Tuesday, May 3, 2016

First Day: Die Walküre

Wagner stipulated that his tetralogy is to be performed in three days and one preliminary evening. In this scheme of things, the first of the four operas, Das Rheingold, is a prologue. I don't quite get the logic of it, but nevertheless, this somehow puts Die Walküre in the first place. Indeed, it is the most popular and best known of the four Ring operas. Perhaps that's why it opened with more fanfare (literally) on Monday than the "prologue" two days ago.

Ring's "First Day" opens with fanfare on Alpenhorns
After seeing Christine Goerke in Florencia an el Amazonas a few years ago, I said she was my new favorite soprano. So when it was announced that she would replace the indisposed Catherine Foster as Brünhilde at least for the evening, I was curious but admittedly a little suspicious, despite her reputation as a Wagnerian. Florencia is one thing and Brünhilde quite another, and my taste rarely conforms with reviewers' opinions.

Well, Goerke dispelled any doubt I might have had when she hurtled onto the stage, seemingly from a riding session, for a meeting with her father. She was in excellent voice, sang effortlessly throughout, and her presence was electrifying after a somewhat disappointing Siegmund/Sieglinde duo (Christopher Ventris and Meagan Miller). It is a pity that Goerke's expressive voice was drowned by the orchestra in some of the most sensitive moments of her encounter with Siegmund.

Another star of the evening for me was Alan Held as Wotan. From a ruthless god in Das Rheingold he transitioned into a father torn between love and duty. His torment after killing out-of-wedlock son Siegmund is so genuine that I felt a lump swelling in my throat and I am far from sentimental. He was equally poignant in his farewell to Brünhilde. When I first saw Held's Wotan, he turned from the charming young seducer of Das Rheingold into a more mature man/god of Die Walk
üre and finally into an old tramp in Siegfried. This time around he displayed a more profound understanding of Wotan's character and his dilemmas. 

As heralded in Das Rheingold, Francesca Zambello's "American Ring" has undergone a lot of refinement since I last saw it. The popular ride of the Valkyres, with warrior women parachuting onto the stage, was spectacular and a clear favorite with the audience. I liked the way the uniformed women lined up before Wotan as if he were their military commander, not father.
Real German shepherds were running across the stage to sniff out the runaway twins. And Wotan lit real fire around his disobedient daughter. That last scene was not only spectacular but a little frightening too.

Closing scene from Die Walküre was encored in my kitchen 
Some of the things that bothered my the first time around were still there and now I know why. When Placido Domingo sang Siegmund in the earlier production, I remember thinking: well, hasn't he aged, look at how his shoulders are stooped! But when I saw the same hump on a much younger Christopher Ventris on Monday, I had a better view from a seat closer to the stage, and saw that the problem was in the coat, not Domingo's back. The coat has a pleat in the upper back that opens when the singer bends, making him look like a hunchback. Hasn't the designer noticed that with all the bending between Siegmund and Sieglinde?

A propos bending, I used to think that Anja Kampe (WNO's 2007 Sieglinde) was unable to assume more than two different postures on the stage: one with her arms wrapped around her waist, the other with her arms spread out; both while leaning heavily forward. I was therefore surprised to see her as a seductive and quite creative Tosca two years ago in Berlin. Miller's Sieglinde on Monday showed a wider range of motion and expression than Kampe's, but bending forward was her main shtick as well, suggesting it has more to do with die Regie than the interpreter.

New patrons probably won't notice any of this as they get carried away by the drama unfolding on the stage. Zambello's concept of Americanizing The Ring worked very well in Die Walküre as it did in Das Rheingold, and how could it not with our CEO's acting like gods, many of our young people serving in the military, numerous children being abandoned by parents and women still being punished for being assertive. The first scene of Act I could be taking place in the Appalachia, or in any remote, gun-toting community that abides by its own laws and honor code. The encounter between Wotan and Fricka could have been a scene from a
convincing new version of Citizen Cane.

In answer to the traditionalists who reject Wotan in a three-piece suit, here's how Sir Denis Forman paraphrases Wotan in A Night at the Opera: "I won the world by making some pretty dodgy deals with certain doubtful operators" and "I can't attack Fafner because the deal I did with him specifically excludes aggression." Forman was born in 1917 and the book is from 1994. We are in 2016 if I am not mistaken.

Wagner's impact is powerful - I was only too aware of it when the smell from my kitchen  back home reminded me that I had forgotten to turn off the stove before leaving for the opera. During the five-hour absence, what was supposed to be a home made beef soup turned into a pile of charcoals at the bottom of the pot.  My apprehension about the stage fire was actually a premonition.