New Lyric 'Rheingold' filled with imaginative flourishes

 
 
Updated 10/4/2016 6:03 AM
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  • Norse god Wotan (American bass-baritone Eric Owens) tries to wrangle out of a contract with the giant builders of Valhalla in the Lyric Opera Chicago's new production of Richard Wagner's "Das Rheingold."

    Norse god Wotan (American bass-baritone Eric Owens) tries to wrangle out of a contract with the giant builders of Valhalla in the Lyric Opera Chicago's new production of Richard Wagner's "Das Rheingold." Courtesy of Todd Rosenberg Photography

  • The dwarf Alberich (South Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn) renounces love in order to steal the Rhinemaidens' all-powerful gold in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of Richard Wagner's "Das Rheingold."

    The dwarf Alberich (South Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn) renounces love in order to steal the Rhinemaidens' all-powerful gold in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of Richard Wagner's "Das Rheingold." Courtesy of Todd Rosenberg Photography

  • The dwarf Alberich (South Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn, left) enslaves his brother, Mime (Rodell Rosel, on floor), and the other Nibelung dwarfs in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of Richard Wagner's "Das Rheingold."

    The dwarf Alberich (South Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn, left) enslaves his brother, Mime (Rodell Rosel, on floor), and the other Nibelung dwarfs in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of Richard Wagner's "Das Rheingold." Courtesy of Todd Rosenberg Photography

  • The enslaved Nibelung dwarfs are forced to mine and manufacture gold underground in director David Pountney's new production of Richard Wagner's "Das Rheingold" for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

    The enslaved Nibelung dwarfs are forced to mine and manufacture gold underground in director David Pountney's new production of Richard Wagner's "Das Rheingold" for the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Courtesy of Todd Rosenberg Photography

  • The earth goddess Erda (German mezzo-soprano Okka von der Damerau) is summoned by the three Norns to warn Wotan (American bass-baritone Eric Owens) about Alberich's curse on the stolen ring in the Lyric Opera Chicago's new production of Richard Wagner's "Das Rheingold."

    The earth goddess Erda (German mezzo-soprano Okka von der Damerau) is summoned by the three Norns to warn Wotan (American bass-baritone Eric Owens) about Alberich's curse on the stolen ring in the Lyric Opera Chicago's new production of Richard Wagner's "Das Rheingold." Courtesy of Todd Rosenberg Photography

The Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its 62nd season Saturday with a new production of "Das Rheingold." But it's essentially a preview.

"Das Rheingold" is the first of four interlinked operas in "Der Ring des Nibelungen," Richard Wagner's 1876 epic inspired by Norse mythology. Other Ring Cycle operas "Die Walküre," "Siegfried" and "Götterdämmerung" will debut piecemeal in subsequent seasons.

Audiences will have to wait until 2020 to see British director David Pountney's full "Ring" realization when the Lyric stages three complete cycles. But things are off to an assured and ambitious start with "Das Rheingold."

Pountney's overall concept is an imaginative love letter to the illusions and inner workings of a 19th-century theater. Working in tandem with set designers Johan Engels and Robert Innes Hopkins, Pountney creates a backstage framework where stage "magic" is revealed in full view.

The imagery is dazzling from the start as three seen-it-all seamstress "Norns" conjure a giant blue sheet to unfurl out of a Mary Poppins-style carpetbag to represent the mighty Rhine River. Then a trio of playful and posh Rhinemaidens (Diana Newman, Annie Rosen and Lindsay Ammann) bob and swirl "underwater" thanks to crane contraptions that look like they were patented in the 1880s.

The giants Fafner (Tobias Kehrer, with cap in left tower) and Fasolt (Wilhelm Schwinghammer) demand payment for building the fortress Valhalla from the gods Fricka (Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, left on stage floor), Freia (Laura Wilde, in white) and Wotan (Eric Owens) in director David Pountney's new production of Richard Wagner's "Das Rheingold" for the Lyric Opera Chicago.
The giants Fafner (Tobias Kehrer, with cap in left tower) and Fasolt (Wilhelm Schwinghammer) demand payment for building the fortress Valhalla from the gods Fricka (Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, left on stage floor), Freia (Laura Wilde, in white) and Wotan (Eric Owens) in director David Pountney's new production of Richard Wagner's "Das Rheingold" for the Lyric Opera Chicago. - Courtesy of Todd Rosenberg Photography

Pountney's storytelling is swift and straightforward as we watch devious dwarfs, aggrieved giants and haughty gods all try to out-scheme each other to gain control of fortune and an all-powerful magic ring that also carries a deadly curse. "Das Rheingold" also revels with its high-tech elements like Fabrice Kebour's color-saturated lighting design, though the instantly inflatable dragon was more laughable than scary.

Not everyone will understand Pountney's notion of making the Norse gods into traveling circus and vaudeville players longing for a permanent home. But Pountney gets across how out-of-date the gods are, since these self-important tragedians sport finery that would have been fashionable in previous centuries (a big credit to the detailed and elaborate work of costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca).

There isn't a weak link in the ensemble, which is full of powerhouse vocalists who are also masters of characterization. As the king of the gods, American bass-baritone Eric Owens makes for a majestic Wotan who is too easily manipulated by the trickster fire god Loge (the suave Slovakian tenor Štefan Margita).

The Rhinemaiden sisters Wellgunde (Annie Rosen, left), Woglinde (Diana Newman, center) and Flosshilde (Lindsay Ammann) unwisely tell the dwarf Alberich (Samuel Youn, on stage floor) about the powers contained within the gold they guard in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of Richard Wagner's "Das Rheingold."
The Rhinemaiden sisters Wellgunde (Annie Rosen, left), Woglinde (Diana Newman, center) and Flosshilde (Lindsay Ammann) unwisely tell the dwarf Alberich (Samuel Youn, on stage floor) about the powers contained within the gold they guard in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of Richard Wagner's "Das Rheingold." - Courtesy of Todd Rosenberg Photography

As the thieving dwarf Alberich, South Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn makes an auspicious Lyric debut. A hearty contingent of outstanding German singers are also new to Chicago, including Tanja Ariane Baumgartner as Fricka, Wilhelm Schwinghammer and Tobias Kehrer as the giants Fasolt and Fafner and Okka von der Damerau as the earth spirt Erda.

Sir Andrew Davis fleetly conducted the Lyric Opera Orchestra, with only a couple instances of Wagner's thick orchestrations overpowering the singers.

The ultimate unveiling of the gods' Valhalla fortress in the finale unashamedly panders to Chicago civic pride. But if the next three operas are equally staged with brilliance and panache as "Das Rheingold," there will be plenty to be proud about with the Windy City's new Ring Cycle.

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