Cher Public

Wow factor

Sippen und Hunde ruft er zusammen

Sippen und Hunde ruft er zusammen.

At the end of the stunning Act One of last night’s opening of Die Walküre at Lyric Opera of Chicago, I had a most remarkable experience. Audience members around me began saying “Wow!” out loud. 

The phenomenon spread as other audience members heard these cries, and picked it up with “Wows” of their own. As we moved to the lobby for the first intermission, everyone seemed thrilled with the performance. And that was only the beginning.

The second installment of Lyric’s Ring Cycle proved an evening of glorious singing, moving drama, great conducting and orchestral playing provided by a cast of first-rate singing actors who brought the popular music drama to intense, exciting life.

A few directorial miscues aside, this David Pountney production was miles ahead of last year’s Das Rheingold in terms of cohesive story-telling and character delineation. Relationships were detailed and well thought out. Every singer’s commitment to dramatic truth was full, nuanced, and fully engaged both vocally and physically.

As with Rheingold, this production begins with Wotan and the Norns creating the setting in Hunding’s house, then disappearing with the arrival of Siegmund escaping the storm. Here, Siegmund and Sieglinde approach each other like nervous feral cats, feeling attraction but still wary.

Hunding has chained Sieglinde to the ash tree, so she has only limited mobility until he returns. In a spectacular Lyric debut, Swedish soprano Elisabet Strid proved a desperate, almost frenzied Sieglinde, wild in her excellent physical characterization. I recently reviewed Ms. Strid’s debut CD “Wagner and Beethoven,” for ON, and worried that her bel canto singing would prove small for a huge house. I needn’t have worried.

She produced beautiful, clear tone with tons of power for the passionate moments of the role. Her chemistry with the sweet-voiced tenor Brandon Jovanovich was palpable and exciting. Ain Anger was a superb, barrel-voiced Hunding whose snarly sound spread boomingly throughout the house. Jovanovich sang a wonderful Siegmund, his ringing tenor equal to all the complexities of the role, with the requisite power for his lonely cries of “Wälse! Wälse!”

And from his electrifying recognition of Sieglinde as his sister, the act took off to thrilling vocal and dramatic heights and finished with a surprising sexual frenzy. (Perhaps I must quibble that Nothung the sword came VERY easily out of that tree!) The dramatic tension of this great first act never wavered or flagged, and the audience seemed to hold its collective breath for the ending.

I have to say that I was not completely convinced by Eric Owens’ Wotan in the Rheingold. But throughout the second and third acts, he produced waves of plush tone matched with unusual dramatic commitment. Wotan’s long Act Two monologue (often a bit of a slog) was powerful, moving, and much more physically involved than the baritone’s often stiff demeanor.

He was well matched by the superb Brünnhilde of Christine Goerke, simply a force of nature, shining with personality and joy in doing her father’s bidding. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner was a scorned Fricka who made her demands of Wotan stinging and fierce. She brought a powerful arrogance to the Goddess, though her high notes were far more pleasant than her lower register, which often disappeared into the orchestra.

The depth of Wotan’s anguish in having to abandon the Walsungs was movingly rendered, and his furious charge to Brunnhilde made it clear that he was acting against his own will. Ms. Goerke, looking stunning on her horse Grane (manipulated perfectly by “stagehands”) delivered a moving “Todesverkundiging”, and was utterly convincing when she suddenly decided to support Siegmund’s cause against her father’s wishes.

As the battle between Hunding and Siegmund loomed, I loved the touch of bare-chested dancers cavorting menacingly as Hunding’s hounds. As the act came to its fatal conclusion, both Fricka and Wotan appear on opposite sides of the stage. There is a totally strange and phallic moment as the final chords sound, with Fricka grabbing Wotan’s giant spear that has appeared at center stage. Strange, but highly effective.

Most of my directorial quibbles came in Act Three. The scene opens with the most ghoulish Valkyrie scene of my experience, with lots of blood and gore and the bizarre rope wall where they are hanging up the corpses of the “heroes.” Frankly, it was all too busy, unintentionally funny in spots, and much of the time one couldn’t tell which Valkyrie was singing.

Even after the arrival of Brunnhilde and Sieglinde, there was just too much business going on to focus on the principals. But from the arrival of the furious Wotan, unusually cruel in his berating of Brunnhilde, the act took flight. Owens and Goerke delivered the most moving father-daughter scene in this reviewer’s memory.

Finally fighting through her father’s anger, Goerke gave a tender, tear-inducing acceptance of her fate. The final goodbye as she went to sleep was intense, physical, and highly emotional. The terrific Magic Fire effect with stage hands dancing with fire sticks and a spinning Loge in front of a fiery projection served as a splendid ending.

Andrew Davis’ conducting was exemplary in bringing out all the nuance in Wagner’s rich and complex score, and the Lyric Opera Orchestra played with beauty and precision. Except for a couple of minor flubbed brass entrances in Act Three, it was a tremendous orchestral performance.

Particularly in Act One, from “Der Manner Sippe” to the end, I was actually amazed by the beauty of the playing and it brought a tear to my semi-jaundiced eye.

This Walküre certainly bodes well for the Siegfried and Götterdämmerung to come. Special mention must be made to Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s stylish, varied-period costumes and the bleak but moody lighting of Fabrice Kebour. A great night at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Photo: Cory Weaver

  • It certainly sounded well on the radio. The playing and conducting were superb. The close microphone placement may have picked up a couple of things that did not carry in the theater. I worried a bit about Jovanovich in his big scene at the end of act 1 — I heard a bit of roughness in the tone and some strain, and wondered if he might have been pushing volume too much lately. Well, act 2 eased that fear as he sounded splendid throughout.

    Everybody else was spot on; this was one of the finest, most gripping and powerful Walkures I have ever heard.

  • Thanks for this great review, Henson. There’s nothing in all of opera like a thrilling first act of Walküre. I’m very heartened to hear of Eric Owens’s success. I used to love his singing but he hasn’t been hitting all the marks in the last few years for me. The voice is the kind that I want to hear as Wotan for sure.

    • rapt

      Though Act 3 was past my bedtime, I was happy, too, to hear how good Owens was, since he’s been wobbly or near it the last few times I heard him (none in house)--though he did well in parts of L’Amour de Loin. At last living up to that terrific Alberich when I first heard him!

      • I thought Owens did a valiant job as Jauffré but was miscast — the voice too burly for a lyric part.

    • Christian Ocier

      In recorded history, Owens is the only singer who was able to deliver justice to both Schwarz and Licht Alberich. I can’t imagine any other major Alberich (Neidlinger, Kelemen, Wlaschiha, Nimsgern, Konieczny) who delivered justice to the vocal and dramatic demands of both roles. His is a remarkable and special instrument, capable of nuance and shade. In the house, there were moments when his voice sounded reminiscent of James Morris and George London’s glory days. The monologue was definitely a gem of the second act.

      • Even his Alberich (which I loved) made me want to hear his Wotan. It’s a more voluptuous tone than one usually gets for Alberich.

        • Christian Ocier

          I want to hear his Erda’s Weckruf! Can you imagine that voice filling out that music? Who has interpreted Wotan in the last decade? Struckmann? Late Morris? Konieczny? Dohmen? Good singers, but the last decade gave us rather thin sounding Wotan’s.

          • fletcher

            The Siegfried Wotan is quite high, yes? I thought Owens struggled with the higher bits, especially in the final part of the Act II monologue -- but then by the third Act (also high) it was really glorious. I really want to hear the way he takes the riddles -- it’s tricky music and often plays against the current in the orchestra -- his experience with Alberich could come in handy there.

            • Christian Ocier

              Owens definitely took some time to warm up. His exchanges with Baumgartner led me to think that his approach to Wotan’s character was merely skin deep. Then again, with Hotter in one’s mind, every other singer’s attempt at Wotan comes off as less nuanced. His character definitely transformed by the time he was narrating the events leading up to Walküre.

              The tessitura of Wanderer is definitely challenging. I think Pape may have decided against graduating to Wagner’s bass baritone roles when he realized the magnitude of difficulty in performing all the Wotans.

              Is it just me, or do American productions of Walküre ham up that first exchange between Wotan and Brünnhilde? In this production, Goerke thumped her fist against her chest and looked at Owens in this gesture that read as, “Hey pops, I got your back.”

              I’ve never seen that scene portrayed like that in any European production.

            • That’s been my concern. Owens had a much better top when he sang his first Met Alberich than he has displayed in the last few years.

          • It’s true. We haven’t been overrun with great Wotan’s since Morris’s prime. Terfel had many good things going for him but it’s not an ideal Wotan voice. I always felt Alan Held was a potentially great Wotan and liked his Siegfried outing in Toronto. But I have a feeling he purposely waited to sing the part. I think he sang it at WNO but not a whole lot. I imagine he must have had offers.

            • Christian Ocier

              Held for me falls in the Thomas Stewart class of Wotan. It’s a beautiful voice, very lyrical and artistically subtle, but slightly lacking in presence and authority. The voice is ideal for Gunther, much like Stewart was, but both artists’ artistry allowed them to make much of Wotan despite of size.

              Michael Volle seems geared to be a major Wotan--his voice is capable of shading and coloring (much like Hotter), and from what I’ve heard of his Kurwenal, Sachs, Hollander, Dr. Schon, Amfortas, and Rheingold Wotan, his voice sounds quite impressive. Not too sure about Goerne--people have been urging him to assume Wotan onstage during the last few years. I think it’s a marvelous bass baritone, but I’m not sure if he has the stamina to take on all the stage Wotans. His concert work with van Zweden was interesting, but we’ll have to see if he can actually portray the role.

            • Completely agree about Volle. Very much looking forward to him taking the role on.

        • Christian Ocier

          I miss Mrs. J.C. His Wagner stories were always so animated and insightful.

      • grimoaldo2

        The great Theo Adam recorded and performed Wotan many times and he at least also recorded Alberich for Haitink in the early 90’s, I don’t know if he did Alberich onstage or not. Whether he “delivered justice” in both roles is of course a matter of opinion ( I would say yes)..

        • Christian Ocier

          I enjoyed Adams’ Alberich in that recording. But the timbre just didn’t feel right, even if the artist was there. Dohmen is another example of a Wotan singer who has begun to portray alberich. In most cases, the transition works better that way than the other. Konieczny, an interesting stage performer who had presented Alberich in many stages, represents to me an archetype of the singer who should stay a Nibelung. Some have argued that maybe portraying Wotan with a vocalist of Alberich like qualities will better convey Wotan’s duplicitous nature, as opposed to the sacerdotal Hotter archetype.

          • grimoaldo2

            “His Wotan has a few detractors”

            We all have our detractors.

            Sod ’em.that’s what I say..