Magnificent singing vies with directorial excess in Lyric Opera’s variable “Walküre”

Thu Nov 02, 2017 at 4:29 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Christine Goerke and Eric Owens in Wagner’s “Die Walküre” at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo: Cory Weaver

About halfway through Wednesday’s opening-night performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre, one began to feel that Lyric Opera’s Ring cycle was really hitting its stride. A top-drawer cast was singingly magnificently, the orchestra was playing gloriously and the off-putting snark of last year’s Das Rheingold was kept to a minimum.

And then it happened.

Director David Pountney reverted to form with the celebrated opening of Act 3 where the Valkyries are assembling. Taking a minor aspect of the female warriors carrying the dead heroes to Valhalla, Pountney decided to make the scene into a garish horror show–equal parts Rocky Horror Picture Show and Saw.

The Valkyries here are red-clad dominatrixes who are gleefully carving up and dismembering the heroes’ corpses and throwing their body parts around. Bleeding cadavers are everywhere on the stage–as well as covered in plastic wrap and hanging from a raked overhead scaffolding–as white-clad orderlies covered in blood move more bodies in and out.

Haw, haw, haw. Isn’t David Pountney clever? Isn’t he simply hilarious? He’s so much smarter and more talented than that old bore Wagner.

No, no and no. What an absolutely vile, self-inflicted catastrophe. And that was only the worst of Pountney’s interpolated excesses.

In a bit of elephantine literalism Sieglinde–the abducted and involuntary mate of Hunding–is shackled to a huge chain that she is forced to carry around like Marley’s Ghost for half of Act 1.  Hunding enters a scene surrounded by a chorus of undulating, bare-chested male dancers with dog masks. Didn’t we just experience that campy bit in last season’s hapless Carmen?

Later when Brünnhilde tells Siegmund that Wotan has decreed he must perish, the director upstages his principals by inserting a group of Victorian undertakers with huge black wreathes who walk endlessly around the stage.

I won’t spoil Pountney’s kitschy denouement when Wotan puts Brünnhilde to sleep encircled by a ring of fire. Except to say that Cirque du Soleil does this sort of thing with greater flair and better taste.

Finally, instead of dashing happily off together at the end of Act 1, Pountney has Sieglinde rip off her garments and lay down with legs spread as Siegmund hops on top of her rutting as the curtain comes down. Way to keep it classy, guys.

As with all such interventionist directors, this production tell us much more about David Pountney than it does about Wagner. If Lyric Opera doesn’t have the sense or the guts to sack the director from its Ring after this crass debacle, they deserve whatever disasters are forthcoming in the cycle’s two remaining operas.

But don’t hold your breath. In the company’s current era it seems that anyone with an English accent is automatically considered a genius.

What makes this such a tragedy is that Lyric has assembled a world-beater cast for this second installment of its Ring cycleWhat a grievous self-inflicted Amfortas wound, allowing an out-of-control director to ruin what could have been a memorable Walküre.

A year ago on opening night of Das Rheingold, Eric Owens was the surprising weak link in a strong cast, sounding tired and spent long before the final scene. (Reports from those who attended subsequent performances said Owens’ performance improved as the run continued.)

No such qualms were to be had Wednesday night. Owens commanded the stage with a towering portrayal of Wotan, singing with huge tone, daunting stamina and riveting dramatic force, as the conflicted god who must bow to the fates, letting his earthly son Siegmund die and punishing his beloved daughter Brünnhilde.

Wotan’s long narrative recap to Brünnhilde in Act 2 can often come across like Rheingold for Dummies. But Owens’ intensity and vocal conviction made his story-telling wholly compelling and had one hanging on every word.

Wotan’s extended farewell to Brünnhilde in the final scene lies high for Owens’ bass-baritone but, at the end of a long evening, he rose to the challenge, with great feeling and suffused heartache.

Christine Goerke’s Brünnhilde was on the same level. Few sopranos have the power and agility to tackle this daunting role so convincingly and Goerke wholly embodied the title role, handling the myriad vocal demands with aplomb.  Goerke also provided her best local acting to date in an understated portrayal that showed Brünnhilde’s sympathy for the plight of the Volsungs, pain at the rage of her father Wotan, and finally acceptance and forgiveness in an affecting final scene with Owens.

The first part of Act 2 can seem like a not-very-interesting domestic squabble. But despite the staging’s take on Fricka as uptight society matron, Tanja Ariane Baumgartner’s fiery performance and commitment made Fricka’s anger about Wotan’s infidelities and the Walsungs’ incest entirely believable.

Brandon Jovanovich and Elisabet Strid in “Die Walküre.” Photo: Cory Weaver

For once Siegmund and Sieglinde are played by a pair of superb singers who also make an attractive couple and are plausible as youthful siblings.

Brandon Jovanovich has developed into one of our finest Wagner tenors and he brought impressive strength and lyric power to this demanding role. Despite the staging idiocies, Jovanovich managed to convey the desperation of the hunted character as well as his deep love for his sister, as he pleads with Brünnhilde to save her.

Elisabet Strid proved electrifying in her company debut as the doomed Sieglinde. At times one wanted a bit more vocal heft, but the Swedish soprano sang with remarkable commitment and dedication throughout. Dramatically she powerfully conveyed the abducted girl’s haunted, unhinged qualities.

Also making a terrific company debut was Ain Anger as Hunding. A tall and imposing presence, the Estonian bass proved ideal casting as Siegmund’s enemy, singing with deep, black tone and bringing a dangerous, malevolent demeanor to the role. This is a Hunding that really means business. Let’s hope Anger has been signed up to sing Hagen in Lyric’s Götterdämmerung.

Despite the lame tastelessness of Pountney’s treatment of their characters, the Valkyries proved a powerfully sung octet of warrior sisters (Lauren Decker, Laura Wilde, Whitney Morrison, Alexandra LoBianco, Catherine Martin, Deborah Nansteel, Zanda Svede and Lindsay Ammann) with special kudos for those game enough to ride the hydraulic cherry pickers high over the stage and audience.

The multilevel sets by Robert Innes Hopkins and the late Johann Engels neatly separate the heavenly and earthly milieus, with the gods on a long platform above and the humans below. Hunding’s minimalist hut was aptly bleak and industrial with the back wall opening up to a golden autumn pasture for Siegmund and Sieglinde’s erotic cavorting. The elegant gray slate and inset windows of Valhalla suited the aristocratic take on the gods, even if the design suggested a jewelry store facade.

This Ring’s show-within-a show concept of visible stagehands operating the scenery and hydraulic machines is familiar by now and less distracting. Still, the usage of the four towering wooden scaffolds from Rheingold seemed almost obligatory, with the Volsungs’ scene in Act II especially awkwardly handled.

Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costuming proved a mixed bag, though an improvement over her steamer-trunk explosion of circus-like getups in Rheingold. The drab timeless working-class earth tones worked for the Volsung twins, as did the basic black for Brünnhilde with one small silver wing. The One Percent conceit for the gods was a cliche fifty years ago, but the tuxedo and tails for Wotan and bejeweled formal gown for Fricka at least didn’t get in the way. One can’t say the same for the garish red getups for the men-eviscerating Valkyries.

Andrew Davis brought his estimable Wagnerian bona fides to this most lyrical of the four Ring operas, showing his flexibility and deep understanding of this music. With surging dramatic momentum the four hours and forty minutes flew by, and all the big moments made thrilling, sumptuous impact.

The Lyric Opera Orchestra–as seasoned and idiomatic a Wagner band as exists today–brought gleaming corporate ensemble and stellar solo contributions with especially atmospheric and characterful playing from the horns and woodwinds.

Die Walküre runs through November 30.

Posted in Performances

13 Responses to “Magnificent singing vies with directorial excess in Lyric Opera’s variable “Walküre””

  1. Posted Nov 02, 2017 at 5:20 pm by Anne-Marie

    Thank you for the this honest and thoughtful review which supports my decision to opt out of this opera in my series. At least I heard the magnificent singing via the radio broadcast on WFMT without the distraction and aggravation of another vulgar, excessive stage interpretation! Subtlety is out of fashion with some of these Lyric directors these last few years – recent Don Giovanni and Figaro productions come to mind.

  2. Posted Nov 02, 2017 at 6:33 pm by Sacha Urban

    Mr. Johnson – I think you are missing the point of the opening of the 3rd act: the horror show truly reflected the horrors of war; its gore and in-humane-ness (and the Valkyrie’s flippancy) was perfectly captured in the staging. Instead of opting to celebrate heroism and the heroe’s death, I felt that David Poutney exposed the ugly, harsh and brutal underbelly of the warrior’s destiny. While disturbing, yes, it also made an excellent and critical point. I did not see the Rheingold, but I loved the balance of the rather stark stage with the richness of the music, I remember thinking the same with Lohengrin. Finally, I am in awe how timeless Wagner’s music and themes are. I would highly recommend this opera to anyone!

  3. Posted Nov 02, 2017 at 8:58 pm by DAVID MORIN

    It’s fantasy! It’s mythology! Let your imagination run wild, that is if you have one. The production was my first Ring opera and I’m not truly a fan of Wagner. So it was with trepidation I attended Die Walküre! Almost five hours? Would I make it through without falling asleep? Thanks to the top notch musical and production values of the production I was riveted from start to finish. Without those top notch values I would have been snoring 30″ into the first act!

  4. Posted Nov 02, 2017 at 11:33 pm by Peter Borich

    I beg to differ about the worst Poutney intrusion. For me, it was the mass of creepy male sex fiends attempting to molest Brunnhilde immediately prior to the Magic Fire Scene, as she complained about Wotan’s plan to the allow the first man to awaken her from her slumber punishment to claim her as his bride. Felt I was watching a group of zombies stumbling toward a piece of fresh female meat. Simply Dumb…..

  5. Posted Nov 03, 2017 at 9:08 am by Sam Hack

    As with all such reactionary reviewers, this review tell us much more about Lawrence A. Johnson than it does about the production.

  6. Posted Nov 03, 2017 at 11:19 am by bobbymcc

    Nice review. As a first-time pilgrim to Bayreuth’s Ring this year, and witnessing what Frank Castorf unleashed upon the opera world, it seems as if Poutney’s take is refreshingly downright traditional. At least his ideas, good or bad, spring from the actual story. I’ll hold off judgment, though, till I see the whole cycle in a few years. Great to hear Baumgartner brought her Fricka to Chicago. She was quite terrific in Bayreuth.

  7. Posted Nov 03, 2017 at 11:27 am by Anne-Marie

    Imagination? Excess leaves nothing to the imagination and insults the viewer’s intelligence to boot. Mutilating body parts and performing unbridled sex acts on stage would be the equivalent of pounding a person on the head to prove a point: see how horrible war is and how lecherous these characters are? However, it may be the only way to attract a new audience whose sensibilities have been dulled by too much reality television and a circus of mass media reporting!

    “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder,” a poet once said. Call me reactionary but, having seen and heard beautiful opera performed on various stages of the world for decades, I know when beauty moves my soul and uplifts my mind.

  8. Posted Nov 03, 2017 at 1:13 pm by Andrew Nogal

    It sounds like David Pountney might be a fan of Paul McCarthy’s video works.

  9. Posted Nov 04, 2017 at 1:45 pm by Richard Boyum

    This was a tremendous night of Wagnerian singing. Though each of the principal singers is an opera headliner in their own right, they showed wonderful ensemble acting and singing. Each matched the other singers in mood and intensity yet showed why it is worth an effort to hear them individually sing.

    Christine Georke is the Strauss/Wagner soprano of my time. I worried about Eric Owens after the Das Rheingold of last season but, oh my, was my concern misplaced. His huge, distinctive, and nuanced voice was Wotan. And Brandon Jovanovich continues to rapidly grow into a superb heldentenor. I see that there is a Parsifal in his future. That will be something.

    The Lyric Opera production is one that will stick in my mind for a long time. There are so many incredible visual images that to me reflect accurately what is being sung on stage.I am haunted by the funeral directors with their wreaths. Hunding with his battle-axe and his pack of dogs lets me know that Siegmund had no hope in fleeing. I have not served in the military, but I do have friends and family who live with post traumatic stress disorder many years after battle. War need not be portrayed with a clean heroic transition to life in Valhalla when the reality is more terrible than I can imagine.

    This is so good, so memorable. I’m seeing it three times.

  10. Posted Nov 06, 2017 at 7:42 pm by Ralph Neiweem

    Agree with this review 100%! However this is a case of redemption through music! The singers were so good, you would miss a real chance of hearing a perhaps lifetime best ensemble Walküre cast to miss it. If it’s important to you, you now know where to close your eyes! :)
    And – you might like the production. I didn’t.
    Plaudits to Lawrence Johnson for permitting feedback – so helpful and cathartic to be able to respond to a review, agree or not.

  11. Posted Nov 10, 2017 at 8:32 pm by Joan Sutton

    I’m coming from San Francisco to Chicago for Thanksgiving and trying to decide whether to buy a ticket. Just saw amazing Christine Goerke in San Francisco’s Elektra. She’s a phenomenon! After reading everything here, I’m getting a ticket despite some of the negativity – but not only Christine but also Eric – at his best! I’ll definitely be there.

  12. Posted Nov 11, 2017 at 6:54 am by Shenach Cameron

    As someone who loves a night at the Lyric, but who has no formal musical education, it was reassuring to hear my thoughts echoed by this reviewer. The voices were magnificent. I especially appreciated the singing and acting of Fricka and Wotan, and was struck by the modernity of their relationship–but I did have to close my eyes for many moments during Sieglind’s performance. The hauling around of the chain, the strange stroking and cavorting in the forest, and the odd posturing right before the sword is claimed were cringe-worthy and crass.

    I also miss the solid, beautiful sets that have added so much to the experience in the past (Meistersingers, for example), and found the pushing around of the massive props a bit distracting. Definitely one to listen to on the radio.

  13. Posted Nov 15, 2017 at 12:15 am by Marina Magis

    Mr Johnson – I don’t even buy tickets to the Lyric before I read your reviews. I did not initially plan on seing Die Walkyrie, but after reading your review and other viewers’ notes I was intrigued! I am glad I went! The singers and the orchestra were glorious, and I actually liked the production …in the first two acts.

    To me, there was so much going on on the stage in act 3 – the net with corpses and climbers going up and down, the bridge right in the middle of the stage , the flying horses, the body bags, the morgue – it was just distracting. I heeded one reviewer’s advice and closed my eyes. Also, poor Valkyries looked ridiculous dressed so hideously and having to drag chairs around the stage, while singing most passionately . There was a real disconnect between the music and the staging in this scene.

    I still highly recommend seeing this opera (a couple of performances still left). I greatly enjoyed it. Thank you for a thorough and honest review .

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