Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Ring Revisited: Cycle III Walkure at WNO

This past Wednesday’s Die Walkure added Nina Stemme, fresh off her widely praised New York appearances in Elektra, to WNO’s Ring Cycle line-up, putting DC in the enviable position of getting to compare three very strong but very different Brunnhilde’s in as many weeks.

For Cycle I, due to a last minute substitution, we got Christine Goerke’s sensitive and emotionally vulnerable Brunnhilde, wrapped up in a gorgeous plush sound. Catherine Foster’s Cycle II Brunnhilde was somewhat lackluster and dramatically inert, but her brilliant silvery top notes delivered reliable thrills, especially in the climax of Siegfried and the heavy artillery demands of Gotterdammerung.

Now we have Stemme’s intense Vaklyrie--a driven servant who enters the opera with little trace of the mortal woman she is to become. In this Brunnhilde’s Act II crisis, we witness a woman suffering a violent break with the person she thought she was, an echo of Wotan’s own crippling moment of introspection so memorably brought out by Alan Held in this Rheingold (gods take this stuff hard). As Stemme goes to carry out Siegmund’s sentence, we see her doubled over in physical pain at the contradiction she must enforce. The Act III dialogue is a grinding slog of self-discovery, Brunnhilde groping tentatively towards the understanding that her fate has been separated from Wotan’s forever.

Stemme brings the character to life through a stunning vocal performance. If one had to bucket the Brunnhildes we’ve heard this month, Stemme and Foster share a similar, more traditionally penetrating timbre than Goerke’s unique creamy sound. But Stemme sets herself apart with a brilliant technicolor depth at the top of her range and a bevy of delicately shaded dynamics. Though she seemed a bit tentative at first in connecting to the top of the voice, she quickly overcame these obstacles to deliver a vital and complete portrayal.

After struggling with allergies last week, Held came roaring back to form with a definitive run of his flawed, domineering Wotan. Auguin allowed the Act II monologue to marinate more than he has on previous evenings, and Held followed suit, with a dynamic reading that pushed the boundaries of what this sequence can achieve. My Ring newbie seatmate was especially impressed with this at the intermission, and was duly horrified when I shared that the LePage production pairs this (potentially) brilliant piece of vocal theater with a cartoon. By the end of the scene, Held has created a toxic mix of frustration, self-pity and resentment that is oppressive in its intensity, the deity version of a William H. Macy character who knows the jig is up.

If at times this commitment pushed his voice to its limits, he held onto control throughout and turned in a moving final scene with Stemme. For just one little example of Held's artistry, see the section that begins “So leicht wähntest du/Wonne des Herzens erworben…” where Wotan briefly sympathizes with Brunnhilde’s first taste of love, before scolding her for enjoying what has only brought bitterness to his life. Held vividly illustrates this short passage by incrementally shifting the color of his voice from a melting mezza voce to a brassy snarl as he turns on his daughter.

Meagan Miller’s final Sieglinde was also her best. “Du bist der Lenz” was ardently felt, the final bars spun with a sumptuous legato line, while Act II reached a new level of disconsolate frenzy. Her sound may fall short on the easy beauty that one expects of Sieglinde, but she wields that sound with the abandon needed for a fully satisfying assumption.

If one could patch together a Walkure supercut from the last few weeks, I would pair Miller’s final Sieglinde with Ventris’ seamless performance in Cycle II. After his steady contributions in previous weeks, it was a surprise to find him sounding somewhat vocally tired in the final show. He also seemed to have trouble syncing up with Auguin, who wanted to add some extra final night juice and couldn’t get on the same page with Ventris, though these issues didn't mar another exciting Act I finale. Auguin put forward perhaps his most exquisite ending yet, with a shuddering, serotonin flooding climax at the drawing of Nothung (slightly worried what’s going to happen if I stop getting this weekly dosage and the weather stays so depressing).

Raymond Aceto had a strong final night realizing the production’s particularly sadistic take on Hunding, while Elizabeth Bishop scored an impressive triumph in her final traversal as Fricka. Bishop left the proverbial blood on the floor in her scene Wednesday, and some of the cutesier directorial touches ended up looking very petty indeed next to the majesty with which she imbued the scene.

In my review of the Cycle I Walkure I criminally omitted a discussion of the Walkuren themselves (though others most certainly did not), but the strong WNO lineup deserves further mention. Spurred on by driving tempi in the pit, this cast delivers a high-octane start to Act III that rightly outshines the fun staging with the parachutes. Standouts include rich, high volume Hojotoho’s from Lori Phillips’ Gerhilde (who makes clear in a few measures that she is also covering Brunnhilde for this run); the warm urgent mezzo of Domingo Cafritz young artist favorite Daryl Freedman; and this production’s Erda, Lindsey Ammann, whose spectacular low notes make for an instantly memorable Schwertleite (quick someone do a list of biggest names to play Schwertleite).

The updated version of this production continues to reward in many ways. This time I was particularly struck by the care with which Zambello has choreographed blocking beats to take advantage of the music, some surely inspired by the original stage directions. Churning music in the opening prior to Siegmund’s entrance is set to Sieglinde staring mournfully from the screen door of her hut; a suddenly quiet passage near the end Act II provides an opportunity for Wotan to cradle the dying Siegmund; the several bars of tonally ambiguous transition music leading into the magic fire music catches Wotan bereft and alone in a cold spotlight against the back of the stage; and so on.

I still object to those blasted transitional projections, though, and have finally put my finger on what that “flight of Siegmund through Rock Creek Park” projection looks like, i.e., a budget karaoke background for Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf.”

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Ring Revisited: Cycle II at WNO

I know we're already halfway through Cycle III, but here are some outstanding thoughts on the 3 of 4 installments of Cycle II I was able to take in last week (only one Siegfried for me, I'm afraid).

Tuesday’s Cycle II Rheingold (May 10th) confirmed the myriad pleasures offered by this cast as well as the overall strength of the production—indeed, I’m tempted to say that this Rheingold, so often cringe-worthy in its original incarnation, now qualifies as the most consistently rewarding evening of this Ring, as far as design and direction are concerned.

The later evenings, though they certainly have their strengths, suffer from: 1) too much heavy handed environmental stuff, which sometimes pairs well with Zambello’s character direction, but can also come off as shallow, clumsily imposed meta-material; and 2) the sense that these individual scenes, however insightful on their own terms, fall short of a cohesive vision.

But Rheingold keeps both of these tendencies at bay, presenting an exploration of the work's ideas that feels organic and true to the characters, and the bigger concepts are framed by just a few well-chosen references (as discussed last week, Rheingold is the biggest beneficiary of skillful editing of the original production). Zambello delivers a refreshingly engaging take on an opera that can be decidedly less compelling than the rest of the cycle.

It also just works well as attractive theater. See the opening Rhine sequence, which doesn't boast the kind of technical daring one often sees lavished on this scene, but still manages to be both effective and beautiful. The Rhine is created through extensive smoke effects that seem to billow towards the front of the stage and obscure the bottom halves of the Rhinemaidens and Alberich. A straightforward but elegant solution to the problem of avoiding constant awkward swimming movements during this scene. After the Rheingold is stolen, the golden tinge that pervaded the scene during the Rhinemaidens ecstatic chorus slowly drains away, the first of many stunning lighting coups that play on enriching and dissolving the color palette.

Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.



In their second outing, Rheingold’s key antagonists seemed a bit off their game. Alan Held, who begged indulgence in the following night’s Walkure, was apparently suffering from allergies, which manifested as an additional labored quality in his sound. Likewise, Gordon Hawkins felt short on support during portions of the opening scene, though he re-established his authoritative Alberich for Nibelheim and the curse scene.

While I thought Elizabeth Bishop sounded a bit tentative at the premiere, here there was no question that this was the same rich, generous sound we heard during the Cycle I Walkure. On second viewing one also had more opportunity to appreciate what a tremendous stage animal she is, easily standing out with small comedic moments on a packed stage.

William Burden’s Loge was again a highlight, receiving perhaps the most enthusiastic applause of the evening besides Philippe Auguin. Burden’s refined, lieder-like approach sets Loge’s music apart from the bluster going on all around him, heightening the contrasts between between the other characters' relatively simple motives and Loge’s complex support for the gods he despises. Burden's winning presence holds these conflicting impressions in balance, establishing the trickster demigod as much more than grease for the plot wheels, and perhaps the most interesting character in the show.

Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.



The big news the following night (May 11) was Catherine Foster’s only appearance as the Walküre Brunnhilde. If Foster isn't quite in that rarefied tier of get-on-a-plane Brunnhildes, her bright, gleaming sound lands her comfortably in the still very exclusive tranche of singers that can deliver this part with beauty and a high degree of vocal security. She sounded even better than expected on the evidence of last week’s promising Siegfried snippet, the pealing top notes supported by a steady if not particularly distinctive middle range.

Unfortunately the rest of her portrayal doesn’t always live up to the promise of the raw vocal materials. Foster seemed unable to find the bloom in Brunnhilde’s vocal lines, settling for 4-square phrasing that seemed to lag the orchestra rather than ride its momentum. Consistency was also an issue, with the occasional support brown-out appearing out of nowhere.

More problematic is that one just rarely gets the sense that things are life and death for this Brunnhilde. Foster is a slightly batty, idiosyncratic stage presence which might be rather appealing in other settings but here feels like a distraction, never allowing us to fully believe in the character's nobility or urgent situation. At other times she overplays her hand, for instance, becoming too imperious and dismissive with Wotan during their long scene together and upending the core power dynamic in a way that doesn't feel justified or thoroughly prepared.

Overly-busy direction may also be a problem here, with some cutesy touches emerging in this run that were not in the premiere, for instance shoulder bumps to punctuate the Act II Hojotohos, Brunnhilde tugging on Wotan’s duster at one point during Act III, excessive Wotan head petting in “Der Augen,” etc. (Perhaps the cleaner version last week was a positive side effect of Goerke speed-learning a simplified form of the blocking?)

These limitations crept into her Gotterdammerung Brunnhilde on Sunday as well. The Dawn Duet was curiously inert and the final scene was largely perfunctory until the final push. Thankfully, the fireworks in Gotterdammerung are never too far away, and it's hard to quibble with acting choices when you're being transported by Foster at her magnificent best. And with that, I'm going to table my other thoughts on Gotterdammerung for next week's Parterre review of the final installment with Nina Stemme.

So back to the Cycle II Walkure. Christopher Ventris made a strong play for the evening's MVP. While he already proved himself a huge asset to this roster, he was in even better form for this second run, the underwhelming climaxes of the premiere now unqualified successes. Where the previous week he seemed a bit thrown off by the unsentimental clip at which Auguin took the “Wintersturme,” here he offered a lilting, musical reading of the big tune.

Like Alan Held, Meagan Miller's Sieglinde found herself on the BI (Begging Indulgence) list for Cycle II, though any drop off from the previous week was hard to detect. The Act I closing sequence was a chill-inducing delight, only marred by a tempo a hair too pokey in the pit.

Held's announced allergy troubles were definitely evident Wednesday. Though the trademark intelligence he brings to this part was always present, he came up short on power when needed, and he was unable to effectively build to some of the chilling climaxes that were so affecting in Cycle I.

Some (very) stray thoughts on Cycle II:
  • Everyone in this mythical America sure loves their shin-length leather coats. Are opera productions singlehandedly keeping the leather duster industry in business?
  • With all the wolf talk and climactic moon imagery in Act I, how long until we get a werewolf Ring? The Gods are vampires and it’s a Twilight style battle? Nevermind...please don't do this.
  • If this is a feminist Ring, Siegmund is definitely its resident woke bae. I love how this production plays Sieglinde's falling for Siegmund as bonding over an analysis of patriarchy rather than his ability to "save" her. It feels like the kind of unexpected, transgressive flavor Wagner wanted for this relationship (in addition to, you know, the incest).