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Performances

Christine Goerke, Brandon Jovanovich, and Elisabet Strid [Photo by Cory Weaver]
24 Nov 2017

A New Die Walküre at Lyric Opera of Chicago

From the start of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s splendid, new production of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre conflict and resolution are portrayed throughout with moving intensity. The central character Brünnhilde is sung by Christine Goerke and her father Wotan by Eric Owens.

A New Die Walküre at Lyric Opera of Chicago

A review by Salvatore Calomino

Above: Christine Goerke, Brandon Jovanovich, and Elisabet Strid

Photos by Cory Weaver

 

The mortal twins Siegmund and Sieglinde are Brandon Jovanovich and Elisabet Strid. Hunding is sung by Ain Anger and Fricka by Tanja Ariane Baumgartner. The sisters of Brünnhilde are portrayed by Whitney Morrison, Alexandra LoBianco, Catherine Martin, Lauren Decker, Laura Wilde, Deborah Nansteel, Zanda Švēde, and Lindsay Ammann. The Lyric Opera Orchestra is conducted by its music director Sir Andrew Davis. The production is directed by David Pountney with scenery by Johan Engels and by Robert Innes Hopkins, costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca, and lighting by Fabrice Kebour. Mmes. Strid and LoBianco and M. Anger make their debut at Lyric Opera of Chicago in this production.

As the curtain rises Wotan appears briefly while holding his spear of authority and justice. During the orchestral introduction the ash tree, into which Wotan had previously plunged his sword, descends onto the stage into the midst of Hunding’s dwelling. Figures representing the three Norns and assistants push Hunding’s domestic table into place; Sieglinde, now alone, moves about, held by an extended chain attached to the tree. As a door at stage rear opens, Siegmund stumbles into the presumed haven. Visibly worn by battle, Mr. Jovanovich utters the lines “Hier muss ich rasten!” (“I have to recover here!”) with a gasp of desperate hope. Ms. Strid’s reaction shows an immediate sympathy for the weakened man seeking refuge. Her vocal color and range are ideal in portraying Sieglinde’s solicitous curiosity and her subsequent statements to Siegmund describing her own plight. From low pitches on “ihn muss ich fragen” (“I must find out where he’s from”) to the higher, palpable emotion with which she sings “noch schwillt ihm der Atem” (“I hear him still breathing”), Strid invests her lines with an anticipation matching the introductory tone set by Jovanovich. The refreshment of water once provided is followed by a lush orchestral performance of the love motif under Davis’s taught direction. In Sieglinde’s identification of home and self as “Hundings Eigen” (“belonging to Hunding”) Strid’s words are fraught with tension. Once both characters drink from the mead-vessel, Jovanovich’s voice blooms with noble color in describing his flight from the pursuit of “Misswende” (“ill fate”). In response to Sieglinde’s tentative yet clear invitation, the hero names himself “Wehwalt” and declares with assured resolve, “Hunding will ich erwarten” (“I intend to await Hunding here”). At the close of the scene each character sits alone at the base of a tower positioned on opposite sides of the stage, an indication of burgeoning attraction stunted by the domestic atmosphere and spirit of Hunding.

The entrance of Hunding, the lord and husband, injects a tone of caution and formality into the closed interior of the dwelling. Mr. Anger’s deep, resonant intonation emphasizes Hunding’s suspicion while asking after Siegmund and later during his visual comparison of the guest to Sieglinde. After reassurances of the law of hospitality, expressed by Anger with rich vibrato, Siegmund is encouraged to name himself. Upon complying, Siegmund also volunteers the story of his youth in the forest together with his father Wolfe. Here Jovanovich sings excited pitches on “Zwillingsschwester” (“twin sister”), then drifts to a piano lament at “kaum habe ich sie gekannt” (“I scarcely knew her”) when narrating the disappearance of both mother and sister. While telling of Siegmmund’s progressive isolation from father Wolfe and from potential friend or wife, Jovanovich sings the final line explaining his name with a hushed delivery of “Wehwalt … des Wehes walte’ ich nur” (“Wehwalt … only sadness was ascribed to me”). After describing his battle against a cruel race that tried to force a maiden into marriage, Siegmund’s extended pitches on “Friedmund - nicht heisse!” (“not called - Friedmund!”) identify him as Hunding’s enemy. From this point forward, the focus shifts from the past to an imminent struggle with future consequences. Anger’s chilling notes on “Sippenblut” (“clan’s blood”), and his vow to avenge it against the hero “Wehwalt,” prompts several violent movements. He throws his wife to the floor and demands from her his evening draught. Before departing grimly from the scene, Hunding casts a battle-axe into the communal table.

Eric-Owens_Tanja-Ariane-Baumgartner_DIE-WALKÜRE_37A4593_c.Cory-Weaver.pngEric Owens and Tanja Ariane Baumgartner

In the final scene of Act I Siegmund searches desperately for a weapon with which to counter Hunding’s threat. The dramatic cries of “Wälse! Wälse! Wo ist dein Schwert?” (Wälse! Wälse! Where is your sword?”) become endlessly held pitches by Jovanovich until the light of the glowing weapon catches his eye. When Sieglinde returns to the hearth, she indicates that Hunding has been drugged and that Siegmund should escape. Strid’s highly dramatic declamation of the narrative “Der Männer Sippe” (“My husband’s kinsmen”) becomes a catalyst for emotional and scenic development. Siegmund embraces her and reveals his love, whereupon the door at stage rear opens revealing the wonders of a springtime scene. During their subsequent duet spontaneous displays of genuine affection are here a natural extension of love through song. These displays render believable Jovanovich’s emotional declaration “Heiligster Minne höchste Not” (“Holiest love in highest need”) when he prepares to pull the sword Notung from the ash tree. As a joint impulse and with the future in mind the two principals escape from the confines of Hunding’s dwelling onto the spring heather, where their physical love is consummated.

The start of Act II in this production is ultimately bound to the previous space, yet now from the perspective of the immortal beings. The brief opening introduces Wotan and Brünnhilde, the latter giddy as she trips through the spring heath. The stage then assumes horizontal division with Wotan appearing on an upper level and Brünnhilde remaining below. The expected battle between Siegmund and Hunding fills Mr. Owens’s voice with rich excitement, as he instructs Brünnhilde to stand by Siegmund (“dem Wälsung kiese sie Sieg” [“let her assure victory for the Wälsung”]). Ms. Goerke in turn acquiesces with equivalent excitement and the exemplary performance of her repeated “Hojotoho!” with decorative trills inserted after each cry. Yet the mood of adventure fades just as Goerke reports with a decidedly expressive frown that Fricka approaches. Two central doors on Wotan’s raised station open, enabling Fricka - dressed similar to Wotan in formal attire befitting rank - to emerge from her chariot and demand an audience from her husband. In the role of Wotan’s wife and protector of marriage, Ms. Baumgartner assumes at once the position of a goddess slighted. She presents details of the infraction with deep resonant pitches, then rises vocally to emotional outbursts against the incestuous union at “ich klage!” (“I accuse”) and “Geschwister sich liebten?” (“the siblings as lovers?”). Despite Owens’s passionate defense of the twins’ innocent love, accompanied again by the orchestral spring motif, this Fricka reminds him imperiously of his own less than faithful treatment of marital vows. When Baumgartner demands that the sword, with a telling emphasis on “zauberstark” (“associated with magic”) be taken back, Wotan’s plan for the hero is clearly halted. She continues to press her case against Siegmund until Owens asks, with his voice descending to a statement of deep resignation, “Was verlangst du?” (“What must I do?”). His final words to Fricka, “Nimm den Eid!” (“Take my oath!”) capture decisiveness here and the duty of Brünnhilde to intercede in recovering Fricka’s honor.

The following scenes of Act II are admirably staged in natural progression. Wotan’s balcony descends so that he stands on Brünnhilde’s level to meet her return. In his intimate exchange with Brünnhilde, Owens narrates as “unaugesprochen,” with the hush of privacy, the story of the ring, Erda, and the Walküren. Wotan’s voice shakes with emotion as Owens declares forte that he seeks only “das Ende” (“the ending”) to what he has caused. Despite his daughter’s protests Wotan threatens chastisement if Brünnhilde does not assure the victory of Hunding. The stage platform lifts Wotan again to the elevation of his power while Brünnhilde realizes, beset with gloom below, her task.

Siegmund and Sieglinde appear in flight from Hunding’s wrath. Despite his encouragement to continue, Sieglinde relates her hysterical fears from dreams of the sword breaking in battle. Jovanovich’s tender replies of “Schwester” (“Sister”) coax her into a fitful sleep. Brünnhilde’s approach bearing shield and cloak is greeted by Siegmund as “schön und ernst” (“beautiful and somber”). When Goerke informs him with ceremonial dignity that she has come as a messenger of death to ensure his entrance into Walhall, the hero asks if he will find there his father and be joined by Sieglinde. At the denial of this second hopeful request, Jovanovich replies with grim resolution, “… folg ich dir nicht” (“ … I shall not follow you there”). Goerke then circles the stage through the air on an elevated steed perched on a crane manipulated from below. Despite her emotional supplications to consider honor and “ewige Wonne” (“eternal joy”) as a slain hero, Siegmund refuses to ignore his companionship of Sieglinde. The Walküre’s declaration that she can understand the hero’s suffering is expressed here with moving empathy, leading to her ultimate defiance of Wotan’s will. When Goerke announces with searing determination “Beschlossen ist’s” (“It is decided”), the course of the remaining action is set. In his final address to Sieglinde Jovanovich incorporates achingly soft melismatic phrases into what becomes a touching farewell. Battle horns accompany a transformation of scene: Wotan and Fricka appear on the towers at opposite sides of the stage, with Siegmund and Hunding on raised platforms closer to the center. When Wotan allows Siegmund’s sword to shatter, causing his death at the hand of Hunding, Fricka’s will is complete. With Owens calling excitedly for Brünnhilde’s punishment, the orchestra swells to accompany Fricka’s contented smile as she gazes, at stage center, upon Wotan’s spear of justice.

The musical and dramatic excitement of the opening scene of Act III is imaginatively staged and costumed. The Walküre sisters appear variously on elevated horses, reminiscent of Brünnhilde’s steed, and at work on stage level, while they prepare or direct the transport of fallen heroes to the honor of Walhall. When Brünnhilde appears shielding Sieglinde, Goerke utters her line “Schützt mich!” (“Protect me!”) with frantic appeal. Before the arrival of Wotan, she is able to transform Sieglinde’s desperation into thoughts of her future child and an escape into the forest. During the following scene the sisters attempt to conceal Brünnilde before Wotan’s wrath. Instead they become witnesses to his public condemnation of the favored child. Here Owens delivers Wotan’s address with powerful declamation in his pronouncement that she will no longer fill his drinking horn in Walhall. Indeed she is, with Owens’s dramatically conclusive pitch, “verbannt” (“banished”).

In the opera’s last scene, the Walküren have retreated at Wotan’s command and left father and daughter alone for the reckoning of punishment. The emotionally wrenching dialogue between the two principal singers is here sung and acted by Goerke and Owens as an ultimate, moving confrontation. When Goerke declares, with sustained top pitches, that in her way she remained loyal to Wotan, Owens concedes with resignation that duty forced him to change his resolve. In their simple clasp of hands both figures show here the inevitable resolution of the story. Brünnhilde, now as a mortal, is surrounded by the bridal fire to be discovered only by the bravest hero. The masterfully played orchestral conclusion seals this unforgettable production.

Salvatore Calomino

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