Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Review: Houston Grand Opera’s Spectacular “Götterdämmerung”, April 22, 2017

April 26th, 2017

Houston Grand Opera presented “Götterdämmerung” with an illustrious cast, led by Christine Goerke’s Brünnhilde and Simon O’Neill’s Siegmund, magnificently conducted by Houston Grand Opera’s artistic director, Maestro Patrick Summers.  It completed Houston Grand Opera [HGO]’s four-season presentation of the Fura dels Baus production of the “Ring of the Nibelungs”.

Christine Goerke’s Brünnhilde

New York dramatic soprano Christine Goerke has achieved international superstar status for her success in performing all three Brünnhilde roles that constitute Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs”.

Her “Götterdämmerung” Brünnhilde (the longest of “The Ring’s” three Brünnhilde roles) should be a lifetime memory for those who were in attendance at Saturday night’s performance.

[Below: Brünnhilde (Christine Goerke) admires the Nibelung ring; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Goerke sustained vocal power and luxurious sound throughout the five and a half hour opera. She  evoked compassion and romantic love in her first scene with Simon O’Neill’s Siegfried, bewilderment in her interaction with Jamie Barton’s Waltraute, confusion, then fury, at Siegfried’s inexplicable actions in the second act, and finally, understanding and resolve in her determination to sacrifice her own life to break the curse of the Ring.

[Below: Brünnhilde (Christine Goerke) rides her mechanical horse, Grane, into the funeral pyre; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Houston Grand Opera has been one of two companies (the other, the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto) that have mounted productions of the “Ring” in which Goerke’s Brünnhilde was the centerpiece [see Review: Houston “Walküre” Showcases Christine Goerke’s Astonishing Brünnhilde, Karita Mattila’s Stunning Sieglinde – Houston Grand Opera, April 25, 2015 and Review: Jay Hunter Morris, Christine Goerke Lead a Vocally Strong “Siegfried” Cast – Houston Grand Opera, April 20, 2016.]

In my review of the 2015 HGO “Walküre”, I wrote how fortunate I was to have seen the great Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson, the greatest Wagnerian soprano “of her time” perform with the San Francisco Opera in the role of Brünnhilde  at various times in her career. I believe that Goerke has emerged as the early 21st century’s greatest Wagnerian soprano.

The Houston “Ring” has provided Goerke with the opportunity to realize fully this most challenging of assignments in the operatic repertory.

Simon O’Neill’s Siegfried

The Siegfried was New Zealand heldentenor Simon O’Neill, an HGO favorite whose Wagnerian assignments with Goerke have included the 2015 “Die Walküre” and “Lohengrin” [Summers Leads Sumptiously Sung “Lohengrin”: Houston Grand Opera, November 13, 2009.] He proved to have the power and endurance necessary to successfully perform this role.

[Below Siegfried (Simon O’Neill, right), his memory restored, shocks Gunther (Ryan McKinny, standing, left) and his men, with an account of his previous sexual relations with Gunther’s bride; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

O’Neill’s robust tenor voice has been enlisted by HGO for Verdi’s Otello as well [see Review: O’Neill, Pérez and Vratogna Impressive in Houston Grand Opera’s “Otello” – November 1, 2014]

Andrea Silvestrelli’s Hagen, Ryan McKinny’s Gunther and Heidi Melton’s Gutrune

Italian-born American bass Andrea Silvestrelli’s deep, resonant voice and imposing stage presence, has made him invaluable for the great bass roles of composers Wagner and Verdi [see Review: A Legendary Performance of “Don Carlo” at the San Francisco Opera, June 12, 2016.]

His brooding, villainous Hagen, although appropriately the personification of evil, was beautifully sung.  High points in his performance included his summons to the Gibichung vassals, his groggy dream conversation with his father Alberich (British baritone Christopher Purves), and the menacing trio with Brünnhilde and Gunther that ends the second act.

[Below: Hagen (Andrea Silvestrelli, center, holding spear) has called upon the Gibichung vassals (Houston Grand Opera Chorus) to join in unexpected marriage festivities; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Baritone Ryan McKinny, who is one of the alumni of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, the company’s young artists’ program, has achieved international status as Wagnerian baritone, including performing Amfortas in Wagner’s “Parsifal” (at the 2016 Bayreuth Festival) and the title role in “The Flying Dutchman”.

McKinny’s baritone, which has both lyrical and dramatic qualities, contributed to his strong, psychologically-driven performance in the role of Gunther.

[Below: Gutrune (Heidi Melton, in globe, upper left) is in the company of her brother, Gunther (Ryan McKinny, below, front); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Heidi Melton, who possesses a Brünnhilde-sized Wagnerian soprano voice, brought vocal weight and insouciant acting to the role of Gunther’s sister, the Gibichung Gutrune.

Jamie Barton’s Waltraute

In one of the many examples of luxury casting that HGO has bestowed on its “Ring”, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton was assigned the relatively brief role of Brünnhilde’s valkyrie sister Waltraute. Barton’s Waltraute was yet another memorable performance.

[Below: Waltraute (Jamie Barton, right) unsuccessfully tries to overpower he sister Brünnhilde (Christine Goerke, left) in order to take control of the Nibelung Ring; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Barton, who was the 2013 winner of the Cardiff world competition is the 2015 recipient of the prestigious Richard Tucker Award, is still in the early stages of an illustrious career.

Meredith Arwady, Jamie Barton and Heidi Melton as the Three Norns

The opening scene of “Götterdämmerung” introduces the Three Norns who throughout eternity have been weaving the rope of fate, and who explain events of the past, present and future.

[Below: weaving the rope of fate are the First Norn (Meredith Arwady, left), the Second Norn (Jamie Barton, center) and the Third Norn (Heidi Melton, right); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

The First Norn was ably sung by American contralto Meredith Arwady. Jamie Barton and Heidi Melton superbly realized the roles of the Second and Third Norns.

Andrea Carroll’s Woglinde, Catherine Martin’s Wellgunde and Renee Tatum’s Flosshilde

The three Rhine Maidens in this production not only sing but swim underwater (each in her own tank). These bravura assignments were nicely achieved by American sopranos Andrea Carroll and Catherine Martin and by American mezzo-soprano Renee Tatum.

[Below: Siegfried (Simon O’Neill , left) taunts the Rhine Maidens, Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde (Andrea Carroll, Catherine Martin and Renee Tatum, here, each swimming in her individual tank); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

The Fura dels Baus Production

The “Ring of the Nibelungs” production seen in Houston was created by Barcelona-based Fura dels Baus company for the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia, Spain.

The production abounds in eye-catching images, including the use of mechanical devices hoisting principal singers, teams of acrobats, and engaging visual projections.

[Below: Froh’s rainbow bridge to Valhalla, seen previously in the 2014 Houston Grand Opera Fura dels Baus production of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold”, surrounded by flames, soars above the Rhine Maidens after the ring has been thrown into the River Rhine; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Although some “Rings” are designed to impart “messages” about the deeper meanings of “The Ring of the Nibelungs”, for me the message is that razzle-dazzle accompanying glorious singing and the sweep of Wagner’s orchestration, enhances the experience of the live performance.

[Below: the Rhine Maidens (Andrea Carroll, Catherine Martin and Renee Tatum, center, below) recover the Nibelung Ring amidst the destruction of Valhalla, its soldiers and the gods; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


I enthusiastically recommend the “Götterdämmerung” production seen in Houston to all opera-goers that enjoy Wagnerian opera that is beautifully sung and performed, and to those who might be curious to experience one of the greatest works of art.

Tags: 2005-2017: William's Reviews

Review: The Dallas Opera’s “Norma” – Vocally Outstanding, Dramatically Persuasive, April 21, 2017

April 23rd, 2017

The Dallas Opera presented a theatrically valid production of Bellini’s “Norma”, passionately conducted by Maestro Emmanuel Villaume.

Elza van den Heever’s Norma

South African soprano Elza van den Heever returned to Dallas, where she had previously excelled in Mozart, as an international star of the highest rank.

Van den Heever brought her star qualities to the role of the Druid priestess Norma, which is considered more challenging than virtually any other in the operatic repertory. Her vocally strong performance was in the great tradition of this demanding role.

Her delivery of the great aria Casta diva was beautifully sung.  She displayed the range of the character’s strong emotions, both through extraordinary vocal control and acting skill.

[Below: Elza van den Heever as Norma; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

As important as Norma’s solo arias are Norma’s duets and her trio with the characters of Pollione, her estranged husband and Adalgisa, Pollione’s new love. These ensembles place extraordinary demands on the singers, which Van den Heever and her colleagues performed with obvious virtuosity.

[Below: Norma (Elza van den Heever, top left) reveals to Adalgisa (Marina Costa-Jackson, right) that she has secretly borne two children; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

I have been fortunate to have reviewed van den Heever performances since her early career (see, for example, Kwiecien Excels in McVicar’s Dark Side “Don Giovanni” – S. F. June 2, 2007 and Handel’s “Rinaldo” in Chicago: Francisco Negrin’s Finely Sung, Fun-filled Fantasy – Lyric Opera, March 16, 2012. For my review of her previous appearance at The Dallas Opera see Bel Canto “Cosi fan Tutte” at Dallas Opera – February 18, 2010].

Yonghoon Lee’s Pollione

South Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee is one of the finest of the world’s contemporary spinto tenors. Lee gave a robust, vocally secure performance as Norma’s estranged husband, the Roman proconsul Pollione. Hearing the role of Pollione sung with a voice with Lee’s power and vocal expressiveness is revelatory.

[Below: Yonghoon Lee as Pollione; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

Lee’s characterization defined both the character’s ferocity and his ultimate realization of his innate feelings for Norma as they faced death by fire together. Lee proved to be an engaging actor, his Pollione a fully realized character.

[Below: Flavio (Charles Karanja, right) cautions Pollione (Yonghoon Lee, left) to be careful behind the enemy lines; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

I have been impressed by Yonghoon Lee’s large voice, which has the power for such weighty roles as Calaf [Yonghoon Lee’s Calaf Tames Theorin’s Time-Traveling Turandot – Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, November 28, 2012 ], Manrico [Review: Golden Age Verdi Singing for Lyric Opera’s “Il Trovatore” – Chicago, October 27, 2014] and Andrea Chenier [True Verismo: Nello Santi Conducts Yonghoon Lee, Martina Serafin, Lucio Gallo in “Andrea Chénier” – Zurich Opera, May 4, 2014  and Review: Yonghoon Lee is an Eloquent Andrea Chénier in McVicar’s Cinematic Staging – San Francisco Opera, September 9, 2016.]

Marina Costa-Jackson’s Adalgisa

Marina Costa-Jackson proved to be a glorious-voiced Adalgisa. She was hauntingly beautiful in the passages that begin  Mira, a Norma, the most famous of Adalgisa’s great duets with Norma.

[Below: Marina Costa-Jackson as Adalgisa; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

Costa-Jackson perfectly matched Elza van den Heever’s vocal fireworks in their duet’s treacherous cabaletta Si, fino allore, allure estreme.

[Below: When the druids capture Pollione (Yonghoon Lee, front left, in military uniform), Norma (Elza van den Heever, center, head cloaked in red scarf) requires Adalgisa (Marina Costa-Jackson, left center, in white, kneeling) to place herself among the priestesses from whom a sacrifice victim is to be selected; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

Christian Van Horn’s Oroveso, other cast members and the musical performance

American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn gave a solid performance as Norma’s father and Druid patriarch, Oroveso.

The opera’s two comprimario artists were both convincing in small roles that advance the plot. American soprano Mithra Mastropierro was Clotilde, the guardian of Norma’s children. Kenyan tenor Charles Karanja was Flavio, Pollione’s subordinate and confidante.

The Dallas Opera Chorus, under the direction of Chorus Master Alexander Rom, and The Dallas Opera Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Emmanuel Villaume, both performed with distinction.

[Below: the Druid leader Oroveso (Christian Van Horn, standing center) prepares his men for the expected battle with the Roman army; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

Director Nicholas (Nic) Muni’s Production and John Conklin’s sets

I had previously reported on the revival of a production by Director Nicholas Muni [Review: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo Leads Strong “Don Giovanni” Cast – San Diego Opera, February 14, 2015], whose dramatic content was derived from Muni’s insightful thoughts on the psychological and social background of its characters.

Muni’s “Norma” production dates from Seattle Opera’s 1994 season, and later revived at the Los Angeles Opera, Cincinnati Opera and Florida Grand Opera. Its central premise is that Druids and Romans lived in close proximity to each other and, although generally hostile to one another, interacted in various ways.

The production’s unit set is by John Conklin. Norma resides in a stone Druid temple at stage left, with remnants of  buildings destroyed by war scattered about and evidence that the Roman army is located close by.

[Below: The final scene of “Norma”; edited image of a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]         ]

Although these characters are fictional and I always counsel against trying to learn history from operatic plots, it is now accepted that Druid Gauls and Romans indeed co-existed over several centuries.

I had in a previous essay commented on Bellini’s ultimate power couple The Pollione-Norma Backstory: the Dramatic Logic of Bellini’s ‘Norma’, whose storyline I believe has a degree of plausibility. Nicholas Muni’s production reinforces my belief that the opera makes more sense than some writers would concede.

Muni’s conceptualization provides the character of Pollione with a more substantive presence in the opera, appearing in several scenes (although mute) that neither the opera’s composer nor librettist would have imagined. These appearances suggest that Pollione and Norma – although emotionally estranged from one another – continue to relate to each other through their two children. Neither Norma nor her maid Clotilde seem surprised when Pollione and Flavio arrive to allow Pollione some time with his kids.

Ingeniously, Pollione’s appearances and disappearances seem perfectly timed to the emotions that Norma and Adalgisa display. We are not surprised at all when Pollione turns up just in time for the three-way confrontation between himself Norma and Adalgisa. (I was less convinced by an early scene where Pollione non-textually dares Oroveso to stab him.)

Like Pollione, in this staging Adalgisa appears in more scenes than the opera calls for, including a ritual suicide at opera’s end, that appears consistent with what is now believed to have been Druid practices.


I recommend the cast and production enthusiastically both the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera and suggest that lovers of well-sung bel canto opera in engaging productions make a special effort to get to the remaining performances.


For my interviews with Elza van den Heever, see: Rising Stars: An Interview with Elza van den Heever, Part I and Rising Stars: an Interview with Elza van den Heever, Part II.

Tags: 2005-2017: William's Reviews

In Quest of American Operas and Musicals – July to December, 2017

April 2nd, 2017

 I am scheduled to review the following American musical works between now and December, 2017 – an opera and a classic Broadway musical from the first half of the 20th century and two new American operas:


Porgy and Bess (George Gershwin), Glimmerglass Festival, July 7, 13, 18(m), 22(m), 27, 29(m), 31(m), August 5, 7(m), 13(m), 17, 19 and 21(m), 2017

Musa Ngqungwana is Porgy and Talise Trevigne is Bess in Glimmerglass Festival’s new Francesca Zambello production of George Gershwin’s (and DuBose Heyward’s) “Porgy and Bess”. Norman Garrett is Crown and Frederick Ballentine is Sportin’ Life.

[Below: Musa Ngqungwana as Porgy and Talise Trevigne as Bess in the Glimmerglass Festival Francesca Zambello production of George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”; edited image of a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

Maestro John DeMain conducts. The sets are by Peter Davison and Associate Set Designer Charles Quiggin. Paul Tazewell is Costume Designer and Loren Shaw the Associate Costume Designer. Eric Sean Fogel is choreographer.

[For my interview with Musa Ngqungwana, see Rising Stars – An Interview with Musa Ngqungwana.]


Oklahoma (Rodgers and Hammerstein), Glimmerglass Festival, July 8, 14, 21, 23(m), 25(m), 30(m), August 3, 5(m), 8(m), 11, 14(m), 20(m) and 22(m), 2017.

Vanessa Becerra is Laurey and Jarrett Ott is Curly in Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma”. Judith Skinner is Aunt Eller and Michael Hewitt is Jud Fry.

[Below: Baritone Jarrett Ott; edited image of a publicity photograph, from www.jarrettott.com.]

James Lowe conducts, Molly Smith directs. The sets are by Eugene Lee, the costumes by Ilona Somogyi. The choreographer is Parker Esse.


The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs (Bates), Santa Fe Opera, July 22, 26, August 4, 10, 15 and 25, 2017.

Santa Fe Opera is the site of the world premiere of a Mason Bates opera about entrepreneur Steve Jobs, with a libretto by Mark Campbell. Edward Parks sings the role of Steve Jobs. Garrett Sorensen is Woz. Sasha Cooke is Laurene Powell Jobs and Kelly Marksgraf is Paul Jobs.

[Composer Mason Bates; edited image of a publicity photograph, from masonbates.com.]

Kevin Newbury directs. Maestro Michael Christie conducts all performances except that of August 25, which Robert Tweten conducts.


The Girls of the Golden West (Adams), San Francisco Opera, November 21, 24, 26(m), 29, December 2, 5, 7 and 10(m), 2017.

San Francisco Opera hosts the world premiere of a new collaboration between composer John Adams and director Peter Sellars (who is also the librettist for “Girls”). The opera is the occasion of the San Francisco Opera debuts of Julia Bullock as Dame Shirley, Davone Tines as Ned Peters and Ryan McKinny as Clarence King.

J’Nai Bridges is Josefa Segovia, Paul Appleby is Joe Cannon, Hye Jung Lee is Ah Sing, Elliot Madore is Ramon and Lorena Feijoo is Lola Montez.

[Below: A contemporary image of San Francisco at the time of the Gold Rush, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Maestro Grant Gershon (San Francisco Opera debut) conducts. David Gropman designs the sets, Rita Ryack the costumes. John Heginbotham is choreographer.


This list is supplementary to previous lists in this “Quests and Anticipations” series of selected operas being performed through August 2017:

Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” at the Santa Fe Opera [See In Quest of Operatic Comedy – July 2016 – August 2017.]

Wagner’s Götterdammerüng at the Houston Grand Opera [See In Quest of Less-Often Performed Core Repertory Operas – November 2016 – May 2017.]

Bellini’s “Norma” at The Dallas Opera, Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the Santa Fe Opera and Donizetti’s “L’Assedio di Calais” at the Glimmerglass Festival [See In Quest of Donizetti and Bellini – November 2016 to August 2017.]

Verdi’s “Rigoletto”, Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and Puccini’s “La Boheme” at the San Francisco Opera [See In Quest of Italian Opera Masterpieces, February – July, 2017.]

Vivaldi’s “Orlando Finto Pazzo” at the Korea National Opera in Seoul, Handel’s “Xerxes” at the Glimmerglass Festival, Handel’s “Alcina” at the Santa Fe Opera and Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” at the Houston Grand Opera [See In Quest of Handel and Vivaldi Opera Performances – May to November, 2017.]

Tags: Quests and Anticipations