming with me. And off they go, into the underworld of the dwarfs. Major themes: It's okay to steal from a thief; pimping out your sister-in-law isn't wise; don't trust gods -- they're kind of crafty, not to mention unfaithful.

In Scene 3 Alberich is already busy down below using the gold to make everyone else totally miserable, especially his brother Mime, an adept metal forger. Wotan and Loge show up and Mime tells them what a prick his brother has become. Then Alberich steps in and says What do you two want? Wotan and Loge say, Hey, nice gig you got going on here -- how do you do it? Through this magic helmet, which lets me do anything I damn well please, he replies. They reply Oh, that's impressive -- show us how it's done! Watch me turn myself into a fearsome dragon! he boasts, and then does just that. Oh, that's certainly something, but dragons are so passé these days,says Loge -- Small is the new black! Can you turn yourself into something little and cute? Alberich replies Ha! That's easy, you idiots! and turns himself into a frog. Wotan picks up Alberich the frog with a handkerchief, puts him in his pocket, and takes him back upstairs. Major themes: power corrupts; turning yourself into a furry, or any other kind of animal, is a stupid thing to do; don't trust those crafty gods.

In Scene 4 Wotan and Loge tell Alberich it's either the gold or captivity. The dwarf gives up the booty, knowing that as long as he has the ring he can start over from scratch. The ring too -- I must have the ring! Wotan declares. Never! screams Alberich -- you can have it all except the ring. Bollocks! says Wotan, and forces Alberich to give it up, but not before the dwarf places a curse on whoever wears it. The giants return with Freia -- Got the gold? Because one of us is anxious to get busy with the girl. Wotan says Here it is, now give me back my wife's sister so I can have some peace. The giants release Freia, and also demand the ring now on Wotan's finger. A ghostly woman named Erda shows up out of nowhere and tells Wotan he's better off giving up the ring, so he reluctantly turns it over with the rest of the gold. The giants begin to argue over the split. Fafner kills his brother and takes everything for himself. Well, this has been an interesting day, says Loge. This didn't work out as I planned. Let's go to our new home exclaims Wotan. Let us do some flashy stuff to justify our presence exclaim Froh and Donner, summoning thunder, lightening, and a rainbow bridge leading to the front door. As the gods go inside, Wotan looks over shoulder as he walks toward Valhalla, hearing the Rhinemaidens off in the distance asking for the return of the gold. Can't you shut them up? he asks Loge. Loge turns to the audience and says These gods! Such tawdry people! Nothing good will come of this, I'm sure. Oh, well. Major themes: rapacious capitalism may have negative repercussions; relatives suck; don't trust those crafty gods.

Lyric Opera of Chicago is taking on the Ring for the third time, and in what's quickly becoming the norm for most American opera companies, they're the producing the new cycle piecemeal, one opera at a time over consecutive seasons culminating with an entire run in 2020. Das Rheingold opened the company's season this month, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis and directed by David Pountney, who had a huge artistic success with the company in 2015 with Mieczyslaw Weinberg's The Passenger. Aside from it being a new Ring helmed by an admired creative team, there's a lot of interest in Eric Owens' role debut as Wotan, one of the cycle's three central characters.

Owens pretty much owned the Met's recent Ring directed by Robert Lepage (the one with the notoriously difficult and malfunctioning "machine") with his staggeringly powerful portrayal of Alberich, overshadowing Debra Voigt's long-awaited debut as Brunnhilde and Mark Delavan's largely forgettable Wotan. The Lepage Ring wasn't the first time Owens created a big buzz in a role -- he's had tremendous success as the lead in Porgy and Bess and productions of John Adams' Dr. Atomic, among others, but his turn as Alberich substantially boosted his profile in the opera world, so while any Ring Cycle is news to Wagner devotees, the casting of Owens as Wotan, along with the presence of American soprano Christine Goerke in the central role of Brunnhilde, creates an interest in the Lyric's Ring that's several degrees higher than usual. And let's not fail to mention the unintended but nevertheless immeasurably pleasing irony of having an African-American singer take on one of Wagner's greatest roles.

However, the narrative elements and concision that make Rheingold an appealing stand-alone piece can also make it problematic as a glimpse into what's ahead when opera companies use the staggered approach to creating Rings; designed by Wagner as a prelude of what's to come, it's primarily driven by the actions of two characters, Alberich and Loge, who mostly recede into the background during the remaining operas. Two of the three central characters, Brunnhilde and Siegfried, are nowhere to be found, and in Rheingold the nature and source of Wotan's conflicts (which create the compelling emotional centers of both Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung) are essentially prosaic in their baseness, now especially magnified by the current political climate. That's not to say there aren't opportunities for Wotan to telegraph what's ahead to the audience, but there's precious little of that on view in the Lyric's opening chapter since Owens' Wotan, here at least, lacks gravitas, and more importantly a sense of conscience, shown here in the shockingly savage way he wrests the Ring from Alberich's finger. Maybe that moment is the takeaway for those trying discern the tone of Poutney's production, but if that's the case by the time we get to the Gibichung Hall in Götterdämmerung people will might well be talking about the "Grand-Guignol RIng" and I doubt that's on tap. Still, Pountney's Rheingold places Wotan in the middle of an ensemble, not at the center of it.

That's okay, since placing Alberich or Loge at the center of this particular tale pays off, as we've seen in performances by Owens at the Met and Arnold Bezuyen in the Freyer Ring at LA Opera. The Lyric's Loge is Stefan Margita (increasingly the go-to guy for this role), and he's proven elsewhere (especially in San Francisco) he's capable of bringing an exceptionally high level of lyricism and warmth to the role, which I didn't hear in his voice on the afternoon I attended (October 16). There's nothing vocally or dramatically deficient about Samuel Youn's turn as Alberich, but there's also little that's compelling about it -- even from my seat in the seventh row of the orchestra he often seemed a small presence within the action taking place on Robert Hopkins' extraordinary, steampunk-influenced sets. The net result is a Rheingold that's fascinating to watch but packs little punch when it comes to music and drama (Sir Andrew's conducting was satisfactory -- no more and no less).

But those sets by Hopkins are quite extraordinary, and all the more so because they achieve the opposite of what's supposedly intended. In the program notes Pountney states "our Ring would primarily be an act of narration," and later writes "opera always has two narrators -- the music and the stage, and this is the dichotomy that lies at the heart of all intelligent discussion about the authenticity, or otherwise, of productions," in what reads as an attempt to explain what he calls "our 'naked' narration." But just because this Ring avoids the high tech wizardry of a "machine" and the abstract symbolism of the Freyer Ring, what's on the stage doesn't seem to jibe with the Lyric's intent to present a Ring with a "quieter, more playful, innocent, even naive narrative [that] will fully allow the music its power and the story its purpose."

I interpret what Pountney means by "naked" is an attempt to strip away the artifice of today's often heavily tech and video dependent productions, which is where Achim Freyer was going in the LA Ring, while at the same time trying to avoid that production's more unpopular elements, (its primitivism was misunderstood as being obtuse by many who saw it). Pountney's description sounds like he wants to use Wieland Wagner's 1950s Bayreuth Rings as inspiration, which looked like this in 1951 (left) and 1956 (right):

Weiland Wagner also seemed to be one of Freyer's starting points:

And this is what the Lyric's Rheingold looks like:

It's just a little busy, right? Actually, it's very busy, and it's almost constantly in motion, which makes it marvelous to look at but it overwhelms the singers and the orchestra's "naked narration" to the point where story and characterization become subservient to the set design. That doesn't mean the problem is the set, but rather it's the inability of the singers and Davis' conducting to match its aesthetic grandeur with equal power. There's something slightly off when Fricka (a sensational turn from Tanja Ariane Baumgartner in her American debut) is the most interesting and memorable character on the stage.

The "naked narration" approach, which as Pountney writes, aims to "fully allow the music its power and the story its purpose" can produce dazzling results -- one unforgettable example was San Francisco Opera's 2004 production of La Traviata, a static, staunchly traditional staging that was absolutely riveting because of the performances of its leads (Ruth Ann Swenson, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and Rolando Villazón) and the powerful conducting of Patrick Summers. If this Rheingold had a similar sense of musical dedication and commitment the results would have made it truly remarkable, making the rest of this Ring something to look forward to with an almost uncontainable amount of enthusiasm. As it stands now, the rest is something to look forward to with a sense of hopeful anticipation, and that each new chapter will increasingly solidify the whole endeavor. The pieces are all in place -- Pountney and Davis just need to figure out how to make all that nakedness a little sexier.

The rest of the cast included Diana Newman, Annie Rosen, and Lindsay Ammann as the Rheinemaidens, Laura Wilde as Freia, Wilhem Schwinghammer as Fasolt, Tobais Kehrer as Fafner, Jesse Donner as Froh, Zachary Nelson as Donner, Rodell Rosel as Mime, and Okka Von Der Damerau as Erda.

Top photo (L to R): Annie Rosen, Diana Newman, and Lindsay Ammann as the Rheinemaidens.
Photos of Lyric Opera of Chicago's Ring by Todd Rosenberg Photography.

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