New Lyric 'Rheingold' filled with imaginative flourishes
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.
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 But Pountney gets across how out-of-date the gods are, since these self-important tragedians sport finery that would have been fashionable in previous centuries (a big credit to the detailed and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).
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.
"Das Rheingold"★ ★ ★ ★
Location: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago, (312) 827-5600, lyricopera.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 5, 13 and 22; 2 p.m. Oct. 9 and 16
Tickets: $20-$299; Sung in German with projected English translations
Parking: Area pay garages and limited metered street parking
Rating: For general audiences