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Review: 'Die Walkure' at L.A. Opera

April 5, 2009 |  4:03 pm

Walkure There are many fine reasons for the popularity of “Die Walküre.”  It is springtime in the “Ring,” and this, the second of the four-opera cycle, boasts not only Wagner’s famously exuberant martial music -- “The Ride of the Valkyries” (cue the "Apocalypse Now" helicopters) – it also contains the most tender and lyrical moments in this huge operatic enterprise.  

Beautiful sister and heroic brother glory in romance, and music transcends the cringe factor.  A warrior god, Wotan, forsakes a beloved warrior daughter, Brünnhilde, and the long opera ends in elegiac, radiant poignancy.  Fire consumes the stage.  Its light and warmth heat the heart.  A great Wagnerian glow such as is this is like none other.

At Los Angeles Opera on Saturday night, among the sonic embers of said glow, one heard another sad, if not unexpected, sound at the end of “Die Walküre.”  Somewhere in the rear of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a lonely booer (maybe more than one) valiantly tried to be heard over loud bravos when the German artist Achim Freyer, the designer and director of the company’s first and supposedly controversial “Ring” cycle, came on stage for his bow.

This Freyer production is not to everyone's taste; no production of any merit, confrontational or conventional, is or should be. Wagner’s world is highly provocative, shockingly banal, morally offensive, emotionally transcendental, astonishingly wise and, when wrong-headed, dangerously so.  Accept it all on face value, and you may want to keep company with Hitler.  Engage in meaningful dialogue with it, and you may discover something new.

In Freyer’s weird “Walküre,” some of the curiosities of his “Das Rheingold,” which opened the cycle beginning in February, begin to be explained.  We have already spent something like a full workday ensconced in a vision, and it begins to feel less strange.  Many more hours are to come with “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung” next season, followed by the full cycle a year from now.

Walkure2 

Who knows how anyone will feel by then?  But Saturday Freyer's critics were at least temporarily drowned out.  Perhaps they didn’t dare argue with Plácido Domingo, who, as the company’s general director, hired Freyer and who, as the evening’s ardent Siegmund, boldly and persuasively put his mouth and celebrity where his money was.

Everyone will, of course, once more be talking about the Domingo miracle.  The tenor turned 68 in January and you can’t turn him off.  He might these days need a bit of time to warm up.  His vocal comfort mode is stentorian; he doesn’t have the dynamic flexibility of a young singer, which is to say he doesn’t sing softly anymore.

But he stood his own against a theatrically intense and vocally resplendent Anja Kampe -- Siegmund's  twin and lover, Sieglinde.  Both were glorious.

Stand is the right word.  Freyer’s stage throughout the cycle will be dominated by a huge circle.  At the opening of "Walküre," as brother and sister met, still unknown to each other, they remained apart on opposite sides of the stage, and there they long remained.  On the circle a neon spear slowly revolved like the hand of a clock.  In the “Ring,” divine time becomes human time as death supplants immortality.

Freyer’s circle also has further connotations of circus tent and dinner table.  Around it were strange creatures who wandered back from “Rheingold” like curious guests who came to dinner.  Dressed half black, half blue, Siegmund and Sieglinde were day and night needing to be joined.  

There are fewer whiz-bang special effects in this production than there were in “Rheingold,” and the masks and puppetry no longer dominate.  We have left the appalling realm of cold gods, malicious dwarfs and small-hearted giants.  Love replaces gold-lust and power as a theme.

Wotan returned in his striped costume and Michelin Man headgear.  Fricka’s arms were long as ever, her hands still glow.  But they argued like real husband and wife.  Brünnhilde and her sister Valkyries were frightful birds of prey.

As in “Rheingold,” the stage is a work of art, and often a messy one.  Neon strips illuminate the top and bottom.  Projections on the scrim create amazing effects of perspective. Color and light are applied in painterly fashion.  The mountaintop on which the Valkyries have their ride is a ghastly place.  Dead heroes litter the ground like carrion.  The Valkyrie steeds are wire sculptures of horse's head with bicycle-wheel tail.  An eye, the one Wotan lost in the pre-history of the cycle, peers down throughout from above. 

Vitalij Kowaljow and Michelle DeYoung, Wotan and Fricka, were strong and convincing in “Rheingold” and grow more so in “Walküre.”  Kowaljow does not have an overpowering voice, but he was full of warmth in Wotan’s great farewell to Brünnhilde.  Linda Watson’s Brünnhilde will become increasingly important as the cycle progresses and perhaps she will rise to the challenge.  She seemed still finding her way Saturday, impressive in her lower range but steely and uncertain above it.

Freyer’s use of the stage in all its three dimensions remains a treacherous trap for the voice.  The Chandler’s imperfect acoustic means that only the strongest and most focused sound can carry from points above ground.  The situation seems somewhat improved over “Rheingold,” but the effect is still of the audience sitting in one room, the singers working in another and the the orchestra, deep in its pits, sounding to be in yet a different room.  James Conlon conducted a wonderfully realized account of a great score, but the orchestral impact was not powerful.

The company needs to raise millions more to pay its “Ring” bills, and I know it won’t want to hear this at a time when money is scarily tight and bean counters rule the Music Center roost.  But it also needs to hire an acoustical consultant and either construct expensive sound baffling devices or -- dare I say it -- explore electronic sound enhancement on a highly sophisticated (and really expensive) scale.

There is a long way yet to go and there are enormous obstacles to overcome.  But L.A.’s first “Ring” could achieve greatness.  Imperfect as it is, this “Walküre” shows the way, and it is a pretty terrific show all by itself.

-- Mark Swed

"Die Walküre," L.A. Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; 1 p.m. Wednesday, Sunday and April 19; 6:30 p.m. April 16, 22 and 25;  $20 to $250; (213) 972-8001; running time: 4 hours, 35 minutes.

Photos: Linda Watson (Brünnhilde) and Plácido Domingo (Siegmund), top, and the cast of "Die Walküre." Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.
 

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