For Washington National Opera, director Francesca Zambello has developed an “American Ring” based on Richard Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nebelungen. In the 2006-2007 season, Die Walküre, the second opera in this suite of four, premiered with outstanding internationally known singers, intricate sets and staging, imaginative projections, and an energizing orchestral concert led by maestro Heinz Fricke.
Die Walküre, created with music most people have heard, features the iconic Brünnnhilde. Most Americans think of her as the fat lady wearing cow horns and epitomizing why ordinary people unschooled in classical music and opera do not appreciate the classically trained voice. Zambello has commendably fashioned a modern day Brünnnhilde, who like most teenagers (Brünnnhilde was never a mature woman) likes to razz her father, talk on the phone (Zambello incorporates technology part of her American spin), and make up her own mind about how to behave.
Tony Award-winning costume designer Catherine Zuber has put soprano Linda Watson in waist-length blonde locks and a long trench coat that mimics the one her daddy wears. It’s clear, Brünnnhilde is Daddy’s girl. And who is Daddy? He is Wotan (played by bass-baritone Alan Held), the leader of the gods. Brünnnhilde is one of his warrior daughters known as the Valkyries (however Die Walküre, which also mean Valkyrie, indicates only one, making this opera Brünnhilde’s story) and it is in Brünnnhilde that Wotan confides after Fricka, the goddess of marriage and his wife (not Brünnhilde’s mother) demands that he mete out capital punishment to his mortal son Siegmund. Siegmund has stolen Hunding’s wife Sieglinde and formed an incestuous relationship with her.
On April 1, Fricka (played by mezzo-soprano Elena Zaremba) is outraged that Wotan’s twin children Siegmund and Sieglinde born of a mortal woman from an adulterous relationship have fallen in love with each other and are committing incest. She is angry with her husband for his years of philandering and also throws into his face his Valkyrie daughters. However, there is something bigger at stake then his infidelity to Fricka and that is the curse that Alberich, the thieving dwarf of the underworld, set in motion in Wagner’s first Ring operaDas Rheingold when Wotan tricked the dwarf and stole the gold ring he needed to ransom back Fricka’s sister Freia, the goddess of eternal youth, from the giants Fafner and Fasolt who built Valhalla. Apparently, the eternal existence of the gods is in perilous jeopardy.
A quick look at the story sees (Act I) Siegmund —played by tenor Plácido Domingo—arriving at Hunding’s house to discover his sister Sieglinde—played by soprano Anja Kampe, learning that Hunding—played by bass-baritone Gidon Saks—is related to the enemies who pursue him, gaining access to a powerful sword promised to Siegmund by Wotan, and then running off with his sister. In Act II Wotan dispatches Brünnnhilde to protect Siegmund but changes his mind after Fricka gives him her ultimatum. However, Brünnnhilde encounters Siegmund and a sleeping Sieglinde and is persuaded by his anguish to save his life. During the battle between Siegmund and Hunding, Wotan appears and breaks Siegmund’s sword allowing Hunding to slay his son. Wotan in turn kills Hunding. Brünnnhilde runs off with Sieglinde. Act III presents Wotan’s punishment of Brünnnhilde—he strips her of her godhood and puts her to sleep so that the first man who wanders by will claim her as his mortal wife. However Brünnnhilde, who could not get her Valkyrie sisters to help and sends Sieglinde into the woods near the dwelling of Wotan’s enemy Fafner, asks her father to grant her one thing and that is to surround her sleeping rock with a wall of fire. She says, after all I only did what your heart really wanted me to do and that was try to save your son Siegmund.
It’s hard to imagine that any singers could top the performances of Plácido Domingo, Anja Kampe, Linda Watson, and Gidon Saks. Even Elena Zaremba’s somewhat gravelly mezzo seemed just right for her role as the raging wife. And the choral singing by the Valkyries was superb, especially when they sounded like they were ululating, a specialized sound not unrelated to screaming and often done in the Middle East as a musical sound of celebration. However, for this four hours and forty-five minute show including two intermissions, the acting needs to be exceptional. The exaggerated gestures of Plácido Domingo and Alan Held summoned images of 19th Century performers. Despite Linda Watson’s maturity, she was pretty good at exercising the behavior of a teenage girl. Sneaking up on Wotan to flick his newspaper and sitting on his big desk to talk on the telephone worked pretty well in allowing the audience to see her as a prankish youngster. By far, the standout performers were Gidon Saks who made a brutal chauvinist like Hunding immediately convincing and Anja Kampe who made Sieglinde’s guilt and anguish visceral in her mad scene in the forest.
Wagner takes his time allowing drama and music to unfold. During the slow opening scene of Act II, this reviewer’s mind wandered in a flight of fantasy trying to imagine how the action on stage could better sustain the viewer’s attention. What came to mind were film actors who could rivet attention—Jack Nicholson as Wotan, Kathy Bates as Brünnnhilde, Meryl Streep as Fricka, Leonardo diCaprio as Siegmund, etc. And this is not to say that these film actors should sing, but more that opera singers should study the acting magnetism of these film stars to make the audience savor a singer’s every move.
Special praise is also due Michael Yeargan for the sets that included live fire on stage both in Acts I and III and Jan Hartley for alternately meditative and exciting projections that came from nature and from manmade phenomenon like fighter planes and helicopters. No doubt that Francesca Zambello has made a significant achievement with the second Ring opera and that when it moves to the stage of the San Francisco Opera, the co-producer for the American Ring, Die Walküre will be a big success.