Die Walküre, LA Opera

Written by:
John Sullivan
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Die Walküre

Vitalij Kowaljow as Wotan (left)
and Linda Watson as Brünnhilde
in LA Opera’s “Die Walküre”
Photo by Monika Rittershaus

By Richard Wagner
Conducted by James Conlon
Design and direction by Achim Freyer
LA Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles
“The Ring” through June 26, 2010
(see video clip below)

Conductor James Conlon opened his pre-performance talk by saying that “The Ring” is “like a virus. You have it for life.”  It is true of the Wagner devotees who travel thousands of miles to see yet another company’s “Ring” production. It is true for many others of us who are unaware they are carriers, like the legions of children who have been infected from watching cartoons and hearing bits and pieces such as the “Ride of the Valkyries” to signal upcoming battle. Who has not heard the opening bars used even as a cell phone ringtone?

Wagner called the chorus of the Valkyries his “vaudeville.” It certainly has invaded the Western collective unconscious. The themes of the four operas are so universal that pundits have projected their own beliefs onto the story, be their mantle psychological — the Freudians and the Jungians — or political, such as the Marxists and environmentalists. The latter see the consequence of our obsession with power and wealth as meaning that by abusing nature we lose.  “The Ring” has archetypes for everyone who is willing to give it four very full evenings of attention.

“Die Walküre,” the second opera, is the first step in the cycle toward moving the story from the realm of the supernatural to the more human condition; it begins to explore the realities of love — the joy and the pain. It moves the story from a statement of the trade-off between, and the incompatibility of, power and love, to the desire people have to posses both. In “Walküre” powerful Wotan (Vitalij Kowaljow), the somewhat removed Zeus figure in “Rheingold” who gave an eye in exchange for power, experiences his own tortuous inner conflict.  Barren Fricka, the goddess of home and hearth and wife of Wotan, is the protector of morality and none to happy with the earthly philandering of her all-powerful, and therefore self-entitled, husband.  Wagner has written some of the best bickering heard on stage for Fricka.

Wotan’s copulations with numerous women on earth have produced even more numerous children. Nine of these are the Valkyries and chief among them is Brünnhilde (Linda Watson). Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned (Fricka), or for that matter the nine daughters out to do battle at their father’s bidding. The immediate cause for all the Sturm und Drang onstage is the love affair between Siegmund and Sieglinde who are, at first unknowingly, twin offspring of Wotan separated from (or abandoned by) him and from each other when they were very young. Wagner treads dangerous soil here. From ancient mythology to modern genetic science, incest has been a universal taboo. One of the best love duets ever is sung out of unknowing incest, yet it is hard not to identify with the young lovers rather than the raging Fricka or the furious Wotan.

There are many more twists and turns, but the question here is whether or not Freyer’s minimalist and abstract production serves the material. Certainly the music of this LA Opera production — the voices as well as the orchestra — are powerful and magical. The question is do the set and the production compliment them. For most of Act I, my answer was no. As in the earlier LA Opera production, the circular turntable that defines the stage is stripped bare and a black figure very slowly walks around and around holding a long neon tube that functions like a hand on a clock.  When the libretto is in the present or the future tense the figure’s pace is slowly clockwise.  When Siegmund and Sieglinde sing of vague memories or a sense that together they complete a whole, the figure walks, just as slowly, counterclockwise.

It is not a profound experience, but to be honest, at this point the music is quite static, too. A new patron of “The Ring” could justifiably say “oh no.” Their powerful love duet, in the 2008-9 production, also was sung at their diametrically opposite positions on the stage. It made no sense; the words, the music screamed passion, but the action, at best, sent a mixed message. To the uninitiated, what was happening made little sense and was mind numbing. Emotionally it was in diametric opposition to the ardor expressed in words and music.  

The good news is that this is one of the places where Freyer has reworked the staging. The young lovers are slowly drawn together and you can feel the power of their attraction.  Plácido Domingo (Siegmund) is never better and his duet with Michelle DeYoung (Sieglinde) gives full vent to their passion. The finale of Act I is glorious.  

Some confusion, however, still lingers.  Why, when Siegmund and Sieglinde, or their stage doubles (something else to confuse the poor unsuspecting audience), are embracing or dancing do they each have one arm sticking up in the air as though to defy their love, gravity and anatomy? That is a question I cannot answer, but watching the raised arm in this scene and elsewhere in the opera, I developed sympathetic shoulder cramps. Wagner was a fierce opponent of arranged marriage and a proponent of free love. “Die Walküre” is an erotic opera in service of free thinking.  Onstage neon tubes representing swords are a bit of a stretch as phallic symbols, but Brünnhilde’s costume is a lurid Judy Chicago-like image.

Achim Freyer’s “Ring” production is about images. They are always visually interesting (if occasionally underlit), but the question for me is: does the stripping away of convention in the staging (as Wagner was trying to do for the storytelling and music) further reveal the music for us to bathe in? Or does it occupy our minds, shifting our focus to Freyer? I do not pretend to have a straightforward answer.  Most of Act I was glacial and soporific; however, the Valkyries astride their half-horse, half-bicycle mounts on a whirling stage left me panting for more. Freyer understands Wagner’s description of the chorus as vaudeville and serves it well.  Will the second half of the cycle, “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung,” be well served by this staging or will it become repetitive and annoying?

Karen Weinstein

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