There is something about the operas of Richard Wagner that brings out the master builder in directors and designers. Maybe it is their dense mythic underpinnings which draw on Norse and pre-Christian German legends, and the sense that gods and goddesses must loom larger on stage than mere mortals. Or maybe it is the music itself, which often can sound like a giant wash of sound and fury, punctuated by arias that bear the aura of proclamations.
Whatever the reason, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of “Das Rheingold” — the opening salvo in the company’s four-year Ring Cycle project culminating in 2020 — is monumental in scale. And it makes elaborate use of the theater’s recently enhanced stage, including three new lifts, a turntable and 16 new individually motorized lines that can move sets or people into the air.
For this tale of power and greed, freedom and captivity, and love, lust, betrayal and opportunism, director David Pountney and original set designer Johan Engels (the masterful South African scenic artist who died in November 2014, leaving behind most of the designs for this opera, though credit is now shared with Robert Innes Hopkins) have seen to it that everything feels larger-than-life. It is chilling at many points, full of splendor at others, and at moments comically mechanized. This is life as a vast spectacle of desire and treachery — alternately eye-poppingly beautiful and fearsome, and a sort of industrial revolution all its own.
Take, for example, the three Rhinemaidens who guard the ever-contentious hunk of glowing gold lodged at the bottom of the Rhine River, where they live. Woglinde (Diana Newman), Wellgunde (Annie Rosen) and Flosshilde (Lindsay Ammann) arrive perched on steely cranes from which they not only sing with great beauty, but move seductively like veteran aerial dancers as they teasingly flirt with the Nibelung dwarf Alberich (Samuel Youn, a terrific actor as well as singer), who lusts after them. (Take that Cirque du Soleil!) Finally realizing he has no chance — and learning that the man who renounces love and forges a ring from the gold will control the world — Alberich goes for the gold, and sets in motion the destruction of both himself and others.
‘DAS RHEINGOLD’ Recommended When: Through Oct. 22 Where: Lyric Opera Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Tickets: $34 – $299 Info: (312) 827-5600; www.lyricopera.org Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with no intermission
From the Rhine it’s off to Valhalla (“hall of the slain”), where Wotan, King of the Gods (bass-baritone Eric Owens, in an understated, somewhat remote portrayal) is reveling in the completion of his magnificent palace. (Spoiler alert: That kingdom is seen only at the end of the opera when it cleverly evokes a multi-screen version of Jules Guerin’s famous fire curtain for the Lyric that depicts the parade from “Aida.”) Wotan earlier made a dirty little bargain with Fasolt (the sensational Wilhelm Schwinghammer) and Fafner (the excellent Tobias Kehrer), the two giants who built the palace. Encased in giant wheeled towers, these brothers are also embodied by enormous mask-like heads and gargantuan hands that are set in motion by the team of “movers” who animate much of this production.
The bargain? The builders’ payment would be Freia (Laura Wilde, oddly goofy in her portrayal), greatly desired for her cultivation of golden apples, which ensure the gods’ eternal youth. Freia also happens to be the sister of Wotan’s wife, Fricka (mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner in an aptly imperious turn), who went along with the deal because she believed a grand palace would keep her husband from philandering. But now the reality of it all is setting in, and Loge (formidable vocal and acting work by tenor Stefan Margita), the demigod of fire who is Wotan’s top strategist, heads out on a mission to Alberich’s subterranean kingdom with a plan to save Freia and stave off the aging of the gods.
What he finds there is a hellish place where Alberich enslaves his brother, Mime (moving work by Rodell Rosel), along with many laborers forced to mine ever more gold. (Four onstage percussionists on anvils drive this scene, adding power to the scores of superb musicians in the pit seamlessly conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.) There is more, but suffice it to say that Alberich is undone, and Wotan is ultimately pressured by the earth-goddess Erda (Okka Von Der Damerau) to give up his gold ring or suffer the curse that comes with it.
If the production’s visual grandeur, with all its phantasmagorical stagecraft, seems to get top billing here, it is because the eye candy often eclipses the demanding, expertly delivered vocal work, even as it clarifies and enhances the storytelling. “Das Rheingold” (performed here, quite painlessly, without an intermission) is the shortest of the four Ring Cycle operas and adheres fully to Wagner’s sense of “Gesamtkunstwerk” (the total work of art), with theatricality taking the lead. The question for the remainder of the Cycle might well be: How can we top this?