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.”