(Los Angeles, Calif. - April 4, 2009) The second installment in the renowned "Ring Cycle," Die Walküre is Richard Wagner's compelling love story between the doomed hero Siegmund and his soulmate Sieglinde.
This four-hour-plus opera stars Plácido Domingo as Siegmund and Anja Kampe as Sieglinde, and it features some of Wagner's most memorable music. Highlights include Siegmund's heroic "Spring Song" ("Winterstürme"), the love duet ("Du bist der Lenz"), the rousing "Ride of the Valkyries," Wotan's heart-breaking "Farewell" to his beloved daughter ("Leb wohl"), and the "Magic Fire Music" finale. LA Opera music director James Conlon conducts a world-celebrated cast, including Linda Watson (Brünnhilde), Michelle DeYoung (Fricka), Vitalij Kowaljow (Wotan), and Eric Halfvarson (Hunding).
The entire cycle, called "Der Ring des Nibelungen," is a monumental experience that tells a unified story, drawn from Norse mythology, over the course of four complete operas: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. It's a portrayal of a legendary war between gods and mortals for control of the earth. The plot concerns an epic struggle to win control of a magic ring that gives its bearer the power to rule the world. Created by the evil dwarf Alberich, the ring is successively possessed by Wotan, the king of the gods, then by the dragon Fafner, and eventually by Wotan's grandson, Siegfried. Ultimately, the ring comes into the possession of Siegfried's widow Brünnhilde, who returns the ring to its source, thus ending the reign of the gods.
LA Opera mounted the opening Ring opera, Das Rheingold, in February. (You can read G&G's review for LASplash here.) Over the next year, the company plans to mount all four operas culminating in a big festival in the summer of 2010, for a total cost of approximately $32 million. In the world of opera, director-designer Achim Freyer, well known in Europe, is considered the most brilliant interpreter of the Ring. Conlon, who has conducted the cycle in Europe to great acclaim, is leading his first American Ring.
These days, Domingo is as much world-class impresario as an A-list tenor. He serves as the general director of both the opera companies in both Los Angeles Opera and Washington, D.C. As he once again appears in the Los Angeles footlights, the Associated Press has called him "the world's greatest Siegmund."
Georja: Before embarking on LA Opera's Ring Cycle, I had little familiarity with Norse mythology or Wagner or the work of director Achim Freyer. The first installment, Das Rheingold, seemed extremely weird and cold. It was interesting but hard to understand or relate to. However, this the second installment of the Ring, I found to be wonderful, emotional, uplifting and engaging. Unlike the first part -- which seemed to be about suffering and greed -- the dominant theme of Die Walküre is love.
Gerald: I agree with you that Die Walküre is much more emotional and engaging than Das Rheingold -- maybe because it's natural to get pulled into Freyer's vision gradually, as the cycle unfolds. But I was more willing this time around to accept the bizarre costumes and staging, and I found myself participating in all the symbolism, although still not understanding most of it.
Georja: The surreal characters and staging are still with us: neon lights, the giant ever-present eyeball, stylized movements, multiple figures representing a character -- all had more charm and here seemed secondary to the great drama and music unfolding, whereas in Das Rheingold they seemed to take center stage. The melodies of Siegmund and Sieglinde -- the sorrowful twins who fall deeply in love with their other halves -- is so touching. Their saga, especially as sung by Domingo and Kampe, transcends language. It is so beautiful that whenever they sang to and about each other my heart ached.
Gerald: Their love duets fill the first of three acts. To approach this opera, you have to get with the pacing -- that is, you have to slow down. Even though the musical tempos can be brisk at times, the plot moves about as fast as a glacier. Interestingly, when I settled into it, I was overcome by a sense of timelessness. Freyer, too, is playing with time, as he positions the lovers on a huge raked turntable that resembles a clock face.
Georja: Yes, Freyer's stage is in the shape of a circle, which he explains represents "divine time, immortality, and eternal return." When it is like a clock, its "hands" move forward in human time or backwards for memories of the past. When the story unfolds in the celestial palace of Wotan, there is no clock. But what we do witness is a domestic spat between Wotan, king of the gods, and his wife Fricka, guardian of marriage and morality. She remarks on the irony of her guardianship when Wotan, her own husband, philanders with both goddesses and mortal women. She is able to arouse enough guilt in him to get him to promise to allow his beloved mortal son Siegmund to be destroyed. The humor and humanity of this scene alone is far removed from the dryness and coldness of the first installment.
Gerald: In many ways, Wotan is the focus of this story. He and Fricka are the only two main characters we've already met in the first installment. With the rise of Siegmund, Wotan begins to see that the age of the gods is waning. Humans are becoming smarter and more powerful. And in many ways, their lives are more interesting because they alone truly have free will. As Wotan laments in song, a god is bound by irreversible logic and the need to maintain power. The king of the gods loves his mortal son but must destroy him -- if he wants to keep being a god.
Georja: Before I saw this opera, I didn't really know what "valkyries" were. After this production I have fallen in love with them. They are immortal valiant maidens, daughters of Wotan and the earth-spirit Erda. They bring the fallen heroes home to heaven and are trained to obey Wotan's will. The most fearless and beloved valkyrie is Brünnhilde. She is a strong, charismatic character dressed in a Picasso-like dress, who has the ear of her father. He orders her to kill Siegmund, but she cannot carry out the command. As Freyer says, "The unconditional love of Siegmund for Sieglinde becomes Brünnhilde's first experience with the greatness of love, like a torch. It becomes her guide in the future." In disobeying Wotan, she follows not the letter of his law but his own feelings that he betrayed in laying down that law. But because of her disobedience, she is banned from the immortal sphere. One of the highlights for me is the scene with all the valkerie sisters and with her father where she explains her actions. She is a true heroine.
Gerald: And let's not neglect to mention how stirring it is to see "The Ride of the Valkyries" (more recently recognizable as the overture to Apocalypse Now) staged at the top of Act III. The horsebacked, winged demigoddesses fly through a gale to swoop down and bear up the dead bodies of heroes who have perished on the battlefield, taking them up to their reward in Valhalla, the heavenly fortress constructed by Wotan.
Georja: I loved that scene too. After this I am officially converted: I am a fan of the Ring and of Freyer's fantastical, visionary approach. I can agree with him that "Wagner wanted timeless persons" in his story. This is his premise for making "revolutionary theater." The final scene in Die Walküre is the most visually engaging I have ever seen in opera. Wotan has banished his favorite daughter Brünnhilde to a deep sleep. Whatever man awakens her she must marry and obey. The idea of serving a cowardly man is so anathema to her that she convinces Wotan to put a ring of fire around her sleeping body so only a brave man would dare wake her. The dazzling fire effects light up the stage as well as my heart and imagination. I can't wait to see the continuation of her story.
Gerald: While I might not have become a Ring-Trekkie, we are both looking forward to Siegfried, the next installment. But we'll have to wait until the beginning of the 2009-2010 season next fall. LA Opera will do Siegfried, then the fourth and last installment Götterdämmerung, then repeat the entire Ring as part of a continuous, citywide festival in the summer of 2010.
Georja Umano is an actress/comedienne and animal advocate.
Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels.
Photos by Monika Rittershaus except as noted
Los Angeles Opera
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LA Opera Wagner's Die Walküre
Saturday April 4, 2009 6:30 p.m.
Wednesday April 8, 2009 1:00 p.m.
Sunday April 12, 2009 1:00 p.m.
Thursday April 16, 2009 6:30 p.m.
Sunday April 19, 2009 1:00 p.m.
Wednesday April 22, 2009 6:30 p.m.
Saturday April 25, 2009 6:30 p.m.