Richard Wagner, The Valkyrie (sung in German)
Center Stage, Richmond February 27, 2011
Virginia Symphony Orchestra
Conductor – Joseph Rescigno
Production Director – Lillian Groag
Set and Lighting Designer – Kendall Smith, after Robert Cothran
Costumes – Tracy Dorman
Siegmund – Erik Nelson Werner
Sieglinde – Melissa Citro
Brünnhilde – Kelly Cae Hogan
Wotan – James Johnson
Fricka – Nina Lorcini
Hunding – Todd Robinson
Helmwige – Michelle Owens
Gerhilde – Elizabeth Hogue
Ortlinde – Joyce Lundy
Waltraute – Rachel J. Holland
Siegrune – Nicole Jenkins
Rossweisse – Dianne Barton
Grimgerde – Heather Sreves
Schwertleite – Sarah Williams
Virginia Opera has built a reputation for solid productions of opera, featuring young voices under the baton of distinguished conductors like Joseph Rescigno. Its new production of The Valkyrie by Richard Wagner is no exception to that rule. Rescigno, who studied under Erich Leinsdorf, has a strong affinity for the sound and architecture of Wagnerian motifs and produced remarkably fine tones and ensemble playing from the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. The orchestral component became increasingly dominant for Wagner in the Ring and Parsifal, and it was good to have such a fine standard of strings in this production. The singers, too, gave vocal performances of a uniformly high quality in a production by Lillian Groag that did not impose too much of a “thesis” on Wagner’s mythopeic creation, allowing visual tableaux and lighting to point the story. The Richmond venue was the old Carpenter Theatre, a 1920s, Alhambra-style cinematic confection; wide and shallow, it conveyed a sense of intimacy despite its 1800-seat capacity. The production was a fast-paced event, which at three hours (including a 25-minute intermission) was shorter than Gone with the Wind! And what could be wrong with that? My only caveat is that this was not Wagner’s Die Walküre, which unfolds leisurely over more than four hours, but rather a radically reduced fumet of the original. While that may be a plus for many modern opera-goers, it is manifestly not what the composer intended. *
Die Walküre constitutes the heart of Wagner’s Ring cycle, the moment in which Brünnhilde’s transgressive action as Wotan’s conscience lays the foundation for the birth of Siegfried, the hero “freer than the gods”, who will return the stolen gold to the Rhine maidens and thus engineer the downfall of Valhalla. Of the four operas in the cycle, it is the one most often performed and most capable of standing alone. Wagner had previously mastered his new idiom in Das Rheingold and could revel here the scale of his Leitmotive and orchestration to expand and flourish with a new maturity. His gradual sense of pacing created a landscape of peaks and valleys, and while there may be longeurs, the underlying structure is consummate.
Those familiar with Wagner’s score would find Virginia Opera’s approach disconcerting because of the abruptness of the transitions, and popular gestures such as the martial arts display of The Valkyries at the beginning of act two are best forgotten. Still, this is a serious and engaging production, in part because it highlights key moments in the score, seeming to make them stand-alone. The gain is a fresh awareness of the lyrical duet of Siegmund and Sieglinde in act one or Wotan’s monologues in acts two and three — even if it comes at the expense of the larger musical context.
As mentioned previously, the sets, originally designed by Robert Cothran, are discrete and understated in the best Wieland Wagner tradition. In essence, they are composed of a series of interlocking ramps, shifting from the suggestion of Hunding’s lair in the first act to the mountains and the Valkyries’ rock of the second and third. Kendall Smith, who reworked Cothran’s original designs and also created the lighting, was remarkably effective in enhancing the mood, particularly during the second act’s quarrel between Wotan and his much put upon wife, Fricka, and Wotan’s dramatic intervention during the fight between his son Siegmund and Hunding, this last tableau suggesting a medieval image of religious sacrifice. A weak link here was the Loge’s wall of fire, composed in part of a lighted backdrop and mobile flats that wobbled as they enclosed the sleeping Brünnhilde. Tracy Dorman’s costumes were conventionally unconventional in the manner of most productions since Patrice Chéreau’s innovative Ring at Bayreuth in 1976. The men were largely clothed in garments resembling a cross between Viking warriors and Star Trek aliens. The women were more sympathetically dressed in an Edwardian style — albeit with a touch of Edward Scissorhands in the Valkyries’ “talons”. There was a touch of punk, too, in the hairdos and the black eye shadow on their left eyes, suggestive, perhaps, of Wotan’s one-eyed state. The foreheads of Wotan and Brünnhilde were adorned with a waning moon and night sky within a circle. Wotan’s mortal children wore waning moon patterns suggesting both moon and sky.
The main focus of any opera production must be the quality of the singing, and here the Virginia Opera came up trumps. They have been consistently successful in finding promising young voices, often giving them an early opportunity to show their talents, and The Valkyrie was no exception. The debut of Erik Nelson Werner as Siegmund was a triumph, especially as he had sung little of such substance before. His great scene with Melissa Citro’s Sieglinde in act one demonstrated solid technique, ranging from clarion to lyrical tones — always a challenge for any potential Heldentenor, and his singing in his second act exchange with Brünnhilde was full of a dignified pathos. It will be worth watching his career. By the same token, Sieglinde’s role was reduced to a shadow of itself in the interests of economy, and this inadvertently skewed the balance of Wagner’s dramatic emphasis. Nina Lorcini’s Fricka and Kelly Cae Hogan’s Brünnhilde were vivid characterizations of those two key roles in this opera. Indeed, this reduced version of Walküre brought into sharp focus Wotan’s troubled relationship with the two women closest to him: his wife and his favorite daughter. Under Lillian Groag’s direction, the domestic tensions between Fricka and Wotan came across pointedly here and not without flashes of ironic humor; yet the axis of the opera was definitely tilted in favor of Wotan’s complex relationship with Brünnhilde. Here, Kelly Cae Hogan showed remarkable dramatic ability, not to mention considerable vocal gifts. Her voice is powerful and attractive, and her acting ability was also considerable, conveying a feminine sensibility under her breastplate.
The star of this production was undoubtedly James Johnson as Wotan. A seasoned bass-baritone, he dominated the stage, not only through the sonority of his vocal line, but also through the clarity of his diction. Johnson conveyed a mournful sense of suffering throughout the opera, especially at the death of his son, Siegmund, and the farewell to his daughter, Brünnhilde. It was a pity that Wotan’s great monologue in act two, more overheard by than addressed to Brünnhilde, was truncated because this is the heart of the opera and would have been an even better showcase for James Johnson’s dramatic talent. His Wotan in the highly regarded Copenhagen Ring, fortunately available on DVD, is much admired, as were his performances of Wotan and Sachs in Wagner excerpts at the 2009 Bard Festival. He should be given more opportunities to sing Wotan in the future. Beyond that, one must also mention Todd Robinson’s Hunding, which possessed just the right quality of vocal and physical menace, and the fine choral singing of the Valkyries at the start of act three, a reminder of what a master Wagner was in this vein of vocal composition.
Sitzfleisch is a German term for endurance or persistence, and it is what one needs to attend a Wagner opera. Thus, it is not surprising that habitués at Bayreuth bring pillows to cushion the hard seating in the Festspielhaus, but endurance seems to be in short supply for most modern audiences elsewhere. It is said that Virginia Opera cut Die Walküre for two reasons: patrons had complained about the length when the opera was performed some years ago, and the three-hour limit also avoided the financial snares of overtime for the orchestra. Both reasons are essentially two sides of the same coin, motivating many opera houses today, especially those which do not have deep funds to cover overtime or the kind of audience accustomed to spending significant amounts of money in exchange for four or five hours in a theater. Virginia Opera has faced this challenge in bringing Wagner to a wider audience, and as mentioned earlier, the end product was a compromise with both loss and gain. If one had to choose between an edited but strongly performed version of Wagner like this one or no Wagner at all, then I would unhesitatingly opt for The Valkyrie as served up in Richmond.
*During the pre-war years and even after it was common practice at the Met to present Wagner’s music dramas with heavy cuts. For example the 1941 production of Die Walküre under Maestro Rescigno’s teacher, Erich Leinsdorf, ran just over three hours and five minutes — without intervals. The uncut work usually lasts about three hours, forty-five minutes without intervals. Commenting on the length of Lauritz Melchior’s career, Speight Jenkins once pointed out that he rarely sang the entire roles. [—Ed.]