Die Walküre

Arthur Fagen
Atlanta Opera Orchestra
3 May 2024
Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre Atlanta
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegmundViktor Antipenko
HundingRaymond Aceto
WotanGreer Grimsley
SieglindeLaura Wilde
BrünnhildeChristine Goerke
FrickaGretchen Krupp
HelmwigeYelena Dyachek
GerhildeJulie Adams
OrtlindeAlexandra Razskazoff
WaltrauteCatherine Martin
SiegruneAubrey Odle
GrimgerdeMaya Lahyani
SchwertleiteMeridian Prall
RoßweißeDeborah Nansteel
Stage directorTomer Zvulun (2024)
Set designerErhard Rom
TV directorFelipe Barral

Goerke and Grimsley head a musically sumptuous, dramatically staid Die Walküre at Atlanta Opera

For the first time in its 45-year history, The Atlanta Opera presents a complete Ring Cycle, with the debut of a new installment each season. The undertaking represents a milestone not just for the Southern company, but for American opera at the moment: it is the first new cycle to premiere after the pandemic, a signal that grand opera still has a place amid mounting industry-wide financial austerity. Seen at the second of four performances, this season’s entry, Die Walküre, offered high musical values and piquant performances, which compensated for the production’s old-fashioned and occasionally silly theatricality.

The staging by company artistic director Tomer Zvulun breaks no new ground, though it merits some commendation for its lucid storytelling, making it an ideal complement for first-timers. Seasoned Wagnerians might feel, however, as if they’ve stepped several decades back in time. Hulking pictorial sets by Erhard Rom dominate the stage, placing the action in a vaguely medieval realm, and costume designer Mattie Ullrich supplies outfits that run the gamut from flowing Grecian dresses (for Sieglinde and Brünnhilde) to stately modern evening wear (for Fricka, who looks here like a haughty society wife). Some elements are striking on their own terms, like the stone-walled library that represents Valhalla and Robert Wierzel’s smoky, atmospheric lighting. Yet the action is overwhelmed by a series of cheesy projections (also by Rom), and the viewer comes away keenly aware of the lack of subtext or subtlety on display.

Zvulun succeeds, though, in obtaining gripping dramatic performances from his talented cast. It helps that the production is anchored by a pair of American Wagner veterans. Greer Grimsley brought the weight of authority to Wotan, and if the timbre of his still-secure bass-baritone has faded a touch in color, the slightly leaner, paler sound seemed appropriate to convey the character’s growing disgust with the world. Grimsley brought a full range of emotions to his characterization, believably charting the evolution from Brünnhilde’s doting father to sworn enemy, before settling into the rueful final moments as he bids his daughter goodbye forever. He brought a wrenching anguish and self-loathing to Wotan’s second-act monologue, culminating in a chilling cry of “Das ende!” – followed by a repeat that brought it down to a world-weary whisper.

Wendy Bryn Harmer, a practiced Wagnerian in her own right, was slated to make her role debut as Brünnhilde in these performances. When she withdrew due to illness in rehearsals, the company called upon the most luxurious of replacements: Christine Goerke, one of the role’s premier living interpreters. Judging by her deeply felt and fully committed interpretation, no one could have imagined that she wasn’t involved from day one. Her voice, an even column of gleaming sound from top to bottom, rang out above the heavy orchestrations, and she never tired throughout the long evening, perhaps even gaining in her final confrontation with Wotan. Hers was a Brünnhilde blinded by her own pride of place as her father’s prized daughter, who grew up harrowingly fast when she realized her favored days had come to an end. Still, she remained tender and loving in her interactions with Wotan, even as she accepted her fate.

Viktor Antipenko brought an attractive and heroic tenor to Siegmund, and Laura Wilde made for a youthful, lyrical Sieglinde. They demonstrated palpable chemistry, though the final moments of Act 1, which found them in flagrante on the dining room table, skirted the boundaries of good taste. The physically imposing and vocally sturdy Raymond Aceto was a gleefully merciless Hunding, but some of the stage business assigned to him came close to comedic villainy.

Gretchen Krupp brought a bright, fruity mezzo to Fricka. The visible age difference between her and Grimsley added an intriguing dimension to Wotan and Fricka’s relationship, and Krupp’s bearing throughout her scene was imperious and commanding. The eight Valkyrie sisters were uniformly cast from strength, although Deborah Nansteel’s arresting Roßweisse stood out. Surely she is a Fricka in the making.

Conductor Arthur Fagen favored a style more crisp and arresting than awash in Romantic sweep. This approach highlighted the dramatic thrust of the music, especially in the taut Ride of the Valkyries and the introductory passages of Act 1, which emerged pregnant with foreboding danger. Occasionally he pushed the brass too far – they overwhelmed in the postlude to Wotan’s Farewell – but overall, it was a lucid and well judged reading of the score.

At a time of budget cuts and production cancellations, The Atlanta Opera should be celebrated for committing to this costly and worthwhile undertaking. I do hope that by the time Siegfried comes around next season, the dramatic virtues will have caught up to the musical ones.

Cameron Kelsall | 30 April 2024


The Atlanta Opera’s superb “Die Walküre” is to fly for

Atlanta’s travel and hospitality industry, should sit up and take note: The Atlanta Opera is increasingly proving itself a “destination” opera company. Certainly, the fact that it is now ranked one of the top-10 American opera companies by Opera America is one in-industry measure of that, it’s the productions themselves, particularly the impressive Die Walküre which opened this past Saturday, that are proof of the draw of increased audience from outside of the metro-Atlanta area.

For example, a gentleman seated beside me had driven from Columbus, Ohio, to see Die Walküre on opening night. (According to Google Maps, that’s an 8-hour drive, non-stop.) Another, seated in the row ahead of us, overheard and remarked that he had come down from Dayton, Ohio, for the performance. Both had attended last season’s Das Rheingold.

That encounter is not isolated or merely anecdotal. A spokesperson from The Atlanta Opera confirmed the increased influx of travelers, near and far, for whom this Atlanta Die Walküre is a “destination” performance. A good percentage of these out-of-towners naturally come from neighboring states, but some have flown in from across North America to see it, with one couple, word has it, coming from as far away as Sydney, Australia, on a “world opera tour” with The Atlanta Opera being the stop between shows at Houston Grand Opera and Deutsche Oper Berlin.

And for those who can’t attend in person, there will be internet streaming of the Die Walküre performance 6:30 p.m. on Friday, May 3. These live streams, as well as on-demand video from The Atlanta Opera Film Studio, have built the company a global audience.

Of course, there is nothing like the live experience of opera, and devoted opera lovers are willing to travel for it. They’ve found The Atlanta Opera a great destination for seeing first-rate opera firsthand.

. The strength of the draw to this particular Die Walküre begins with its cast. American bass-baritone Greer Grimsley is the ultimate Wotan, a role which he also played in Das Rheingold last season, the first installment of The Atlanta Opera’s new Ring Cycle productions. Although the company initially cast Wendy Bryn Harmer as Wotan’s daughter Brünnhilde, she became ill and unable to perform, but we got a stellar replacement in soprano Christine Goerke.

Excellence did not stop there. We saw compelling performances by tenor Viktor Antipenko and soprano Laura Wilde as the Völsung twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, as well as strong renditions by Gretchen Krupp as Wotan’s wife Fricka, and Raymon Aceto as the antagonist mortal Hunding, Sieglende’s husband. In line with director Tomer Zvulun’s penchant for balanced ensemble casts, the eight other Valkyries (Julie Adams, Yelena Dyachek, Maya Lahyani, Catherine Martin, Deborah Nansteel, Aubrey Odle, Meridian Prall, and Alexandra Razskazoff) proved a fine assemblage of voices.

As is true of all of The Ring, in Die Walküre, the underlying mover of the drama is the underlying orchestral score. The Atlanta Opera Orchestra, under the assured baton of music director Arthur Fagen, forged a formidable, motivated Wagnerian performance of the music that made the exceptionally long evening progress much more quickly than expected. Well-matched to the orchestra in presentational power was the (for the most part) stunningly effective set and projection design by Erhard Rom, symbiotically coupled with Robert Wierzel’s lighting design and the contributions of the entire creative crew.

As with Das Rheingold, Rom’s Die Walküre sets use projections extensively, with many moving elements rather than only static ones. The physical sets, therefore, leave plenty of room for Zvulun’s stage direction. Like Das Rheingold (and Rom’s set for the Salome), the physical set’s abstraction and the projections allow for an absence of defined temporality—a kind of timelessness—and help invoke “a theater of the mind.” But there is also much that feels contemporary for the audience (like the projected glass and steel towers of Valhalla in Asgard). This feeling of timelessness is well-complemented by Mattie Ullrich’s costume designs.

One abstraction that didn’t work for me was the Act I representation of Hunding’s house, through which the ash tree grows. It is a large rectangular box open to the audience, which comes across as a house made from a shipping container rather than a forest home. I have nothing against the ash tree, the fire pit, table and benches, or the projected forest behind; the stark, open cuboid house itself doesn’t feel right to me.

What this open cuboid does well, however, is define a smaller interior space on stage, so there is less sense of the singers being “outsized” by the set in this act. Typical outsizing found in “total theater” does, however, have its due impact in Acts II and III.

The interior of Valhalla introduced in Act II serves as an example. The huge shelves and stacks of greatly oversized books posit a sense of enormity and knowledge worthy of Wotan and the realm of the gods, even if the book collection is well-worn and some are coming apart. One also notices a chess game in mid-play on one of the stacks of books. Grey cuboid platforms also make their appearance here.

Later in Act II, beginning in scene 4, after Siegmund and Sieglinde stop to rest during their flight from Hunding, Brünnhilde appears in front of a stunning projected backdrop of a total solar eclipse, replete with flowing plasma corona, at first to tell Siegmund he must die, then defying Wotan in an attempt to aid Siegmund to victory over Hunding. But Wotan appears (in scene 5) and breaks Siegmund’s sword with his spear. Siegmund dies (as does Hunding), but Sieglinde escapes with Brünnhilde. Wotan vows to punish her for her defiance.

The symbolism of the eclipse is not at first apparent but becomes clear: Wotan is often portrayed as an archetype of a “wise old man.” Compare that archetypal image with that of Sarastro of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, where Sarastro is the Sun, whereas his estranged wife, the Queen of the Night, is the Moon.

In Die Walküre, the eclipse appears to represent the daughter Brünnhilde (the Moon) attempting to block the will of Wotan (the Sun), yet the corona flares behind the dark disc of the Moon—a brilliant visual analogy. Another projection in Act III will subtly elaborate on this.

Rom takes the opportunity to use the Prelude to Act III, the infamous Walkürenritt (“The Ride of the Valkyries”), as the foundation for a visual montage of white horses, swiftly moving clouds, and crackling lighting projected on a front screen through which the audience can see the Valkyries gathering onstage for scene one. A massive rock in the background and a smaller one near it set the feeling of a rough mountain landscape, both physically and emotionally.

Arriving with Sieglinde, Brünnhilde soon informs Sieglinde that she is pregnant with a future hero (foreshadowing the next Ring opera, Siegfried). Sieglinde is sent away with the broken sword “Nothung” toward the forests in the east before Wotan arrives to mete out discipline.

Brünnhilde is to be stripped of status as a Valkyrie and made mortal, to be bound on the mountain by sleep, and given over to the first man who finds her. Though they protest, the other Valkyries flee when Wotan threatens them with the same punishment.

In Brünnhilde’s subsequent discourse with Wotan, she explains how she protected Sieglinde in the belief that this was Wotan’s true desire—so that a hero could be born that Wotan could not create himself and who could do what the gods need to do but cannot.

Here, Rom gives us the backdrop of a starry night sky with a crescent Moon, and the symbolism of the eclipse extends with the waxing Moon having moved away from blocking the Sun and now illuminated by it. The Moon, symbolizing Brünnhilde, disappears as she becomes mortal.

Brünnhilde implores Wotan to surround her resting place with a circle of fire that will prevent all but the bravest heroes from reaching her, and he consents. As he bids her a loving farewell, Wotan encircles her body first with a blue circle of sleep, then calls upon Loge to create a ring of perpetual fire around her. (Is it only accidental that both of these are rings?) Wotan then casts a final spell: “Wer meines Speeres Spitze fürchtet durchschreite das Feuer nie!” (“He who fears my spear’s tip shall never pass through the fire!”)

The magnificent scène d’incendie, ending with a hard blackout, dramatically concluded the opera, setting up the third installment of the Ring Cycle: the much anticipated Siegfried, which the Atlanta Opera will present next season in four performances from April 26 through May 4, 2025.

Given the combined artistic successes of last season’s Das Rheingold and the currently-running Die Walküre, we can expect a “flight of the opera fans” to arrive in Atlanta for Siegfried, and Atlanta audiences should begin preparing now to attend that heroic episode, as well as the rest of The Atlanta Opera’s promising 2024-25 season.

In the meantime, if you didn’t see Saturday’s opening night of Die Walküre, you are urged to go to one of the three remaining performances of this outstanding production.

Mark Gresham | 30 APR 2024

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
1920×1080, 3.6 MiB/s, 5.9 GiB (MP4)
English subtitles
Christine Goerke replaces Wendy Bryn Harmer as Brünnhilde.