By Bryson David Hoff
Competing with the sensual spectacle and grandeur created in today’s films is a major struggle of contemporary live theatrical production. This problem is compounded in opera, a genre in which larger-than-life is more often than not the main selling point. It is ironic, then, that the moments that make Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of Die Walküre such a delight are opera copping something else from the medium of film: the ability to utilize subtleties to advance character, plot and theme.
For the uninitiated, Die Walküre is part two of German composer Richard Wagner’s four-part Der Ring des Nibelungen or, as it is more colloquially known, The Ring Cycle. Drawing from Norse mythology, the epic saga is a cosmic power struggle between both mortal and divine forces, centered on a magic ring that is foretold to be a determining factor in who will win the final battle at the end of the world. It is consciously mythic and one of the most influential peaces of fantasy storytelling, most notably providing inspiration for elements of both The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Echoes of it can even be found in the A Song of Ice and Fire series and its HBO adaptation Game of Thrones.
The plot of Die Walküre concerns the young hero Siegmund (tenor Brandon Jovanovich) who, unbeknownst to him, is the ill-begotten son of Wotan (bass-baritone Eric Owens), king of the gods. Beset by enemies, he takes refuge in the home of the cruel Hunding (bass Ain Anger) and finds himself smitten with the man’s wife, Sieglinde (soprano Elisabet Strid). Things for the young couple only get worse when the discovery that they are long lost twins does nothing to cool their passions for one another, eventually leading to a duel that draws the attention of the gods themselves, ultimately leading to Siegfried’s death and Wotan’s falling out with his favorite daughter, the valkyrie Brünnhilde (soprano Christine Goerke) for attempting to save Siegmund against his orders.
Dense as the plot may be, it is a testament to Wagner’s genius not only as a composer but also as a librettist, that at no point in Walküre’s four hour and forty-five minute runtime does the piece seem to lag. It is long because it must be. Credit to Colin Ure’s English supertitles which render the text in a translation of astounding stark beauty while managing moments of humor and dramatic irony with a delicacy that truly helps shape the audience’s perception of the action.
The voices at work here are some of the strongest heard at the Lyric in the past year, which should not be surprising. The Ring holds such a pedigree that when an opera house on the level of The Lyric Opera of Chicago decides to commit to it, finding the best singers for the task should not prove difficult. And while the musical elements, headed by conductor Sir Andrew Davis, are handled with the exact precision and artistry to be hoped for in a Ring Cycle opera, the acting is what really makes this production something to see.
Director David Pountney takes a more humanistic approach than most directors with Die Walküre. This installment is arguably the most psychological of the tetralogy, and Pountney shrewdly avoids typical operatic “park-and-bark” delivery at nearly every point. The characters are always staged in a more-or-less naturalistic fashion. They sing to instead of at one another. The exchanges between Hunding and Siegmund in Act I and later between Wotan and Brünnhilde in Acts II and III play like an Ibsen scene set to some of the most gorgeous classical music in the Western canon, which should be the ideal in dramatic opera and is an unfortunate rarity in even some of the Lyric’s best offerings.
Indeed, the moments that falter in the evening’s proceedings are those moments that stray into a more stylized performance style. The ending of Act I, for instance, which sees the lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde spurred into amorous embrace by the arrival of spring, is heralded by a break not only in performance style, but in design, presenting the only purely organic imagery in this production in the form of a sumptuously painted backdrop and a small platform of a glade that, while they would be completely at home in a more by-the-book vision of the piece, the choice seemed a bit too on-the-nose for this clever and subtle production. It does not seem coincidental that it was at this moment that the acting became the most broad, leading to some rather Freudian stage business concerning the hero’s sword. It’s not out of place textually, but it did seem a jarring break in what is otherwise a very tightly realized and successful production concept.
From its conception, Wagner intended Der Ring des Nibelungen to be seen in its entirety, back-to-back over the course of several evenings, essentially anticipating the phenomenon of the “binge watch” by over a century. By that rubric, it seems the best way to assess this production is by how much, when the curtain came down at the end of Act III, the audience seemed to wish they could return the following night to see what happens next instead of having to wait until next season, when the Lyric is scheduled to present the third Ring opera, Siegfried. By that standard, this production of Die Walküre has more than passed muster.
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents “Die Walküre” at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago, through November 30. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Cory Weaver.