A pop critic takes on the 'Ring': Of Valkyries and vocal magnificence
The bravos (and bravas, and even a few bravis) began early in Thursday night's performance of "Die Walküre" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Plácido Domingo, reprising his signature Wagner role of Siegmund, would have earned those kudos simply for standing up -- at nearly 70, he's indisputably awe-inspiring in this athletic role. But the audience extended rapturous praise to each and every singer in this second chapter of Wagner's "Ring." Was it deserved?
Who am I to judge, you wonder? I'm a pop critic and an opera amateur, though one with a little seasoning -- I've seen Jane Eaglen smolder and flame as Brünnhilde at the Met, and it wouldn't be weird to catch me listening to Ben Heppner singing Strauss while I'm doing the dishes. Still, the standards for critiquing a great performance by, say, Maxwell or Kelly Clarkson are different from those the serious buffs in attendance brought to the Chandler last night. Or are they? Though I imagine someone with more technical knowledge could knock down my assertions, I felt that Achim Freyer's staging of "Die Walkure" opened up a way for non-experts like myself to consider what makes an operatic vocal performance really shine.
He did so by stressing that operatic singing is a form of dialogue. Our theater critic, Charles McNulty, noted in his response to the same production that Freyer's "Die Walküre" puts the vocals front and center, a change from the dreamlike visual vortex of "Das Rheingold." I agree, and would go a step further to say that Freyer's mise en scene emphasizes how each singer's performance interacts with the others, moving the action forward through seduction, argument, or mutual mourning.
This may not seem apparent at first, because Freyer actually often keeps his characters physically separated. The circle that dominated the stage in "Rheingold" has become a clock, and during the first act Domingo's Siegmund and Michelle De Young's Sieglinde -- his sister/lover, in an incest twist that rattles the mythic order but is presented by Wagner and Freyer as a union of perfect halves -- stood along its edge like hours separated by a long afternoon.
Their mutual seduction was mimed by dancers who were their doubles -- but even more so, through the singers' impassioned, at times nearly hysterical exchanges, which mounted to create a sexual and soulful enthrallment that communicated more strongly because it didn't rely on the robe-clutching and staggering embraces of conventional opera blocking.
Though their half-blue, half-black makeup and costumes made the union of this split whole almost comically archetypal ("Hey, have you heard of this guy Carl Jung?" joked the critic and opera lover Jonathan Gold in the lobby during intermission), Freyer made up for that lack of subtlety by giving Domingo and De Young so much space through which they could reach for each other. This staging particularly served Domingo, whose tone was somewhat rough at first -- the Washington Post critic Anne Midgette has wondered in her blog whether he warms up sufficiently -- but who attained that Wagnerian magnificence as the ardor of his character mounted. I also thought that De Young's somewhat shrieky singing worked in this context, as a form of reaching across a divide her body and mind would simply not allow her to accept.
Freyer's staging worked even better for the father and daughter pair of Wotan and Brünnhilde, sung with fatal grace by Vitalij Kowaljow and Linda Watson. Their second-act duet highlighted the mirroring aspects of the parent-child relationship through dance-like blocking in which the protege mirrored her blood-bound mentor's every gesture. Sounds corny, but the solemnity of the singers' gestures reinforced a sad but peaceful mood that allowed the rich, enveloping tones of these vocalists to unfold a story that is one of the saddest in Wagner's entire saga.
And there were the Valkyries: Brünnhilde's warrior sisters, who always lend velocity to this opera's third act with their almost dissonant choral assaults and shouts of "O yo ho!" Freyer's Valkyries entered his circle and turned it into a military hoplite formation, clustering together on their revolving tin horses and transforming into a confusion of bodies and voices. Pressed together at times in almost uncomfortable proximity, these creatures were not just a chorus -- they embodied both the power of voices joined together, and the difficulty of having to surrender one's individual will, or vocal expression, to a group.
I'm not really one to shout in a theater (take me to the rock show for that!), but I joined in the hearty applause at the end of "Die Walküre," as the singers took their second round of curtain calls. I hope that Freyer, who was in evidence during the first intermission, felt some of that love directed at him. His symbol-crowded interpretation of the "Ring" may not seem pure enough for some, but in this case, at least, he truly served opera's foundation: the voices that make the story big, and relatable, and real.
-- Ann PowersCritic's Notebook: 'Die Walküre' and the shifting sands of dramatic restraint