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An Afternoon at the Opera: Die Walküre, Los Angeles, 4/12/09 (Part I)

posted Aug 8, 2012, 10:50 PM by Douglas Sun   [ updated Aug 8, 2012, 10:50 PM ]
Originally posted: April 15, 2009

By no means would I call my affection for Wagner's music a guilty pleasure,* but I freely admit that it's an eccentric one. I've always understood why his operas are something of a cult even within the rarefied world of opera fandom. Buy tickets to a Wagner opera, and you're going to plop down a lot of money to sit in the dark for a long time and listen to obviously self-indulgent music that takes forever to get to the point. It's not so much entertainment as it is a commitment, and it takes a rather peculiar kind of fan to embrace it. Walk out of a Puccini opera, and you're humming "Nessun Dorma" or "Che Gelida Manina." Walk out of a Wagner opera, and you won't be humming anything, because it's impossible to hum with your jaw dropped.

But that consuming intensity is exactly what draws in folks like me (and, in the fullness of his adult years, my old friend Bernard Ng). About 10 years ago, Bernard and decided to see the entire Ring of the Nibelung in San Francisco. It was a big commitment — more than a week out of our lives, and opera tickets never come cheap — but it was one of those things that we decided was worth doing while we had the chance. When the time actually came, I had my doubts as to whether it was really a good idea for me; I was leaving behind an important work-related project, and I didn't know if I could focus properly on what would be an expensive operatic marathon, not just a night at the theater. But when the house lights went down and the first strains of the Prelude to Das Rheingold wafted up from the pit, I was hooked. There was no turning back, and I had no desire to turn back.

So when LA Opera announced that they were going to stage both Rheingold and Die Walküre in the 2008-9 season, Bernard and I kind of looked at each other and said, "Yeah, we have to do this." We got tickets for the Easter Sunday performance of Walküre. Once again, the level of commitment involved seemed daunting; Walküre timed out at almost five hours, which made the logistics a little complicated. And once again, the reward was well worth the commitment, and I left without any regrets at all — although, as I'll make clear in a bit, my reaction to the production was actually rather complicated.

Well-sung, Volsung

Wagner demands a great deal from singers, and assembling a strong cast is always a paramount concern when staging The Ring in particular. In Walküre, you not only need a strong tenor (Sigmund) and a strong soprano (Brunnhilde), but the baritone is absolutely crucial, as well (Wotan).

Fortunately, the General Director of LA Opera happens to be a gentleman whose utterly remarkable career saw him make a mid-course correction that transformed him from one of the leading lyric tenors of his time to one of the leading heldentenors of his time. At this point in his career, Sigmund is probably the perfect role for Placido Domingo; it gives him plenty of opportunity to show his still-formidable vocal ability (and Sigmund's part of the Act I Winterreise duet is relatively well-suited for a lyric tenor), but he also gets to take Act III off. Even so, Domingo seems to have lost very little of his his trademark power and grace, and certainly nothing of his intelligence as a performer. At 67, he can still bring the heat, and God love him for it.

As Brunnhilde, Linda Watson brought a confident stage presence as well as a powerful, yet supple vocal presence. Brunnhilde has become such an awful cliche in popular culture — the operatic fat lady with the spear and Viking helmet — that it's too easy to forget that she starts out Act II of Walküre as a lively and humorous girl... who also just happens to appear to Sigmund later in the Act as an angel of death.... But that's just how it is with the Valkyries, y'know.... And in any event, Watson brought out all of the various facets of the character with exceptional ease and grace.

But in Walküre, Wotan is really the most important corner of the triangle. When the San Francisco Opera staged The Ring 70 years ago, it was just important to get Friederich Schorr as Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad. And while there was nothing wrong at all with Vitalij Kowaljow, he just didn't quite command the stage with the same authority as his co-stars. He was vocally and dramatically solid, but Wotan needs to dominate his time on stage, and at least hold his own in his scenes with Brunnhilde. Perhaps the weird, mummy-like costume that he had to wear didn't help him, but it would have been nice to have a little more in that role.

Well, He Is Chief Among the Gods

Why pick on Wotan? After all, the baritone is important in most operas. In the standard template, the baritone is the villain or antagonist — Baron Scarpia in Tosca, Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro — and so it's almost always important to get a strong performance out of him.

Well, having seen Walküre live twice now and having tried to make my own sense out of the grandiose sprawl of The Ring, I have come to the conclusion that the emotional heart of this opera in particular — and to a great extent, the entire cycle — is Wotan's tragedy. Perhaps I've listened once too often to Lawrence Tibbett's mesmerizing studio recording of Wotan's Farewell and the Magic Fire Music (see the Amazon link at left for the CD), pastedGraphic.pdfbut I think that if you were to boil down Walküre to the essence of its most compelling elements, what you would get is the very end of Act III. 

In 10 minutes of music and dramaturgy, Wagner shows us the chief of all the gods condemning his favorite child to living death; his greed, ambition and indiscretion brought him to the brink of disaster, and the sacred force of his oaths (and remember that the oaths carved into the shaft of Odin's spear are crucial to his role in Norse mythology) has pushed him over. Thematically, it is a moment that reaches back to his treachery and triumph in Rheingold and forward to the fall of the gods in Götterdämmerung, and as such, it carries more symbolic force than just about any other moment in any of the four Ring operas. In the now of the moment, we see Wotan stripped of everything that was important to him, and the full weight of how and why he screwed up is not lost on him. From now on, he is no longer a god but a husk: In Siegfried and Götterdämmerung he is simply The Wanderer, no longer a participant in the action, but a sardonic, doom-struck commentator.

Whether or not you actually feel sorry for Wotan is probably a subjective matter, perhaps subject to how you feel in general about great personal ambition and figures of authority. It's not impossible to see how Patrice Chereau could cast Wotan as an archetype of the industrial capitalist in his controversial staging of The Ring. I prefer to see The Ring in terms of Classical tragedy — which is perhaps just my way of imposing some kind of intellectual order on Wagner's unwieldy construct. Perhaps it means that I find Wotan at least somewhat sympathetic; certainly, all of the gods are characteristically pagan mixtures of divine authority, symbolic meaning and human failings. When I think of what I find most recognizably human (and therefore deeply moving) in Walküre, it sure isn't Sigmund's enthusiasm for incest; it's Brunnhilde the loyal daughter, Wotan as both hectored husband and agonized father/lawgiver, and his too-late realization that human feeling and the attainment of power cannot mix.

Viewing Walküre as Wotan's tragedy also clarifies why I have always felt Act I to be somewhat extraneous, sort of the opera's phantom limb. Sure, I understand that Sigmund and Sieglinde are integral to the plot, that you can't just cut out the Volsung twins. But given that Wotan is the emotional and thematic heart of the piece, spending so much time on them before you even introduce Wotan and Brunnhilde detracts from the narrative focus. What ought to be a prelude becomes the entire first act. It's a structural flaw, and one that makes the opera rather longer than it needs to be.

Of course, suggesting that Wagner needed to learn how to tighten up, maintain his focus and stick to the point is probably some kind of heresy to most of his enthusiasts. And it's kind of like saying that water really ought to be able to flow uphill, and does it really have to be so wet? In the end, Wagner's music is what it is, and we have to either learn to live in his world or leave it be.

Speaking of which, this post has also gone on longer than I'd intended, so I'm probably a fine one to talk about getting to the point and sticking to it. Once again, there will have to be a sequel post, because I also want to compare Achim Freyer's production to the one Bernard and I saw in San Francisco 10 years ago, because when you place them side-by-side they raise some interesting issues about how to stage opera and The Ring Cycle in particular. 

Nächsten Tag.

* If you’re at all curious about my truly guilty pleasures, stay tuned, because I will blog about at least one of them in time.