The set-up: Of the four operas that comprise Richard Wagner's magnificent epic The Ring of the Nibelung, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) is perhaps the cycle's most beloved. For Wagnerites, especially devoted Ring-Heads, who travel the world over to experience its diverse interpretations, Walküre, the second in the series, is special. As far as I know, the titanic composer never played favorites and never definitively named which of his works he most admired, but there's something truly extraordinary in this opera's appeal and emotional wallop.
Walküre can stand alone, a unified story with a definite beginning, clear development, and gang-buster finale. You don't even need to know anything at all about the Ring's other operas (the prelude Das Rheingold, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung [Twilight of the Gods] to feel the impact of its galvanizing music, startling tale, and wondrous iconic images. Anyway, Wagner the huffy librettist will eventually fill you in on anything important you need to remember from the prologue, and he lays in plenty of background info for what's to come later in the cycle.
The execution: While Rheingold wallows in mythic greed and power, Walküre is all about love, its getting and losing. It's a story about family, always a source of the most intense theatrical drama. Here it's husband vs. wife (gods Wotan and Fricka; human Hunding and half-god Sieglinde); incestuous love (demigods Siegmund and Sieglinde, brother and sister, sired by Wotan); filial love between father and daughter (Wotan and warrior princess Brünnhilde) or father and son (Wotan and Siegmund); or sister vs. sister (Brünnhilde against her eight siblings, sired by Wotan with all-knowing earth goddess Erda.) The couplings mesh, collide, or coalesce in a heady confluence of ancient Greek drama, Nordic saga, Nietzsche's tale of the Superman, Schopenhauer's free will, and, most relevant of all, Wagner's own personal demons and musical genius.
In Wagner's celestial fairy tale, the gods are fading. Their rule is about to be supplanted by man. But if Wotan, king of all gods, can reclaim the golden ring forged by vile dwarf Alberich, all might be well. Crafty Alberich placed a curse upon the ring after Wotan stole it from him. (The god had to cut off his finger to get it!) Subsequently, Wotan forfeited the ring as payment to giants Fasolt and Fafner when they built the gods' palatial mansion in the sky, Valhalla. The curse's first victim is oaf Fasolt at the hands of his avaricious brother. Fafner is now holed up in a cave, having transformed himself into a dragon to keep his gold stash secure. Because the gods rule and are ruled by contracts and negotiations, Wotan can not get at the ring without subterfuge. He needs a hero, free of fear and free of a god's obligations, who will intervene and purloin the gold for him.
So, randy Wotan roams the earth and finds a lover in a wild woman of the forests. Separated at childhood, twins Siegmund and Sieglinde will eventually find each other, fall in love (the impassioned "Winterstürme"), and have a child: the great hero Siegfried, who gets his own opera in the third installment.
Meanwhile in Act II, Wotan's wife Fricka, goddess of marriage, is incensed that adultery is celebrated and condoned by her husband. She demands that Siegmund die. She and the gods will not be mocked. Compromised, he relents, telling daughter Brünnhilde, who knows how deep Wotan loves his son, that she may not help Siegmund in his battle with Hunding, alpha male husband of Sieglinde. In one of the opera's most moving scenes, the famous "Todesverküngdigung" ("Omen of Death"), the Valkyrie warns Siegmund of his fate but promises him everlasting life in the halls of Valhalla. Siegmund rejects such pleasure if he can't share it with his wife. Seeing the depth of his passion, Brünnhilde now relents. Countermanding Wotan's explicit orders, she will help him. During the duel Wotan appears and shatters Siegmund's enchanted sword, allowing him to be killed by Hunding, but Sieglinde escapes with Brünnhilde's help. The act ends with Wotan in hot pursuit of his treacherous daughter.
Act III is a rush of Valkyries (that famous "Ride"), the fleeing of pregnant Sieglinde into the forest where poisonous dragon Fafner dwells, and the radiant confrontation between furious parent and woeful, disobedient daughter. Is there anything in opera literature quite like Wotan's emotional "Farewell," when he bids his favorite Brünnhilde goodbye forever and turns the young goddess into a woman? Heeding her plea, he surrounds the mountain top with fearsome fire through which only the most fervent hero could penetrate and awaken her. (In about 18 years, guess who that'll be? Brünnhilde's very own nephew, Siegfried.)
Houston Grand Opera's Ring is a production from Barcelona's cutting edge theater La Fura dels Baus. If you saw Das Rheingold, you know exactly what to expect: striking state-of-the-art CGI projections (the rotating earth is mesmerizing); gods flying on cherry pickers like so many feverish Costco stock boys; and a nimble gymnastic troupe, like a Cirque du Soleil knockoff, who in this opera create a stunning coup de theatre for the opening of Act III. When the curtain rises, a huge globe, made out of metal piping and swinging from wall to wall, is covered with dead warriors. These are the bodies the Valkyries have been sent to glean for the halls of Valhalla. The startling scenic effect gets hearty applause.
But there's a lot of dross mingled with this theatrical gold. Most of the projections (the starry eternity, the molten sun, the pulsating ash tree that dominates Act I, that silly cartoon owl during the springtime love scene, the trite storm clouds) are either too literal or not literal enough. At best, they distract from Wagner, who if he wanted to, could conjure up a more believable owl with only two bars of music. The background images don't flow either. They're choppy and don't match, as if video designer Franc Aleu turned the projectors off, changed the CDs, then flipped them back on again. I don't remember Rheingold's backgrounds ever stopping or going blank.
I suppose director Carlus Padrissa could supply a logical rationalization for why he begins Walküre in the prehistoric era, like a musical Clan of the Cave Bear, but would we care? As wretchedly unhappy Sieglinde, all feral animal with greasy dreadlocks, international superstar soprano Karita Mattila must hobble in a painful duck-walk throughout the act, until later released and set upright by Siegmund's love. Her thighs get a punishing workout, but trooper that she is, she goes with it and sounds ravishing throughout her ordeal. Her distinct voice has a burnished quality that resembles '60s dramatic soprano Leonie Rysanek, the best Sieglinde of her generation. A high-powered actress who takes the stage just by stepping onto it, Mattila's unfailing in her commitment and electric presence. She's the best part of this show. She's closely followed by peerless mezzo Jamie Barton, as unloved Fricka. Everything about the character is portrayed by that bathed-in-fire voice: Fricka's imperiousness, jealousy, and unyielding ego. It's there in every phrase. Pay no attention to that Ming the Merciless outfit. Bass Ain Anger growls menacingly as evil Hunding.
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Bass baritone Iain Paterson, as Wotan, sings Wagner with smooth Italianate phrasing that's very pleasing on the ear. He doesn't always have the heft to overcome the tumultuous orchestra, but he certainly compensates with a performance of depth and touching anguish, especially in Act III when he must "put away" his most cherished child. A specialist in the Wagnerian repertoire, tenor Simon O'Neill, as Siegmund, has clarion tone and clean, bright sound. In a very unflattering costume - all the costumes are hideously ugly - and in an even more unkempt wig than Mattila's, he may not resemble Siegmund's rough-hewn buff manhood, but at least he sounds likes it.
But it's Brünnhilde we really want to hear. Christine Goerke, an artist with sterling qualities in the mezzo range, has recently moved into the heavier and higher Strauss and Wagner leading roles. Will she become the next Wagnerian soprano? It's been done before, but it's not easy. Judging from opening night, she's almost there. She didn't have any noticeable problems in those torturous top notes. She didn't land her "Ho Yo To Hos" with laser accuracy, having to scoop a bit, but she never faltered in power. And her low register has always been there, as smoky and velveteen as always. It's her middle range that lacked oomph. Maybe she was saving it for the push needed to scale Wagner's highs. If Goerke was nervous it certainly didn't show for she's an accomplished actor, and that's a gift that never fails. Her Act III was superb. She really listened to her father and tried to convince him that she was only doing what he had secretly wished. She was young and impetuous, a girl in love with dad. When she realized that she would never see him again, she touched his face and clasped his hand, as if memorizing details, sobbing quietly. She illuminated Wagner's grand music. Of all the next generation of singers who are on the cusp of Wagnerian greatness, Goerke's the one to watch. She's the real thing.
The verdict: The HGO orchestra played mightily for maestro Patrick Summers, purring ominously, booming in triumph, aching in love. The climaxes were heated, the storm clouds roiled, the personal dialogues had charm and bite, and throughout there were many nuances of the score to savor anew, but there wasn't a great rhythm to it. It sounded constrained and rather evened out, dare I say, bland. It sort of rolled over us without much passion. That's not what we want from Walküre, one of the most ardent and tempestuous of operas. It has to boil and scald. Simmer, no matter how gloriously played, won't do.
Die Walküre continues on April 22, 25, 30, May 3m at Houston Grand Opera. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Purchase tickets online at houstongrandopera.org or call 713-228-6737. $20-$330.