British director David Pountney has a very clear goal for his new production of Richard Wagner’s four-opera “The Ring of the Nibelungs” at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Minimizing the heavy psychological and philosophical baggage that has piled up around the “Ring” over the past 150-plus years, he wants to present it as basically a rip-roaring good yarn about gods and mortals, love and lust, and above all, a dangerously fatal greed for power and riches. Each opera is a chapter in the larger story, each of the four having its own unique style and atmosphere.
“Siegfried,” the third opera in the cycle, had its debut Saturday at the Lyric Opera House. For better or worse, Pountney sees Wagner’s chronicle of a young hero growing into adulthood as a brightly colored kiddie’s fairy tale. At times the staging is confusingly silly, at times genuinely, and appropriately, funny or scary or touching. Musically, however, this is a radiant “Ring,” with a strong cast confidently riding the surging waves of Lyric’s vibrant orchestra led by conductor Sir Andrew Davis, Lyric’s music director.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’ ‘Siegfried’
When: 1 p.m. Wednesday and Nov. 11; 6 p.m. Nov. 16
Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker
The role of Siegfried can be a graveyard for tenors, requiring hours of full-out, energetic vocals topped off by a sweepingly romantic, ecstatic love duet. Singing Wagner’s young hero for the first time, German tenor Burkhard Fritz brought a sturdy, supple voice to the role. He sounded as fresh and emotionally involved in his Act III wooing of Brunnhilde (Christine Goerke) as he did in Act I trading insults with his surrogate father, the cunning Nibelung dwarf Mime (Matthias Klink).
American bass-baritone Eric Owens returned as Lyric’s riveting Wotan, the chief of the gods whose lust for world dominion sets the whole tragic story in motion. Owens doesn’t have a booming bass-baritone; it is the quietly commanding, charismatic authority of his dark-hued voice that draws us to him. Wotan knows his kingdom will soon collapse, but disguised as the mysterious Wanderer, he moves into the mortal realm, deploying his waning powers to head off the inevitable. In a confrontation with Mime, Wotan’s long, steady melodies cut through the dwarf’s nervous jabber with the slow, calm resolve of a mighty, ice-breaking ship.
Klink’s Mime was a malevolent marvel. His strong tenor had a constant, singing undercurrent, even when barking out orders to the rebellious Siegfried. Whining about the ungrateful boy, wheedling to regain the riches Wotan stole from the Nibelungs, Klink dispatched Wagner’s long, twisting lines with the sinister ease of an experienced con man.
Amid the dominating male voices, soprano Diana Newman provided a flash of light as the bright-voiced Forest Bird, and mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller summoned an enticing glimpse of underworld shadows as the earth goddess Erda. But women are in short supply in “Siegfried.” So when Brunnhilde finally appears in the closing scene, awakened from sleep by Siegfried’s kiss, her salute to the sun can’t help but pack a dramatic punch.
Goerke, the Brunnhilde of Lyric’s “Ring” cycle, took Wagner’s exultant declamation far beyond mere drama. Her clear yet sumptuous soprano poured out effortlessly. Plunging to anguished depths, it conveyed Brunnhilde’s despair over her lost powers as Wotan’s banished Valkyrie daughter. And soaring to the opera house rafters, her ringing top notes glistened with delight at her new-found role as Siegfried’s beloved.
If only the production itself, originally designed by the late Johan Engels and overseen for Lyric by Robert Innes Hopkins, were so consistently compelling. Pountney sees Siegfried not as an adolescent itching to experience the larger world, but as a literally overgrown baby. Wearing a grubby polo shirt and long, baggy shorts, Siegfried clambers into a gigantic crib and drags a rag doll around with him. Mime’s hut in Act I is a vast nursery, with childish drawings of dragons and flowers on the wall and oversized alphabet blocks scattered around. With her pinafore and hair puffed below each ear, Brunnhilde looked as girlish as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.”
If Siegfried is an overgrown baby, his curiosity about the world and his passion for Brunnhilde are little more than frivolous boyhood adventures. But Brunnhilde can’t possibly be his girlish counterpart. Until incurring Wotan’s wrath, she was a warrior goddess, leader of the Valkyries, Wotan’s favorite daughter and trusted lieutenant. In the final scene, trying to make sense of their new-found feelings, Siegfried and Brunnhilde retreat to separate open-sided rooms, their ceilings lined with brightly colored balloons. The room could make sense for Siegfried, a place to bid farewell to childhood. But Brunnhilde is mourning the loss of immense power and status. Balloons as her playthings in the gods’ Valhalla? Not likely.
Some production details are inspired, however. Fafner the dragon, sung with sepulchral menace by bass Patrick Guetti, is truly frightening. An inflatable monster with livid green eyes and giant jaws, he has a fierce, purple head and lashing tail that fill Lyric’s vast stage. When Siegfried fashions his magic sword, having the brightly colored components for his forge arrive in cartons like oversized toys from Amazon is a witty touch.
The staging may leave you scratching your head, but there can be no doubt about the production’s musical value. This is a “Siegfried” will worth hearing.