Go inside this production of Das Rheingold with engaging articles, opera notes, a complete plot synopsis, artist bios, and more.
Welcome to Lyric Opera of Chicago! We’re thrilled that you’re here, and we hope you’re as excited about Das Rheingold and the rest of the season as we are.
As with every Lyric season, in 2016-17 the individual operas offer something for everyone. The totality of these works will provide a sense of a journey, exploration, and discovery, as well as reacquaintance with longtime favorites.
We’re very conscious of the fact that many audience members at Lyric will be giving opera a try for the first time. For them, those favorites will actually be works heard for the first time – some of the most popular and famous operas in the repertoire. We offer opportunities for our opera “newbies” to discover exactly why those operas are so popular and famous!
Incredible as it may seem, our new production of Das Rheingold marks the first time in Lyric’s history that the company has launched a new season with a work of Richard Wagner. How fitting that the work produced for this momentous occasion should be the first opera of the monumental Ring cycle. There is no more ambitious, large-scale, or exciting venture that an opera company can undertake than a new Ring. We’re producing the four operas that comprise the cycle in four consecutive years, culminating with the complete cycle in 2020.
Das Rheingold is an ideal first opera. It has the running time of a movie, as well as a fantastic, action-packed story based in myth but with enormous contemporary resonance (think Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings). In every scene we can enjoy some of the most explosive, exciting, climactic music ever written. From the opening subterranean E-flat chord representing the River Rhine to the gods’ majestic entrance into Valhalla at the opera’s climax, the cumulative effect of Wagner’s music and drama is simply overwhelming.
The creators of our new Ring are the same team that brought us The Passenger two seasons ago. Anyone who saw that unforgettable production will share our anticipation of an extraordinary theatrical spectacle in this Ring, with powerfully intense storytelling and detailed, passionate performances.
In planning Lyric seasons, a new Ring has been a major priority both for me and for our music director, Sir Andrew Davis. Over the past 15 years at Lyric, Andrew has brought enormous distinction to his conducting of all the greatest operas of Wagner. His remarkable affinity for this repertoire has been inspiring for our audiences. The Ring he conducted here in 2004-05 ranks as one of Lyric’s greatest achievements in recent decades, and I know that this success will be repeated in Das Rheingold and the other three Ring operas.
Heading our cast of top-flight Wagner interpreters is Eric Owens, who appeared at Lyric most recently in Porgy and Bess and has already proven himself a very impressive Alberich in Ring cycles at the Met and in Europe. We’re excited to be presenting his first Wotan, a major milestone in his career. Samuel Youn, our Alberich, is a remarkable Korean bass-baritone whom I’ve much admired in such portrayals as Wagner’s Dutchman and Berlioz’s Méphistophélès. His engagement at Lyric marks both his American debut and role debut.
Four other major artists are debuting at Lyric in this production: Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Fricka), a consummate singing actress whose career has taken her all over Europe; and three outstanding artists whom I’ve enjoyed onstage numerous times – Okka von der Damerau (Erda), Wilhelm Schwinghammer (Fasolt), and Tobias Kehrer (Fafner). We’re also very happy to welcome back Štefan Margita, our Loge, who was a marvelously devious Shuisky in Lyric’s most recent Boris Godunov.
The Ring adventure is beginning. Enjoy!
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Wagner’s Ring cycle is based on adaptations of the High German “Nibelungenlied” (The Lay of the Nibelung) and the Norse sagas. These were originally aural texts, created for narration rather than reading. That gave us our first and most important clue: our Ring would primarily be an act of narration.
This is, you might say, in clear contrast to many contemporary versions of the Ring which are acts of interpretation.
Of course, it is not possible to tell a story without simultaneously giving it some element of interpretation – we all like to pretend we are objective, but we are not. But the emphasis in our case will be to tell the story, rather than to tell you what the story means. That is your job to decide.
A narrator does two essential things: he tells you the story, and through the atmosphere, color, and passion of his story-telling, he encourages his listeners to suspend their disbelief, to become part of the story. Nonetheless, as you do suspend your disbelief, you are always in some corner of your mind aware that this is a story, and this is the storyteller.
So we set out with our designs to create a theatrical framework for the stage, which continually allows us to revert to its pristine, virginal condition: the empty stage. And on that empty stage we continually re-create the illusion in which you will believe, even though we will continually reveal to you, show you, demonstrate even, how the illusion is created. This is the magical pact between the storyteller and his audience, and who will deny that the story of The Ring of the Nibelung is one of the greatest stories ever told. “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin: Once upon a time….”
The interesting thing is that opera always has two narrators – the music and the stage, and this is the dichotomy that lies at the heart of all intelligent discussion about the authenticity, or otherwise, of productions. Our “naked” narration onstage is, you might think, at odds with the music, which is immersive, overwhelming, transporting, and richly, richly clothed. Wagner seeks through the heady, seductive hallucinatory power of his music to carry you through his story in a state of narcotic submission. But no staging can successfully copy, or double, that power. And two narrators working with the same high-octane fuel would be destructive, so our quieter, more playful, innocent, even naïve narrative will fully allow the music its power and the story its purpose.
Within that framework, we were also aware that the entire Ring was a work which developed over a quarter of a century, and that as the text was written backwards, continually justifying current actions by historical motives, and the music was written forwards, we have in Rheingold the most radical dramaturgy – a fast-moving political cartoon – and the most (relatively!) conventional music (especially harmonically), whereas
in the final work the dramaturgy is that of a 19th-century Grand Opera while the music is that of a radical new music drama. Imagine a Verdi cycle that started with Nabucco and ended with Falstaff! This means that each work, although part of a clearly structured cycle, has its own unique qualities, and although our simple theatre framework remains constant, the styles with which we populate that empty stage change quite significantly over the four works.
After the “political cartoon” of Rheingold, Walküre is an Ibsenesque drama, much of which happens in domestic spaces, Siegfried is an ebullient and magical child’s view of the world, and Götteräammerung is a grand opera of love, betrayal and revenge.
Everyone, of course, emphasizes the extraordinary dimensions of the Ring across time, space, orchestral, scenic, and vocal resources. So it is worth remembering that our sometimes-empty stage gives focus to an all important aspect: the huge sequence of deeply intimate, personal, emotional encounters. The incestuous lovers, Siegmund and Sieglinde,
Wotan and his wife, Wotan and his daughter – an opera in themselves – Siegfried and his wicked “stepmother” Mime, Wotan and his surrogate hero, Siegfried, Siegfried and Brunnhilde – a fully operatic duet – Brunnhilde and her Valkyrie sister Waltraute, and on it goes. The Ring is partly a cycle of two-handed playlets!
We will also seem to be moving inexorably forward through time, as befits a saga conceived on such a grand scale. Rheingold deals with historical time when the gods were nomads but intent on walling themselves up in a pompous castle worthy of the Habsburgs, dressed to match, Alberich is turning from a clumsy, mocked seducer into an early industrialist, and Wotan is dreaming of Imperialist hegemony. In Walkure’s bourgeois dwellings and palace corridors, the compromises of power come home to roost, whilst Siegfried romps through a childish landscape of innocence.
Innocence is well and truly drowned in Götterdämmerung, in which we advance into a malevolent and dyspeptic view of the future. Does Brünnhilde’s final sacrifice burn evil to ashes and wash the world clean? We must fervently hope so!
— Sir David Pountney
TIME AND PLACE: Legendary
Scene 1: The Rhine
Scene 2: An open space before Valhalla
Scene 3: Nibelheim
Scene 4: An open space before Valhalla
Scene 1. Woglinde and Wellgunde are guarding the gold at the bottom of the Rhine. Flosshilde chides them for negligence when the Nibelung dwarf Alberich appears. The Rhinemaidens quickly realize that lechery has brought the Nibelung to their domain. Sunlight illuminates the gold, and Alberich questions them about it. Wellgunde reveals that the man who renounces love and forges a ring from it will be master of the world. Cursing love, Alberich seizes the gold and rushes away with it.
Scene 2. As Wotan awakens, he sees that his dream of a grand, imposing, beautiful, newly completed palace is realized. His wife, Fricka, is alarmed: now that the giants, Fasolt and Fafner, have completed the construction, the fee Wotan promised them must be paid – Fricka’s sister, Freia, goddess of youth and beauty. Wotan assures Fricka that he never seriously intended to sacrifice Freia.
When Freia pleads for protection from the giants, Wotan tells her that Loge, the demi-god of fire, has a plan to save her. The giants arrive, eager for their reward. Wotan suggests some other payment, but Fasolt warns him not to break their contract. The giants want Freia not only for herself, but also for her golden apples that ensure the gods’ eternal youth. When the giants attempt to take Freia with them, she summons her brothers, Donner and Froh, to her defense, but Wotan stifles the kindling violence.
When Loge finally appears, the giants repeat their demand. Loge relates how Alberich stole the gold. The gods and giants feel threatened by the Nibelung’s new power. After convincing Fafner that the gold is more valuable than Freia, Fasolt announces that the two will accept it instead of Freia. Loge tells Wotan that there is only one way to obtain the gold: theft. The giants will return for the gold that evening – meanwhile, they take Freia away as a hostage. Deprived of the apples, the gods begin to age and weaken. Wotan and Loge leave for Nibelheim, Alberich’s subterranean kingdom.
Scene 3. Alberich torments his brother Mime, who yields the magic helmet – the Tarnhelm – that Alberich had ordered him to forge. When Alberich dons the Tarnhelm and becomes invisible, he beats his brother mercilessly. Wotan and Loge find Mime groaning in pain. From him they learn that Alberich has enslaved the Nibelungs and forced them to mine the gold, from which the power-hungry dwarf has amassed an enormous hoard for himself.
Alberich ruthlessly drives his workers, but seeing the two gods, he is immediately suspicious. When he describes his helmet’s powers, Loge asks for a demonstration. Alberich then transforms himself first into a dragon, then a toad. Wotan swiftly captures the toad as Loge snatches the helmet. Alberich is restored to his original form and dragged away by the gods as a prisoner.
Scene 4. Wotan and Loge inform Alberich that he cannot regain his freedom unless he surrenders his treasures. Trusting the ring’s power to replenish his hoard, Alberich summons the Nibelungs, who appear carrying the gold. Alberich then learns that he must sacrifice the Tarnhelm. When forced to yield the ring, he curses it and whoever possesses it in the future. He leaves, free but powerless.
Fricka, Donner and Froh return, eager to learn the result of Wotan’s mission. The giants arrive with Freia, and Fasolt, who is giving her up reluctantly, demands that the gold be piled so that it will hide her. When her hair gleams through a chink in the pile, Fafner demands that the Tarnhelm fill the opening, but Fafner can still see one of Freia’s eyes. He demands that Wotan close the space with the Nibelung’s ring that the god is wearing on his finger, but Wotan refuses. The earth-goddess Erda appears, reminding Wotan of the curse. He then throws the ring on the pile and reclaims Freia. The giants soon quarrel over the ring, and Fafner kills his brother to possess it before departing with the treasure.
Donner invokes thunder and lightning to clear the sky, so that the gods can properly admire their new home. When it comes into view, Wotan is thrilled. Naming it “Valhalla,” he invites Fricka to dwell there with him. A rainbow bridge appears, and as the gods cross it, they hear the Rhinemaidens pleading for the return of their gold. Loge prophesies the end of the gods. Ordering Loge to silence the Rhinemaidens, Wotan leads the gods as they enter Valhalla with pomp and ceremony.