CHICAGO – It was quite a novel spin on drive-in theater: cars filing into a spacious downtown underground parking garage for a live-with-video production of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung writ really, really small. The 75-minute adaptation, presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, had patrons remaining in their cars to watch a mini-drama unfold while progressing through a series of scene sites – a sort of Wagnerian crawl – and listening via their radios.
Twilight: Gods, the title of this urban-accented distillation, was the brain-child of Yuval Sharon, artistic director of Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit, where the production first came to spot- and candlelight. The Chicago version offered one significant difference: The required narration, which allows wide latitude for a contemporary riff on this tale of the world’s crash and immolation, was written for Lyric’s staging by the eminent local poet avery r. young.
Only three performances are scheduled in this sold-out run: April 28, April 30, and May 2. I saw the dress rehearsal April 26.
There is a melancholic irony in Lyric’s decision to mount Twilight: Gods. Wagner’s epic opera, the last and most prodigious installment of his Ring tetralogy, was in rehearsal with Lyric music director and principal conductor Andrew Davis when the COVID-19 hammer came down in early 2020, foreclosing not only the company’s Götterdämmerung but also its entire poised presentation of the Ring in three complete cycles. This mere remnant, Twilight: Gods, settled like a bit of ash from that flamed-out enterprise.
That stark reality brought to mind a conversation I had with Davis as rehearsals were drawing to a close for Lyric’s Götterdämmerung. Speaking about the sheer scale of the work, the conductor commented wryly: “At the start of Götterdämmerung, you’re waving your arms around and everyone’s been playing for 45 minutes (through an extended prologue), you turn the page and it says: Act 1.”
The intriguing and ambitiously wrought English-language enterprise at hand bears only passing resemblance to Wagner’s monumental work. It’s as much whiff as riff. Yet it is also very smart and imaginative. Just as Twilight: Gods is laid out in discrete episodes – one literally drives (at 3 m.p.h.!) from scene to scene – it is also episodically good storytelling and good theater. But in its totality lies the rub. Wagner’s tale is diminished to the vanishing point.
The inescapable problem is context. After a cleverly adapted take on the Norns’ foretelling that time and the world are about to snap like an overstressed rope, offered by three splendidly robed guys in a quasi-rap incantation, we motored around to find Waltraute, one of the Valkyries, wandering about the nearly empty parking lot. Here is where some familiarity with the original story became suddenly critical.
If you didn’t know, you might have thought this statuesque woman (mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin) weeded in a long robe was simply looking for her car. Although the musical sound, heard over a progression of spots on the FM dial, was generally excellent, in this early instance Martin, though in grand vocal form, was difficult to understand. The printed synopsis didn’t help a lot, either. In Wagner’s version, Waltraute appeals to her sister Brünnhilde, banished atop a mountain by her father Wotan and now the common-law wife of Siegfried, to return the magic ring without which the gods will be lost forever. I don’t wish to pick here, but this summary had Waltraute saying – in a soliloquy with no Brünnhilde in sight – that Wotan is suffering from dementia and that if Brünnhilde would just give back his ring, he would feel better.
Without exception, the singing was superb – and nowhere more rewarding than in the duet between baritone Donnie Ray Albert as the nefarious gnome Alberich and bass Morris Robinson as his grasping, if feckless, son Hagen. Alberich enters the ear of sleeping Hagen, urging him to murder Siegfried and reclaim the ring. It was ringing, indeed – surely as potent a pair of voices as I’ve heard in that pivotal conversation.
Siegfried (Sean Panikkar) shows up just long enough to sing in splendid brevity and be slain by Hagen. (Who exactly was that guy? Loved his big sword.) Moving right along…
The best did come last – with surely the foremost Brünnhilde of our day, Christine Goerke. Yes, even she, in a garage. Goerke was riveting, a Brünnhilde resolute, radiant, vocally majestic. Such was the consummation of what proved to be a wild finish.
Getting there was magical. Falling in behind Siegfried’s hearse, we drove through what seemed like acres of lit candles (nearly 3,000 of ’em, we’re told) to encounter Brünnhilde striding about at the onset of her immolation scene.
And racing in to provide the fire, in a red classic Mustang convertible, was Loge (masked at the steering wheel, identified in a leitmotif). As Loge’s cool ride flashed by, fiery red lights blazed up as if ignited by a speeding torch. Finally, Goerke’s Brünnhilde mounted not her familiar steed Grane, but rather the crimson Mustang, and roared off into the flames.
A few special credits are due here. The evocative and often witty production was designed by Jason H. Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras. Hats off to sound designer Mark Grey and sound engineer Stephanie Farina. Whittling Wagner’s orchestra down to a smattering of excellent musicians from the Lyric Opera Orchestra was the skillful handiwork of Edward Windels. And Yuval Sharon enlarged upon his theatrical concept by serving as both German-to-English translator and stage director of the production.
Poet avery r. young’s connective narrative, with stunning arabesques on current issues of social justice, kept one listening closely – as did his fiery sermon as the preacher at Siegfried’s funeral. That oration was an overwhelming interlude, indeed scaled to the original breadth, urgency, and passion of Götterdämmerung.