Last year’s Das Rheingold not only started this new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, which will culminate in three full cycles in the spring of 2020, but it also symbolized a break from the past. Whereas 2005’s cycle featured marquee names in signature roles (most notably James Morris as Wotan, and also Jane Eaglen as Brünnhilde), this 2016-2020 production is visually rich and centered around two marquee names in newer roles, Eric Owens as Wotan in a role debut and Christine Goerke hitting her stride as Brünnhilde. (I saw her in Canadian Opera Company’s Götterdämmerung in February, in which she commanded the stage. Ain Anger, who portrayed Hunding in Die Walküre, gave a masterful performance as Hagen in that same Götterdämmerung.) This is also director David Pountney‘s first full cycle, and he is accompanied by the late Johan Engels—carried on by his successor Robert Innes Hopkins—and costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca, lighting designer Fabrice Kebour, and choreographer Denni Sayers. The production has traded stark minimalism for captivating sets and costumes that fill up every inch of stage and bar of music—even during the vorspiels, some sort of action is occurring to propel the story forward.
Pountney, Engels et al. put together a visually compelling production. There is some continuity with Das Rheingold that I’ll now expect to see in some fashion in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, namely the aspect of making some of the stagehands characters themselves, thereby acknowledging that this is a theatrical work through and through. Also, whereas the gods in Das Rheingold dressed as eighteenth-century patricians, they now appear as nineteenth-century aristocracy in Die Walküre. Which makes sense, considering that we’re now at least a generation removed from the events of Das Rheingold. The contrast in color throughout, coupled with the attention to detail for both costumes and set design, makes for a vivid presentation. This is perhaps most apparent in the third act, with the red Valkyries against the set’s whites, blacks, and grays. (The hues, though bold in contrast, are themselves worn, suggesting that the Valkyries have been at this a while.) But other acts and scenes also made their marks: Hunding’s pale quarters giving way to the warm and sensually bright springtime of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s love; Fricka’s red dress and Wotan’s white coat against Valhalla’s austere hall; Loge’s consuming fire. The contrast in color becomes more apparent in each successive act.
And the acting! Generally, even when the score, libretto, and set design work well together on the opera stage, what passes for “acting” often has a much lower bar. This production, however, has the right mix of personnel and direction. Movements were often organic. Perhaps a subtle facial tick from Goerke’s Brünnhilde or Tanja Ariane Baumgartner‘s Fricka (a role she continued from Das Rheingold) as opposed to grand gesture, or the passionate caressing between Elisabeth Strid‘s Sieglinde and Brandon Jovanovich‘s Siegmund instead of the more typical glacial embrace. The hypnotic, almost desperate love between the Wälsung twins was believable, which only amplified their high passions and low grief. As a viewer, I nearly felt as if I were witnessing private moments between them.
In a similar vein to Das Rheingold, Pountney’s conceit here is less of a Regietheater-esque reinterpretation than one of a theatrical telling of the “original” story—or at least largely staying out of the way in order for you to come to your own interpretive conclusions. The twist, though, is that, as an audience member, you’re not watching and listening to a story so much as you are watching a story being told (likely decades ago). The stagehands-as-characters—moving sets, operating spotlights, etc.—is critical to this. Also welcome is the fact that the production is self-aware enough to not take itself too seriously. When the spotlight instantly shone on Nothung in the ash tree for the first time, it’s as if the production team did it with their tongues firmly in cheek. And, though I won’t spoil it, Loge’s in-person appearance hours later had a similar effect without intruding on the drama too much. Dare I say that it’s a fun production of Die Walküre? All I know is that the audience laughed with the production far more than I had expected.
Pountney and other members of the team have made reference to Henrik Ibsen in discussions of any sort of approach or interpretive framework, citing “intimate relationships within a family” as well as the feminist leanings of A Doll’s House. Given that, I’d be remiss to not at least briefly address the viewing experience in November 2017. This tale of romantic, familial, and power politics rife with emotional and sometimes physical abuse is particularly resonant right now, given that every news cycle is now saturated with what hopefully becomes a necessary, though grievously belated, reckoning regarding sexual harassment and abuse as well as skewed gender dynamics in general.
After I left the theater I read Anthony Tommasini’s review in the New York Times, an overall positive assessment that otherwise chides Pountney for Hunding’s literally chaining Sieglinde to the ash tree running through his home, arguing that her captivity was more emotional than literal. (As a general rule, I try to avoid all reviews beforehand.) I disagree. It not only restricted her movements, making for an interesting staging device, but it made painfully obvious that Sieglinde isn’t just in a loveless marriage with Hunding, but rather she is his slave for all intents and purposes. (Nothing wrong with beating that point home with a sledgehammer.) In a way, this is similar to the Valkyries being scolded by their father Wotan in Act III. Within minutes, the Valkyries regress from triumphant warrior-goddesses with weapons and horses to disobedient schoolgirls being reprimanded while seated in comically small chairs, all while Wotan—seemingly all-powerful father and god, but ultimately just a man behind his own curtain—scolds them from Valhalla above. The visual infantilization was powerful. This context creates extra resonance for the most threatening and insulting remark over the course of the work: when Wotan tells his favorite daughter Brünnhilde that she will submit to a husband and honor his will. Goerke’s reaction was clear; she may as well be chained to a tree like her half-sister Sieglinde.
The vocal roster was superb and delivered powerful performances across the board. Owens’s Wotan was richer and more powerful than in last year’s Das Rheingold. And Goerke’s Brünnhilde was youthful and energetic, and a definite contrast to her portrayal in Canadian Opera Company’s Götterdämmerung—a Brünnhilde that is older, wiser, and vengeful. (And apparently Goerke was fighting a cold Tuesday night. She sure fooled us!) Both Jovanovich’s Siegmund and Strid’s Sieglinde were lyrical across the full emotional spectrum, and I followed them wherever they led. Anger’s Hunding was dark and oppressive to great effect, whereas Baumgartner’s Fricka was guarded and vulnerable. And then the Valkyries1…whew! There were a couple moments in which I couldn’t believe just how mightily big those warrior-singers could get.
Sir Andrew Davis led the Lyric Opera Orchestra through a rousing performance, and I was struck by just how well the voices and orchestra blended with one another. So many graceful transitions of melodic lines throughout. It was sometimes difficult to tell where an instrument would end and a voice would begin. Tuesday’s performance marked Davis’s 30th anniversary since he first stood at Lyric’s podium, and he marked the occasion with a strong, moving delivery.
A few performances remain through November 30th. Don’t wait until 2020 to see this production of Die Walküre for the first time.
1. Despite an illness and understudy being announced twice before the performance, I regret to write that I know neither which vocalist was ill nor her replacement. (Neither did the gentleman sitting next to me, as we immediately tried clarifying with another.) That said, the official casting includes: Whitney Morrison as Gerhilde, Alexandra LoBianco as Helmwige, Laura Wilde as Ortlinde (and Freia in this cycle’s Das Rheingold), Catherine Martin as Waltraute, Deborah Nansteel as Siegrune, Lindsay Ammann as Rossweisse (and Flosshilde in this cycle’s Das Rheingold), Zanda Švēde as Grimgerde, and Lauren Decker as Schwertleite.↩