Monday, May 4, 2015

Houston Grand Opera: Die Walküre

This past Thursday we saw Die Walküre, the second part of Wagner's Ring Cycle. This time last year, when I saw Das Rheingold for the first time, I didn't know what to expect, but this year I had the advantage going in of knowing that I love the look and direction of this production. And I was initially intimidated by Wagner, but I'm finding the music far more accessible than I expected. (I also note that the audience made its appreciation of the orchestra's performance very apparent.)

Not having seen the Ring Cycle before, I can't compare this with other productions, but I find it difficult to imagine that I would find another interpretation more exciting than this one, which is modern and sophisticated. An article in the Opera Cues program written by conductor and Artistic/Music Director Patrick Summers notes that "all of the imagery of the Fura Ring production comes from ancient literature ... if the production resembles science fiction it is only because science fiction shares some of the same sources as the Ring mythology." He continues: "The technological conveyances are modern, like video or Lege's Segway, but their symbolism is not: Wagner's visual imagination was generations ahead of what was physically possible in his era...."

I'm glad to have read that, because it gives me context, yet I still feel free to experience this Ring Cycle as science fiction. I'm new enough to opera that I'm not confident about my opinions, but I can and do talk about science fiction all day long, and I'm becoming more interested in and comfortable with fantasy literature as well. For me, then, this is the best of many worlds.

At some point I really should talk about the opera itself, though! In Das Rheingold, the dwarf Alberich steals gold from the Rhinemaidens (I will never forget the singers in those water tanks!) and forges it into a ring to make himself invincible, which works ... for a while. Wotan, chief of the gods, steals the ring from Alberich but then has to use it to pay the giants Fafner and Fasolt for building Valhalla, the fortress of the gods. In Die Walküre, Wotan has since fathered nine daughters, the Valkyries, with the earth goddess, Erda. With a she-wolf, he has also fathered the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, but separates them because he hopes that will enable them to one day recover the gold ring for him.

The opera begins when Siegmund and Sieglinde, now adults, meet and fall in love, not knowing at first that they are siblings. Sieglinde's husband, Hunding, demands that Siegmund fight him the following day, and Sieglinde shows him a sword embedded in a tree that no man has been able to pull out. In retrieving the sword, Siegmund realizes Sieglinde is his sister, but still claims her as his bride.

In Act II, Wotan tells his daughter, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, to protect Siegmund in the coming fight. Wotan's wife Fricka, however, demands that Wotan champion Hunding instead, so Wotan tells Brünnhilde he has changed his mind. She plans to obey, but when Siegmund tells Brünnhilde he will not follow her to Valhalla if Sieglinde cannot go with him, Brünnhilde sides with the lovers. Wotan appears and intervenes by shattering Siegmund's sword, allowing Hunding to kill his opponent. Wotan then kills Hunding and gives chase to Brünnhilde.


The third act opens with the Valkyries gathering slain heroes, represented by a swinging "wrecking ball" draped with live but motionless acrobats (pictured at top of post). The audience literally gasped when the curtain went up on this impressive scene. The Valkyries are afraid to help their sister, and Sieglinde herself wishes she had died with Siegmund, but Brünnhilde tells Sieglinde that she is now carrying Siegmund's child and must survive. Sieglinde escapes, and Brünnhilde stays behind to face Wotan, who punishes her by making her mortal and placing her in a sleep that will last until a man awakens and claims her. At her request, he has her surrounded by fire so that only a brave man will attempt to rescue her.

I know that described like this, the story sounds silly; it's hard to convey how majestic and moving it is when combined with the music, words, and sets. The music and words are probably among the most studied works in opera history, and I don't have the knowledge to analyze them properly, but I will say once again that this opera really was more accessible and moving that I would have expected. I can't wait to see Siegfried next year and Götterdämmerung the year after that, and have I mentioned that I love the way Houston Grand Opera is performing one of these pieces each year? We've been going to HGO for about five years, but this makes it seem more like an ongoing relationship rather than just something we do six or seven times a year. Some of the artists are reprising their roles in more than one of the productions, so we get to know them better, and these performances, at the end of the season, somehow each seem like the event of the year.

As with Das Rheingold, Die Walküre makes extensive use of video screens, showing such things as stylized wolves running through a forest (think of those motion-capture rides, just further away on the stage). The screens also showed the massive tree in which the sword was embedded; at one point the letters of Siegmund's name are drawn up repeatedly through the roots to the ends of even the smallest branches. In this particular story, there is also a fair bit of lightning on screen.

And I don't know what to call them, but another effect repeated from last time was the use of conveyances for the gods and Valkyries to move them around the stage as though they were swooping at will. Even though each of these had two visible stagehands openly manipulating them, I had no trouble getting lost in the effect. (And when we see one of the giants from Dad Rheingold return next year, I hope to see his Aliens power-loader again -- it was awesome!) All of this comes courtesy of La Fura dels Baus, the Barcelona-based theater group that created this production. I note that the set designer, Roland Olbeter, is working on a "full-scale automatic puppet opera with music by Russian composer Elena Kats Chernin to be played by instruments he created" -- that sounds like something I would love.

There was only one effect that wasn't quite all I would have hoped for, and that was the slow speed at which the fire-bearers surrounding the sleeping Brünnhilde lit their torches from one another. I had expected the circle of fire to swoosh up into full flames all at once, but perhaps the passing of torch to torch is meant to go with a particular length of music. Once lit, however, the circle was an impressive visual with which to end the opera, and it will certainly stay in my memory.


[Images are property of Houston Grand Opera.]

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