The Lyric Opera is seen as one of the leading opera companies in the United States, but Chiagoans are keen on explaining that it is a more modest affair than the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It is indeed a newer company (it was founded in 1954) and does not have the rich Wagnerian tradition of the Met. Nonetheless, since 1971, it has offered its audience at least incomplete Rings every decade*. Differently from the Met, their new Ring is not meant to be spectacular nor extravagantly expensive. Director David Pountney explains that, in opera, music and theatre narrate tell their own story each. As Wagner’s music is an overwhelming affair, he believes that an overcomplex staging would make things ultimately confuse. Thus, he leaves all the tricks to the orchestra and singers – his staging does not try to illude the audience. On the contrary: its truth is its tricks. The curtains open to what seems to be the backstage of a production, its structures very reminiscent of the stage in Bayreuth. The norns are very much the director here, presiding over stagehands who bring the Rhinemaidens in trolleys similar to those used by Wagner himself. Later, Fricka, Wotan and Freia would be brought in floats decorated with attributes, the giants being a complex structure with huge head and hands in which the singers would just stand while stagehands would operate it. In terms of symbology, Pountney seems to have left all the thinking to Patrice Chéreau: the gods are represented in Ancien Régime costumes (the director says “Habsburg style”), Alberich is the nouveau riche in flashy gold and the stagehands double as the sans culottes regular people. There are some new ideas: Freia falls in love with Fasolt and resents the way the gods treated them (an interesting idea, for she sings lots of “help!” in the first part of the opera, but later she is curiously silent). It is too early in the tetralogy to say much, but one can see that a compromise has been made to try something different to an audience that is really not into Régietheater. The program says that different concepts will be used for each opera: Walküre will be Ibsen-ian, Siegfried is to explore a child’s perspective and Götterdämmerung turns around grand opéra. Let’s wait and see.
The company’s music director, Andrew Davis, is hardly a reference in Wagnerian conductor, but rather someone snobbed as “kapellmeisterlich”. There is some truth in this – I use the word for a conductor who is reliable but never illuminating. That would describe my impressions of this evening. The orchestral playing had exemplary balance and clarity and Sir Andrew was commendably structurally conscious, especially in what regarded highlighting Leitmotive. However, Wagner does not make it easy for the conductor: many and many pages in the Ring do not “move by themselves “: sometimes there are no propelling bass figures and too much depend on singers’ rhythmic accuracy. Some conductors (like Karl Böhm) would keep everybody under a tight leash (especially his singers) and make it move at any costs; others would flood the hall in glorious sounds and infuse every moment with depth as if it couldn’t be otherwise, à la Furtwängler. Maestro Davis has done neither, and there were passages when one note did not seem to be the inevitable consequence of the previous one.
The raison d’être of this Rheingold was Eric Owens’s Wotan. After his exciting take on Alberich on the Met, one could only imagine what he would do with the “light side of the force”. So far, it is still work-in-progress. Vocally speaking, he is the rare kind of Wotan who has no problems with either low or high notes. And this is already something. He seems to take James Morris (the Lyric Opera’s last Wotan) as a model in his kennness on legato and vocal coloring. However, his voice sounded a bit grainier than last time (when I heard him as Orest in New York). But the real problem is that he does not seem to have found the Wotan in himself. It is hard to tell his opinion about the role and he would often stand or move on stage with little authority and sinking in the background to the performance of his Loge. This is the third time I see Stefan Margita in this role – and he seems to become even better in it. While some singers seemed to find some trouble with the hall, this tenor projected with absolute clarity and effortlessness, delivering his lines with absolute dramatic conviction. Samuel Youn cannot be accused of not trying as Alberich – his performance was an example of dramatic commitment in a role not really meant for one’s voice and personality. As one could see in his Holländer in Bayreuth, he is hardly a force of nature and having to portray Alberich’s raw intensity really took him out of his comfort zone. Praiseworthy as this was, one could not help noticing that this was rather discipline than nature. The part was also on the heavy side for his voice – he would often sound open-toned and under true pitch and a bit shy of sustaining high notes. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner was an elegant, fruity-toned Fricka, and Okka van der Damerau was predictably terrific as Erda, flashing high and low notes in the auditorium in the grand manner. Wilhelm Schwinghammer was a vehement Fasolt, well contrasted to the admirably deep-toned Tobias Kehrer.
* I could not easily find this information (the Lyric Opera’s website does not offer a search in their archives), but it seems that there was no Ring in the 1980’s. [Update: a friend informs me that the Lyric’s first complete Ring was staged in the 1990’s]