Tag Archives: ring cycle

‘Die Walküre’ at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago‘s new production of Die Walküre is a success. Go see it! The company’s new Ring cycle is now officially full steam ahead.

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.


(Photo: Wagner’s grave at Wahnfried, taken by myself)

Today is Wilhelm Richard Wagner‘s 200th birthday. The real world and cyberspace are rife with celebrations today and throughout all of 2013. Although, as Dr. Mark Berry correctly noted, “every year is a Wagner year.” This blog is but a drop in the digital ocean of related tributes, and therefore I’m going to be realistic. First, I won’t be breaking any new Wagnerian ground here. Second, there’s no point in writing what others will and have had covered already. But I would like to share something, and so I’d like to jot down a few thoughts about my relationship with my favorite classical composer.

Before going any further, I’d like to suggest a few timely and noteworthy posts and articles (published before today):
Nicholas Spice‘s “Is Wagner bad for us?” from the London Review of Books
Alex Ross‘s “A Wagner Birthday Roast” from The New Yorker
Mark Berry‘s “On entering the week of Wagner’s 200th anniversary” from Boulezian
Alex Ross’s “A Walking Tour of Wagner’s New York” from The New Yorker
Alex Ross’s “Wagner everywhere but New York” from The Rest is Just Noise blog

Being a saxophonist, I ostensibly have little to do with Wagner outside of my instrument’s namesake. (Adolphe Sax was whom Wagner turned to for the development of his Wagner tuba.) That, and Wagner’s use of the saxophone to fill out the needed twelve French horn parts for Tannhäuser‘s Paris premiere, cover most of his saxophonic bases. (Further proof that what you need a ringer, hire a saxophonist!) So what’s my deal?

Honestly, aside from a few random facts and musical excerpts, I knew very little about Wagner until covering him in my music history survey in college. I spent a number of years in my teens voraciously learning about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, and so I was also aware of some sort of Hitlerian connection, but the specifics were lost on me until later. So I was a relative novice my class’s Romantic unit. I must say that I was instantly fascinated and even a bit overwhelmed. Some reactions, as I can somewhat remember them:
1. I was instantly moved by the music. If I remember correctly, we watched both the end of Die Walküre (I still have my worksheet) and a portion of Act III (?) of Tristan und Isolde (it’s been a while since that course…). And of course listened to the Tristan prelude. Two passages and works that I’m now all too familiar with but that were completely new to me at the time.
2. The theoretical concepts – leitmotif, gesamtkunstwerk, endless melody, etc. – scratched me where I itched. Saxophone literature is largely twentieth (and twenty-first) century or bust. Chronologically, Wagner’s music and musical approach and philosophy represented the first time we covered music in a similar vocabulary (i.e., late Romanticism, highly chromatic, etc.) as some of the solo literature I’d been learning.
3. DRAMA. Wagner’s focus on drama sucked me right in. That music should serve the drama – the actual end – is something with which I whole-heartedly agree (in many contexts still, but at the time it was absolute).

A few weeks after my aforementioned introduction, I checked a recording of Tristan und Isolde out from the music library, and the rest is history. From there I moved to Der Ring des Nibelungen – the Levine/Met recording of the whole cycle – and then Lohengrin, and beyond. I was hooked. A couple years later I completed an independent study for which I researched and wrote about exclusive similarities between Der Ring des Nibelungen and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth works, separate from both creators’ common mythological sources. (Tolkien, along with C.S. Lewis, was at one time quite the Wagnerite.) While at first blush it seems like an easy target, there’s much debate surrounding this topic. Sometime I’d actually like to revisit that paper/project for revision and expansion.

The following semester I saw the full Ring cycle live at the Chicago Lyric Opera featuring James Morris, Michelle DeYoung, Plácido Domingo, Jane Eaglen, and John Treleaven. From the rushing, flowing E-flat chord that opens Das Rheingold to Valhalla’s destruction at the end of Götterdämmerung, I was transfixed. And not just when I was in the theater, mind you. For example, I saw Joshua Redman with the SFJazz Collective on the night between Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, and remember only bits of that performance. My mind was with Wagner throughout. It was my first Ring, and surely not my last. There are so many aspects of that performance I could write about here, but suffice it to say I was profoundly moved. I will say that one of the many things that stood to me was Sir Andrew Davis‘s musicianship. He phrased throughout the whole cycle. For example, the loudest and biggest moments of the whole week were Siegfried’s “Trauermarsch” and Brünnhilde’s “Immolation Scene,” both in Götterdämmerung‘s Act III. He let the music unfold with the drama, and therefore the audience and production alike grew throughout the week.

At this point, there was (and has been) no turning back. In 2008, I had the good fortune of spending some time in Bayreuth while on vacation. Having not been on the infamous years-long wait list, I didn’t attend that afternoon’s Tristan. But simply touring the grounds of the Festspielhaus and spending considerable time at Wahnfried was all I needed (and hoped for) for that trip. (And I ended up seeing Tristan that following fall in Chicago. Another moving performance.) Hopefully I’ll get a chance to return this summer while teaching abroad.

(Photo: Yours truly at Bayreuth, 2008)

Yadda, yadda, yadda. I could go on and on, but it’s best to find a point.

So those are some things I’ve done. But what does that have to do with today’s bicentennial? The day I returned to school after seeing the Ring, I met with my saxophone professor, John Nichol, to talk about my trip. I jokingly told him that by the end of Götterdämmerung I felt like I had accomplished something just by sitting through it. After a good chuckle, he asked, “But did Wagner accomplish something?” I told him that he did. And I really meant it. Much like Beethoven with the symphony, Wagner composed a relatively “small” number of operas (13, with only 10 being performed regularly). But most of those compositions seemed to dramatically shift the music world in its own way. Most of the operas are artistic behemoths, requiring significant work on behalf of both performer and observer. Unlike Beethoven, however, he wrote very little outside of his operas. (Various orchestral works, songs, and piano work exist but are rarely performed, with Siegfried Idyll being arguably the most well known. I recommend The Other Wagner as a nice, comprehensive starting point.) He also wrote a lot of prose, and his ideas were/are just as game-changing as his music (and not all for the better).

200 years on, Wagner’s legacy continues to cast a shadow over so much in the art world, extending far beyond opera, and in ways that most people perhaps don’t notice. For instance, film music – from the early talkies to present – owes much to his lush musical style and leitmotif-laden compositional approach. Just think: The Wizard of Oz would be a very different film if it weren’t for him (e.g., the overture’s lush orchestration and play-by-play of the various melodies/characters.) And, specifically, much later, how would Apocalypse Now have fared? And how many weddings use Lohengrin‘s “Bridal Chorus”? (That’s not without controversy, as most Wagnerian things aren’t.) And how many children have enjoyed this cartoon? And without Wagner there’d possibly be no castle for Cinderella. Hell, Wagner even gave us horns, spears, and breastplates. (And, occasionally, the all-too-familiar fat lady who sings.)

Yet, despite all of this and more, we Wagnerites must often defend our love of his art and publicly state that we’re not in fact members of the Nazi party. (I didn’t really address that issue in this post. That’s not the purpose here, and it’s much too broad and muddled of a topic, though I touch on it here.) A nice, humorous encapsulation of this, especially the latter point, can be found is “Trick or Treat” from Season 2 of Curb Your Enthusiasm. (Imagine my delight upon first seeing this, considering that Seinfeld – Curb‘s older brother – is my all-time favorite show.)  Here’s a slightly NSFW clip:
[NOTE: Larry David’s brief but hilariously clever quotation of “Springtime for Hitler” is especially entertaining when juxtaposed with the Meistersinger overture at the end, the latter having a main character named Walther – the clip’s antagonist – and being closely associated with German nationalism.]

Pros, cons, and everything in between, Wagner left a huge mark. As mentioned above, his legacy extends far beyond his own music. Price asks if Wagner is bad for us, to which I strongly answer NO. Speaking for myself, his music has left an indelible impression on me. Two of my favorite musical experiences have been because of him (seeing the Ring and Meistersinger), and he’s never far from my ears and mind. And that is why his 200th anniversary is worth noting for me. I’ll of course be enjoying some of my favorite recordings and may even go through some select scenes on DVD. Who knows, perhaps I’ll wear one of my t-shirts and play with my action figure…

For y’all, I recommend and leave you with one of my favorite clips from the great BBC documentary The Golden Ring (about Solti’s recording Götterdämmerung for his landmark cycle):

And so I say, in the manner of Cosima’s tweets: Happy Birthday, R.

(Recent blog posts on Wagner here and here.)


MTH-V: Rhinemaidens

“How brightly you once shone, glorious star of the depths!” -Richard Wagner, Götterdämmerung

2013 may be Richard Wagner‘s bicentennial year, but this coming Wednesday 05.22 is his 200th birthday. Therefore I can’t help but post just a taste of his genius for this week’s video. (Finally back after last week’s absence as the semester wrapped up.)

More elaborate thoughts on Wagner are to come, but for now I’d like to share one of my favorite of his musical sections. Of course, with Wagner, one has a difficult time isolating segments. His concept of “endless melody” makes it difficult to find start- and endpoints in his operas beyond whole acts. Like many, arguably my favorite part of Der Ring des Nibelungen is in Götterdämmerung‘s Act III. However, unlike most, it’s the first scene. Most go to the Siegfried’s “Trauermarsch” or Brünnhilde’s “Immolation Scene,” both of which are sublime, but the Rhinemaidens’ trio which opens the act (after the prelude) is heaven. (Believe me, I have a hard time placing the trio above the “Trauermarsch,” but right now I’m going by which track has the bigger play count in my iTunes library.)

(Photo: Arthur Rackham‘s The Rhinemaidens lament the loss of the Rhinegold.)

Oddly, this lyrical, light, and melodic passage by the three Rhinemaidens – Woglinde, Wellgunde, Flosshilde – doesn’t quite jive with the stereotypical Wagner sound, especially that associated with the Ring. If looking for aggressive Wagnerisms, see the aforementioned “Trauermarsch” and “Immolation Scene.” This scene occurs almost 17 hours into the Ring, offering a final respite before (SPOILER ALERT) Siegfried’s murder (after which is the “Trauermarsch”) and Brünnhilde’s destructive suicide (“Immolation Scene”).

There are subtitles in this clip if you’re interested, but I otherwise won’t get into the plot’s labyrinthine intricacies. (Though if you’d like to engage on that, I’m more than happy to. 🙂 ) I’m posting this for the music. Also, I generally strive to avoid posting commercial material in the MTH-V posts due to copyright concerns, but am afraid that I’m going to here. This footage is of Bayreuth’s landmark centenary Ring cycle by conductor Pierre Boulez and director Patrice Chéreau. This production was particularly scandalous at the time with its 19th-century industrialist setting. As you’ll see, the Rhinemaidens are presented as hydroelectric dam workers instead of water nymphs.

NOTE: I don’t own the copyright to this production.

Boulez/Chéreau production:

FOR FUN: The three Rhinemaidens, with piano reduction, from Cosima Wagner‘s 1904 production!