Parking garages are often dingy, dank, and, well, a little forbidding — in other words, the perfect, if totally unlikely setting for a radical reimagining of “Götterdämmerung.” The dark, ultimately redemptive work culminates Richard Wagner’s mythic 19th-century opera cycle, “Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung).”
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s sold-out production of just such a makeover, “Twilight: Gods,” which runs April 28, 30 and May 2 in the Millennium Lakeside Parking Garage, is not so much an opera in any conventional sense but what might be called an immersive experience with music, dance, theater and poetry all woven together.
It is the brainchild of Yuval Sharon, a 2017 MacArthur Foundation genius grant winner who is the daring artistic director of the Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit, where the production debuted to national accolades last year.
Working with Lyric, which co-commissioned “Twilight: Gods,” the director restaged it here, with slight, inevitable variations to accommodate this setting. It was reviewed Monday evening during the dress rehearsal, which ran a little more than 90 minutes without intermission — a far cry from the five hours of Wagner’s original opera.
Audiences experience this work from their cars, nine vehicles at a time (126 total per night) snaking through a blue-lit, maze-like path in the Millennium Lakeside Parking Garage with the help of dozens of guides along the way. They stop at six stations, where scenes from the original opera and added narrative are presented in segments that last 10 minutes or so.
Although it is possible to take in the music and singing echoing through the cavernous expanse of the parking garage with the window down, all the performers are miked and can be heard to much better advantage through the car radio tuned to a different station at each stop.
Two of the six vignettes feature Chicago interdisciplinary artist avery r. young, who also provides what Lyric Opera calls “poetic transitions.” This magnetic performer serves a narrator and contemporary interpreter of Wagner’s original story, appearing in the introductory video, marrying his inventive poetry with bluesy singing, and performing live in the penultimate segment in the guise of a preacher.
Along the way are some startling sights, none more unexpected and other-worldly than what looks like an acre-wide expanse of 2,880 candles with 15 students of the Joffrey Academy of Dance shifting spotlights as they dance to a jazzy arrangement of Siegfried’s funeral music from “Götterdämmerung.” It is all part of the character’s funeral procession, which audience members take part in as they follow his hearse.
But as it should be, considering Lyric is an opera company, the most memorable moments of this production are the operatic vignettes. These include the powerful, redemptive conclusion featuring soprano Christine Goerke, one of the world’s pre-eminent Brünnhildes.
Nothing, though, tops mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin’s haunting aria as Waltraute, daughter of the great god, Wotan, as she laments the failing faculties of her father and tries to convince an unseen Brünnhilde to help him by returning the ring that is at the center of Wagner’s story.
Her performance is heightened by the strange and compelling intimacy of the dimly lit setting – just nine carloads of listeners (instead of potentially more than 3,000 in the Lyric Opera House) sharing this fleeting, communal moment.
While nothing will ever supplant the power of traditional opera performed on a stage and the fusion of colliding elements in “Twilight: Gods” can be unwieldy at times, this inventive mix of old and new is eye-opening, transporting and just plain cool.
At the same time, Lyric Opera’s first in-person production since COVID-19 protocols were imposed more than a year ago is an incredibly ambitious undertaking. The sometimes moribund opera world needs jolts of innovation and originality like this, and the company and all the participants deserves big kudos for taking it on.
Perhaps best of all, it just felt good to be out attending an honest-to-goodness, live, in-person performing arts event.