IN a climactic scene midway through Richard Wagner's epic "The
Ring" now at Chicago's Lyric Opera, the young hero, Siegfried, must
split an anvil with a mighty sword forged to capture the
But recently as the orchestra dashed into a furious prestissimo,
Siegfried raised the glowing steel, brought it crashing down upon
the anvil - and bent the sword.
Two acts later, Siegfried's sword again sliced the air and
missed shattering chief god Wotan's spear. With great presence of
mind, Wotan broke the spear over his own knee.
"Siegfried was singing, he spaced out," says technical director
Drew Landmesser, pacing amid towering pillars and airborne horses
in the Lyric's cavernous backstage.
Minor mishaps, however, detract little from the overall
excellence of the Lyric's first full-cycle Ring. Indeed, just as
Wagner's Nordic gods display mortal frailties, it seems fitting
that such an Olympian production contains a distinctly human mix of
sublimity and imperfection, solemnity and humor, intensity and
Wagner (1813-1883) himself was a man of troubling
contradictions, according to students of his operas.
A determined reformer of operatic style, Wagner struggled with
poverty and bitter public criticism as he wrote "music dramas,"
stories woven with vivid leitmotifs, or "deeds of music made
visible." His most extensive work, the 15-1/2-hour "Der Ring des
Nibelungen," was finally performed at Bayreuth, Germany, in 1876,
28 years after its conception.
Based on Scandinavian legends, the prologue and three operas -
"Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold)," "Die Walkure (The Valkyrie),"
"Siegfried," and "Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods)" - center
around a magic ring made from the Rhine gold and the curse it
brought to all who owned it.
Driven by greed, men and gods renounce love to pursue the wealth
and power bestowed by the golden ring. In the end, domestic chaos
among Wotan's family and earthly clans destroys the world. The
ultimate solution, Wagner suggests, is redemption through love.
Ironically, music historians say Wagner should have taken the
ring's moral lesson more to heart in his private life.
"One has to temper Wagner's dramatic genius with his
anti-Semitism, his megalomaniac views of culture, his vision of the
German nation, and him as a person," says Berthold Hoeckner, a
University of Chicago professor and expert on 19th-century German
For most fans of Wagnerian opera, however, the riveting, richly
flowing score outweighs the composer's flaws.
"It's a bonding thing," says Art Clifton, president and founder
of the Chicago Wagner Society.
The Lyric's three Ring cycles, which sold out last summer,
started March 11 and will run until March 30. They are expected to
draw 10,500 people from 22 countries and 50 states. Subscriptions
were sold only for complete cycles, a week of Wagner immersion for
"The music, poetry, acting, costumes, and story - no other
operatic composer has done it with the complexity of Wagner," raves
Diane Ross, an artist from Santa Barbara, Calif., attending her
seventh Ring performance. "I like the intricate thought process you
need to be involved with Wagner. Each time you hear it you are more
aware of the motifs."
Conductor Zubin Mehta has inspired critics, the audience, and
performers alike with his poised ability to keep score and drama in
balance. "He is the heart of this Ring. The orchestra has come up a
notch for him," says cast member Martha Jane Howe. …