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At the George Mason University Center for the Arts’ Concert Hall Oct. 13
Opera production is, by its nature, about jumping hurdles. And when a midsize company such as Virginia Opera decides to tackle Wagner’s daunting Die Walkure, the height of those hurdles gets cranked up a few feet. In its current touring production, VirgOp has wisely sidestepped its first obstacle by avoiding philosophical exegesis in favor of human drama—of which Walkure has more than its share. Euripides may be a theatrical model here, but the opera’s parade of domestic confrontations has no less immediacy than those in Ibsen, O’Neill, or Shepard. And the issues faced by the chief god, Wotan, his wife, Fricka, and his passel of illegitimate kids are really the same as the ones we deal with every day with our own families.
Walkure is the second installment—and in many ways, the heart—of Wagner’s four-night, 16-hour cycle of mythological operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen. A recounting of the Ring’s tortuous paths of familial dysfunction would spill way over my allotted column space, so suffice it to say that Walkure revolves around a problem that Wotan has created and can’t find a way to solve. Having made some corrupt business decisions that threaten to bring down the race of gods, Wotan now faces the prophecy that only a mortal hero, acting of his own free will, can set in motion the process that will restore the balance of nature and save the gods from ruin.
Control freak that he is, Wotan has fathered a mortal son, Siegmund, and so predetermined his life that the boy can’t possibly be the prophesied “free” hero. Wotan comes to the realization—during a marital grudge match with Fricka that’s worthy of an HBO spinoff—that he must kill his son. He sends his warrior-goddess daughter, Brunnhilde, to do the dirty work, but she feels compassion for her half-brother and defies her dad, attempting to save the hero’s life. Bound—more accurately, straitjacketed—by his black-and-white sense of filial obedience and parental justice, Wotan severs all ties with his daughter, stripping her of her divinity and leaving her at the mercy of the first guy who comes along and wants her. As a regret-filled final gesture of love, he surrounds the sleeping Brunnhilde with fire to keep all but the bravest of heroes from claiming her.
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When played well, the extended Wotan-Brunnhilde scenes in Acts 2 and 3 of Walkure can be heartbreaking. Thanks to shrewd casting and sensitive stage direction by Lillian Groag, those scenes emerge in VirgOp’s production with all the intense affection, sense of powerlessness, and weight of loss that they need. As Wotan, Marc Embree displays a bass register that is none too substantial and high notes that occasionally take on an intrusive vibrato, but he uses his otherwise attractive baritone to moving, text-savvy effect. Likewise, as Brunnhilde, Susan Marie Pierson is so eagerly communicative, so emotionally invested in what she’s singing, that she makes you forget the insistent brightness of her voice and the cutting edge on her top notes.
Both singers, crucially, understand that Wotan’s relationship with Brunnhilde has reached the moment when a child must be acknowledged as a separate and independent adult—and that that moment, in this case, brings with it an agonizing and irreparable emotional rift. They play their scenes naturally, with moment-to-moment specificity, and render this epic work that much more human and affecting.
The opera’s other key pairing of characters fares less well. Siegmund and Sieglinde are brother and sister. They’re also lovers, whose incestuous offspring, Siegfried, will wake Auntie Brunnhilde, marry her, and become the great hero of the story. (You gotta love Wagner.) But in Walkure, they’ve only just rediscovered each other after many years, and their burgeoning lust plays itself out against the tension of Sieglinde’s loveless marriage to the bullying ogre Hunding. VirgOp’s Hunding, Charles Robert Austin, finds an arresting way to play the guy, all faux-genial smiles and quietly implied menace, his restrained acting underscored by his elegantly turned bass.
Austin’s subtlety, unfortunately, sets the dramatic deficiencies of Siegmund and Sieglinde in bold relief. Not that there’s anything terribly wrong with Jeannine Altmeyer’s Sieglinde—there are, in fact, moments when the heroine’s desperation and wonder at her newfound love are made palpably clear. There’s also, however, a good deal of wheeling around to see the conductor, and of acting between—rather than through—bouts of difficult singing. Altmeyer’s would be a perfectly acceptable Sieglinde if this were her first time essaying the part, but this has been a prominent role in her career for two-and-a-half decades, and her soprano is still vibrant and thrustful, if, inevitably, harder and shallower of tone.
It’s hard to know how much of Altmeyer’s performance is due to Groag’s work and how much is in spite of it. In the case of Thomas Rolf Truhitte’s Siegmund, Groag most certainly doesn’t help matters, staging Siegmund’s supposedly exhausted Act 1 entrance as if he’s coked to the gills and then leaving him crouching impotently while Sieglinde stands a few feet away wigging out and calling to him for help in Act 2. Truhitte, however, must have been a challenge to direct: Despite possessing a blond mane and a cut chest any Teutonic hero would trade a hoard of gold for, the tenor looks profoundly uncomfortable in his body any time he isn’t sitting stock-still or flexing his pecs in a bodybuilder’s pose. His surfer-dude grin only compromises his performance further, as does his cartoon-frantic way of scampering in from the wings.
As you might imagine, there isn’t much happening here characterwise—which is a genuine shame, because Truhitte possesses the best voice in the cast. Clarion and gorgeous in tone, richly baritonal on the bottom and evenly voiced across its range, this is the real McCoy: a true Wagnerian heldentenor of the most sought-after kind. If Truhitte’s high notes are just a hair more tentative than they ideally might be, given the right teacher, they will likely gain strength and volume as the singer matures.
Only Tracie Luck, as Fricka, isn’t up to Walkure’s vocal challenge, with too many dry patches and effortful gear-shifts between registers. The supporting cast of Valkyries is a variable bunch of singers when considered individually, but they sound impressive together, and Groag handles them with a combination of inspiration (their resigned salute to Wotan upon surrendering the errant Brunnhilde to him in Act 3) and goofiness (their half-serious G.I. Jane/Village People routine at the opening of Act 2). Elsewhere, Groag borrows a little too freely from Patrice Chereau’s Bayreuth Festival production—Hunding entering with henchmen, Siegmund throwing his sister to the floor and mounting her before they flee her husband, the dying Siegmund recognizing Wotan as his father—but, in general, her work is straightforward, economical, and free of boilerplate gestures.
If only the same could be said of Robert Cothran’s set design. We live in an era in which there have been as many approaches to staging the Ring as there are designer-director teams, but Cothran—presumably taking his cue from Groag—seems intent on trying all of them. So there are stock platforms and ramps painted to look like geometric rock formations and backed by pleated auditorium curtains, suggesting a sort of cross between the Met during the war years and the spring musical at your local high school. There’s the quasi-deco, crafts-fair furniture over at Hunding’s place. And then there are flying abstract panels that strive for the kind of sculptural primitivism Wolfgang Wagner tried out in his late-’60s Bayreuth Ring—but looking decidedly low-rent rendered in painted Styrofoam. The laundry list of styles goes on; none of them play well together.
Lighting designer Robert Wierzel does what he can to pull some atmosphere out of Cothran’s grab bag, but the production looks resolutely bus-and-truck. Costume designer Tracey Dorman, on the other hand, gives eclecticism a shot and comes up a winner. The Valkyries are the most striking, with their goth eyeliner, punk hair, black-leather bodices, and creepy black-feathered and -taloned arms that suggest vestigial links to birds of prey. Wotan’s pared-down Kabuki costume and makeup, and Hunding’s Fascist-tinged greatcoat make telling comments on those characters without overstatement. And if Siegmund and Sieglinde’s costumes seem a little less focused in their effect, their diaphanous layering does suggest nascent longing.
None of these design issues would matter, of course, if the orchestra weren’t up to Wagner’s killer writing. The orchestration is this opera’s most dangerous hurdle: virtuosic, physically exhausting, and long as hell. Conductor Peter Mark obviously prepared his musicians well, because they play better than they have any right to. Economics and pit size have necessitated a somewhat reduced orchestra, so Mark’s band is light on strings, but he compensates with clear, supple phrasing and good ensemble work, and he brings an edge-of-the-seat excitement to much of Acts 2 and 3.
But why did Mark and Groag believe it necessary to excise the bulk of Wotan’s vital Act 2 narrative? Did they think that 10 more minutes of material would be the deal-breaker for audiences? The cut portion of the narrative is the only text in the opera that lets the audience understand the back story to the current situation, the reasons for Wotan’s seething inner conflict, and the stakes that are at play in the ensuing action. It also gives the singer portraying Wotan a monologue of kaleidoscopic emotional diversity and an almost Shakespearean grandeur. Everyone gets cheated by a cut like this. The same goes for Mark’s 100-yard dash through the final pages of the piece: To rush that closing music is akin to scarfing down an exquisite souffle on your way to the car after a lovingly prepared, well-paced banquet.
Despite such shortcomings, VirgOp should be applauded for clearing most of this production’s hurdles and sustaining remarkably few injuries. Given the Met’s Ring-free season and the perpetual hurry-up-and-wait status of Washington Opera’s own oft-promised staging, VirgOp looks like the only contender willing to sacrifice everything for the Wagnerian gold. CP
The production travels to the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, 600 E. Grace St., Richmond, Oct. 18, 20, and 22. For more information, call (804) 262-8100.