“Nun zäume dein Ross, reisige Maid!” (“Mount your horse, cavalry maiden!”) We’re in for a ride!
Zambello’s big pre-show announcement on opening night of The Valkyrie was that Christine Goerke, who had just the afternoon before sung another Brünnhilde in Siegfried in Houston, an equally huge role, had flown in like the Valkyrie she is to perform for the scheduled soprano who had been injured in rehearsal. An anticipatory whoop went up.
Toi toi toi. Opera singers aren’t supposed to sing back-to-back performances, let alone Wagner, let alone Brünnhilde, arguably the most challenging soprano role in the repertory. And I worried because even if, as opera singers do, she had the score “under her belt,” this wasn’t going to be any “park and bark” opera but demanded that the singer remember tricky staging and even trickier moment-to-moment acting and gestural choreography.
With all she’d been through and only a brief two-hour rehearsal, what were her chances? If Goerke had been a circus tightrope walker, it was the equivalent of dancing tightrope sixty feet in the air without a net.
Monday night, Goerke defied everything, including the gods. As she wiped the sweat off her brow during curtain call (after an evening that could have easily meant the Twilight of the KC – or at least this $10 million production,) she brought down the house with unabated applause!
The whole company surpassed what I could have imagined after the success of Part I (The Rhinegold) two nights before. This was unequivocally the most glorious and moving opera I have ever experienced.
To my mind, there were at least three singers whom we got to experience who were simply the best. Instead of a relentless mono-volume wall of sound, which is all too often what Wagnerian productions serve up, Goerke, along with Elizabeth Bishop and Alan Held, shape and interpret the score as strategically as the characters do their god-deals. These singers never over-sing, and while they can pull out the stops as needed, their intelligence is what marks their performances as great. They raised the entire cast to their best levels, all of the singers giving 100%, or, as my crew-loving son says, they “leave it all in the water.”
The “ride” began, as in the previous opera, with a synthesis of music and projections. Depicted was a great storm at sea that amplified the stirring, terrifying whirl in the strings and suggested waves that would curl and drag everyone under. But waves changed to a forest primeval that, using the perspective of a handheld camera, had us running through the woods. There were terrifying wild images, including a glimpse of a wolf running. With the orchestra’s driving music, the first overture already had our hearts pounding.
All this set us up emotionally to come right into the story of Siegmund, a man called Wolf-cub, who in losing his mother and sister very early had lost any tenderness in his life. His brutal existence had led him into a huge fight where many lives were lost and from which he was running before collapsing outside a simple framed-wooden home in the woods.
In delaying Siegmund’s bursting into Hunding’s house and instead setting up an exterior first scene, Zambello makes much more reasonable the situation of Sieglinde, a young wife left alone in the woods and feeling cautious, who discovers the stranger. Indeed, when she gives Siegmund a glass of water, it might as well have been her coming upon a hurt animal. Delaying Siegmund’s entrance into the house until husband Hunding arrives builds not only situational credibility but also sets up the exploding tension when all three of them are “trapped” together inside.
Wagner has written difficult challenges in the first act for performers — and for audience. There are long orchestral passages where in many productions, the two who are destined to fall in love and run off in an adulterous union, stand staring at each other. It sometimes stretches the abilities of the singer-actors and the audience’s patience. Then there’s the tricky piece that they and we learn later: they are brother and sister. The incest thing. It doesn’t stop their ardor or their actions.
Meagan Miller is an unforgettable Sieglinde. Costumed in a sleeveless blue dress, the whiteness of her exposed arms gives us both her vulnerability and sensuality. On these arms are bruises or burn marks of spousal abuse. Her “unhappy marriage” is given a shocking reality, and even helps explain why she is so immediately attracted to a fellow wild and frightened creature, a “friend” who might help her escape the horrors she endures. Siegmund is equally believable as an uncultivated but principled man, who finds he can become a true hero through the eyes of the beautiful young woman. The discovery breaks open the man who calls himself “Woeful” and unleashes a torrent of love.
The best music Wagner ever wrote comes in the first act. At the very beginning, I wasn’t sure about the heavy vibrato in both these singers’ voices. But, as Siegmund sings “Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond,” his song of spring and love, and Sieglinde responds with “Du bist der Lenz”(“You are the spring,”) their voices mesh. The music, with these two terrific singer-actors, carry us away with its beauty and poignancy. And these two just kept getting stronger.
Director Francesca Zambello has taken many chances in staging this opera cycle, but, emotionally, she took what were for me, the strongest and hardest emotional ones in the depiction of Hunding and his world. Hunding is always seen as a brooding, edgy guy, but Zambello has un-mistakenly pushed Raymond Aceto’s Hunding to be both brute and wife-basher. It makes the situation electrifyingly dangerous. Aceto proves up to the task. His Hunding is loathsome, as he paws at his wife, snaps his fingers for service, and thrusts his pelvis against her hips. His sexual demands for Sieglinde’s attention, even in front of a stranger, are grotesque.
Zambello also made some other connections that frankly made me wince. When the walls fly up to show the interior of Hunding’s home, we are looking into a hunter’s lodge, its walls laden with trophy heads. The guy’s stash of guns and other weapons suggest this could even be a survivalist camp. Hunding makes his first entrance with a chorus of hunt-buddies, who throw a side of meat at Sieglinde then treat her with lascivious disrespect. Later, Hunding chains up Siegmund like a dog and threatens him with a knife to his throat then grabs all his other weapons and carries them off to bed. In our current battle over gun control, has this statement been pushed too far? (By the second act, in hunting down the fleeing Siegmund and Sieglinde, Hunding literally, calls in the dogs, and the snarling German shepherds that charge across the stage conjured up other iconic historical images about our society’s social abuses.)
But happily, the beginning of Act II leaves this world to a more delightful and much appreciated update. With the help of video footage during Wagner’s interlude, we escape from the woods, board a train to a metropolis, and then ascend into a magnificent tower penthouse office. CEO Wotan’s panoramic view looks down on his real estate below, complete with skyscrapers crowded onto a small island at a familiar convergence of two rivers.
We had already been introduced to Held as god Wotan and Bishop as his wife Fricka in Part I but with Goerke as Wotan’s favorite daughter, Brünnhilde, these three make a distinct and believable mogul family. You can’t take your eyes off them, and sometimes, they are giving off so much dramatic “information” it is hard to breathe. They move effortlessly not only between musical interchanges but moments of comedy as well as satisfying kick-ass drama.
Goerke treats Wotan with playful irreverence. She bursts into his office, talks on her dad’s phone, rifles up a picture of his protégé hero Siegmund, and grabs his staff of power to play out a mock battle with him. A daughter with special privileges, she decamps to what she knows will be another domestic squabble when her stepmother Fricka enters.
Goddess of Marriage Fricka is indeed on a roll and uses many wiles to get what she wants: the sanctity of marriage upheld and Siegmund’s adulterous and incestuous behavior punished. Bishop lurches forward as if gagging when she brings up the incest piece. Her Fricka may have a point. How deftly Bishop and Held spar, at times retreating behind the newspaper, deepening further the all-too-real marriage relationship we’ve seen in The Rhinegold. She wins, and Wotan is left crushed, where Brünnhilde finds him.
In the following moments between father and daughter, we are treated to another scene of great intimacy and accomplished acting. They dispel any notion that here is another one of Wagner’s long narratives by Wotan. As Wotan tells Brünnhilde the whole history that has led up to this age, he takes her into his confidence and puts his case before her that Wotan has staying power and should not be underestimated. He has not only fathered Brünnhilde (and possibly eight other Valkyries) with Earth Goddess Erda but has done so strategically — to attain Erda’s wisdom and raise his daughters as warriors to build up an army to defend the gods’ now threatened existence. He’s even fathered a hero, Siegmund, with a mortal, because only a hero can do what the gods cannot: break the power of the one who possesses the ring.
The second part of Act II carries us all to another location, the crumbling infrastructure under an urban overpass, complete with detritus of a heedless society. Here we see Siegmund’s fate played out. But first, there is a heartbreaking scene of two runaways. Miller’s Sieglinde, who thought she’d find solace and safety in her hero and friend has instead been made a victim of incestuous sex. Siegmund, who loves her dearly, is both shocked and powerless to help or even understand her unraveling as she careens from clinging love to fear and shame. Miller unleashes everything she has, going to a place emotionally and vocally that is almost unbearable but theatrically thrilling.
Boy, does Zambello know her stuff with the physicality in this production! The images pile on, many which both startle and deeply shock. In the climax of this act, Wotan embraces his dying son Siegmund, the hero he’s helped mortally wound. Then, instead of killing Hunding with a dismissive gesture, he takes the man gently in his arms then snaps his spine.
Everyone anticipates the famous “Ride of the Valkyries,” but where does one go from what we’ve just been through? Conductor Philippe Auguin assuredly takes us to new heights, driving the orchestra at a remarkable clip so that the hairs on the necks of the entire audience are standing on end. (You can tell he’s “it” when he gets deafening applause after every intermission.) The sound the orchestra gets here blows us out of the water!
Zambello releases us emotionally to recognize and laugh with childlike delight as the Valkyries slide through the air with parachutes on a great diagonal, all dressed in aviatrix jumpsuits with white silk scarves reminiscent of our most famous female flyer, Amelia Earhart. With this directorial choice, our director may have hit upon the most emblematic image yet of the Americanization of her Ring.
When these ladies start singing their “Hojotoho heiaha!” the sound pierces the air with matchless energy, reprising Brünnhilde’s call from Act II. Goerke’s was a unique shaping of this phrase, familiar to anyone knowing opera. The singer articulates the rhythm, by pulling back from a single loud phrase and making one note hang and oscillate and then comes back, banging out each climactic peal. This choice alone makes for a standout Brünnhilde.
I’ve run out of superlative responses. But the final scene between father and daughter, where Brünnhilde begs to be forgiven for defying him and trying to save Siegmund, often feels too long, and the singers as well as the audience by this time often run out of steam. One of the reasons it works here is that Zambello doesn’t let anyone just hang out. (Actually, I was probably not alone by this time just hoping our Brünnhilde could be given a break, she’d already managed so much.)
But director and singer are nothing if not living and breathing Valkyries, and Goerke ran leaping from riser to steps and up and down the treacherous looking ramps. Yet nothing took away from the intensity between father and daughter as they fought, loved, and shared their fateful parting.
At the climactic moment, a real fire lit up the stage to protect Brünnhilde until a real hero would release her. (Stay tuned!) Magical, hot, colorful, emotionally charged, and dangerous, the fire symbolized the entire opera and what we had been through all evening.
The Valkyrie. Music and Libretto by Richard Wagner. Directed by Francesca Zambello. Conducted by Philippe Auguin. Featuring Raymond Aceto, Lindsay Ammann, Elizabeth Bishop, Daryl Freedman, Eve Gigliotti, Christine Goerke, Alan Held, Catherine Martin, Meagan Miller, Melody Moore, Lori Phillips, Marci Stonikas, Renée Tatum, and Christopher Ventris.
Set Designer: Michael Yeargan. Costume Designer: Catherine Zuber. Lighting Designer: Mark McCullough. Original Projections: Jan Hartley. New Projections: S. Katy Tucker. Movement Director: Denni Sayers. Fight Master: Joe Isenberg. Produced by Washington National Opera. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.