Die Walküre

Heinz Fricke
The Washington National Opera Orchestra
April 2007
Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Washington D.C.
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegmundPlácido Domingo
HundingGidon Saks
WotanAlan Held
SieglindeAnja Kampe
BrünnhildeLinda Watson
FrickaElena Zaremba
HelmwigeCaroline Thomas
GerhildeJane Ohmes
OrtlindeBeverly O’Regan Thile
WaltrauteStacey Rishoi
SiegruneClaudia Huckle
GrimgerdeMagdalena Wor
SchwertleiteHeidi Vanderford
RoßweißeRebecca Ringle
Washington Post

WNO’s ‘Walkure’ Takes Flight

There is a very simple reason why the operas of Richard Wagner have become so extraordinarily popular over the past couple of decades, namely, the introduction of projected, line-by-line translations of the words the characters sing as they are performing.

Had it been presented a quarter-century ago, the Washington National Opera’s current production of “Die Walkure,” which opened Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, would have consisted of three long acts (more than an hour apiece) without a great deal of stage action, all presented in a language that few in the audience would have understood. In those days, unless one was fluent in German, it was necessary to read through an ornately complicated libretto or plot summary in advance, and then, in the theater, try to make sense of what used to be described as Wagner’s series of “glorious moments and long half-hours.”

Nobody says that anymore. Thanks to titles (I would call them subtitles, except at the WNO, they are projected above the stage), the general public is increasingly aware of the fact that Wagner was not only one of classical music’s most extraordinary geniuses, but also perhaps the 19th century’s finest dramatist in that long, fallow period between Goethe and Ibsen. Now that we have the technology, it makes no more sense to watch “Die Walkure” without translation than it would to rent “The Seventh Seal” or “Wild Strawberries” and insist upon following along only in the original Swedish.

Still, even in the “bad old days,” this “Walkure” would have been a smashing success because the singing, at its best, was simply spectacular, world-class on every level. Indeed, I don’t know whether the Washington National Opera has ever presented a more thrilling 70 minutes than Act 1, which featured the company’s 66-year-old general director, Placido Domingo, as Siegmund and the wonderful German soprano Anja Kampe as Sieglinde in rapturous duet. Their voices — fresh, lithe and lustrous — easily filled the hall, but they never sounded strained and there was none of that amped-up shouting that so commonly passes for Wagnerian declamation. A glorious teaming: Exactly what an operatic love duet should be.

Bass-baritone Alan Held once more proved himself an eloquent and altogether admirable singing actor, who brought rich vocal and emotional dimensions to the role of Wotan: It would be hard to imagine a more moving “Farewell.” Linda Watson has the vocal steel for the role of Brunnhilde, and grew progressively more tender as the evening proceeded, but I found Elena Zaremba’s Fricka unrelentingly shrill and ferocious. One wonders why Wotan would put up with such a harridan; there is much more subtlety to the character than Zaremba let on. Gidon Saks was an appropriately chilling and malevolent Hunding. The cast also included Jane Ohmes, Caroline Thomas, Stacey Rishoi, Heidi Vanderford, Beverly O’Regan Thiele, Claudia Huckle, Magdalena Wor and Rebecca Ringle as a tough and eager gang of women warriors.

This is the second installment in what director Francesca Zambello has called an “American Ring” (“Die Walkure” is part of an interrelated quartet of Wagner operas known as “Der Ring des Nibelungen.”) Some of the visuals were attractive — the opening tableau, set in the midst of a storm, called to mind Auntie Em’s house, ready to be blown away, and there was a succession of beautiful filmic cloud ballets throughout the evening. I liked the sinister underworld Zambello created beneath abandoned freeways in Act 2; moreover, she made the most of the excruciatingly awkward, achingly conflicted but profoundly loving exchange between Wotan and Brunnhilde that closes the opera.

But a lot of Zambello’s work seemed either obvious or secondhand. The idea of Wotan as uber-capitalist has grown tired (it dates at least to the Patrice Chereau staging at Bayreuth in 1976), and the imagery in the “Ride of the Valkyries” — airplanes, parachutes, modern warfare in all of its atrocity — seemed to be lifted directly from “Apocalypse Now.” I suspect that Zambello feels the imperatives of drama more acutely than she thinks about them, which is not a terrible flaw in itself (and certainly better than the reverse condition) but still somewhat problematic when one is called upon to re-imagine a distinctly German opera and transport the action to America.

Over the past decade, Music Director Heinz Fricke has turned the Washington National Opera Orchestra into an excellent ensemble: Tonal brilliance was common, flubs were rare and there were only a few drownings-out of the singers. It would be interesting to hear what this orchestra might do in a concert setting. Fricke’s leadership was propulsive when propulsion was called for, leisurely and appreciative in some of the gentler passages, and musical and thoughtful throughout.

Get your tickets while you can — as hard as it may be to believe right now, Domingo won’t be singing forever.

Tim Page | March 26, 2007


For Washington National Opera, director Francesca Zambello has developed an “American Ring” based on Richard Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nebelungen. In the 2006-2007 season, Die Walküre, the second opera in this suite of four, premiered with outstanding internationally known singers, intricate sets and staging, imaginative projections, and an energizing orchestral concert led by maestro Heinz Fricke.

Die Walküre, created with music most people have heard, features the iconic Brünnnhilde. Most Americans think of her as the fat lady wearing cow horns and epitomizing why ordinary people unschooled in classical music and opera do not appreciate the classically trained voice. Zambello has commendably fashioned a modern day Brünnnhilde, who like most teenagers (Brünnnhilde was never a mature woman) likes to razz her father, talk on the phone (Zambello incorporates technology part of her American spin), and make up her own mind about how to behave.

Tony Award-winning costume designer Catherine Zuber has put soprano Linda Watson in waist-length blonde locks and a long trench coat that mimics the one her daddy wears. It’s clear, Brünnnhilde is Daddy’s girl. And who is Daddy? He is Wotan (played by bass-baritone Alan Held), the leader of the gods. Brünnnhilde is one of his warrior daughters known as the Valkyries (however Die Walküre, which also mean Valkyrie, indicates only one, making this opera Brünnhilde’s story) and it is in Brünnnhilde that Wotan confides after Fricka, the goddess of marriage and his wife (not Brünnhilde’s mother) demands that he mete out capital punishment to his mortal son Siegmund. Siegmund has stolen Hunding’s wife Sieglinde and formed an incestuous relationship with her.

On April 1, Fricka (played by mezzo-soprano Elena Zaremba) is outraged that Wotan’s twin children Siegmund and Sieglinde born of a mortal woman from an adulterous relationship have fallen in love with each other and are committing incest. She is angry with her husband for his years of philandering and also throws into his face his Valkyrie daughters. However, there is something bigger at stake then his infidelity to Fricka and that is the curse that Alberich, the thieving dwarf of the underworld, set in motion in Wagner’s first Ring operaDas Rheingold when Wotan tricked the dwarf and stole the gold ring he needed to ransom back Fricka’s sister Freia, the goddess of eternal youth, from the giants Fafner and Fasolt who built Valhalla. Apparently, the eternal existence of the gods is in perilous jeopardy.

A quick look at the story sees (Act I) Siegmund —played by tenor Plácido Domingo—arriving at Hunding’s house to discover his sister Sieglinde—played by soprano Anja Kampe, learning that Hunding—played by bass-baritone Gidon Saks—is related to the enemies who pursue him, gaining access to a powerful sword promised to Siegmund by Wotan, and then running off with his sister. In Act II Wotan dispatches Brünnnhilde to protect Siegmund but changes his mind after Fricka gives him her ultimatum. However, Brünnnhilde encounters Siegmund and a sleeping Sieglinde and is persuaded by his anguish to save his life. During the battle between Siegmund and Hunding, Wotan appears and breaks Siegmund’s sword allowing Hunding to slay his son. Wotan in turn kills Hunding. Brünnnhilde runs off with Sieglinde. Act III presents Wotan’s punishment of Brünnnhilde—he strips her of her godhood and puts her to sleep so that the first man who wanders by will claim her as his mortal wife. However Brünnnhilde, who could not get her Valkyrie sisters to help and sends Sieglinde into the woods near the dwelling of Wotan’s enemy Fafner, asks her father to grant her one thing and that is to surround her sleeping rock with a wall of fire. She says, after all I only did what your heart really wanted me to do and that was try to save your son Siegmund.

It’s hard to imagine that any singers could top the performances of Plácido Domingo, Anja Kampe, Linda Watson, and Gidon Saks. Even Elena Zaremba’s somewhat gravelly mezzo seemed just right for her role as the raging wife. And the choral singing by the Valkyries was superb, especially when they sounded like they were ululating, a specialized sound not unrelated to screaming and often done in the Middle East as a musical sound of celebration. However, for this four hours and forty-five minute show including two intermissions, the acting needs to be exceptional. The exaggerated gestures of Plácido Domingo and Alan Held summoned images of 19th Century performers. Despite Linda Watson’s maturity, she was pretty good at exercising the behavior of a teenage girl. Sneaking up on Wotan to flick his newspaper and sitting on his big desk to talk on the telephone worked pretty well in allowing the audience to see her as a prankish youngster. By far, the standout performers were Gidon Saks who made a brutal chauvinist like Hunding immediately convincing and Anja Kampe who made Sieglinde’s guilt and anguish visceral in her mad scene in the forest.

Wagner takes his time allowing drama and music to unfold. During the slow opening scene of Act II, this reviewer’s mind wandered in a flight of fantasy trying to imagine how the action on stage could better sustain the viewer’s attention. What came to mind were film actors who could rivet attention—Jack Nicholson as Wotan, Kathy Bates as Brünnnhilde, Meryl Streep as Fricka, Leonardo diCaprio as Siegmund, etc. And this is not to say that these film actors should sing, but more that opera singers should study the acting magnetism of these film stars to make the audience savor a singer’s every move.

Special praise is also due Michael Yeargan for the sets that included live fire on stage both in Acts I and III and Jan Hartley for alternately meditative and exciting projections that came from nature and from manmade phenomenon like fighter planes and helicopters. No doubt that Francesca Zambello has made a significant achievement with the second Ring opera and that when it moves to the stage of the San Francisco Opera, the co-producer for the American Ring, Die Walküre will be a big success.

Karren LaLonde Alenier


Zambello’s Dazzling “American Ring ‘Walkuere’” at Kennedy Center

Washington National Opera’s second installment of its new production of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (co-produced with the San Francisco Opera) debuted at the Kennedy Center in late March. I attended its second performance. Circumstances had prevented me from attending the WNO production of its prequel opera “Das Rheingold” in 2006, where the Rhinemaidens are reported to be Girls of the Golden West and Alberich a miner, the gods live in a Great Gatsbyish 1920s social set, the giants are construction workers, and Erda is an American Indian (although I hold tickets to see that production at the San Francisco Opera in Summer, 2008.)

The two sequel operas to “Die Walkeure” are now a year behind in the production schedule, but the third opera, “Siegfried”, is definitely on at Kennedy Center for Spring, 2009. I decided not to immerse myself in information on the prequel to avoid any preconceived opinions on the not-yet-seen-by-me “Rheingold”, but to judge the “Walkuere” on its own merits.

Set designer Michael Yeargan conceived (or, at least, realized the concepts of director Francesca Zambello’s production team) four distinct sets for the three acts. Act One was centered in a small rural house – a hunter’s cabin in a forest setting. The second act began in penthouse offices located in a skyscraper towering above a Coastal metropolis. The act’s second scene took place in the trashed area below an urban concrete roadway. The third act were the industrial staircases and metal platform that surrounded a concrete slab that would serve as Bruennhilde’s rock.

My descriptions of these four scenes (and hints at what went before) might leave one with the impression that the American Ring is a vivid series of snapshots of disparate but All-American iconic elements that the conceptualizers use to advance their points of view. This might worry those patrons that have battle scars from attending the misguided products of certain contemporary operatic concept designers.

In fact, the creative team has stated that this Ring captures the spirit of their political views – that include concern with environmental degradation and capitalist exploitation and other such thoughts. However, the conceptualizers also clearly love Wagner’s story and present it straight. The unexpected trappings that derive from Zambello’s vision never really interfere with Wagner’s. Therefore, whatever was intended in the costuming and stage images, it is the power of that story that transcends all.

Zambello, like the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, is the kind of stage director who likes to ponder every word and emotion displayed in the libretto, and to teach her six principal singers to act (and they did so brilliantly) in ways that illuminate the story.

If you take a pessimistic view of any significant human activity (and this is Washington, where everyone is both for something and against something else), you are likely to discover elements in “The Ring” that might be employed at least allegorically to support your positions.

Therefore, the audience was likely comprised of persons from all parts of the political spectrum, since the Kennedy Center is only a few miles from the U. S. Capitol. Yet most of the opera’s patrons, I suspect, do not see the opera house as a place for political instruction anyway, so all can sit side-by-side and enjoy a stunning show. And stunning show it is. If Randy Jackson were judging Zambello’s “American Ring” instead of Fox-TV’s “American Idol” he might say, “Check it out, dogs! This one is hot!”

As Conductor Heinz Fricke, music director of the Washington National Opera and resident Wagnerian expert, led the opera orchestra in the storm music that begins “Walkuere”, a dark blue sea surge is projected onto the front scrim. The waves of the surge turn first into a whirlpool, then more abstract shapes, until we are propelled into the image of a redwood forest.

A fire is seen burning at center stage. As the scrim is raised, we see that the fire burns in a hearth outside of and adjacent to a modest house, with three wooden steps leading to a back screen door. The house reminds me of the kinds of structures one sees in a 1920s Buster Keaton film, placed here in a bucolic setting with conifer woodlands appearing in the background.

Placido Domingo, the Siegmund, is in hunter’s attire, with a leather jacket and knee boots. The Sieglinde, German soprano Anje Kampe, appears barefoot in a simple dress with apron that we might associate with a poor-white girl in an impoverished Appalachian town.

Kampe’s stage movements remind one of a film actress who has studied the mannerisms of young wives in the rural American South. When Kampe’s Sieglinde brings Domingo’s Siegmund the thirst-quelling drink he has requested, she blushes with embarrassment when Domingo asks her to taste the drink also.

When she moves, she darts about quickly, taking small steps, but chasing ahead of Domingo to block his path when he indicates that he will not stay to await her husband’s return. When she persuades him to remain there, they go up the stairs through the screen door into the house. At that point the the backside of the house that the audience first saw disappears, so that we can see that the inside of the house is decorated as a hunter’s retreat.

In the middle of the house a tree is growing. Hunding is into taxidermy, with mounted specimens of owl and partridge, and the walls of the house are blazoned with mounted deer heads. Even the wall hanging is a picture of a buck with a full head of antlers. A more domestic decorative touch is a china cabinet with Hunding’s and Sieglinde’s hoard of plates, cups and glasses arranged in neat rows.

Hunding (Gidon Saks) arrives with nine mates, all in hunting gear and watch caps. He shows off to his buddies by kissing Sieglinde roughly on the lips. Understandably suspicious of Siegmund, he frisks him and laughs, while Sieglinde feeds the other hunters from a stew pot. Sieglinde then serves tall bottles of beer to both Hunding and Siegmund.

Siegmund narrates his activities of the past hours and days, while Sieglinde sits next fo Hunding on the steps, snuggling up to him and feeding him his dinner from his plate. But her interest in Siegmund’s story overcomes her and she falls to the floor. Hunding deliberately drops his plate, and Sieglinde rushes over to pick up the broken pieces.

Now convinced that Siegmund is an enemy to be destroyed the next day, before which rules of etiquette bind him to a temporary display of backwoods hospitality, Hunding kicks open a trunk and pulls out a sleeping bag for Siegmund.

In a concession to the “Walkuere” story line that perhaps caused some heated discussion among the creative team implementing the American Ring concept, Hunding plays with a U. S. Cavalry sword and challenges Siegmund to find a similar weapon for a duel to the death the next morning.

Obviously, a Civil War sword makes it easier to maintain the link with Wagner’s libretto, even if the American Ring concept cries out for revolvers at a Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, or South Boston cops and gangster weapons, a la Scorsese’s film “The Departed”, or something else beyond a rather un-American fatal duel with swords.

The highlight of most “Walkuere” first acts is Siegmund’s “Winterstuerme wichen dem Wonnemond”, where Wagner intends for some transformation of Hunding’s house to take place. In this production, its back wall splits and joins the side walls, so as to reveal an enormous white moon rising in a blood-red sky.

Unlike all other productions I have seen, Wotan planted Siegmund’s sword-to-be Nothung on the backside of the tree outside of the audience’s view, depriving it from witnessing the extraction of the sword. As soon as Siegmund possesses Nothung, the stage is lit red and the tree flies upward and disappears through the top of the stage.

This is the second production of “Die Walkuere” that I have seen in the past six months, both with Domingo as Siegmund. Prior to this performance, a representative of management begged the audience’s sympathy because Domingo was battling a cold, as occurred in Los Angeles in December 2005 when I saw him perform the title role of Wagner’s “Parsifal”. My comments on both of these previous Domingo performances in Wagner roles are hyper-linked at the end of this review.

As with his Parsifal, I sat close enough to the performers to notice that he did occasionally cough or clear his throat when not singing, but my experience has been that when Domingo says he is not feeling well, but will still sing, the quality of his performance is undetectable from when he is in the best of form.

His other “Walkuere” was part of Valery Gergiev’s Kirov/Mariinsky Theatre “Ring” presented at the Orange County (California) Performing Arts Center last October. There we were treated to incomparable vocal performances and superb acting by Domingo, Mlada Khudoley (Sieglinde) and Gennady Bezzubenkov (Hunding), If anything, the Kennedy Center team’s first act trio of Domingo, Kampe and Saks was even more impressive.

Kampe, with the only role in “Die Walkuere” to appear in all three acts, combines all of the attributes that should assure her super-stardom in the German repertoire – a beautiful voice with the range, power and expressiveness to conquer the Wagnerian roles; an extraordinary acting ability, that suggests that she could have been a film or TV actress had she not chosen an operatic career; and physical attractiveness.

For the Act II light show on the scrim, we are in a river raging through a forest. We get a glimpse of Siegmund and Sieglinde being chased by Hunding and his hunting companions. Then we return to images of the banks of a stream, then a rivulet rushing down a rockface, then billowy clouds, through which we arrive at the penthouse of some large corporation, with a spectacular view of a city far below.

Wotan (Alan Held) is sitting at a desk the size of a small boardroom conference table, in dark gray slacks, a white shirt and suspenders. He wears glasses, but the lens of his bad eye is darkened. At points of emphasis, he will take off his glasses and we see his one eye blackened like a raccoon’s.

Bruennhilde (Linda Watson) dressed in a riding habit accessorized with a burgundy scarf and wearing knee high boots, alerts Wotan to the approaching Fricka so that he can get into his suit coat for her entrance.

Fricka (Elena Zaremba) is in a 1920s style floor length skirt with patterned top. Zambello obviously believes that Wotan and Fricka retain both affection for each other and physical attraction. At one point, Held’s Wotan grabs Zaremba’s Fricka, puts her on his lap, and they snuggle.

When Fricka insists that Wotan listen to her demands, he opens a newspaper to avoid her. But when Fricka brings up Wotan’s acts of adultery that produced his nine Valkyrie daughters, she tears the paper out of his hands to get his full attention. When he finally realizes that his own actions have led to his entrapment, and that his own oaths have bound himself to concede her demands, Fricka produces a contract for him to sign.

The Wotan-Fricka exchange is, of course, one of the great scenes in the Ring, and Zambello’s conceptualization of it rang true. The first time I saw Held as heldenbariton was as the “Walkuere” Wotan in 1999 in the fourth San Francisco Opera Ring, when he replaced an indisposed James Morris. He also played Gunther in that Ring’s “Goetterdaemmerung”.

(The first time I ever saw Held was 20 years ago in the tiny role of Gregorio in Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” at the Kennedy Center, in a performance that also included Gregory Kunde’s Romeo and Marcus Haddock’s Tybalt. I am not aware of Held singing much in Second Empire French operas in recent years, now that he is on every impresario’s short list of potential Wotans.)

Held, besides being another consummate actor, has great vocal control, and an especially expressive command of his lower register. Zaremba is an equally fine actor, memories of whose performances in the 1990s and beginning of the new millenium I treasure.

At San Francisco Opera I saw her Helene Bezukhova in Prokofiev’s “War and Peace” (1991), her Ratmir in Glinka’s “Ruslan und Lyudmila” (1995), her Konchakovna in Borodin’s “Prince Igor” (1996), her Maddalena in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” (1997), her Erda in “Das Rheingold” and “Siegfried” and First Norn in “Goetterdaemmerung” (1999), and her Dame Quickly in Verdi’s “Falstaff” (2001).

In 2000, I also saw her perform in San Francisco Opera’s “Luisa Miller” that brought together four of the artists associated with this “Walkuere”. Zambello was its stage director, Yeargan its set designer, with singers Zaremba and Saks performing the roles of Federica and Wurm.

And, in an additional tie to San Francisco, Held and Zaremba performed Wotan and Fricka in 1999’s Third San Francisco Opera “Ring” (not the one I attended). For Washington National Opera, Zaremba is sharing the Fricka part with Elizabeth Bishop, another mezzo-soprano known to San Francisco audiences, but I preferred to have Zaremba’s Fricka for my performance.

Zaremba, however, proved to be vocally disappointing. The healthy, tight vibrato that had added a seductive quality to her wide ranging voice has become an unpleasantly constant wide vibrato of the kind associated with vocal disrepair. The person who will see Bishop’s Fricka may have the better deal.

(Since Zaremba, as many operatic artists are in these financially dismal days for the recording industry, is under-recorded, after her “Walkuere” performance, I browsed Apple Corporation’s i-Tunes and downloaded one of Shostakovich’s “Six Poems of Marina Tsetaeva” for my i-Pod, as a memento of how she sounded a decade ago.)

On Wotan’s desk is a large square photograph of Siegmund. When Bruennhilde returns, a triumphant Fricka smirks, shows a reluctant Bruennhilde Wotan’s contractual signature, and hands her Siegmund’s photograph, with the instructions that he is to be killed in the upcoming sword-fight.

After Fricka’s departure, Held and Watson conduct a master class on how to present convincingly the important scene between Wotan and Bruennhilde, in which she discerns that there is more to the confusing orders she has just received than meets the eye.

Then we return to the scrim images, where we find ourselves crossing a suspension bridge. When the scrim rises again, we are beneath the concrete approachway to a bridge or highway that curves to stage right. It is obviously adjacent to a seedy neighborhood with junk – spare tires, wheel rims, a broken down couch – strewn around the concrete pillars and girders. A pedestrian walkway above permits sightseers to view what is going on at ground level. The sightseers include Wotan, then Fricka with Hunding.

Hunding’s gang (and in this neighborhood, that is what they have become) try to rough up Sieglinde. By now, Sieglinde (whose sexual affair with her brother has brought about monumental impacts on all sorts of forces in the universe) is filled with remorse and self-loathing.

For the Todesverkuendig, Bruennhilde appears from the murky backstage area to inform Siegmund of his impending death and transportation to Valhalla. One by one, during the conversation between Siegmund and the Valkyrie, a dozen United States Armed Forces personnel, in battle uniforms, camos, or fatigues, slowly, with halting steps, cross the stage carrying large square photographs of themselves, like the one of her half-brother Siegmund that Bruennhilde received from Wotan and Fricka.

After Bruennhilde’s disobedience, forcing Wotan’s intervention to assure Hunding’s victory, Wotan affectionately caresses the body of his son, then breaks Hunding’s neck. Zambello has Bruennhilde and Sieglinde return quickly to the fight scene to grab the broken sword pieces, a gesture that, even if ignored by other stage directors, is smart stagecraft that enhances storyline continuity with “Walkuere Act III” and “Siegfried”.

Which brings us to the beginning of Act III, and the Walkuerenritt – hands down the most famous part of the “Ring”. It is music that has become so mainstream, that I doubt that one would have much trouble convincing many young adults that this is a contemporary piece, written by John Williams, composer of the music for the Star Wars and Indiana Jones film franchises, for Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”.

The act begins with an extended session in which Bruennhilde’s eight sisters are performing their chaotic battlefield functions, that have nothing much to do with the subject matter of this part of the opera – the personal interrelationships between the two gods, the lead Valkyrie and the only human who started the opera who remains alive.

How do you fit eight exotic extraterrestrials into an American Ring? Make them paratroopers! Thus, as the act begins, clouds cover the scrim, but then we see images of bombers, then bombers and parachutes, at one point even a Huey helicopter, but in time the parachutes become the dominant image.

As the scrim rises, we see Valkyries in paratrooper uniforms, some packing and unpacking their parachutes, others running in and out carrying photographs of heroes, and a couple of Valkyries attached to – by means of their parachute rigging – the ceiling of the industrial staircases and platform that constitute the third act scenery, doing a bit of bungie jumping as they sing their hoyotohos.

Several metallic structures, which one imagines IKEA might sell in the future, function as both ladders and as repositories to hang the likes of the square pictures of the servicemen that we saw in the Todesverkuendig. Bruennhilde and Sieglinde appear and the latter is provided with both a champion horse and instructions as where to go to avoid Wotan or any person who will be a danger to herself or the future hero to whom she will give birth.

When Wotan orders the eight sisters to leave his sight and never again come near Bruennhilde, all eight disappear, unlike the Mariinsky Ring, where two valkyries are left behind to help move stage scenery.

In a moving rendition of Wotan’s farewell, as he tells her about his decision to put her into a long sleep, Bruennhilde looks at the towers of pictures of dead soldiers. Just like her mother Erda and stepmother Fricka, two other women who proved able to dissuade Wotan from following through on his plans and strategies, she convinces him that her disobedience to him was to save the unborn Siegfried.

Because he will be a hero who will have power to alter fate, independent of any of Wotan’s Loge-inspired schemes, Wotan needs for Siegfried to exist (and Wotan’s realization of this fact was performed with great insight by Held). Therefore, Bruennhilde’s love for Wotan redeems her actions. Conductor Fricke summons from his opera orchestra a masterful playing of the Redemption by Love leitmotiv, that will be one of the most prominent themes at the end of “Goetterdaemmerung”.

Wotan then kisses Bruennhilde, withdrawing her immortality by that gesture, places her on the concrete structure at center stage, and ignites a line of fire that burns up and down the staircases and across the connecting platform.

The opera closes with the Magic Fire music, the final great orchestral anthem of one of opera’s supreme masterpieces.

Last month, I spoke in support of Ian Judge’s quite unconventional staging of Wagner’s “Tannhauser” at the Los Angeles Opera and find myself again supporting Zambello’s American “Ring” as I did the Gergiev’s Mariinsky “Ring”. I believe that all three, which have elements that some Wagnerians might find shocking, are all basically conservative readings of these operas, whose non-traditional elements do no harm to, and often illuminate, aspects of the story.

The “Kirov/Mariinsky Ring” travels to New York City this summer and the “American Ring” begins its cycle in San Francisco in Summer, 2008. On the basis of my attendance at the full Kirov/Mariinsky Ring last October and of this “Walkuere”, I recommend experiencing both the American and Russian reconceptualizations of this great German operatic tetralogy.

William | April 1, 2007


The Washington National Opera is presenting the second installment of its ambitiously “American” version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle this season. After a promising beginning with Das Rheingold last year, however, Francesca Zambello’s efforts seem to have taken a turn for the worse. Walküre may be harder to stage, but this production suffered from a real lack of imagination. We do get a sense of continuity. Rheingold was set in a 1920s idiom, and Zambello has updated the action appropriately by one generation to soemthing approximating the 1950s. We might charitably attribute the dreary results to the latter decade’s dull reputation, but here we have Siegmund finding his bride and sister in a woodsy cabin over bottled beer. Wotan broods in a boardroom overlooking a pre-twin towers Manhattan skyline. Aviator-clad Valkyries literally drop into the construction site of an interstate highway. These prosaic locales, designed by Michael Yeargan, are dominated by the color gray, look cheap, and are pervaded by a simplicity that deprives the work of its spiritual-mythological significance. The video sequences that helped transition between Rheingold’s scenes are maintained, but they, too, were much less interesting and had much less impact in this production. Lest we forget some of Zambello’s better work, it needs to be said that she and her team might have faced budget constraints. Washington National reputedly overspends and, apparently for that reason, has delayed its anticipated Siegfried a year to 2008-2009. Fuller coffers may have led to more desirable results.

Whatever the financial dilemmas, casting is clearly no longer a problem in Washington. Anja Kampe outdid her colleagues with Sieglinde’s music, suggesting that this relative ingenue has a great future in the art form and, the nation’s capital should hope, at the Kennedy Center. Linda Watson’s Brünnhilde was nearly as radiant, especially in the middle register demanded by the sentimental music of the third act. Elena Zaremba’s Fricka held its quality well from the previous opera, avoiding the nagging shrillness that often creeps into the role. Alan Held has come a long way as a singer and repeated his stentorian Wotan (first given in Washington in 2003) with real insight and feeling. The god’s anguish was palpable throughout his appearances and enhanced by true physicality in the Act II smiting of Hunding, accomplished with a false embrace and quick twist of the neck. Gidon Saks tended toward coarseness in delivering that hissable role, but was still lively enough to derail caricature. The only unfortunate vocal contribution came from the evening’s most famous singer, Washington National Opera general director Placido Domingo. Now 66, the great tenor seemed to be suffering under the weight of Siegmund’s athletic music. After a promising start his voice steadily lost power and had audible problems reached the A’s and A flats. It was hard to take in after so many (recent) years of hearing him deliver glorious Siegmunds in so many houses in so many operatic capitals, ranging in this reviewer’s experience from New York to St. Petersburg. Domingo’s vocal career is far from over, but it may be time for him to concede this role to the past. Maestro Heinz Fricke did what he could with the orchestra, but it is not yet the great Wagnerian ensemble it might one day be.

Jun 2007

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
256 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 420 MByte (MP3)
A production by Francesca Zambello (2003/07)
Possible dates: March 24, 28, April 1, 5, 9, 14, 17, 2007