If you are going to stiff your contractors, make sure they aren't giants.
That isn't the typical spin on "Das Rheingold," the opening salvo of Richard Wagner's epic Ring Cycle.
But these are not typical times.
I was fortunate enough to join the full house Saturday night welcoming the opening of the 2016/2017 Lyric Opera season, and now that our incomparable critic Hedy Weiss has weighed in with her typically spot-on review, I feel safe to poke my nose out and sniff the start of what is certain to be a whiz-bang season, complete with beloved barn burners "Carmen" and "The Magic Flute."
"Rheingold" starts with one of the most famous passages in music, Wagner's 136 bars of E flat tonic chord. Given the composer's eventual supporting role in his nation's slide into homicidal madness in the 20th century, that groan always struck me as the modern world waking up and fluttering one red eye, all the more significant when you consider that Wagner composed it in the early 1850s.
Put it another way. At the exact moment Wagner was blending Norse myth and aural thunder to create"Rheingold," our own national composer, Stephen Foster, was penning "I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair."
This is a new production of the Ring, and I admired director David Pountney's spare, almost Becketian way it begins, the Rhine River emerging wondrously from a satchel, and the dwarf Alberich with his tramp's bowler hat. He lusts after the Rhinemaidens, capering about on their rolling industrial platforms, steals their gold (memo to guardian nymphs—don't tell strangers how to steal your treasure) then forges that gold into the all powerful Ring in his subterranean hellscape (yet another homage to Fritz Lang's "Metropolis.")
The plot, as with many operas, is too convoluted to bear recounting. But Wotan, king of the gods, has hired a pair of giants, Fasolt and Fafner, to build his fortress and now is reluctant to pay their agreed-upon-price, his sister-in-law Freia. He dangles the gold he doesn't actually have, another Trumpian ploy.
"Rheingold" is more of an hors d'oeuvre compared to the table-groaning feast of the next three operas in the cycle, "Walkure," "Siegfried," and "Gotterdammerung," and just hearing a snippet of stormy themes to come while Donner blows the mists away from Valhalla was enough for me to want to leap to the rest of the action. But in due time. The Lyric is doling them out, one a year, and then hitting the entire cycle in 2020 for those with the will and the backside stamina to surmount it.
My wife, no Wagner fan, pronounced it "magic" and says she now intends to see the entire Ring, a completely unexpected come-to-Jesus moment.
"It gets better," I said, thinking of the music.
Only one moment in the two-and-a-half hour opera clunked for me, conceptually--Wotan's fortress is spied in the distance as a tiny wooden mock-up of the gears and pulleys arch of the stage set. I get where they're going, but it's such a tiny framework of brown sticks, evoking, for me, the wee witch's house in "Hansel and Gretel," and seems more a false economy than a defendable dramatic decision. No wonder Wotan didn't want to pay the giants their fee.
But that is a quibble in a night of splendor. Given the critical guffaws that some new "Rings" have received, and the technical problems that have plagued other productions, the Lyric can't help but sit back, satisfied that they have launched their massive vessel well upon its stormy sea.
The swapping of love for power and gold. The crushing down of workers under your power. The indifference of our leaders—Eric Owen's Wotan was an oddly absent figure, overshadowed by half a dozen other characters. Great art is always timely, but this production might be a little too timely. Then again, it has only just begun.