An Evening with Wagner at the Lyric
There’s something special about the opera. Is it the quality of the production? Is it the beautiful opera house? Is it the opera culture which brings together ballgowns and tee-shirts, dinners in boxes and sack meals in staircases? I’d say no— it’s the sense of connection with our past that it provides. Opera is an art form that hasn’t changed too much in its 400-year existence. It has been shaped by the world, but more often it’s done the shaping. All those aspects of opera— the talent of the singers and the orchestra, the space, the people and the culture— they are so special because they have persisted and held on in their own way amidst a changing world. The Lyric Opera in Chicago is the peak of this art form in the Midwest. With a sensational season each year, they put on works never before seen and works which have stood the test of time. One such work was their fall production of Wagner’s Siegfried. This terrific production took artistic liberties, but despite its five-hour length, was thoroughly enjoyable and engaging.
Siegfried is the third of the Ring quartet, Wagner’s operatic retelling of the Germanic myth of the Ring of the Nibelungs. Siegfried concerns itself with its titular character’s journey to slay a terrifying dragon, uncover the truth about his origins, and find true love. Wagner, born in Germany in 1813, is at the epitome of German Romantic opera, and the opera is itself an archetype of this highly distinguished genre. Nationalist themes abound, as was popular within the Romantic movement of the era. These themes are as integral to the production as the content itself; the opera is about a German myth, and national myth is a core aspect of nationalism. The opera also concerns itself with Siegfried, a deeply heroic lead character, who, while sometimes misguided, is ultimately a Romantic character himself.
The Lyric Opera’s production of Siegfried was assuredly excellent. As a firm believer that the production begins when one enters the theater, the Lyric did an excellent job of holding to a unique and heightened atmosphere at all times. The Art Deco grand foyer was a breathtaking sight. Even more so were the other attendees. One might see, in their own field of vision alone, a couple in evening dress, or an older gentleman in a Cubs jersey, or young college students in their bow ties and sport coats.
The performance was truly excellent. The production staff went for a whimsical and almost cartoonish look, inspired by their set designer Robert Innes Hopkins. Hopkins used a variety of creative lighting designs, callouts to pop culture such as the Amazon-esque boxes that delivered Siegfried’s IKEA style sword-building kit, multi-leveled space, and distortions of size to create a lively world for Wagner’s high-caliber work. The favorite performance of the evening was Eric Owens’ Wotan. The grandfather of Siegfried, Wotan, better known in other myths as Odin, guides his grandson through perilous journeys on the path to self-actualization. Mr. Owens has perfected his natural resonance. His voice cut the orchestra like none I have ever heard before, even as he dove deeply into his lower register. Siegfried is not easy music by any means; beyond all others, Mr. Owens’ made it look effortless. His poise and presence stole the show.
The orchestra, directed by Sir Andrew Davis, was superb as well. Sir Davis’ impassioned conducting, characterized by a disregard for standard patterns but a well defined final beat, was well suited to Wagnerian music in its lack of cadence or well-defined key area. He forced his orchestra to express that musical reality of this opera, and they did so with what I can only describe as a well-reasoned sense of placidity. There was never a sense of the music overwhelming the action on stage, an all-too-common fault of live opera. They knew that they were a driving force in the production, and handled that responsibility with grace while assuring that they stayed well balanced.
The Lyric has cemented itself yet again as the premier opera house in the heart of America. Beyond that, its creative take on Wagner’s third Ring opera allows it to stand out amongst the rest of the national and international opera community. Siegfried was an excellent showing of professionalism in opera at its finest. Each singer, player, stagehand, production staffer, usher, ticket taker— the list goes on— contributed to a transportive evening which united the audience with generations of opera-goers who’ve enjoyed this cumulative art form.
Zach Pearson is a sophomore majoring in Music and the Program of Liberal Studies. He maintains that Handel is greater than Bach even though he knows that that’s a completely bogus opinion. Send him your favorite recordings of early music at firstname.lastname@example.org