BWW Review: Wagner's Music Shines in DAS RHEINGOLD

BWW Review: Wagner's Music Shines in DAS RHEINGOLD

Lyric Opera has launched its 2016-17 season with a new "Ring" cycle, beginning with DAS RHEINGOLD, and with one new production scheduled each season through 2020: "Die Walkure" in 2017; "Siegfried" in 2018: and "Gotterdammerung" in 2019. In spring 2020, the full cycle will be presented three times over the course of three weeks.

An ambitious project to be sure.

Longtime operagoers are no doubt thrilled about a new cycle, especially those for whom the music is paramount. Lyric's music director Sir Andrew Davis' deft hand ushers in the double-basses' low E-flat, grabbing our attention straightaway. The sound swells up from the pit as the stark blue water of the Rhine River is unfurled across the stage. Instrumental voices add depth to the chord, as the ebb and flow of the river is depicted. It's a stunningly beautiful opening sequence that hopefully portends what we can expect in the subsequent installments.

For opera newbies or infrequent patrons, the "Ring" cycle is an intriguing opportunity to immerse yourselves in an epic experience -- something akin to reading the "Harry Potter" or "Lord of the Rings" series, savoring each singular story, then eagerly anticipating the next installment.

The first of the four operas in Richard Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" can be boiled down into an old adage: "Money can't buy happiness."

That's DAS RHEINGOLD in a nutshell, but the basic plot summary is this:

There's gold at the bottom of the Rhine, guarded by three Rhinemaidens, Woglinde (Diana Newman), Wellgunde (Annie Rosen) and Flosshilde (Lindsay Ammann). The hideous dwarf Alberich (Samuel Youn) seeks love among the ladies, who reject him but not before they disclose the secret to earning untold riches -- that whoever renounces love forever and manages to snag the gold will pretty much rule the world. Alberich goes for it and succeeds. Meanwhile, two giants Fasolt (Wilhelm Schwinghammer) and Fafner (Tobias Kehrer), finish building a palace for Wotan (Eric Owens), ruler of the gods, but Wotan doesn't want to pay them what he promised: his wife's sister, Freia (Laura Wilde), whose golden apples are the key to eternal youth. Loge (Stefan Margita), Wotan's righthand man, must come up with an alternative form of payment. He's heard the story of Alberich's gold ... ding ding! They will steal the gold, give it to the giants and Freia will be free.

There are a lot of moving parts in an opera, so knowing the plot points going in is essential if you are to absorb everything it has to offer, and director David Pountney gives us a lot to take in. Here is a list of reasons you will enjoy this production.

1. The Rhinemaidens. They appear at the beginning, their carefree joyousness as pure as their flowy white gowns; and then again at the end, when their sublime trio of voices turns into a brokenhearted melancholy, full of despair and regret.

2. The Stagehands. These background actors are as fascinating to watch as any of the main action. They perform double-duty, seamlessly maneuvering scenery -- from the three cranes moving the Rhinemaidens as they "swim," to the handling of the giants' unwieldy limbs, to becoming temporary percussionists while portraying steam-pinkish industrial factory workers.

3. The Music. If you closed your eyes, sat back in your seat and just listened to the music, it would still be worth the price of admission.

4. Alberich. Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn makes his American debut with this role, and performs splendidly. He's as good an actor as he is singer, managing to bring just a hint of pathos to the repugnant Nibelung troll.

BWW Review: Wagner's Music Shines in DAS RHEINGOLD
Stefan Margita as Loge

5. Loge. Program notes indicate Slovakian tenor Stefan Margita has made this a signature role. You know you're in for a treat the minute he rolls across the stage on his oversized red tricycle sporting a wily grin and bug-eye spectacles. He is the whimsical glue that holds the story together.

6. Giants: The wooden scaffold contraptions topped with enormous heads are quite the spectacle, but thankfully they don't overshadow the work of the actual humans who give voice to the characters.

7. Erda. Okka Von Der Damerau also makes her American operatic debut with this performance and is the one singer who packs the most punch with limited stage time, as her emotionally charged mezzo-soprano warns Wotan that if he keeps the gold, bad bad things will happen.

The negatives in this production are minimal and, of course, subjective.

1. Aside from the opening sequence, there are no defining moments. Perhaps that is intentional, but it makes for a less compelling overall experience.

2. The spectacle is hit and miss -- mostly hit, but some cheesy props (the aforementioned unwieldy giant arms, the inflatable backpack creatures) and unintentionally comical dramatic choices (lopping off Alberich's arm to get the ring) make for uneven wonderment.

3. No intermission. One could argue it's no different than sitting through a two and a half hour movie, but most movie theaters these days have roomy stadium seating, or better yet, comfortable recliners. (Some opera die-hards bring their own seat cushions.)

4. Supertitles. They're distracting. If your eyes veer away from the digital scroll for a few seconds -- because, say, something visually spectacular is happening and it holds your attention -- then you're sitting there worrying you missed some important dialogue or information. Which is why I encourage all to do your homework by getting the plot summary etched in your brain before curtain.

DAS RHEINGOLD continues through Oct. 22 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. Running time is 2 1/2 hours with no intermission. For tickets and information, call 312- 827-5600;

Photos by Todd Rosenberg

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From This Author Teresa Budasi

Teresa Budasi is a writer/editor/critic who has spent her career covering arts and entertainment for newspapers in Chicago and its suburbs, most recently the Chicago (read more...)

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