It’s a beautiful, warm and sunny August day in Chicago. Given that it was in its off-season, few might suspect the activity inside the Lyric Opera House. The massive Ardis Krainik Theatre is empty and, by-and-large, dark. The stage is dimly lit and some twenty-five rows back, there is a concentrated three-row quadrangle of light revealing desks covering audience seats. Lights over music stands and the illumination of computer screens stream out into the tenebrosity.
“Let’s see ‘Siegfried’s Death,’” calls out Sir David Pountney in a confident but inviting British accent. Pountney is in town supervising a week’s worth of tech rehearsals of “Götterdämmerung,” the final work of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, which premieres in April before three full subsequent “Ring” cycles throughout April and into early May.
The orchestra pit is empty so the familiar orchestral music is not supplied by live musicians. Instead, it comes back to the stage from one of the computers like a wayward transistor radio. A circle of dancers and actors surround a stand-in for Siegfried, covered in a shroud, and proceed to move around him reverently while keeping an outer shroud in the air but close to the floor around him. Even without the music, anyone could walk in during this eleven o’clock moment of this twenty-some-hour music drama and know we were witnessing the death of a hero.
On a break, this observation pleases Pountney.
“For us, that act of narration, and the telling of a story, is very important,” says Pountney. “You can argue endlessly about whether the ‘Ring’ has a political message, whether it has a philosophical message. Is it really about capitalism? Is it about the abuse of nature? The piece is so rich, so open, that, actually, the most important thing for me to say is ‘Once upon a time.’ Here’s this story, listen to my story. Out of it you will derive a limitless palette of significances. And I don’t want to tell you which significances you should listen to and which ones you shouldn’t. A lot of directors like to do that, especially with the ‘Ring.’ ‘No, no, no: it’s all about the misuse of oil, or capitalism, or triumph of the will or Schopenhauer.’ There’s all of this intellectual baggage that goes with it, and political baggage, too. Like any great story, it has resonances in all those fields. But it’s very much our choice to focus on the process of storytelling, even in a slightly naïve way. And to leave aside those big questions of what is the ultimate significance of the ‘Ring.’ That, to my mind, is the audience’s job to decide and each one of you will decide something different and that is also part of the richness and the charm of it.”
The “Ring” is the short name for Wagner’s four-part epic “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (“The Ring of the Nibelungs”), which consists of “Das Rheingold” (“The Rhine Gold”), “Die Walküre” (“The Valkyrie”), “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung” (“Twilight of the Gods”).
The original plan was simple enough: Wagner was fascinated with the ancient Scandinavian, Germanic and Icelandic sagas of the gods and wanted to focus on the hero Siegfried. Thus he wrote the poem “Siegfrieds Tod” (“Siegfried’s Death”), in effect the libretto for “Götterdämmerung,” before it became obvious that one opera—not even one of nearly six hours—was not enough to properly explain who Siegfried was.
“Der junge Siegfried” (“Young Siegfried”) followed, essentially the libretto for “Siegfried,” where too, Wagner realized that in order to understand who Siegfried was the audience needed to know where he came from. Thus “Die Walküre,” which explains how Siegfried’s parents met and how the Valkyrie Brünnhilde lost her divinity by disobeying her father Wotan, king of the gods. Going further back into the story and in order to set the scene for the entire epic, Wagner wrote “Das Rheingold,” a one-act prologue that explains how the ring was forged from the gold of the Rhine River by the dwarf, Alberich, and stolen back by Wotan and Loge, the god of deceit and fire. Alberich has put a curse on the ring, and Wotan is persuaded by the earth goddess Erde to give the ring to the giants Fasolt and Fafner as payment for building the gods their mountaintop abode. The curse takes over as Fafner kills Fasolt for possession of the ring, which after all, is said to give the one who possesses it all the power in the world, even greater than that of the gods.
“All of this means there is this extraordinary element of time traveling in the ‘Ring,'” says Pountney. “By having conceived and written ‘Götterdämmerung’ first as a libretto, in operatic terms, it is the most old-fashioned of the four librettos. It is, in many respects, a grand opera in the tradition that was established by Rossini with ‘William Tell,’ but above all, expounded in the actually slightly inferior works of Meyerbeer. And so, in ‘Götterdämmerung’ you have things like wedding processions, choruses, ensembles, trios, big scenic moments: a lot of the apparatus of a grand opera. No ballet, that’s the major difference.”
Having begun by writing the libretto of the final work of the “Ring” in a fairly conventional manner and going systematically backwards, Wagner’s process and the narrative become increasingly radical by his explaining more and more how we arrived at various points along the way of the story.
“So ‘Rheingold,’ the opening work of the cycle,” Pountney says, with childlike wonder, “is the most radical of the four operas in dramatic and libretto terms! By contrast, Wagner composed all of the music for the ‘Ring’ sequentially in the order of the works. That meant that the music becomes increasingly radical as the drama becomes more conventional.
“So, he started writing the music for ‘Rheingold’ and the musical language is at its most—and I use the word carefully—’primitive’ in ‘Rheingold.’ And of course, halfway through the last act of ‘Siegfried,’ he stopped.”
There was indeed a twelve-year pause whilst a stranded and sleeping Brünnhilde is left waiting for Siegfried to rescue her on a mountaintop. While searching for the musical language to adequately convey their erotically ecstatic union, Wagner wrote “Tristan und Isolde,” transforming not only his own musical language, but that of the nineteenth century and of the Romantic era. This was followed by “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” before Wagner came back to composing the rapturous music for the final scene of “Siegfried” and then all of “Götterdämmerung.”
“In so doing, Wagner completely transformed his musical language so that ‘Götterdämmerung’ is in that intensely chromatic, involved style that came out of ‘Tristan und Isolde,” says Pountney. “We’re looking at a piece that involves twenty-five years of an artist’s life. By the time we get to ‘Götterdämmerung,’ we’re at the point where his most advanced musical language meets his most conservative theatrical language.”
That curious to-ing and fro-ing with the libretto and the music going in opposite directions is a huge part of the richness of the “Ring,” as Pountney sees it. He echoes Wagner’s own sense of time travel back and forth across its creation by echoing that element across his production. In “Götterdämmerung,” for instance—the only opera of the cycle wherein Wotan does not appear—in this production, he is seen, if not heard.
“There is a sense in which ‘Rheingold’ exists in a world of itinerant gods, which might be the equivalent of itinerant courts of older Europe. With the Ibsenesque drama of ‘Walküre,’ we seem to somehow be approaching the 1940s. With the naïve and childish fairytale of ‘Siegfried,’ we’re in our own age of innocence, the fifties and sixties. And now in ‘Götterdämmerung,’ we’re in a dystopian future world. We’re looking into a bleak future in which evil has laid a very firm grip on the world.”
One of the chief ways that Wagner achieved continuity from “Das Rheingold” through “Götterdämmerung” is the use of leitmotivs, or what comedian Anna Russell, in her classic sendup of the “Ring,” refers to as “signature tunes.” These are recurring themes associated with characters, objects, events and emotions that allow for various transformations across various scenes, often in amazing combinations. Wagner called his leitmotivs “melodic moments of feeling.” Indeed, what is extraordinary about them is how magnificently they emotionally evoke specific feelings from an audience. Wagner is, undoubtedly, a shameless manipulator of passions, which is why his music always has and continues to provoke such immediate and extreme responses.
When I mention how refreshing it is that Pountney has consistently allowed the music to be the main element throughout “Das Rheingold,” first seen here in 2016, “Die Walküre” in 2017, “Siegfried” last season and now “Götterdämmerung,” he quickly corrects me: “Music is the main element!”
“I am a musician,” Pountney says, despite his international renown as a director. “I come from a family who were all good, amateur musicians and I grew up in that kind of tradition. I was a chorister and a trumpeter and I played with the National Youth Orchestra; I could play quite decently. So, to me, music is a very natural language. I read music fluently. I can sight-read. That training as a chorister is pretty amazing for that kind of thing. I can glance at a score and see what the music is about and understand what I should be doing and respecting in terms of the staging. I’m not saying there aren’t also great directors who don’t have that musical equipment, but I do. For me, it’s natural. It’s home territory. The fact that Wagner’s music in the ‘Ring’ is more or less in a permanent state of transition, it’s important to be sensitive to that and to see that the music is flowing on in a particular way and transforming into something else.”
“Götterdämmerung” is the only work in the cycle to have a chorus, the Gibichungs. “We arrive somewhere where we haven’t been at all within the entire cycle,” says Pountney, “a very different space. When we go into the Gibichung Hall, we know we’re meeting a different group of characters and we’re in a different kind of place, a grand dwelling where we have a kind of governmental elite who are in charge of society [and] who are able to summon many vassals if they blow their horns in the right key. So, there’s a whole kind of resource behind these people that we haven’t seen before. We’ve had an isolated human house with Hunding’s house in ‘Walküre.’ But otherwise we’ve been in the forest, fantasy land. Then suddenly we have a kind of modern palace, a ruler’s residence. We’re at a place at the same time more political, more financially explicit. What kind of a White House is this?”
Lyric’s chorus master Michael Black has been transforming the mostly male chorus Wagner calls for into Gibichungs for weeks. The results, heard at the seventh and final chorus-only rehearsal on a windy and cold mid-February afternoon in a third floor Lyric Opera House studio, is chilling.
“We have thirty questions we ask,” Black says, who has the chorus say their words in perfect German together before they sing them out. The sound is beautiful, but terrifying. The chorus is in street clothes, but their black costumes, vests and wigs are being attended to by busy teams over in Lyric’s wardrobe and wig departments, all by hand. Watching wigmakers at work, one human hair at a time yet with surprising speed, is fascinating. The wigs look astonishingly lifelike and light. Allowed to pick one up proves they are indeed.
Meanwhile, the principal singers have arrived in Chicago from international commitments and are having costumes fitted and their first rehearsal with Pountney following a week of choreography and movement rehearsals for actors and singers in Rhinemaiden and Valkyrie scenes. For those in the premiere productions, it was a brush-up; for new cast members, the moves were being introduced.
In the theater itself, space is at a premium in the music pit, where an augmented Lyric Opera Orchestra is crowded into every inch of space for the first orchestra-only rehearsal of the cycle. You can see and hear the four harps warming up at the back of the left side of the stage within the instrumental mishmash of simultaneous Wagnerian bits.
Sporting a crimson turtleneck and carefully carrying his “Das Rheingold” score as if it were Rhine gold, Lyric’s music director Sir Andrew Davis—the conductor for all of the “Ring” premieres and for all three of the “Ring” cycles—walks in briskly from within the theater itself rather than making his way through the crowded ensemble from the back of the pit as occurs on performance nights. Surprise: the pit door opens in the center at the conductor’s neck level but it is a long couple of steps down to the conductor’s usual position.
Davis gave up his baton a decade ago due to “tennis elbow, even though I never played tennis.” So the hands are flowing freely as he conjures the sounds of the Rhine that gradually and blissfully fill up the empty theater. Not surprisingly, he adds audible vocalisms where there will be singing. It is quite a show. What is remarkable is that a “Ring Without Words,” as presenting music-only of the “Ring” is often called, is sonically satisfying as nothing else. The rehearsal will stop short of arriving at Valhalla, since, as Davis notes, “we still have a long way to go.” About eighteen hours worth at that point, but tomorrow is a performance day for another opera and there are several orchestra rehearsals ahead before the carefully constructed enormous jigsaw puzzle pieces will be fitted together as a gargantuan single artistic entity.
What does it all mean when all is said and done?
“Well, I think what we see is that the power of love in ‘Götterdämmerung’ is insufficient to withstand the corrupt manipulations of evil,” says Pountney. “And just when we’re at the edge of the abyss, so to speak, and you think that this piece is going to have a terribly dark ending—imagine if Hagen really did get his hand on the ring at the end of the piece—it turns out that love is the purifying agent in water and in fire. As in ‘The Magic Flute,’ the world is purified and evil is washed away in the final flood of the piece. And we’re left with a clean world, I think, is the implication of the final dozen bars or so of this twenty-five-hour epic. So it does turn a remarkable corner and leaves us with a clean slate. That can be looked at as either an optimistic thing—surely, they’re not going to make the same mistakes again—or it leaves you with the terrible feeling that the clean slate is going to be followed by another series of horrible errors and inability to stop reliving bad history. Which we do observe in our funny world, don’t we?”