Review: 'Das Rheingold', Chicago Lyric Opera - the beginning of a witty Ring Cycle, October 2016

Das Rheingold, Chicago, 2016

By Terence Watson

The night of Das Rheingold, 5 October 2016 (not the premiere) was my debut in Chicago’s Lyric Theatre. It is a real opera house in the grand old European style. Lots of gilt and red carpet. This production of Das Rheingold heralds an interesting full Ring Cycle in 2020. Most of the entire cast was very strong, with all of them outsinging the underpowered Eric Owens whose voice failed to ring in the traditional Wagnerian heldentenor manner, giving him a kind of tentativeness and lack of authority, especially in comparison with John Tomlinson and Donald McIntyre et al.

The production is dominated by three pairs of three level tapered wooden towers on each side of the stage—partly in the wings. I took it that these are replicas of either the heads of stairs down into mines or the heads of the many mechanical opening bridges that span the Chicago River, although other reviews suggest that the set is supposed to represent an abandoned theatre. At the back of the stage is another huge frame spanning the whole of the back with what looks like a frame for a huge hall. It suggests the steel frames for which Chicago set the standard many decades ago when the idea was developed here of steel framed buildings that allowed open spaces unencumbered by internal columns.

Into this space walk three women who seem to be the Norns, since they appear to be knitting long scarves—or ropes of fate with red wool. They are dressed all in black like old mourning widows, with slightly mad hair. Two of them are carrying what looks like a bigger version of Lady Bracknell's "handbag," but could be a carpetbag of American lore. One of them turns off a standard light which is, for no apparent reason, front stage centre. At that moment, the stage goes dark and the music starts—very well, with those tricky opening low horn notes well delivered. As the music builds, the Norns take four red cords from the towers and appear to hook them to the bag, but, instead, out of the bag emerges a huge blue coloured parachute silk banner, which they haul up into the top of the stage by the red ropes. This gave a very effective and unobtrusive top of the Rhine rippling above the action (the Norns keep it moving during the whole scene). Then six rude mechanicals (apparently called “The Crew” by Director David Pountney) run in from the sides to dance with long banners of the same material that they wave around and interweave - nice, but not really very necessary to underscore the impression of a river already created. However, all the rude mechanicals come to play very important parts in the production as they have to move most of the parts of the set in very complicated, choreographed patterns. They seem to be dressed as early 19thcentury Irish migrant workers, those who helped to make Chicago a great city.


To begin with, they have to manipulate the cantilevered machines—the kind on which movie cameras are often mounted for tracking action from many vantages when making movies. At the ends where the cameras would be, there were small, round platforms on which the Rhinedaughters (Woglinde—Diana Newman; Wellgunde—Annie Rosen; Flosshilde—Lindsay Ammann) cavort and swim and tease Alberich, who arrives without ceremony through a small trapdoor in the floor, with a radioactive symbol on its underside. These dollies seem to be a clever nod to Wagner's premiere of the work, which had the Rhinedaughters riding around on clumsy wooden towers behind scrims - the famous "swimming machines." Here, though, there is no hiding behind scrims or pretence that they really are in the Rhine. Rather, this gives an indication of the general approach of not hiding the stage business or the rude mechanicals who come and go all through the performance. At various times, the "dollies" hold the singers over the pit. After a few minutes, I came to appreciate the purely balletic effects of the singers being swung high and low, back of forth, all the time while the Rhinedaughters tease Alberich.

The Rhinedaughters are dressed in what seems to be 18thcentury women's underwear, but with a long train, to suggest, perhaps, a fishy tail. The singers were also lithe and sexy making it quite believable that Alberich would desire them so strongly. Samuel Youn's Alberich is probably the best I've seen and heard, especially in his hissing, spitting, angry nastiness, with a wonderful ringing baritone voice, and a convincing portrayal of frustrated desire—perhaps only equalled by Warwick Fyfe in the Melbourne Ring Cycle. The way in which the director David Poultney presumably directed Alberich to display his evilness also revealed how evil can seem to be amusing, in that it is hard to understand how someone can be so stupid as to think that their desires and actions are within the realm of the rational or reasonable and that they have any real chance of achieving their warped and dangerous objectives.


This point also suggests how Poultney brought out much humour in the opera. It is after all allegedly Wagner's version of a satyr play, though presented by ancient Greek tragedians after their serious works began. It also made me like this production very much and wish to see the whole Cycle—assuming he can keep up this high standard of interpretation.


The gold is presented as a kind of stylised lotus flower that descends from the flies, opening from a box into a flower with the gold at the centre. It floats above the billowing blue banner of the river. Alberich steals it by tossing one of the Rhinedaughters off her camera dolly and using it to rise up high enough to grab the gold and then disappear backstage, leaving the Rhinedaughters writhing in despair on the stage. The Norns unhook the river so it sinks to the stage, covering the Rhinedaughters who disappear into a trapdoor, with the river following them.


At the same time, a new backdrop arrives with a painting of a distant golden version of the wooden—or it could be metal—set on the stage. Wotan, Fricka and Freia arrive in another very funny touch—on three tier carts carrying their goods and chattels, presumably on their way to moving into Valhalla. Fricka's cart is dominated by a huge ram skull. Wotan's is dominated by what appears to be a small tree—the World Ash Tree??—growing out of a huge potplant holder that has split open, but closer inspection reveals it to be the broken top of a Corinthian?? Column—perhaps a reference to the decline of Wagner’s beloved Greek culture? These two carts give the rude mechanicals more machinery to manipulate in carefully arranged patterns. The gods are dressed in the over-elaborate, slightly comical (especially Wotan's feathered hat) costumes of late 18thcentury aristocracy—perhaps to recall the court of Louis XVI before the French Revolution. Eric Owens as Wotan seemed very uncomfortable in his costume, as if he'd prefer to be in casual clothes. For her part, Tanja Ariane Baumgartner as Fricka wore her gown as if born to it. And she sang a treat. It's not often we get a voice that can handle Fricka's range satisfactorily, and a singer who looks desirable, rather than frumpy or matronly. Oh and Freia (sung very nicely by Laure Wilde) also arrives at this time, on top of another cart, but she is inside a topless cage out of which grows a small, severely pruned apple tree. She is dressed as if she were really a fairy in an early 19th century ballet.


The Opera company’s website explains his mise en scène: “Pountney’s production views the gods in Rheingold early in the opera as a kind of nomadic theater company “from the old days­—Molière or Shakespeare. They’re constantly journeying, but they reach a point where they’re going to build themselves this castle. The end of Rheingold [the entrance of the gods into their new home, Walhalla] is the transition from a nomadic existence into imperial splendor.”


In addition, the website quotes Poultney on the role of “The Crew:” “They’ll be onstage implementing certain traditional theatrical techniques during the performance. Technically speaking, “Rheingold is the most virtuosic of the four operas and careens wildly between different spaces,” notes Pountney. “There are tricks onstage, whether it’s dragons or people floating in the water.” We have three important trap doors—mechanically operated traps that we’ll use throughout the cycle.” The set brings to mind elements of “an old-fashioned wooden theater,” which would have had “proscenia and bridges that can fly in and form a way in which people can move from one place to another.”


Then the giants arrive. One of the towers on each side of the stage is reversed to reveal a huge head on the top, with a singer in each of second level of the tower, down the side of which two huge forearms hang. A very sketchy, but effective suggestion of huge size and power being manipulated by a rather puny mind or ego. The soft-hearted Fasolt was sung by my favourite Wagnerian hunk Wilhelm Schwinghammer, with Fafner sung by another hunky looking bass Tobias Kehrer, but both were made up to look Lord of the Rings non-human creatures. They both sang very well from their towers, which some rude mechanicals had to move around, while others moved the gods' moving carts.


Froh and Donner now arrive on the top of their carts. Froh's is dominated by a huge hand holding a fan (he is the god of the winds!) and he wields a small one himself. Froh was sung by Jesse Donner and Donner (not a typo!) by Zachary Nelson. Poultney also seems to being suggesting that Froh might be gay, since hooked over the struts of the big fan on his cart are rainbow ropes, and he occasionally waves his fan in a rather campy manner. Loge also behaves a little campily at times during his appearances.


When Loge, sung by Stefan Margita, arrives, the acting and singing standards really jump: he dominates the stage every moment he is on it. He's dressed rather like a Barnum & Bailey ringmaster and arrives on a three-wheeler bike that looks as if it must feature in some children's fantasy book (I couldn't track down anything like it online). He has a lovely ringing tenor, more in the English style than the Italian. He treats the whole action as a bit of a joke and occasionally tap dances in his joie de vivre. For his second last aria, lamenting how stupid the gods are and his luck in not being in their company, he pops up next to conductor Andrew Davis in the pit.


During Wotan's and Loge's "negotiations" with the giants, Freia begins to display very affectionate behaviour with Fasolt's forearm, which has become detached from his tower "body" and is now manipulated by a rude mechanical. Fasolt's hand is crooked in such a way that, when he takes her hostage, she fits nicely between his thumb and forefinger. Instead of lumbering off stage, the mechanicals simply turn their towers around so we can no longer see the heads.


Wotan and Loge descend to Nibelheim through the same trapdoor Alberich had used. As we descend, a tower on each side is suddenly filled by Nibelungs, dressed as foundry workers, with menacing welding masks, who beat out the Nibelheim motif as their towers move onto the stage and then out again.


Alberich is now dressed in a gold version of Loge's ringmaster tails and jodhpurs, perhaps to point out not just the parallel between Licht and Schwarz Alberich/Wotan, but also the real cleverness of Loge and the poor imitation of it by Alberich. The Tarnhelm is a hollow model of Youn/Alberich's head, which is slipped over his real head. The dragon and toad are funny big blow up toys inflated by mechanicals hooking airpumps to them. This touch reinforced the idea that Alberich is deluded and stupid, rather than truly evil. In a nice ironic gesture, Alberich has a paperweight in the form of a Rhinedaughter on her dolly on his office desk, perhaps reflecting his present instrumental relation to women.


During this scene, much use is made of three elevators that rise up from the floor. Sometimes, Wotan and Loge use one to "arrive" in Nibelheim, Alberich uses one to "disappear" so he can beat Mime, sometimes the Nibelungen use them to bring up gold (in the form of small Metropolis stylised women), and Alberich disappears into one each time he magically transforms. One also reappears later with Erda in it.


During the ascent from Nibelheim, Poultney has Fasolt's tower and disconcertingly disembodied forearm and hand re-enter, with Freia now caressing and kissing Fasolt's thumb and forefinger as she somewhat erotically enters and leaves the crook of his digits. This moment helps us understand how serious Fasolt is about his attraction to Freia and she to him, but it also suggests that love has no preconceptions and no limitations on its potential recipients or volunteers.


When the trio arrives at the gods' mountaintop, Alberich is wheeled in tied to his office chair and gapes at the ostensible view from this great height that he has never seen before. The Nibelung's deliver the gold via two of the elevators. As the Nibelungs realise Alberich's situation, they become restless, with one of them attacking Alberich, who, with considerable trouble, throws him off. Wotan, though, reveals a very brutal side when he cuts off Alberich's arm off to possess the ring. I think in the Neidhardt Ring Cycle in Adelaide in 2004, Wotan only cut off Alberich's finger.


Alberich delivers a truly chilling curse, thanks to Youn's powerful voice and impressive vocal acting. The Norns re-enter to clean up the blood he has dripped all over the stage. One of them picks up the wastepaper bin that now holds Alberich's arm—she nearly faints before the other two help her off stage. The almost constant presence of the Norns, if that is who they are, fits nicely with Erda’s revelation to Wotan that she uses the Norns to whisper the daily news into his ear as he sleeps—they are clearly very busily involved in everybody’s lives!


The giants return to trade Freia for the Nibelungs' gold. To enable the gold to be piled up to hide Freia from Fasolt's view, the mechanicals pull in an elevator conveyor belt and she returns to her cage. The reason for its toplessness now becomes evident—the gold is dumped into the cage until she is hidden, except for that little gap the Tarnhelm fills. When Fafner demands the ring as well, and Wotan refuses, there is another funny moment with the Norns. They appear in the back corner of the set hammering on the floor/earth to summon Erda, who arrives underneath them in one of the elevators Alberich has used to bring the gold ransom to Wotan. This time, though, there seems to be the root of a wisdom tooth hanging from the ceiling of the elevator. Instead, I guess it was meant to represent the roots of the World Ash Tree. Erda was sung very strongly by a singer with the lovely Wagnerian-sounding name of Okka von der Damerau. Her costume made her look a little like Helen Carter Bonham in "Alice in the Looking Glass."


The final scene of the gods attempting to enter Valhalla is very funny—even vaudevillian. All of the gods, except Freia, who is vigorously resisting being co-opted back into the gods collective, are now dressed in white and gold capes, as if for a high religious occasion or coronation—and to top it off huge silly white feathered hats again—the imperial look Poultney mentioned above. Freia is finally coerced into dressing up and joining the collective. Then some mechanicals pull out of the floor a series of ropes coloured like the rainbow and hook them to a bar under the entrance to Valhalla. For three times, as the gods attempt to process formally into Valhalla in a kind of dance-march, they are interrupted by the Rhinedaughters calling for the return of their gold. Wotan, in particular, is comically frustrated by their calls and in exasperation (of a thwarted thespian) almost throws his hat at them when they suddenly emerge from the same trapdoor into which they had disappeared in scene 1. Finally, the gods are able to "climb" the rope bridge (actually just walking between the ropes) until they are lifted up on one of the elevators at which point the curtain descends, leaving them suspended in mid-air.


The end was greeted with rapturous applause on both the occasions I saw the production. I strongly feel that the production is a worthy start to what could be a very interesting interpretation of the whole Cycle and am planning for a return to see a full Cycle in 2020. The Ring cycle is, apparently, a coproduction by Lyric Opera of Chicago and Teatro Real, Madrid, so, if you prefer Madrid to Chicago, then you might like to keep an eye on the Teatro Real’s calendar.


The orchestra under Andrew Davis played very well, though not as flawlessly as the Met orchestra under Simon Rattle for the Stemme/Skelton Tristan und IsoldeI had experienced twice in the preceding fortnight. The acoustics of the hall are very good, clean but warm. The whole production was intelligent, making the jokey aspects of the work stand out, without detracting from the overall seriousness of Wagner’s indictment of the gods, except Freia, of course.


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