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An object of great expectations and anticipation whenever it is performed, Richard Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle may also be opera’s most over-imagined work. Over the course of the past century and a half, the tale of gods and humans in collision has tempted not a few companies into fanciful stagings that became, for better or worse, stories unto themselves.
From the Industrial Revolution version mounted at the Bayreuth Festival in 1976 starring a hydroelectric dam, to Robert Lepage’s much-maligned infernal machine recently deployed by the Metropolitan Opera, productions have often been accused of competing for audience attention with Wagner’s music and storytelling.
It’s a contest that the Lyric Opera of Chicago plans to avoid when it launches its new Ring Cycle October 1, with Das Rheingold, Wagner’s “Preliminary Evening” and the first of the four Ring operas that will occupy the company for the next four seasons.
While they hope to accommodate the grandeur and spectacle that is built into Wagner’s philosophical musical vision, members of the production team say they want the staging to be innovative and visually enticing — but in a way that serves the story and lets the audience decide its meaning.
“We’re basically constructing it as an act of narration, not interpretation,” says director David Pountney, who also co-created the Lyric’s critically acclaimed 2015 presentation of the Holocaust drama The Passenger.
Lyric’s music director and principal conductor, Sir Andrew Davis, puts it another way: “There’s no sort of nonsense, and it’s not about the set. It’s about the characters and their relationships.”
This Rheingold, like any other, won’t lack for eye-catching visuals consistent with a Nordic fable of love, greed and betrayal whose cast of dozens inhabits the Earth — as well as the Rhinemaidens under the water and the heavenly cloudscapes of Valhalla.
The Norns — Wagner’s weavers of fate — will appear early on in this cycle, twirling fabric in Rheingold as a visual cue commencing the entire Ring tale. The audience will also see the twin giants, Fasolt and Fafner, represented as a pair of imposing, scaffolded towers with massive, movable hands.
Pountney and his colleagues, who began work on Lyric’s Ring 2-1/2 years ago, are incorporating elements like these into what they describe as a celebration of the very act of storytelling, and of the intimate bond that performers and audience share when they suspend their collective disbelief and jointly immerse themselves in the unfolding of a fantastical tale.
Pountney likens it to Shakespeare: “I say as a Shakespearean actor, ‘This is a battlefield.’ You [in the audience] accept this.”
“The main premise of this realization [of the Ring] is tied in with the pact between the theater and the audience.”
To that end, the Lyric’s Rheingold will have the audience in on the theatrical presentation — seeing, for example, machinery of the kind that animates a live stage production. There will be platforms, pulleys and ropes plainly visible, with people operating them scene to scene drawn from an 18-person, on-stage “movement group” supervised by choreographer Denni Sayers.
Sayers says this collection of non-singing actors, dancers, puppeteers, aerialists, acrobats and martial artists will play assorted Wagnerian characters such as Rhinemaidens and Nibelungen as well as the de-facto stagehands.
The cast as a whole will be presented as a kind of thespian troupe.
“They’re like a group of nomads, traveling actors,” says costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca, who is outfitting the cast in wardrobe evocative of the 18th Century — the time of European theatre’s Restoration Era, in which newly minted traveling companies brought stock productions to towns across the continent.
Das Rheingold will begin with a bare stage, gradually accumulate people and props, and then be dismantled, starting as it began, in a pattern to be repeated with Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.
“We’re always stripping back to the empty stage and rebuilding again,” says set designer Robert Innes Hopkins. “That’s partly what the story is doing, and that’s what theater does.”
Hopkins joined the Lyric’s Ring after the production experienced a jarring early setback: the sudden and unexpected death of original set designer Johan Engels, who suffered a fatal heart attack in November 2014 at his home in England.
Pountney, Lecca and lighting designer Fabrice Kebour had been longtime collaborators with Engels. The foursome’s many credits together stretched back years and included the acclaimed production of The Passenger that continues to enjoy international success.
“Johan’s passing away was an absolute shock — so terrible and unexpected,” says Lecca.
Engels, who was 62, had already delivered sketches and scale models of the stage, and he is still credited as “Original Set Designer” for this production. The stark, quasi-industrial space that he devised in consultation with Pountney is by all accounts largely intact, especially for Das Rheingold.
“It’s very much Johan,” says Lecca.
Hopkins says that his role has been to edit Engels’ designs to cost and scale where necessary and to incorporate new ideas where appropriate. He says he was reluctant to join the project, but changed his mind when he was presented with a set of workbooks containing Engels’ renderings of the stage.
“I just sat there and pored over these,” he says, and at some point he concluded, “I think I understand this and I think it’s rather brilliant.”
Hopkins says “custodial” is one way to describe his role in the production. “But I’m so respectful of the original work, that’s a pleasure as well.”
On the vocal side, great attention will be focused on bass-baritone Eric Owens, who will be singing the lead role of the patriarchal god Wotan for the first time in a staged production. Previously, he has played the role’s polar opposite: the dwarf Alberich, a scheming mortal whose lust for gold and power — and a magical ring containing both — sets the story in motion.
While Lepage’s Met Ring drew widespread criticism for its cumbersome, high-tech machine, Owens won almost uniform praise as an Alberich who was both cruel but somehow pitiable — not to mention show-savingly adept at navigating the often treacherous, balky set.
“I find Wotan less physically demanding than Alberich,” says Owens, noting that while Alberich is continuously on the move executing his evil plans, “Wotan is this regal character who has other people run around for him.”
Owens had also previously sung Alberich in a Berlin production, alongside Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn as Wotan. Here in Chicago, Owens and Youn have literally swapped those roles, and now it’s Youn as Alberich opposite Owens’ first-time Wotan.
“They’ve been quite good about not singing each other’s parts,” Andrew Davis quips. Owens doesn’t sound like he’s joking entirely when he says, “There have been moments when I almost started singing the other role.”
A veteran of Wagnerian repertoire, whose credits include the Lyric’s last Ring cycle a decade ago, Davis praises this Ring cycle team for a new production that not only “tells the story very clearly” but also respects Wagner’s music.
“If a director wants something that I think interrupts the flow of the music, I’ll argue with them,” he says. “But it certainly hasn’t happened in these rehearsals, and I don’t believe it will because David is such a wonderful colleague.”
He calls Pountney “a very musical director,” adding, “We make sure we work with directors who don’t go against the music because there are a few of them around — I won’t mention any names.”
Anyone taking on the Ring cycle knows it is also one of opera’s most jealously guarded works, with a legion of Wagner purists on hand to dissect every note and question every directorial choice. Wagnerites can rest easy on at least one point, knowing this Ring Cycle will run the full 15 hours-plus, beginning with the 2-1/2 hour Rheingold, without any drama-enhancing cuts to the music.
“In the case of the Ring, Wagner was amazingly surefooted as a composer,” says Pountney, “so there aren’t really any of those kind of uncertainties.”
But one gets the sense that if Pountney had thought otherwise, he would not have hesitated to make alterations, regardless of the reception from Wagner acolytes.
“Opera is not a religion,” says Pountney, “so there is no such thing as heresy in opera.”
Das Rheingold premieres 6 p.m. Saturday, October 1 at the Civic Opera House and runs through October 22. lyricopera.org; 312-827-5600.
Sean Piccoli is a New York-based freelance writer covering music and culture.