Review: Lyric Opera’s ‘Twilight: Gods’ is a drive-through Wagnerian hellscape in an underground garage
Richard Wagner railed against art that existed only in the consciousness of certain individuals and meant nothing to the unconscious public. John Landis, filming “The Blues Brothers” in 1979, mythologized the subterranean Chicago roadway, as surely as J.R.R. Tolkien chronicled Middle Earth or George R.R. Martin Westeros and Essos. Which brings us, here in the dog days of a pandemic, to 13 acres of the Millennium Lakeside Parking Garage, a vast Midwestern heft of underground storage, conveniently on one dystopian level and now the home of “Twilight: Gods,” Yuval Sharon’s radical drive-through adaptation of Wagner’s “Gotterdammerung” for Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Like most pandemic art, the landscape of “Twilight: Gods” was born of regulation and necessity. As conceived by Sharon, a 2017 MacArthur “genius,” and you can see why right here, the work is consumed from inside a car.
The private automobiles, symbolic referents to which also suffuse the work, are led by guides in funereal procession through different stations in varying sections of the garage. At each of the five destinations, the driver stops in a precise spot, regulated to the inch, and turns off the engine to avoid exhaust fumes. A passenger finds a radio station on the FM dial. Thereafter, the live singing of, say, Catherine Martin (Waltraute) or Christine Goerke (Brünnhilde) fills the cabin, as accompanied by musicians located in various parts of the garage. It is technically verboten to lower your window to snag the unique acoustic experience of hearing the incredible sound of Goerke in an underground parking garage (unless she makes an unknown habit of that), but I confess to breaking that rule for a moment.
As you navigate a tight corner, you may have to take care not to hit a cellist. He’s not looking at you. But the experience was conceived for acres of space, filled here by a truly stunning design from Jason H. Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras, executing an original Sharon concept first created for the co-producing Michigan Opera Theatre, which might explain the dominance of cars, especially since the MOT owns its own parking garage in Detroit.
Graffiti adorns the ramps. Text (oblique, contemporary, Wagnerian) can be found. But the biggest eye-popper is the lighting, all seemingly battery powered and evoking a panoply of referents from crumbled Athenian columns to the petitions of the candles lit during Dia de los Muertos. At one point, you turn a corner and see a veritable sea of light, part Christmas in Santa Fe and part old Norse metaphysical and, of course, very Wagneresque.
The running time of the epic piece is 70 minutes and you should know that a good chunk of that is taking up by moving from place to place at three miles an hour, although much effort is expended to make that journey as experiential as everything else. The necessary truncation is mitigated by an original narration, performed in Chicago by avery r. young, an interdisciplinary artist in the role of The Norns, and the text is free-wheeling enough to evoke racial unrest, violent police encounters, a lack of oxygen. The first scene takes place on high-definition video, matching the multi-media conception but also probably facilitating logistics, since groups of cars are entering every 10 minutes.
But Waltraute’s story is very much live, as is Brünnhilde’s intransigence and spectacular conclusionary self-sacrifice, following the death of her lover Siegfried (Sean Panikkar), an evisceration here involving a car, naturally enough. The singers traverse the space: Goerke comes close to some windshields as she wanders in Brünnhilde’s agony, but the overall experience is one of humans, be they Chicagoans or creatures of Old Norse mythology, divorced by circumstance and environment and the mistakes of the past, even as the young narrator tries to rope everything together. Literally, at times.
And you, of course, are divorced from other audience members. You can talk in your car in the dark; you can do whatever, maybe even fantasize about putting pedal to the floor and Jake-and-Elwooding past Brünnhilde and a pandemic scenario that has had us all masked, pained, isolated, anxious, confined to our own spaces as life marches on and death comes closer.
There are no bows, no emotional catharsis, no sense, really, that anyone else saw what was seen by you and your in your moving bubble. As your temporary friends ride off into the flames, you just follow the guide to your exit — up, up, thank God up.
As any fan of the “Ring” cycle well knows, those are all Wagnerian probings, writ large here in a truly extraordinary staging that likely won’t come again.
May there be no need.
“Twilight: Gods” plays through Sunday. Live performances are sold out; Lyric plans to release a filmed version this summer; more at www.lyricopera.org
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.