> Chicago gets the 'Ring' music right
par William Littler - source Toronto Star

CHICAGO- The whole truly is greater than the sum of the parts, where Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen is concerned, a truth Chicago has learned this month and Toronto has yet to learn. No complete production of this four-evening, 15-plus-hours musical journey into the world of Nordic mythology has ever been mounted in Canada, and Lyric Opera of Chicago, one of the continent's Big Three opera producers, has undertaken the task only once before, back in 1996. The Canadian Opera Company tried to climb Mt. Everest back in the early 1970s, mounting three of the operas (or music dramas,as Wagner preferred to call them) over as many years, on thestage of what was then known as the O'Keefe Centre. Alas, when it came time to add Das Rheingold, the company's notoriously conservative board experienced a sudden drop intemperature below the ankles and abandoned the project, which hasonly recently been revived to open the company's new home, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, in September 2006.

Like Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Canadian Opera Company has been assembling its Ring part by part, though not in chronological order. Two seasons ago it began with Die Walkure, part two of the tetralogy, this season it mounted part three, Siegfried, and next season it will add the fourth, Gotterdammerung, leaving Das Rheingold, the prologue or first part, to be presented when the Ring is forged whole in the fall of 2006. The strategy is an understandable one. Not only does the audience become gradually educated in the ways of Wagner but producers can also focus on one production at a time and tinker with their concept as the project evolves. Not that Toronto can do this quite the way Chicago did. Lyric Opera engaged one director, August Everding, and one set and costume designer, John Conklin, where as the Canadian Opera Company engaged a different director for each opera, leaving itto designer Michael Levine to act as unifier (as well as director of Das Rheingold).

Everding died in the years following the first Chicago Ring and its revival this month has been entrusted to a staff director, Herbert Kellner, who has reportedly made numerous changes of detail within his late colleague's overall concept. That concept was not universally admired when first unveiled. The New York Times review even suggested that the production"makes ugliness into a policy statement." That judgment seems harsh, by comparison with what is done to the Ring in Europe, where the Valkyries rode motorcycles in Kassel, where a hair-in-curlers Erda wore a housecoat in Edinburgh and where the Rhinemaidens resembled prostitutes in Bayreuth itself, the Wagnerian holy of holies.
All the same, the post-modern Chicago Ring cannot be compared invisual beauty with the far more traditional productions seen inrecent years in Seattle or New York. It is profoundly eclectic, mixing metaphors right and left, the scenery sometimes abstract,sometimes naturalistic, sometimes on the verge of looking down right Chinese, with neon lights outlining symbols and costumes ranging through space and time.
The usual defence of this kind of approach is that it universalizes Wagner's vision. What it actually does is turn audience members into detectives, trying to solve the mystery of what each confusing detail means and how it fits into some subliminal scheme.
One of the strengths of the Chicago Ring is that it actually tells the story quite clearly. The giants Fasolt and Fafner maybe manipulated puppets, the Valkyries may bounce on trampolines and the Rhinemaidens may be bungee jumpers, but when Wagner asks for a bear, Chicago gives him a bear (albeit two-legged) and when he asks for a Forest Bird, we see one, Japanese origami style, flown by a nimble dancer.

As in the Toronto Ring, or at least the parts we have seen thusfar, the characters are treated as humans, and that includes the gods and goddesses. Not for the City of Big Shoulders some symbolic vision, inhabited by icons. Wotan, king of the gods, has wife and daughter troubles like the rest of us and behaves with atouching humanity in James Morris's portrayal.
Morris was also Chicago's Wotan back in 1996 and has been singing the role internationally for a couple of decades, yet he still sounds rock solid and marvellously musical. I doubt I've ever heard Wotan's farewell to his daughter Brunnhilde sung more poignantly or with such attention to the softer end of the dynamic spectrum.
is, of course, the archetypal Wagnerian character inthe public mind, complete with horned helmet. The image even turns up in a famous Bugs Bunny cartoon. The role is cruelly difficult and a company able to hire a soprano able to sing it can ill afford to worry about such niceties as whether she looks plausible or not. Not to mince words, Jane Eaglen looked big, so big that thedirector did not dare have her lie down on a rock in the traditional manner, at the climax of the farewell scene, to be surrounded by fire by Wotan. Instead, she was unconvincingly shoved into a niche in a curious-looking, neon-outlined pyramid,appearing as if she were on guard duty waiting for a hero to penetrate the fire and claim her for his bride.
Sadly, there was no real fire. There wasn't at the end of Gotterdammerung, either, when Valhalla is supposed to go up inflames. At some critical points in this Ring, John Conklin has let his audience down visually. The compensation arrives musically. Despite her size, Eaglen inhabited her role so convincingly, singing with such fervour, that the eye's skepticism yielded to the ear's belief.

A pity the same could not be said of her Siegfried, the Britishtenor John Treleaven, of whom the opposite proved true. The tenor star of this Ring was the ageless Placido Domingo as Siegmund in Die Walkure, though there were many strongly vocalized roles, including the Alberich and Mime of Oleg Bryjakand David Cangelosi, the Hunding and Hagen of Eric Halfvarson ,the Sieglinde and Waltraute of Michelle DeYoung and the Fricka of Larissa Diadkova.
Most crucially of all there was the dazzling playing of the Lyric Opera Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis, whose first complete production of the Ring has catapulted him into the major leagues among Wagner conductors. Wagner liked to think that hiswords mattered as much as his notes. Davis knew better.

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