For those not yet initiated into the world of Richard Wagner’s “The Ring Cycle” — the epic four-part operatic odyssey based on Norse mythology and medieval German poetry — there is this analogy, which is not meant to trivialize Wagner’s monumental achievement in any way: Think of the Cycle as the 19th century German equivalent of “Game of Thrones,” with all its incestuous relationships, quests for power, profoundly flawed heroes, brutality, fantasy sequences and more.
Of course Wagner’s propulsive, wildly expressive score, which can sometimes feel like a cinematic soundtrack, is in a class all by itself. But the Cycle’s larger-than-life characters – a deeply flawed mix of gods and mortals – possess all the hallmarks of a grandly immersive serial. And with its uniformly spectacular production of “Die Walkure,” (“The Valkyrie”) — Lyric Opera of Chicago’s second entry into its all new edition of the Cycle being rolled out over four seasons — Wagner might just find his 21st century audience.
When: Through Nov. 30
Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker
Tickets: $69 – $299
Running time: 5 hours, with two intermissions
Although I was not fully on board with last season’s “Das Rheingold,” the initial entry in the Cycle, “Die Walkure,” once again directed by David Pountney, has made me a convert. Not only is the storytelling here on a far more human scale (even if all that surrounds it is positively gargantuan and eye-popping), but it feels as if Wagner put himself on a psychiatrist’s couch and gave voice to all that he wanted for himself, and all he sensed about human nature.
Of course the combination of remarkable singing, exceptionally vivid acting, mythic-modern design and extraordinary music-making (sublimely seamless work by conductor Sir Andrew Davis and his orchestra), is unique. And Colin Ure deserves special praise for his particularly fresh and fervent English supertitles (from the German of Wagner’s self-penned libretto).
“Die Walkure” unfolds in three massive acts. It opens as the woeful, wounded warrior Siegmund (Brandon Jovanovich) staggers into the grand country home of the evil Hunding (Ain Anger), and encounters his captive wife, the beautiful Sieglinde (Elisabet Strid), who, despite being chained, offers the stranger a place of refuge. Their connection is powerful and enigmatic, and, as it turns out, they are twins torn apart early in life who now proceed to consummate a passionate incestuous marriage. Siegmund has a hero’s independent spirit. Sieglinde is the long-suffering woman who manages to survive every trial. Their law-breaking love is seen as a rebirth, with winter shifting to spring. But a battle between Hunding and Siegmund looms.
The second act finds Siegfried’s long-lost father, Wotan (Eric Owens), king of the gods, with Brunnhilde (Christine Goerke), the favorite of his many warrior daughters known as the Valkyries — the fierce women who ride horseback, select who will live or die in battle, and who are embodied here by a stunning, clarion-voiced octet. Wotan asks Brunnhilde to protect his mortal son, Siegmund, in his battle with Hunding. But this greatly angers Wotan’s wife, Fricka (Tanja Ariane Baumgartner), goddess of marriage, who has suffered numerous betrayals by her husband and demands that he not support his incestuous son. Wotan buckles, and after opening his heart and soul to his daughter in ways he never thought possible, he commands her to allow Hunding to be victorious, threatening severe punishment should she disobey.
The final act finds the Valkyries at work in their slaughterhouse, steeped in the blood of dead warriors. Brunnhilde faces the wrath of her father, and ultimately is consumed in a great conflagration. As Wotan explains, we kill those we love most.
Goerke’s Wagnerian soprano is nothing short of a marvel, and her fearless rides atop the crane-on-wheels that serves as her powerful steed are as fearless as her emotions are deep. She is stunningly matched by Owens, the formidably imposing bass-baritone who brings a soul-bearing truth and beauty to scenes with both his daughter and wife. Jovanovich’s rich tenor, Strid’s forceful soprano, and Anger’s chilling bass create an ideal triangular battle of wills and desire. And mezzo-soprano Baumgartner leaves a vivid imprint as the powerful wife who knows the pain of a broken heart.
As designed by the late Johan Engels and realized by Robert Innes Hopkins (enhanced by Fabrice Kebour’s lighting and Marie-Jeanne Lecca costumes), the production begins in nature but then uses movable towers and bridges (plus a supremely modern palace at Valhalla) to suggest the infernal machine that is the desire for conquest and power. Wagner clearly understood that impulse, but channeled it into art.