I've put off writing about Lyric Opera of Chicago's Ring Cycle - Der Ring des Nibelungen - by Richard Wagner until I saw the entire Cycle. I've always said that after you listen to or see the ring you feel like one of two things: either thinking you're Wotan or wanting to invade Poland.
This is the second time I've seen this particular production and it is the last time the Lyric is going to do it. The production was put together by August Everding, the German director, with Zubin Mehta conducting. Everding directed the first one, but he died in 1999. This one was restaged by Herbert Kellner, who assisted Everding in the first go-round. Instead of Mehta conducting, Sir Andrew Davis, Lyric's music director, held the baton. One of the unique things about it is that it was choreographed by Cirque du Soleil’s Debra Brown with bungee jumping rhinemaidens, trampoline riding Walkuries and Kabuki style puppet dragons and giants. In fact, the entire production is Kabuki-like along with a sense of playfulness, family disfunction, and fairytale myth.
The artists were James Morris as Wotan (both productions), Jane Eaglen as Brunnehilde (she did one cycle the first time), Placido Domingo as Sigmunde, Michelle DeYoung as Sieglinde, and John Treleaven as Siegfried. Of course there are many more singers, but these are the major characters throughout the entire Cycle. [I also heard Eva Marton as Brunnehilde in the individual operas leading up to the original Cycles in 1996. I chose the one with Jane Eaglen the first time because Marton should not have been singing it. In fact, you don't hear about her singing anymore at all. She SCHREECHED!]
Comparing the two productions, the second was by far the better. It was better, in my opinion, for a number of reasons. First, though Everding's directing was genius, Kellner's was much, much smoother. He took Everding's notes and ideas and made it more logical and connected. The Rhinemaidens actually looked like they were swimming rather than bungee jumping. The angst between Wotan and Fricka made me almost feel sorry for her this time - almost!
Second, the acting was integral to the music and, yes, I know that this comes from the singers, but the direction emphasized the saga as much as the music. Eaglen has gotten much better than her stand and sing act; Morris has to be the penultimate Wotan; Domingo is a natural at showing emotion; and Michelle DeYoung surprised everyone. She and Domingo were superb as the incestuous star-crossed brother/sister/lovers.
Third, Andrew Davis' conducting of Wagner's masterpiece was both monumental and perfection. What is amazing is that this was the first ever complete Ring Cycle he has ever conducted. He has formed a relationship with the Lyric orchestra so that each member anticipates his every thought and follows him with trust.
The fourth reason comes directly from this - the Lyric Opera Orchestra now owns the music. This was a world class performance and everyone from the audience to the staff knew it. As a matter of fact, Lyric took the unusual step of having the complete 120 piece orchestra onstage for the curtain call - complete with instuments and one member holding Nothung up high in the back! This Ring should be recorded.
The nuances of the music and the staging were integrated to the point that each complimented the other. They were married one to the other. There were minor flaws, of course, but 15+ hours of music over four nights in a single week around recurring motifs one would expect them, the amazing thing is that there were so few they fit on one hand. Probably the biggest was Eric Halfvarson as Hagen. I'm not sure he was completely warmed up when he first appeared and consequently I'm not sure he was singing the right notes; they didn't fit the music the orchestra was playing. It was brief and he rang loud and strong very soon after. Both Eaglen and Treleaven in Gotterdamerung wavered a bit at the beginning, but they both had a lot of difficult music in front of them. They may have been saving it for what was an unforgettable musical ending for both of them.
One of the most important accomplishments of this Ring was the idea that Wagner's music is very "lyrical." Many people think it is grating and monotonous. Far from it. It is a work, when done correctly, that is poetic, prosodic and epic. Or to borrow from Wordsworth's The Excursion. Book vii
wisdom married to immortal verse....
There are two more Cycles to go. For more information go to Lyric Opera of Chicago. For the review by the two major Chicago Music critics go to Second time around, 'Ring' is even better by Wynn Delacoma of the Chicago Sun-Times and A 'Ring' ends and the world is redeemed by a woman's loving sacrifice by John von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune.