The first act of Lyric Opera's new production of Siegfried is a triumph for director David Pountney, who's put the four operas of Richard Wagner's mythic, fairy-tale-like Ring Cycle into a self-consciously theatrical steampunk setting.
That concept works for the opening of this third installment (the Lyric has been staging one annually), a coming-of-age story for the eponymous hero, because Pountney takes Siegfried all the way back to early childhood. The curtain goes up on a toy-strewn nursery with a giant playpen and a backdrop of kids' art that foreshadows encounters to come with a talking bird and a dragon. With a full set of steampunk special effects, including puppets, masks, and mimelike stagehands, it enchants.
Especially since tenor Burkhard Fritz has the child Siegfried down pat: rash, brash, ignorant, full of himself (even as he clutches his doll), and ready to rumble. The Baby Trump blimp floats into mind.
Siegfried's had a nightmare of a childhood, raised in isolation by the malevolent gnome Mime, portrayed here by tenor Matthias Klink in a brilliant and vocally astute performance. As he frequently reminds Siegfried, Mime has been both mother and father to him; in this production he's outfitted in a spaghetti-strapped frock.
There's a big backstory. The Ring Cycle is a family drama, and its patriarch is Wotan, chief of the gods, sung (royally and on stilts) by bass-baritone Eric Owens. Years earlier, Wotan got it on with the earth goddess, Erda (mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller); they had a child, the maiden-warrior Brünnhilde (she of the horned helmet and flying steed), who became his favorite daughter. In a previous episode (er, opera), Brünnhilde rebelled against Wotan, and he put her into a comalike sleep. Wotan also fathered a pair of half-human twins—Siegmund and Sieglinde—who, in a union promptly followed by their deaths, produced Siegfried.
In this installment of the cycle, Siegfried learns of his parentage, mends his father's powerful sword, slays the giant Fafner (who's taken the form of a dragon), acquires a problematic magic ring, and discovers and woos Brunnhilde, who, yes, is his aunt.
However, the run time, for three acts and two intermissions, is five hours. The steampunk gimmicks, fetching in the first act, begin to wear thin in the second; Wagner was a plodding librettist, and his hero (especially as portrayed and sung here) never becomes more than a blustering little boy. But the music (conducted by Sir Andrew Davis) is glorious, especially in the third act. And there's a fantastic bonus for hanging in that long: the mighty soprano Christine Goerke, as the literally and sexually awakened Brünnhilde, rises to join her overwhelmed lover in a closing duet that is Wagner's rapturous tribute to passion. v