Lyric Opera's Gala Opener 2016 Review - Larger-Than-Life "Das Rheingold" Glitters

Lyric Opera of Chicago begins its 62nd season Photo: Judith Singer

From the moment the orchestral prelude begins on a nearly bare stage to its conclusion four minutes later of a minimalist envisioning of dappled light beneath the surface of the Rhine River, you know you're in for something special. Lyric Opera of Chicago has opened its 62nd season with the first of Richard Wagner's four-opera Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold, featuring stunning visuals and exceptional performances.


Opening night guests enjoying the glamor of the annual gala Photo: Judith Singer

While the lightest, shortest and most conversational of the Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold maintains Wagnerian hallmarks that endured and sharpened as his musical composition matured over the sixteen years he wrote the four-part epic's score; sweeping orchestral melodies surmounted by less complex, more leisurely vocal parts, an unhurried storytelling pace and the use of leitmotifs to support and enhance storytelling. For those interested in experiencing grand opera in person but fearing heavy marathon productions, this setting of Das Rheingold may just be the perfect entry point.


Oversized avatars of giants and gods create a grand sense of scale Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Once the singers take the stage, though, it's clear that this is not the Rheingold you might be expecting. Tall wooden gantries surround the performance space on-stage, and serve a variety of purposes, from hand-cranked supports for the billowing blue silk hovering above the singers' heads to multi-tiered structures depicting truly enormous giants. A trio of hand-balanced cranes "float" the Rhinemaidens around their beloved lump of gold. When the gods enter the stage, they arrive as a procession of massive floats; avatars for their personas creating a larger-than-life caricature of each. From the literalism of Wotan's three ravens and Freia's golden apple tree to the more esoteric Orientalist pastiche of Froh's nautical chariot, the avatars follow the singers around the stage, inviting the audience to imagine the true scale of the gods.


Rhinemaidens Woglinde (Diana Newman), Wellgunde (Annie Rosen) and Flosshilde (Lindsay Ammann) "swim" beneath the Rhine on manned cranes Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The performances are, simply, stunning. Diana Newman (Woglinde), Annie Rosen (Wellgunde) and Lindsay Ammann (Flosshilde) enchant with silky tones and a superlative blend, which is so important for this trio which humorist Anna Russell has referred to as "a sort of aquatic Andrews Sisters." They writhe on their moving platforms with fluid grace and tease their nemesis, Alberich the thief, with honeyed cruelty.


Samuel Youn (Alberich) and Štefan Margita (Loge) were true standouts in this excellent production Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The scene-stealers of this production are unquestionably Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn as Alberich the dwarf and Slovakian tenor Štefan Margita as Loge, demigod of fire and the Germanic variation of the Scandinavian trickster god, Loki.


Samuel Youn (Alberich), having transformed himself into a dragon, in an excellent example of this production's visually striking design choices Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Youn, in his American and role debuts, embodies the dwarf Alberich with a bluster and eventually sadism that never interferes with his exceptional voice. While some in the role might sacrifice vocal technique in an attempt to convey Alberich's repugnance, Youn only occasionally slips into a straight tone, but never presses his voice into ugliness. Instead, he relies on adept physical and facial expressiveness. Seeing his debut as what might be a definitive Alberich is an experience not to be missed.


Štefan Margita (Loge), on his steampunk, fire-fueled bicycle, is ready to bring the chaos Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Margita, returning to the Lyric in a role he has honed at a half-dozen major opera houses, shines as Loge. In an already talky opera – one entirely devoid of set pieces or arias – Loge's vocals are even more conversational and depict his tricksy nature exceptionally well. Margita, with a clear tenor voice filled with expression and humor, embodies the role with spirit and energy, never letting the audience forget that he has an agenda all his own. His surface is sly humor, but beneath roils a vengeful malice that Margita lets us peek at from time to time.


Eric Owens (Wotan) and Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Fricka) Photo: Todd Rosenberg

In his first portrayal of Wotan, American bass-baritone Eric Owens returns to the Lyric to bring the necessary gravity to the role of the king of all gods, but might have benefited from some amplification, as his capable voice was often overwhelmed by the large orchestra, particularly in the lower parts of his range.

Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, in her American debut as Wotan's long-suffering wife Fricka, demonstrates a powerful mezzo-soprano voice that never strays into harshness, as the role of nagging wife and political schemer can sometimes tempt singers into. She holds the stage with authority and the occasional touch of sly humor.


Laura Wilde (Freia), backed by mime actors/stagehands Photo: Andrew Cioffi

As Fricka's three siblings, Laura Wilde (Freia), Jesse Donner (Froh) and Zachary Nelson (Donner) ably personify the gods embroiled in unwanted conflicts instigated by their arrogant brother-in-law and an underworld thief.  


American soprano Laura Wilde captivates as Freia, goddess of youth, beauty and love. With a clear, shimmering voice and the acting chops to carry off the unlikely predicament of having to appear to be in love with an enormous prop hand, Wilde makes it easy for the audience to believe the giant Fasolt has fallen in love with her.

American tenor Jesse Donner makes a capable Froh, god of spring, bringing a lovely tone and authentic concern over the fate of his captive sister. The oddly juxtaposed Orientalist features of his avatar – Japanese, Turkish, European and maritime – appear to imply aspects of his character that the libretto does not, but their themes are not yet clear. They will remain unclear, alas, as the character does not return.

American baritone Zachary Nelson, in his Lyric debut as Donner, god of thunder, makes what he can of an underwritten role whose only real purpose is to create a thunderstorm late in the production to literally clear the air. Nelson makes a striking figure with long wavy hair silhouetted against a stark background wielding his mighty hammer, and his voice makes us wish we could hear more from him.


Variety in minimalist set design comes from clever use of all dimensions Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Music direction by the supremely knowledgeable and expressive Sir Andrew Davis brought the orchestra and vocalists together in a manner both unified and competitive, in the spirit of Wagner's composition. Under his baton, the 95-member orchestra – including four percussionists in metalworker costumes, hammering at ear-splitting anvils onstage – create great swells and ebbs of sound, frequently rivaling the singers for delivery of important melodic motives, sweeping the audience away into a dreamlike fantasy.


Director David Pountney, understanding fully what he describes as "the heady, seductive hallucinatory power of (Wagner's) music to carry you through his story in a state of narcotic submission," has complemented that sublime score with a complex, well-timed and engrossing visual spectacle as well.  His focus on the empty stage as an important medium to convey personal stories is well represented in the execution of the set, costume and lighting designers.


Making clever use of trapdoors, colored lights, smoke and the ever-present wooden gantries, set design allowed for minimalist but effective transitions between heavenly, earthly, watery and underground realms in this mythic tale. The mishmash of styles, from steampunk and early industrial to 18th century court fashion and beyond, should seem mismatched and jarring, but instead presented as commentary on each character's nature or environment, the choices are intriguing and provide yet another opportunity to understand the characters outside the confines of the libretto and score. Costume and set design in this case are truly leitmotifs of their own, and enhance the experience rather than distracting.


Don't miss the 2016-17 season, Photo: Rick Christian

There are precious few showings this month, so grab your tickets while you can, and be sure to arrive on time. There is no intermission and no seating after the prelude has begun.

Das Rheingold runs through October 22, 2016.

Tickets are $17 to $269

2016/2017 Productions and Tickets

Lyric Opera of Chicago
20 N Upper Wacker Dr.
Chicago, IL 60606

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