OPERA / Through hell and high water: Das Rheingold - Chicago

Ever since Patrice Chereau put Wagner's Rhinemaidens on top of a hydro- electric dam in his famous centenary Ring cycle at Bayreuth, stage directors of Das Rheingold have been trying to outdo each other in solving the problem of Wagner's flirtatious mermaids. In the first instalment of Lyric Opera of Chicago's new cycle on Saturday, producer August Everding and designer John Conklin arrived at a particularly flamboyant solution: Rhinemaidens harnessed to a complex set of wires that allowed them to dart athletically around the stage rather like seasoned bungee-jumpers.

In many ways, this typified the problems with this often imaginative, but frequently puzzling, production: the stage effects were sometimes so intrusive that it was difficult to concentrate on the story. The score was sometimes upstaged as well, even though musical matters were mostly at the highest level, with a cast including the ever-commanding James Morris as Wotan, Tatiana Troyanos in peak form as Fricka, Ekkehard Wlaschiha as an Alberich almost breezy in his diabolical arrogance, and the up- and-coming Bryn Terfel somewhat wasted in the role of Donner.

Though the ideas laid out in this Rheingold may well coalesce into an enlightening concept in later instalments, the poetic images often didn't stand alone here. There was an appropriate coldness in the colour schemes and the sleek, metallic look of the costumes - a Nineties spin on the spears and helmets of traditional Wagneriana. Yet so much seemed superfluous, even arbitrary - from the strips of neon that appeared at various moments to the yo-yo that the god Froh played with during idle moments. The occasional kabuki influence seemed less an artistic choice than logistical necessity.

The production began to focus itself when Wotan descended to the underworld, where the power- hungry Alberich was forging the Rhinemaidens' stolen gold. Here, Everding and Conklin created a vision of hell, with heavy chains hanging down and a chaotic pile of gold, surrounded by exhausted, half-dead slaves and a bushy- haired, bug-eyed Mime (Dennis Petersen). Elsewhere, otherwise fantastical scenic effects threatened to collapse under their own heavy-handedness.

Amid such tentative promise, conductor Zubin Mehta seemed more inspired than he has been in years. He displayed astonishing identification with the score, his brisk tempos and rhythmic sharpness giving the less-than-lyrical leitmotifs a chilling eloquence. With Mehta, one can always assume the big moments will be well in hand; the surprise is how movingly the more thinly orchestrated passages came off - as when the gods began to age without Freia's apples. This effectively underscored how much Wotan's vanity is a motivating force throughout the drama. If there's one distinctive reason to return to future instalments of this Ring, it's Mehta.

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