I need to preface this with the fact that this reviewer was not in the proper frame of mind for Wagner right now. In a year when Nazis are openly marching in the streets proclaiming they own the land and massive sexual abuse scandals are rocking the entertainment world, this is a hard go. You also may not be in the proper mindset for this opera and it may impact your enjoyment. But I don’t actually think all of the problems I had with it are due to my feeling of being bludgeoned by the thematic elements in Wagner’s work embraced by odious elements of our society.
Let’s start with what was excellent and that was everything to do with how it sounded. Wagner’s obsession with fabulous orchestration was ably served by the Lyric’s Orchestra led with verve and muscular attention by Sir Andrew Davis. They were so fabulous and excited to play this grand orchestral music that on opening night they sometimes overpowered the singers, but what they were doing was so glorious that while you pitied the singers, the orchestra usually had the more interesting musical parts, so as an audience member you didn’t mind so much. It is an odd thing to say, but in some ways this is a musician’s opera more than a singer’s opera. If you’re a symphony lover, you’ll enjoy it as much as if you’re an opera lover.
And when we get to the singers, the same thing goes. There was not a human on that stage who didn’t do an absolutely incredible job with their voices. They were uniformly great and conveyed the emotion behind the ridiculousness of the story in every note. Sadly, it was about the only place where emotion was evident because the blocking of this thing was effectively nonexistent other than – go stand on top of that tower or recline on the piece of scenery over there. The staging of this is park and bark at its most egregious, leaving singers with nothing to do during really, really long segments of orchestral fabulousness. Consequently, it is tedious to watch. Fabulous to listen to, but you might as well be listening to a recording for about 90% of this, you’d get as much out of it.
Honestly, director David Pountney has much to answer for. He had an audience stuck in the Lyric’s not very comfortable seats for more than 4 ½ hours and he gave us next to nothing to look at. Everybody’s in a drab costume but Fricka and later the Walkuries in red. There are industrial Derrek-looking towers with guys dressed like the cast of Newsies running follow spots in full view of the audience, and not a lot else except the obligatory tree with a sword in it. The sword comically looked like a prop from He-Man and Masters of the Universe. When they made it light up to show how magical it was the audience laughed. Because we were embarrassed for them.
I mean we all know how this goes, but here are the really weird choices that made this so off-putting.
Act I – Siegmund (a suitably heroic Brandon Jovanovich) arrives at the house of Hunding (Ain Anger, playing the wronged husband to a T), which as we all know contains the obligatory Ash tree with a sword stuck in it. So, we get there and we find Sieglinde (a downtrodden Elisabet Strid), chained to the ash tree with, I don’t know maybe the “chains she forged in life” like Jacob Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol while wearing an ugly white slip she apparently borrowed from Maggie the Cat in the worst production of Tennessee Williams ever. And also super, duper ugly boots. Her hair is also inexcusably ratty. And Siegmund sees her and falls instantaneously in love. Really?
Now the text also supports this being caused by the fact that she’s his long-lost twin sister and they recognize the demi-god status in each other, and narcissistically the way they look alike, but sitting in the audience you do not get it with her looking like that and scuttling about like a furtive rabbit.
She’s a badly-treated battered wife per the story. And it’s a choice to show her like this. And to have her be half-crazed from the beginning. Sieglinde has zero arc in this production, which is not supported by text because in Act I she proves she’s sane and clever and has been biding her time to escape.
Also, when Hunding shows up he’s impeccably dressed and seems meticulous. Another choice, and maybe one that could have given her some stage business to perform during the tedious whining about Siegmund’s crappy life that is most of Act I, could have been that she was a Stepford Wife and kept everything perfect including herself, so her husband wouldn’t find fault and beat her again. So she could have been a glorious vision of beauty that Siegmund sings about and have frantically cleaned during that act and given us something to look at instead of hiding behind the ridiculous sideways tree ( have you seen how Ashes grow?) while Siegmund draped himself on furniture and sang “woe, woe, woe.”
I can’t express how static and dull most of this staging was. And the darkness of the stage, until they open to the fall forest backdrop while they’re singing about pastoral springtime, young love and joyful incest can’t be exaggerated. Even then the towering boring derricks surrounding it just shows off how small the attempt at springtime is.
Also, when they started to express their “love” for each other it got super creepy and full of groping. At one point Siegmund is even groping himself while Sieglinde’s standing across the stage. There is a LOT of standing across the stage while bellowing at each other whenever people are “conversing” in this version. It is just a weird choice overall and firmly on the director.
It was impossible to care about either of them despite the fact that Siegmund was abused by his father (Wotan, not a spoiler) and desperately tries to do the right thing despite it and Sieglinde her husband. Even more off-putting is all of the language Wagner puts into Sieglinde’s mouth (and later Brunnhilde’s) about women’s purity and defilement and lack of worth once they are defiled. It’s problematic in the extreme even though the text supports him actively saying treating women badly is bad. But the self-loathing she exhibits and the sexist, patriarchal frame is hard to watch. It’s acknowledging victimhood and condemning perpetrators while simultaneously saying victims are now polluted forever by having been victimized. Ouch.
And I’m aware that this is a continuation of the design throughout the Ring Cycle, with the derricks and the various obvious stage machinery as a feature, not a bug. But while Das Rheingold used them to create huge Gods and avatars, here they’re mostly unused and just sit there doing not much. Like the entire cast. It’s like all the creativity was expended on the Gods in the first opera and nothing was left for the poor humans.
Act II takes place largely in the lobby of Temple Beth Asgard complete with columns, stairs and trophy cases. Wotan (a masterful Eric Owens) fights with his wife Fricka (the sublime Tanja Ariane Baumgartner) in one of the truly most compelling exchanges in the entire opera. Their musical argument is heartfelt and natural, and while these are supposed to be Gods discussing their spheres of influence, it works superbly emotionally as an estranged married couple who still at least have some respect for each other. Once he agrees to support Fricka vs. his human son, Wotan then regales his daughter Brunnhilde (the fabulous and powerful Christine Goerke) about how crappy his life is since he stole the Ring of the Niebelungs and got caught and then stiffed a contractor building Valhalla and got caught. Honestly, it is impossible to sympathize with his problems because they all stem from him trying to steal from others and his siring children to fight a proxy war against the people he was attempting to defraud.
And he goes ON and ON and ON tediously and then with a pastoral metaphor and then he tells you again in case you weren’t paying attention or your eyes have glazed over from the boredom
And all the singers are doing for the vast majority of the act is standing around in the lobby of a building yammering on and on. It was not grand or majestic, there was literally nothing happening. And again, it’s a boring set that is boring to look at – it is largely gray. And behind it is a big scrim with clouds projected on it, in gray. Gray like the color of my boredom.
Wotan commands Brunnhilde to make sure Hunding is able to kill Siegmund in the coming fight to recapture Sieglinde and we move to Scene Two which takes place among the boring derricks. Honestly, the stage consists of derricks pushed around by the abducted cast of Newsies and a gray cloudy background. Sieglinde gets to sing about her defilement and pollution and begs Siegmund to leave her lest he die. She goes to sleep. Brunnhilde shows up to tell Siegmund he’s going to die in the fight but he’ll go to Valhalla. When he learns Sieglinde can’t go with him he plans a nice murder/suicide that Brunnhilde forestalls by telling him she’ll help him. And honestly, the sweet release of death is tempting at this point.
This goes on with the Newsies pushing Brunnhilde really slowly around on a derrick thing with half a winged horse stuck to the front. It has no back legs. It’s weird.
Then Siegmund and Hunding get on top of separate derrick towers across the stage and pantomime fighting across the stage from each other. Supposedly Siegmund is doing well, but Fricka appears on one of the tower derricks to see if Wotan is keeping his word and suddenly a giant spear, as tall as the derrick towers falls down between them and Wotan kills Siegmund, keeping his promise. This is actually impressive to look at. And the scale of the spear vs. the one we see Wotan carrying is a cool way to show godlike power, so there you go. One cool moment of staging in an act that lasted one and a half hours. Brunnhilde flees with Sieglinde and the shattered magical sword. Wotan vows revenge on Brunnhilde.
Act Three begins with where director David Pountney put all his effort, or rather the whole creative team did because it’s really outstanding. For about fifteen minutes this is amazing and sublime and a vision of something that the whole opera could have been. The Walkures show up in their role as “Choosers of the Slain”. They have dead bodies in plastic body bags slung on the side of their whole horses, up on derricks. They are singing mundane stuff about their jobs, but down below other Walkures are dumping bodies onto gurneys and manipulating them, with the assumption that this is Valhalla triage where they bring them back to life and send them to await being called into Wotan’s army. They’re wearing red gowns the color of blood, there are bodies everywhere and it’s a fantastic, bloody battlefield mess.
Every woman on that stage is doing something interesting, they all have Walkure jobs, they are moving about, they are singing like mad and I can’t express enough how glorious they all sound while doing a ton of stage business that everyone should have been doing all along. This is interesting. It sounds great and there’s a ton to look at.
Then Brunnhilde shows up with Sieglinde and the Walkures all turn their backs on her for fear of angering Wotan. They tell Sieglinde that Wotan won’t go to a particular forest, where the giant-turned-dragon Fafner lives guarding the Ring. Sieglinde heads off there by herself taking the remnants of her brother’s sword to have their incest baby, the star of the next opera in the Cycle.
Now we’re back to bad silly staging again as the Walkures go and get some kindergarten chairs and sit down in them in a circle around Brunnhilde. Which is foreshadowing with their red dresses, but kindergarten chairs?
Wotan shows up and the Walkures flee leaving Brunnhilde and Wotan to have another long conversation. Wotan says he’s going to put her into a deep sleep to be prey for the first man who shows up, who she’ll then have to marry and “submit” to. The Newsies have reappeared in white face and wearing trench coats like the most obvious rape boogeymen possible at this point. They hover in a menacing faceless group throughout this. Again, this is a choice and supported by the text, but this stranger danger rape trope is both tired and actually dangerous in this day and age. It supports a certain type of crime narrative that perpetuates the idea of good and bad rape victims and is really icky.
Goerke and Owens are really great here. This scene is actually emotionally affecting despite the lack of blocking again.
Brunnhilde gets Wotan to agree to put a ring of fire around her so she can only be claimed as the bride of a hero. She even suggests her unborn nephew, the son of Sieglinde, would be a good choice because incest is best, I guess. We’ve had brother/sister, why not aunt/nephew? Wotan agrees and summons Loge, and he surrounds Brunnhilde with magical fire.
And in terms of weird and awful staging, they saved the best for last because the Newsies reappear holding large red pool noodles lit up from inside by LED lights. And they proceed to dance around Brunnhilde for a while, holding their pool noodles to and fro in various formations until they all lie down around her to represent a ring of noodly fire.
It sounds glorious, but this staging of Die Walkure might not be for you. It was assuredly not for me.
Photos by Cory Weaver.