Houston — Ho-jo-to-ho resounds in the Wortham Center as helmeted women, armed with spears, occupy the building. Have no fear; it is all part of Die Walküre, the Houston Grand Opera’s second installment of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung, or The Ring Cycle).
This production is a co-production with Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Catalan theater company La Fura dels Baus. They are firmly rooted in their background as innovative actor/acrobats and this production was inspired by Greek drama. Gods fly around on levers in ancient Greece and this production does much the same with cherry pickers, worked by visible stagehands. There is a detailed description in my review of Das Rheingold last year, here, so I will refrain from repeating it.
Two roles that carry over from Rheingold are sung by the same singers: Iain Patterson’s Wotan and Jamie Barton as his quarrelsome wife, Fricka. Both do a marvelous job here as well. The big argument between the two of them, on which the remainder of the opera (and the cycle as well) hangs, is not only believable, but as rivetingly adversarial as Martha and George in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
In Patterson and Barton’s hands, you can see both sides, even though Fricka’s spiteful motivation is purely personal while Wotan’s dalliance was a part of a larger plan to save the Gods themselves. We knew this previously, but it has never been clearer than in this remarkably human performance.
Walküre introduces Brünnhilde, a fiendishly difficult role to sing that continues through the subsequent two operas. The history of opera is replete with a noticeable lack of sopranos willing, and able, to tackle the role. Few ever sang the role at the same time frame. The list is impressive, and includes names such as Flagstad, Lawrence, Traubel, Harshaw, Farrell, Varney, Nielsen, Eaglen (briefly) and most recently, Deborah Voigt, who’s retirement from the role left Wagner fans panting for the next soprano to claim the horned helmet.
This is also why there is a lot of interest in the Brünnhilde in Houston. Anticipation was high as Christine Goerke sang her first ho-jo-to-ho. She is new to the role and this is her first American performance. She first sang the role recently with the Canadian Opera Company and caused a sensation—underscored by instantly offered future engagements in Chicago and at the Met.
There is another contender on the horizon in the English soprano Catherine Foster, who will sing the role at the Wagner temple, the Bayreuther Festspiele in Germany. Patterson, Houston’s Wotan, will also reprise his role this summer there.
But, in the competition for Brünnhilde assoluta, Goerke lays down a marker that will be hard to top.
She easily sails over Wagner’s huge orchestra. Many of the really high notes (B and C) are not intended to be held, like in Italian opera. Thus, many Brünnhildes leap at them and barely touch the note. Goerke sings a real note—holding it as long as written but in full voice.
As an actor, she brings Brünnhilde to life. We see her girlish play with her stern father and some lines actually becoming wisecracks. She is deeply conflicted by Wotan’s instructions not to save Sigmund because she knows that Fricka forced him to act ageist his own plans. She is a nervous wreck when she disobeys him and interferes.
She is at her best when confronted with the severity of her punishment—the most believable complete astonishment and total dejection, reminiscent of a severely scolded puppy, you will ever see on the stage. When Wotan opens his heart to her, before banishing her to an inaccessible ring of fire, watch her face. Wotan’s grievous tale of theft, power grabbing, and the disastrous results—it is all reflected in her reactions.
The other three critical roles, Seigmund, Sieglinde and boorish lout Hunding, are also in stellar hands.
Ain Anger uses his deep rumbling bass to make Hunding exceptionally menacing. He is even more loathsome than usual in this staging in that he keeps Sieglinde tied down on a leash that gives her just enough room to carry out his commands.
She is also forced to scurry around on all fours to underline her dog status. This is a step beyond what is necessary to make the point of her absolute captivity. Furthermore, Siegmund is also on all fours for some unfathomable reason until he frees her. But whether standing or crawling around, the pair delivers some terrific singing.
Vocally, Simon O’Neill sings the punishing role of Siegmund with stentorian clarity and keen musical insight. The opera world is littered with croaking tenors who floundered against the shoals of this role. They underestimate its demands, thinking that it is short on the Wagnerian scale—just the one scene, but it is a voice killer. O’Neill sings the role with finesse and sounds as fresh at the end as at the beginning.
Karita Mattila perfectly captures Sieglinde’s hopeless situation. By letting us see her despair so vividly, her unbounded joy is all the more understandable. Her only possible salvation is a wild tale.
Some time ago, a weird stranger arrived and told her about a hero who will save her. (Like this is really going to happen.) He further tells her that this hero will extract a hero’s sword from a tree in the middle of Hunding’s living room. (Don’t ask.) He sticks his sword in the tree and leaves.
The Walküries eagerly wait by the audience. As the comedian Anna Russell says, they are a noisy bunch.
All of the Walküries in this production make a lot of sound, but it is definitely not noise. All of them have voices of the proper heft and the performance of their famous music is quite thrilling. Even better than the singing is their individuality.
Being dressed doesn’t stop them from creating distinct characters. As such, they were quite enjoyable to watch (one couldn’t possibly take all the details in on one viewing).
They are, in the order they are listed in the program: Julie Makerov, Kelly Kaduce, Catherine Martin, Meredith Arwady, Natalya Romaniw, Eve Gigliotti, Renée Tatum and Faith Sherman.
Conductor and Artistic Director Patrick Summers was impressive last season when the cycle launched with Das Rheingold and is even more impressive here. Summers not only knows what notes are in the score, he understands the big picture. He leads us through the opera to its heartbreaking end. Tempi, rather than starting and stopping, evolve out of what came before and where the music is going. This skill is so strong that the listener is never aware of a tempo change, although there are many. Balance is also excellent and Wagner’s huge orchestra rarely (if ever) covers a singer. The Houston Grand Opera Orchestra is excellent and right with Summers in this rubato-filled score—which is no easy task.
There isn’t a set, per se. The scenery, from interiors to outer space, is projected on a grid of 12 large screens that fill the back of the stage, top to bottom and side to side. Video designer Franc Aleu creates many arresting images that comment on the action, completely mystify or supply needed set pieces.
The tree in Hunding’s house is a standout. Bare of leaves, its web of branches pulses with life. Sometimes the branches look like veins pumping blood. Other times, it’s a shining crystal or covered in silver ice and frozen solid.
A large ball stuffed with dead bodies swings like a pendulum as the Walküries bring back the warriors who died on the battlefield. It is not quite the promised paradise but it is an image that will stick with you long after the curtain comes down.
On the dramatic side, Brünnhilde’s banishment to mountain is to a large disc instead. However, surrounding it with fire is a marvelous effect (which I won’t give away). This is difficult to pull off and is frequently a less than realistic effect.
The actual direction happened some time ago by the creative force behind it, Carlus Padrissa, when this production was staged in Valencia. The job of bringing it to Houston belongs to Estaban Muñoz. While there are some misfires (such as Siegmund down on all fours), the staging is creative and appropriate.
As in the case with the Walküre gang, the staging puts the emphasis on building the character. No stick figures or one-dimensional acting here. They may be Gods, but they still have quirks and wildly different personalities—something that is frequently lacking in productions of Wagner’s Ring.
The best compliment came from someone, unfamiliar with the opera, who harbored some fear of its length (5 hours plus two intermissions). At the end of act one, she said, “Well, that just seemed to fly by”.
What more could a director ask for?