WASHINGTON, May 3, 2016 – Whether you’re an opera lover living here in the D.C. metro area or an international Wagner fan winging into the nation’s capital for an entire, week-long performance of the Washington National Opera’s (WNO’s) rejuvenated “American” Ring Cycle, you come to the Kennedy Center Opera House expecting drama, excitement, terrific music and memorable singing. After all, you’ve paid big bucks (or loonies or euros) to take in the festivities, so why not the best?
Which is why Monday evening’s five-hour plus performance of “The Valkyrie” (“Die Walküre”), the second of the Ring Cycle’s four operas, had at least some in the audience sitting on pins and needles before the WNO’s music director Philippe Auguin had even reached the podium .
It turns out that internationally renowned British soprano Catherine Foster—who was originally scheduled to sing the role of Brünnhilde—had been injured in rehearsals for the Ring back on April 23 and would not be able to appear in Monday’s “Valkyrie” due to an understandable excess of caution all around. Aside from sympathy for Ms. Foster’s and WNO’s predicament, that’s still not the kind of news a Ring aficionado wants to hear.
But, mirabile dictu, as Virgil loved to say, WNO landed a dream substitute Brünnhilde at the proverbial last minute: Christine Goerke, a well-known American opera veteran who has, in recent years, risen to become America’s finest Wagnerian soprano. WNO audiences saw her perform here most recently as the title character in the late contemporary Mexican composer Daniel Catán’s lyrical “Florencia in the Amazon” (1996).
Fresh from a Sunday performance as Brünnhilde in the Houston Opera’s production of “Siegfried,” she hopped on a jet to DC just in time to get in costume and swagger on stage as the very same character in “Valkyrie,” the opera that precedes “Siegfried” in the cycle.
To borrow chef Emeril Lagasse’s classic exclamation, “BAM!” Character, blocking, physicality, attitude, and above all the quality of Ms. Goerke’s singing instantaneously lit up the stage as “Valkyrie’s” pivotal second act began to unfold high atop robber baron Wotan’s (bass-baritone Alan Held’s) Valhalla office tower. This was the kind of opera magic you can’t put a price on, and Ms. Goerke only got better from there in an absolutely electrifying performance that veered seamlessly from military swagger to deeply tragic family pathos.
“The Valkyrie” follows two interlocking family histories, that of Wotan, the ruler of a declining family of ruling gods—or the morally decaying 1%-ers in this “American” version of the Ring—and a pair of mortal twins, Siegmund (tenor Christopher Ventris) and Sieglinde (Meagan Miller). The priapatetic Wotan has sired both with a mortal woman during one of his frequent escapades of infidelity.
Problem is, Wotan’s wife, Fricka (soprano Elizabeth Bishop) is the gods’ designated protector of marriage. Fed up with Wotan’s dallying and aware that Siegmund is about to wage battle with his grimmest foe, she forces Wotan to abandon his beloved but illegitimate son, allowing his enemy to dispatch him.
After having ordered Brünnhilde, his favorite Valkyrie, to protect Siegmund, Wotan reverses the order. But Brünnhilde is moved by the plight of the twins, as they have become lovers with Sieglinde already carrying their child, a son. The feisty Brünnhilde knows that her father’s will really favors the survival of Siegmund.
Further, that unborn child, not a legitimate part of Wotan’s line, may be the only one who can end the curse of the Ring. So she violates Wotan’s order, infuriating Wotan who subsequently allows the death of his own son at the hand of the brutish Hunding (bass Raymond Aceto), and punishes Brünnhilde by taking away her immortality and leaving her asleep on a fiery mountain top to await her discovery by a mortal and preferably heroic man.
That’s a lot of emotion for Wotan and Brünnhilde to carry. But in Monday’s performance of the opera, both Mr. Held and Ms. Goerke seemed to bring out the most from one another in both the depth and passion of their characterizations as well as in their singing, which, in that fiery finale, soared above the impossibly high peaks of Valhalla itself.
This didn’t detract in the least from the rest of this production, which fired away all evening on all cylinders, last-minute cast change or no. It’s as if momentary adversity had caused each member of the cast to kick things up another notch. Everything worked brilliantly.
And once again, the American Ring’s social crit angle, which we found irritating the last time we saw this production, was transformed into an integral asset. As in “Rhinegold,” this was accomplished by clearer story-telling, wonderful touches of humor (as in Wotan’s reading his newspaper while ignoring Fricka’s diatribes), and, perhaps, the fact that in the intervening, post-Great Recession era we still inhabit, social stratification has become considerably worse rather than improving. It all felt better, truer than it did before.
Lest we forget that hapless mortal pair whose illegitimate, star-crossed love will live on in the next opera’s hero, Siegfried, Christopher Ventris and Meagan Miller made a touching pair of tragic mortals whose lives are doomed but whose love is not. Shabbily attired in contrast to the finery of the gods above, theirs is ultimately a sordid lot.
But in a series of increasingly passionate call-and-response duets, both singers get to sing some of the most romantic music in the entire cycle, and both responded magnificently to the challenge of this difficult music.
“Valkyrie,” of course, is also responsible for the stirring, soaring military music that even opera haters know and love: “The Ride of the Valkyries.” That immortal music launches the opera’s final act as well as the Valkyries themselves, Brünnhilde’s sisters, all warrior goddesses whose job is to scoop up slain and fallen heroes and bring them to Valhalla where they’ll be assembled to defend the gods in the afterlife.
Inspired, perhaps, by that famous helicopter ride in “Apocalypse Now” (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning…”), the Valkyries in this American Ring parachute into the battlefield by ones and twos in a marvelously action-filled series of entrances that even the 101st Airborne Division might admire. Unless our memory fails us, this action scene was refined from the earlier production and seems now, if anything, even more spectacular, as the Valkyries parachute in rapidly at sharp angles.
Making this visually stunning scene even better in Monday’s performance was the tight singing and harmony of the Valkyries, as each new arrival adds to the power of that famous music and chorus. Two thumbs up for sure.
Add to this mix once again excellent direction from Ms. Zambello and increasingly impressive playing by the WNO Orchestra under Maestro Auguin—really the best we’ve heard this season—and you end up with one magical evening of “Die Walküre,” whose massive length never even seemed to be an issue, as this performance seemed to make the time fly.
Once again, we can’t say enough about the impact and quality of Ms. Goerke’s characterization and singing, particularly on such short notice. Ditto that of Mr. Held, whose mercurial, highly emotional singing in the final act achieved the pinnacle of musical art during Monday’s performance.
The audience loved the entire evening and gave all the singers, and particularly Ms. Goerke, a huge ovation at the end.
Only one slight issue during Monday’s performance. A portion of the spectacular fire scene (the ramp on stage left) that concludes this opera didn’t want to stay lit, and we briefly saw a KenCen stage hand dive in from the wings in an effort to (mostly) keep that fire burning. A minor glitch, and one that will likely be remedied in Cycles 2 and 3.
Final note: As of May 3, word is that Ms. Foster will indeed return to sing the role of Brünnhilde in WNO’s May 4 performance of “Siegfried.” Fingers crossed.
Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)
Tickets and information: WNO’s American Ring is being presented in three complete four-opera cycles, Cycle 1 (the one we’re reviewing), Cycle 2 and Cycle 3.
Ring Cycles attract international audiences, and tickets are generally sold in advance as a four-opera package by cycle. Remaining single tickets are released for sale at some point and some are available now. That means you may be able to construct your own, personal “Ring Cycle” if you act soon. For tickets and further info, visit WNO’s Kennedy Center website.
Performances of The Ring operas run through May 22, concluding with the final Cycle 3 performance of “Götterdämmerung,” aka “The Twilight of the Gods.”
The Kennedy Center is located at 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC.