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Lyric’s ‘Ring’ creative team not quite ready to share their vision

BY ANDREW PATNER | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA

With his trademark mutton chops and windswept hairstyle now gray, at 67 protean British opera director David Pountney can evoke the titanic composer-librettist-director-designer Richard Wagner.

Pountney’s enthusiasm, casual air and even joyfulness in talking about his new falling-into-place cycle of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung” for Lyric Opera of Chicago — which will run over a four-year period, 2016-2020 — make it clear, though, that the evocation is physical only, not one of personality or character.

In a press meeting Tuesday in a backstage rehearsal room at the Civic Opera House, Pountney and other members of his creative team gave a sort of non-preview preview of the upcoming major project — only the third Ring in Lyric’s long history and just the company’s second new production of the four-opera masterwork.

“Painstakingly detailed and realized models” — separate ones for each of the four operas which were written over a quarter of a century period — were “just on the other side” of a black curtain behind Pountney and his colleagues, the stage director said. But they had yet to be presented to general director Anthony Freud or the company as a whole and Lyric has not decided what images they might release or when they would do so.

One had the sense that Pountney, still stagestruck after nearly 50 years of working in music theater, is ambivalent about sharing what might be best as a set of surprises for future audiences.

“An audience should not come to this work — or any opera — with a set of preconceptions. It’s fine to explore the folk tale or political backgrounds beforehand,” he said, suggesting the Tolkein fantasy novels for the former and George Bernard Shaw’s “delightfully shortwinded” book “The Perfect Wagnerite” for the latter. “But our job is to help you use your imagination, not to tell you what things mean before you see them.”

The unseen sets are the work of a major designer, Johan Engels, who died suddenly and unexpectedly last month at 62, just as he finished the designs for the Lyric “Ring.” In answer to a question, English model maker Matt Rees, who worked for and with Engels for five years, gave a sense of the excitement — “challenge and joy” — of realizing the South African’s drawings and concepts in three dimensions.

Pountney made it clear that the team will eventually want someone to step into the lead design role. “A work that unrolls over five years has to change,” he said. “We’ll need someone who brings that design eye and authority to the project.”

Andrew Patner is a local freelance writer.