Siegmund (Brandon Jovanovich) tells Valkyrie Brünnhilde (Christine Goerke) that he will not go without Sieglinde (Elisabet Strid) in an installment of a new Chicago ‘Ring.’ (‘Die Walküre’ photos by Cory Weaver, courtesy Lyric Opera of Chicago)
By Nancy Malitz
CHICAGO – What does it take for an opera company to attempt a new Ring cycle? The Mount Everest of projects – four long Wagner operas, each a chapter in an enormous saga about the twilight of the gods and the dawn of man – requires superhuman singers in marathon shape. Also needed is a concept that will tie the whole thing together, and a plan typically executed as the Lyric Opera of Chicago is now doing it, by building one opera per season, capped in the fifth year by a festival that offers all four together for an all-consuming streak. The host city becomes a mecca to far-flung Wagner-lovers who thrive on total immersion.
Given the time needed to devise the concept, line up the singers and raise the money, you’re talking the better part of a decade from starting gun to finished festival. Prestige and risk weigh in the balance, and the cost can be killing. Still, there is no major opera company that does not want to take on the Ring, and to make it one for the ages, even as unforeseen challenges arise.
In November 2014, the Lyric shouldered a heavy blow when South African stage designer Johan Engels died suddenly, having just completed the conceptual designs for the Lyric’s Ring cycle, which got underway in 2016. Engels had created more than 30 productions with director David Pountney, including Mieczysław Weinberg’s long-suppressed holocaust opera The Passenger (previously seen at the Lyric) and their exuberantly cartoonish Die Zauberflöte at the watery outdoor stage of Austria’s Bregenz Festival, with its gigantic floating turtle and inflatable dragons that seemed to erupt out of a child’s imagination.
The flavor of the Zauberflöte’s audacious visual conceit was apparent in the puppet giants of the Lyric’s first Ring installment, Das Rheingold, seen in October 2016. (Engels’ design concept has been taken forward by Robert Innes Hopkins.)
Likewise, the Lyric’s Die Walküre, which opened Nov. 1 and plays through Nov. 30, has a spectacular opening flourish that accompanies the orchestra’s turbulent prelude with characteristic Pountney pluck: The god Wotan (bass-baritone Eric Owens) is seen conjuring a giant ash tree and a forest hut before our eyes. Like a divine air-traffic controller, he signals with his spear: An airplane-size tree trunk floats into view, and the other elements of a secluded forest hut slide elegantly into place, ready for an encounter of forbidden love.
We infer that the passionate taboo romance that is about to ensue between Siegmund and Sieglinde (tenor Brandon Jovanovich and soprano Elisabet Strid) has been carefully set forth in detail by the Great Pre-Destiner. Or at least craftily improvised. Like many a powerful ruler, Wotan favors recklessly bold moves, then bluffs his way through the consequences.
But Wotan is already entangled in a dark web of complications, not the least involving the rage of his wife, Fricka (mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner), who is incensed that the twin lovers he is assisting are not only incestuous, but also the hideous byproduct of one of Wotan’s earthly flings.
Brazen-faced Wotan is nevertheless confident he’ll figure out how to keep his world on a string. Pountney’s directorial concept would seem to test the limits of propriety with a similarly unblenching bravado.
We’re only into the second part of this Ring cycle, which sports significant musical riches in the deft hand of music director Andrew Davis and a brilliant cast of vigorous singing artists at the top of their game including, in addition to Owens, Strid, and Jovanovich, the soprano Christine Goerke, formidable as Wotan’s daughter Brünnhilde, and bass Ain Anger, towering and ruthless as Sieglinde’s husband Hunding. Owens, in particularly splendid voice, has achieved a nimble musicality combined with textual clarity and believable acting.
Despite the glorious music, we are at this midpoint presented with several startling scenic concepts that militate against the great strengths at this opera’s heart: the rapture of young love, the nobility of warrior sacrifice, and the heartbreak of farewell between father and daughter. One could argue that Die Walküre is all about love, really, and that includes the love that propels a soldier to die for his cause. But Pountney holds up a harsh mirror to that ultimate sacrifice:
Wotan’s daughters, among them his favorite, Brünnhilde, are Valkyries who choose which heroes will die in battle. In the opening of the third act, to the most recognizable music in the opera, these Valkyries are red from the drench of the lifeblood in body bags that surround them. They drag the cadavers to their wretched perches on a sky-high grid of battle webbing, maybe enjoying their gory work too much. It’s as if Die Walküre had taken a page from Sweeney Todd. For the record, the eight Valkyries sounded fabulous, but they were still sickening to look at.
As for romantic love, Pountney has Siegmund and Sieglinde not so much drawn to each other as hypnotized into action. The Swedish Strid is a lovely and perceptive singer, but her Sieglinde is soiled and fearful, cowering, chained to a post, clearly beaten and traumatized. This Sieglinde is not just a reluctant bride, her fate determined by kinsmen.
She is a sex slave, severely damaged goods. Never mind that her husband, Hunding, declares to the visiting stranger Siegmund, “Holy is my hearth, Hallowed to thee be my house.” There doesn’t appear to be much holy about it. When Siegmund and Sieglinde escape to the most ecstatic music in the opera, they tear into each other with brutal consummation. Brünnhilde’s betrayal of her father’s order – to let Siegmund die on the battlefield – is also drained somewhat of its power; Owens and Goerke rarely touch, as if they, too, are under individual spells.
As the opera has it, the daughter points out her father’s self-deception with penetrating insight; she asserts that it is his heart’s desire that Siegmund should live. The father, furious but slowly relenting, softens his punishment, stripping Brünnhilde of her godliness yet putting her to sleep in a ring of fire, so that only a fearless hero can claim her. The fire trick in this production is a neat bit of craft, but the blocking renders the “Leb’ wohl” scene emotionally aloof, falling short of the almost unbearable tragedy it can convey.
Other aspects of the staging work well. A shallow platform descends from just behind the proscenium, as if from the heavens, where the gods discourse about the events below; the argument that ensues there, between Wotan and Fricka, is electric, a right-in-our-faces battle of wits. The wary exchange between Hunding and Siegfried, at far ends of the table in Hunding’s home, is similarly fraught with tension, smart and heated.
The men all look quite beautiful in Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costumes; the women, not so much, except for Fricka, whose dazzling power suit would fly off the racks at Valhalla’s Saks. Brunnhilde’s airborne steed, mounted on a tall crane, affords her fearful height and grandeur as she delivers to Siegmund his sentence of doom, but the steed isn’t so convincing when flying in reverse. Hunding’s terrifying dogs, who give chase to the lovers, seem altogether real; they are enacted with nifty choreography by a pack of muzzled men.
Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, the founding music critic at USA Today, and a former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has written about the arts for a variety of national publications.