at Lyric Opera

After 21 years Chicago operagoers have a chance to see Lyric mount its second Ring cycle, presented over four years like the first (1971-1974). “Der Ring des Nibelungen” has always been so intimidating to audiences that there are whole volumes devoted to acquainting the novice listener with this monumental work. Though there are many guides to the Ring, Das Rheingold, the first episode, in a sense constitutes Wagner’s guide. Here the motivations that drive the story are revealed. More important, most of the musical phrases associated with persons, things, and emotions are heard in their most basic form, providing a musical lexicon for the rest of the work.

Though Chicago is not exactly a desert for the dedicated Wagnerian, Lyric’s historically Italianate leanings have all too often left one a little dry. As far as I know, the only Wagner productions we’ve been able to see other than the 70s cycle are Die Walkure, in ’56 and ’60, and Das Rheingold, in some 1983 CSO concert performances.

The one-act Rheingold is both the shortest and the longest of Wagner’s works: the shortest in total running time, but the longest uninterrupted stretch of music in the Wagnerian catalog. Musically, Lyric’s production offers very little to quibble with. Unlike most operas, the action is not dominated by a few principals–there are no starring roles in the usual sense. Nor is there a chorus. Alberich, Wotan, Loge, and Fricka share a lot of the limelight, but Fafner, Fasolt, Donner, and the rest of the crew all have big moments at the footlights. Ekkehard Wlaschiha is strong and menacing both physically and vocally as the evil dwarf Alberich, who sets things in motion with his theft of the eponymous gold, though perhaps not as dark as Gustav Neidlinger’s portrayal a generation ago.

One of the nice features of Rheingold is that the characters of Loge and Mime often provide employment for the ugly tenor voices that are so much more common than the heroic sort. But Barry McCauley’s Loge has an almost heldentenor timbre. He really could sneer it up a bit more and not sound so noble. Dennis Petersen’s Mime could also use a bit more whining. (How often does one get a chance to complain that people sing too well?)

Tatiana Troyanos was musically solid as Fricka, though she seemed a little insecure with some of the text. She has an unusual approach to the character, playing her in a highly emotional manner that contrasts with the usual ice-queen portrayal. The voice of seasoned veteran James Morris seemed a bit dry in places, though this skilled singer always delivered on-the-money notes. Worthy of special mention was Bryn Terfel, whose full-bodied Donner makes one think it won’t be too long before he’s essaying Wotan. Matthias Holle’s Fasolt was entirely correct musically, but his dramatic interpretation didn’t garner the sympathy this contradictory character often does. Jaakko Ryhanen sang the more straightforward black-hat role of Fafner with appropriate nastiness. Nancy Maultsby’s mezzo is a bit light for Erda, but she gave the audience little to complain about. Better-than-competent vocal performances by the Rhine Maidens (Joan Gibbons, Emily Manhart, and Robynne Redmon), Freia (Hillevi Martinpelto), and Froh (Mark Baker) rounded out the show.

In the pit there was a shaky start with the difficult arpeggios of the opening bars, but Zubin Mehta quickly got the situation well in hand and husbanded the orchestra’s strength so that it had enough in reserve for Wagner’s thunderous finale.

As is unfortunately so often the case, not only at Lyric but at many houses around the world, the glories of the music were offset by banalities and buffooneries onstage. Of the greatest works of the greatest composers, none offers more scope for the directing and designing emptyheads of our age than the Ring. Before World War II, productions were heavy on traditional Teutonic mythic trappings. In the early 50s producer Wieland Wagner broke with that tradition, for two reasons. First, just as the Allied occupation forces had been charged with the “de-Nazification” of Germany, the new Bayreuth style was aimed at “de-Germanizing” the Ring and making it more palatable to both the occupation authorities and the international arts community. Second, and perhaps even more important, this Spartan style was dirt cheap. But by the early 70s the formerly shocking Bayreuth style had become orthodoxy. Ever since, designers and directors have given up even trying to compete on aesthetic merit and have instead sought notice by outraging the sensibilities of their audiences. The social-realist Chereau Ring at Bayreuth in ’76 is the best known of this shallow school, but numerous productions in provincial European houses far exceeded its shock value.

It no longer seems possible to outrage an audience. And having run out of shockers, contemporary designers, apparently unsure what to do, seem to be consciously seeking incoherence and irrelevance. John Conklin’s sets are deliberately unrelated to the Ring myth–or to anything else. He might as well have sent the stagehands to the warehouse with instructions to grab a few truckloads of anything that came to hand. This is not set design but the abdication of the designer.

The emptiness of Conklin’s conception is matched by the studied quirkiness of August Everding’s direction. Where to begin? The absurdity of the Nibelungs’ subservience to Alberich before the forging of the ring? Froh’s yo-yo? The unintentionally silly shadow show in lieu of Alberich’s magic transformations? The unseemly manhandling of Wotan by the other gods when they want him to yield the ring? (This is the king of the gods, after all.) All I can say is the direction and sets are equally pointless and therefore well matched.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.