WNO’s first complete Ring Cycle continued Monday evening with a revamped version of the Die Walküre first seen at the Kennedy Center in 2007. The evening was to feature British soprano Catherine Foster, recently the Brunnhilde in that Soviet gangster energy politics Ring at Bayreuth. Unfortunately, she injured her ankle during a dress rehearsal last week and had to withdraw from Monday’s performance. On the other hand, her extremely luxurious cover turned out to be none other than Christine Goerke.
Goerke, like some kind of opera version of Harvey Keitel’s fixer character from Pulp Fiction, posted on Facebook that when she is within four hours of a Ring cycle she keeps her scores close, then swooped in for the save. Arriving late Sunday, she was ready to go for a 6 PM showtime Monday, turning what was already a fairly legit event into an event that found Wagner lovers up and down the east coast doing the math on how long it would take them to get to DC. But more on Goerke later.
Concept-wise, the first act of Zambello’s Die Walküre remains the most inspired. Relatively unchanged from its initial incarnation, Hunding’s hut is presented as a 1950s nightmare of domesticity, replete with cheap wooden paneling and hunting trophies. Hunding is a reactionary tough, quick to violence when he feels his rightful claim over Sieglinde as his sexual property is under attack.
Naturally his suspicion is aroused by sensitive drifter Siegmund, who is automatically guilty of not occupying a clear place in the social-sexual institutions Hunding needs to preserve his status. The twin’s romance plays as a sweet repudiation of Hunding’s world, their long duet staged as a heady all-night conversation of self-discovery. The tree and portions of the hunting lodge fly away during the ecstatic final music, until the lovers are left on an almost bare stage against a brilliant morning sky.
The treatment of the first half of Act 2 is perhaps the first point in this renewed cycle that seems a bit lost for ideas. This Ring is most successful when it creates a space that, while constructed with recognizable materials, is still clearly a fantasy world with the capacity for playfulness and unexpected possibilities. The Act 2 boardroom with Wotan as master of the universe, Fricka as his society wife, and Brunnhilde as street-smart daughter feels a bit too literal and we miss some of the imaginative touches that make other parts of this Ring memorable.
The second, half-dramatizing Siegmund and Sieglinde’s flight and the battle with Hunding, is better, the outcast lovers strewn amidst the refuse of a highway underpass. This most lonesome of urban images (which I believe popped up in Tankred Dorst’s Bayreuth Ring production around the same time) nicely depicts just how viciously society despises the siblings for their transgression, and how distant the hope of that first spring night must now seem in their wretched position.
Act III goes in a more abstract/generic direction than the rest of the evening, introducing a sort of decommissioned World War II pillbox for Brunnhilde’s rock. The military theme is the jumping off point for the big Valkyrie set piece, with Wotan’s daughters parachuting in at the back of the stage.
In the original version, I’m pretty sure everyone just ran on, but regardless this is a great effect and a nice way to give the audience a “wow” piece of stagecraft without upstaging the Valkyrie chorus, which is after all plenty exciting on its own (as opposed to, say, having them constantly bobbing around on enormous metal planks). Since it doesn’t make a lot of sense for paratroopers to be talking about their steeds, the Valkyries’ extensive discussion of horse management tips has been duly scrubbed for the supertitle translations.
As they did in the original show, the Valkyries carry their “heroes” around in the form of large black and white photos (the pictures are actual photographs of military veterans), which they affix to trellises full of these faces—the Valhalla national reserve. A valiant attempt to somehow show onstage what the Valkyries are singing about, but if this felt clumsy in 2007, it now feels both clumsy and hopelessly “2007.”
But the real fireworks in Act III take place after everyone has parachuted away. The staging of the final scene of this Walküre came together with outstanding dramatic and musical commitment from all involved to present what is certainly the most emotionally intense Act III I have personally seen live, a reminder of the cathartic power this work wields in the right hands and how often productions stop short of its full impact.
As with Rheingold, WNO has put together a very consistent cast. Christopher Ventris, most familiar to DC audiences for leading WNO’s well-received production of Peter Grimes several years back, kicks things off with a highly charismatic Siegmund. His urgent timbre evokes shades of Domingo’s Siegmund, creating impatient excitement in each line and never letting his spinning tone slacken. The sound can grow a bit pinched and colorless at the top, however, making the “Wälse” cries and other climaxes, while fervently sung, less of an attraction here.
Meagan Miller brought a passionate commitment to Sieglinde, eliciting pity both as a young suffering housewife and later as a bedraggled Schwester und Braut. She delivers an attractive, rounded sound throughout the middle range, though the vibrato widens past the pleasant point when adding volume in higher lying passages. Her not-so-secret weapons are top notes of remarkable size and penetrating power that she brought to bear with thrilling effect in Sieglinde’s big moments, even if she didn’t always nail the center of the pitch.
Elizabeth Bishop’s canny Fricka returned here for a very engaging ram-chariot scene, producing a warm, generous tone in her earnest appeals to Wotan’s sense of duty. Raymond Aceto played his randy thug of a Hunding with gusto, his malleable bass another younger sounding low-voice well-suited to this production, though lacking the black colors that can set Hunding apart.
The entry-level appeal of Goerke’s Brunnhilde is not rocket science. Right now she is simply one of few singers around who offers the chance to hear this glorious music sung with a full, uncompromisingly beautiful sound. The middle register is a plush dream, pouring out waves of cool, beguiling tone, while Monday night she also showed off some lower notes to be reckoned with. True, she can be a bit more careful with the top, pulling off the volume just a bit to ensure she gets the right consistency, but the result is a full buttery sound thrillingly true to the page.
After successfully executing what are surely some of the best Hojotoho’s in the game right now, she seemed to be reserving herself a bit with Siegmund, getting lost in the orchestra here and there, though building to a blazing final exchange. She found herself a bit short on breath in some of the Valkyrie banter (the very busy blocking in this scene, which she learned that afternoon I suppose, involves Brunnhilde running up and down a lot of stairs and ramps), but had fully recovered in time for an exhilarating Sieglinde pep talk.
The depth of her reading has clearly grown since the Brunnhilde I saw in Houston last year. This was especially evident in a riveting “Weil für dich im Auge” monologue (and in case you are wondering, no, I will never forgive the lady who made me trade her my aisle seat and then unwrapped some infernal piece of food in the middle of it), though she came to grief in that treacherous closing bit (“Der diese Liebe…”), undershooting the pitch. The increasingly frantic pleas to Wotan in the final bars of her music went from strength to strength and she brought Brunnhilde’s desperate frustration into vivid focus.
Alan Held followed up the unique sense of vocal drama he brought to Saturday’s Rheingold with a devastating portrait of Wotan in crisis. At the risk of stating the obvious, Wotan is not a good dad. He is fundamentally unable to conceive of his children as people separate from his own desires, yet they represent his only chance at redemptive human connection.
Even when Wotan is cradling Siegmund’s lifeless body, a poignant gesture here, it is an act of self-pity as much as anything else. Where many singers play this as simple variations on “Wotan is gloomy,” Held takes it to the logical conclusion and gives us a truly appalling, viscerally unlikeable character.
He matched this with a vocal performance of impressive stamina, delivering menacing authority in Wotan’s big scenes and as well as a constantly searching intelligence in quieter moments. Listening to his engaging, masterful reading of Wotan’s Act II monologue it’s hard to remember why this section has gained such notoriety as a slog.
While he hit a few barky patches keeping the volume up in some of the more unforgiving passages, things always returned to a more focused place. And after all the ruckus of Act II and the Act III opening, for the finale with Brunnhilde he seamlessly switched gears to give us exquisite piano singing in a “Der Augen leuchtendes Paar” that wrecked the audience. Yes, there are prettier Wotans out there, but you would have been hard pressed to find any takers given the immediacy of the drama Held was able to create here.
Philippe Auguin’s strong work in Rheingold on Saturday was clearly only an inkling of what he and this band can do with Wagner’s music. Auguin was on fire here from start to finish, with a reading that managed to never feel rushed while maintaining a thrilling, constant momentum. He does not go in for milking the score, preferring to choose his battles carefully, but when he does highlight something, like the crashing chords leading up to “Leb Wohl,” the effect is tremendous. Detail work in the orchestra was especially fine, from plaintive wind choruses in Acts II and III and gentle, tightly controlled playing in the horns.
One continued to notice welcome improvements to the production, especially the improved look of the Valkyrie entrance and gorgeous shadowy lighting (Michael McCullough) in the highway scene (though I could have used a hair less rainbow everything during Brunnhilde’s description of Valhalla’s amenities). However, after I said such nice things about some of the revised transitional projections in Rheingold, I’m afraid some of the unfortunate Walküre projections are still with us.
Siegmund’s various flights are still accompanied by a POV video of someone running through the woods (suspected to be Rock Creek Park in the original, I’m now seeing some redwoods, so it’s possible someone actually took the time to redo this bad idea), while the highway scene is introduced by actual aerial footage of highways! These are a relatively minor distraction, but still a noticeable misstep in an otherwise increasingly slick presentation.
Photos: Scott Suchman