Mining Rheingold for laughs

What: “Das Rheingold”
Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through Oct. 22

Classical Music Critic

Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” is one of opera’s monumental achievements and it requires considerable forces to mount the composer’s four operas with some three dozen characters, about 15 total hours in performance, and features gods and giants, dragons and flying horses, dangerous magic and mythic settings. Lyric Opera of Chicago has embarked on a new Ring, offering one opera of the cycle each season, culminating in a complete cycle in 2019-20.

Opening Night of Lyric’s 2016-17 season kicked off with the first opera of the tetralogy: “Das Rheingold.”

What Wagner described as the preliminary night of his cycle sets the stage for the multi-generational drama. The dwarf Alberich stumbles upon three lovely Rhinemaidens frolicking in the river. They flirt with him in mean girl fashion, never having the least interest in his affections. They tell him of the powerful gold they guard, and explain its power can only be invoked by one who renounces love. The pitiful Alberich, seeing he has no chance with the Rhinemaidens, declares he will cede all chance for love in favor of the power of the gold and makes off with it.

Elsewhere, the gods are ready to move into their fabulous new home, Valhalla. Woton, the leader of the gods, promised his wife’s sister Freia in payment to the giants who built Valhalla. When they come to collect, he blanches, as he never intended to keep the bargain. Giants Fasolt and Fafner forcibly take Freia, leaving the gods in a terrible quandary. Freia’s golden apples keep them young, and no one else can produce this fruit. Woton and demigod Loge decide to steal Alberich’s gold and use it as payment. They trick Alberich and abscond with the gold, but only after the dwarf puts a curse on all who take possession of it, including the powerful ring.

The giants accept the gold, return Freia, and the gods make their way via a rainbow bridge to Valhalla. But their journey is haunted by the cry of the Rhinemaidens demanding the return of the gold, which is theirs by right.

The cast is led by bass-baritone Eric Owens in his debut in the role of Woton. He effuses all the dignity and authority of the role, but his singing is under fueled throughout, at times being difficult to even hear.

The rest of the cast is utterly magnificent. Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn, making his American debut, offered a stunning portrayal of Alberich. Both singing and acting with intensity and drama, he makes a chilling and convincing villain.

Show stealing Slovakian tenor Stefan Margita is hilarious as Loge always singing with an attractive allure, never letting the humor reduce the quality of the music. German mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, also making her American debut, sings a gorgeous Fricka, and she invests Wotan’s wife with the right degree of independence.

Wilhelm Schwinghammer and Tobias Kehrer are splendid as the giants Fasolt and Fafner, while Laura Wilde is the perfect Freia. Okka von der Damerau’s portrayal of earth mother Erde is gripping.

Diana Newman, Annie Rosen and Lindsay Ammann are top-notch as the Rhinemaidens, singing both individually and as a group with ringing beauty.

Director David Pountney chooses to hide none of his staging tricks. The Rhinemaidens are perched on platforms moved up and down with actor/stagehands operating the cranes. This is choreographed so skillfully that you feel the undulating currents of the river. The giants are represented by two large wooden scaffolds, each outfitted with an enormous head and pair of arms. Their appearance is initially jarring, but the effect is tremendous: these are truly giants. His greatest achievement is the hell-like Nibelheim, red hot, dark, and frightening.

Yet Pountney’s overall conception is at times troubling. When Woton steals the ring from Alberich he doesn’t simply remove it from his finger but rather rips the dwarf’s arm off, a horrible and creepy moment of unnecessary violence. Pountney also mines the work for humor that isn’t there, turning some moments into a bad Saturday Night Live sketch, for instance making a very weak joke of the ascent to Valhalla.

The costumes are another misstep, with many of the characters looking like rejects from a Mozart company. Wotan is dressed like the Count from “Figaro,” Froh looks like the Pasha from “Abduction from the Seraglio” and Donner as a supernumerary from “Idomeneo.” At least some in the audience agreed that the production had problems, as there were scattered boos when the creative team took their curtain call.

In spite of its flaws, this “Rheingold” has many, many strengths and is nonetheless highly recommended.