Opera Warhorses

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

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Domingo, Kirov “Walkuere” in Costa Mesa – October 7, 2006

December 3rd, 2006

The second opera of the Kirov Mariinsky Theatre’s production of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” brought together two mysterious forces – Gergiev and Tsypin’s furtive symbology of mankind’s collective memory about the age when gods, giants and dwarves shared the Earth and the seemingly indestructible voice of 64-year old Placido Domingo in his signature Wagnerian role of Siegmund.

Let’s get to Domingo first, because the mere announcement of his participation continues to result in full houses for the Mariinsky Ring. (In Costa Mesa, to be assured of getting tickets to see Domingo in the two acts of “Die Wakuere” in which Siegmund appears, one needed to purchase the entire Ring, at $1200 for a premium orchestra seat plus a hefty mandatory additional contribution.)

It was the late 1960s when the glorious tenor voices of Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti were first recognized as monumental contributions to the history of opera. What a decade the 1970s were, when the two criss-crossed the world delighting audiences (and fortunately for me spending lots of time at the San Francisco Opera, where I attended many of their performances.) But Pavarotti, who is just a bit over a half-decade older than Domingo, had withdrawn from the world of opera performances even before his official retirement several years ago. And, although almost every role that Pavarotti sang, Domingo sang also, never was there talk of Pavarotti appearing in a Wagnerian opera.

In fact, when Domingo first began discussing singing the somewhat lighter Wagnerian tenor roles such as Lohengrin, it seemed an exotic idea. But now we are in a time that he sets the standard for the roles of Parsifal and Siegmund and when he has sought to put his stamp on Tristan as well.

In my comments on his Parsifal with the Los Angeles Opera in December, 2005, I noted Domingo’s musicality in singing Wagner. I meant that Domingo brings to Wagner the technique of concentrating on the abundance of melody that exists in the Wagnerian operas and approaching them with a secure legato rather as he would melodic phrases in French or Italian opera. I offer a phrase to articulate this: “bel canto Wagnerian singing”.

Domingo isn’t the only person who has done this. Jon Vickers could sing Don Jose, Don Carlo and Siegmund in the same season, approaching each with the same core musicality. Regine Crespin is another late 20th century example, and a longer list can and probably should be developed. And it could cross the other way too. One of my favorites as Mario Cavaradossi in Puccini’s “Tosca” was Wagnerian tenor Jess Thomas in 1966 (but I might have felt differently if he had tried the role again after his next 15 years as a Wagnerian tenor.)

But I suggest something beyond this. I believe, when we assess Domingo’s Wagnerian career, that he may well have proven to be a transformative force, changing the expectations of Wagnerian singing. Whatever he has done to prepare himself for this amazing past few years in Wagner, he should plan to teach master classes for the most talented of the current generation of opera singers. If he does that, we should have glorious Rings in future years.

As Siegmund, Domingo interacts with three of the Kirov stars (and a fourth mourns over his character’s body). He had previously appeared with his Costa Mesa Sieglinde, Mlada Khudoley, in Europe, and the chemistry was apparent. Whereas most Sieglindes appear reserved, if not fearful, in the presence of Hunding, their dangerous husband, Khudoley’s interest in Domingo’s Siegmund was so obvious that one could begin to sense Hunding’s embarrassment at dealing with such an unconventionally-acting mate.

[Sieglinde (Mlada Khudoley) rejoices that Siegmund (Placido Domingo) has pulled the sword Nothung from the trunk of the ash tree; edited image, based on a photo, courtesy of Mariinsky Theatre.]


Imagine Teri Hatcher, from ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” playing a Sieglinde trying to signal her interest to the stranger knowing that her husband is watching. Khudoley mouths the words about the sword’s location to Domingo, and nods her head towards where he should look. In addition to being a skillful actress, Khudoley brings two other qualities useful to an operatic diva – absolutely required, she can sing, and not always as critical, she is physically attractive.

The Hunding, who with his henchmen were costumed as a pack of dog-faced humans (with floppy dog-ears), was Gennady Bezzubenkov (who appeared at S. F. Opera in smaller roles in Gergiev led productions of Prokofiev’s “War and Peace” (1991) and Glinka’s “Ruslan and Lyudmila” (1995)). Bezzubenkov presented an extraordinarily well-sung, interestingly acted Hunding – one of the vocal highlights of the entire “Ring”. One does not think of Wagnerian opera as a place to observe non-verbal communication in a dramatic context, but the interaction of body language and facial expressions of Bezubenkov (even in his hound-inspired costume), Domingo, and Khudoley was extremely effective.

But before the opera’s second act ends, Siegmund will meet a woman even more formidable than his sister, Sieglinde – Die Walkuere herself, Bruennhilde, played by Olga Sergeyeva. The Kirov star brings several strengths to the role. She is a physically attractive goddess, possessing a large and agile voice (able to produce the trills and other vocal ornaments that Wagner, who knew his Bellini, wrote for Bruennhilde). Sergeyeva also has stamina – singing the “Siegfried” Bruennhilde two days later and the “Goetterdaemerung” Bruennhilde only four days later.

In the first wildly difficult phrases that introduce us to her character in “Walkuere’s” Act II, one could hear what seemed to be an ominous spread in her otherwise controlled and healthy vibrato, but for most of her performances she was in fine fettle. She was especially effective in such soft and intimate passages as her duet with Domingo, the Todesverkuendig, in which she announces to him that he will be killed in the scheduled battle with Hunding and she will transport him, without his sister Sieglinde, to Valhalla.

The events of “Walkuere” are a continuation of Wotan’s education in “Das Rheingold” – that once you agree to take on the responsibility for enforcing the rules of law, contracts and custom, you cannot yourself evade it. Two characters from “Rheingold” return in “Walkuere’s” Act II – the god’s power couple, Wotan and Fricka. The Wotan in both was Mikhail Kit, but in Walkuere, we had a new Fricka, Larisa Diadkova, known to San Francisco audiences for her roles as the Mother Superior and Fortune Teller in Prokofiev’s “Fiery Angel” (1994), The Duenna in Prokofiev’s “Betrothal in a Monastery” (1998), and as Amneris in Verdi’s “Aida” (2001). Fricka, in Walkuere” is far more powerful and self-assured than she was in “Rheingold” (Diadkova replacing a smaller-voiced “Rheingold” Fricka, of course, reinforced this even more.)

When we left the couple in the final episode of “Das Rheingold” they were both clad in full-length white priestly robes of the type we often see Sarastro in Mozart’s “Zauberfloete” wearing, and they were about to don headdresses associated with ancient Egyptian gods. (In the 20 hours between the end of “Rheingold” and beginning of “Walkuere” a few people were consulting their college texts by Professor James Henry Breasted or their coffee table versions of the Book of the Dead to try to determine why the headdresses for Horus, Anubis, etc. were associated with this or that Rheingold character.) For the beginning of the critical Act II conversation between Wotan and Fricka, the goddess in still in white, but Wotan’s robe is black.

Approaching the role introspectively, Kit appears to recognize that Wotan is suffering from a deepening disillusionment that has come upon him in stages. First, after Erda’s counseling him to do so, he reluctantly gave up the Ring to the Giants in “Das Rheingold”. Second, after Fricka’s denouncement of his agent Siegmund’s violation of the laws of human marriage that the gods must also enforce, he reluctantly agreed to Siegmund’s death. Thus one senses in Kit’s Wotan a state of deep depression. When he embraces the corpse of the dead Siegmund, vividly representing his shattered hope for a resolution of the dilemma in which he found himself, it is a truly poignant act.

(Both Wotan and Fricka have lost track of Sieglinde, who was Siegmund’s co-respondent and accomplice. As evidence of her critical role in the Ring’s plot, she is the only character to appear in all three acts. If the power couple had remembered to include her fate in their peace agreement between themselves, there would have neither “Siegfried” nor “Goetterdaemerung”.)

Walkuere’s third act introduces Bruennhilde’s eight sisters, her companion valkyries, and the only deviation (a minor one) from Wagner’s stage directions in the Kirov Ring. They sing the Ride of the Valkyries — what may be the most famous music from all German opera, save the Wedding March from Wagner’s “Lohengrin”. The Kirov group was sensational, the Flosshilde and Wellgunde of the previous night (Lyubov Sokolova and Irina Vasilieva) joined by Liya Shevstsova, Elena Vitman, Lyudmila Kannunnikova, Tatiana Kravtsova, Nadezhda Vasilieva and Elena Sommer. All of the Valkyries (including Bruennhilde) wear imposing blue and black feathered headdresses and carry a black shield, feathered on one side, that they place on the bodies of the fallen heroes.

[Below: the Valkyries gather at Bruennhilde’s rock; edited image, based on a Mariinsky Theatre photograph.]

Prior to discussing the Kirov presentation of Act III’s events, it is as good a time as any to bring up a discussion of the four large figures that dominate the stage settings for this Ring.

In my review of the David Alden “film noir gangster” production of Handel’s “Rodelinda” at San Francisco Opera, I quoted a bubbly description by Alden from the opera program about what to make of the costumes, settings, etc., lest we leave with the impression that there was no “concept” behind transporting a story from pre-medieval Lombardy into Gangland Chicago a millenium later. There was no such bubbly guide by Gergiev and Tsypin as to the meaning of much that took place in the Kirov Ring.

There never was any danger of us losing track of what was going on between the characters, because the production approached Wagner’s stage directions very conservatively. Therefore, if you were interested in the storyline of the Ring being presented in a straightfoward manner, sung by highly competent singers (with Placido Domingo in wonderful voice in a major role) and with a superbly conducted full Wagnerian orchestra, you were not disappointed. As far as I could tell, that was what most of the audience was looking for, and they left happy.

If, however, you suspected that all the headgear, masks and veils worn by various characters had specific meaning that related to some African fable, or Kachina ritual, or folk-tale from the steppes of Central Asia, and that you could check your program for the meaning of each item, no such guide was there to help you. Perhaps Gergiev and Tsypin one day will produce the exhaustive description of the intended meaning of each element of costume, lighting and stagecraft. There would be many of us that might even buy the book in hopes of gaining some meta-Wagnerian insight into why, say, the woodbird was wearing this or that thing.

So far, they have not gone much farther than to say they were influenced by Scythian mythology and stories from the Caucasus. All of us in the New World (certainly including those of us out here in the Golden West), have acquaintances that we would bet cannot recite the details of a single Scythian myth. Even so, the Scythians were most likely the source of important parts of Russian and other Slavic folklore – certainly Baba Yaga and likely the mermaids like Rusalka (who was probably the same species as the Rhinemaidens). And one of the most important Scythian goddesses, Tabiti, radiated sun-rays up and down her sides – quite like the Kirov Ring’s central figure that towers above Bruennhilde’s rock.

Perhaps Tsypin and Gergiev challenge us to delve further back into ages of Indo-European history to the nomadic tribes that were the ancestors of the Slavs and the Celts, the Greeks and the Romans, the Norsemen and the Germans, to reflect on the possibility that the pantheons of gods in each of these cultures have interrelationships that suggest an more distant past. And, beyond the gods of the Indo-Europeans, there are likely even more ancient gods of the ancestors of even wider groups of humans.

Many of us have some smattering of Egyptology and are prepared to believe the headdresses at the end of the Kirov “Rheingold” have meanings that can be figured out (perhaps functioning like a Rosetta stone for interpreting other costumes).

Although one of my colleagues concluded that the vaguely human faces of the large figures represented specific famous people, I did not regard them as representing humans at all. I suspect that they represent a time even before Erda and the Norns, and of the characters in the opera, only that foursome might have a grasp of their meaning. The gods, dwarves and giants might have life-spans that were longer than the humans, but even they are short-lived creatures compared to these beings, that exist in time durations that are paleontological, geological, even astrophysical.

Sometimes they are positioned as if they are observers of the action, such as in the “Walkuere” conversations between Fricka and Wotan, and, at times, what we suppose are the hearts of the figures light up. At other times the figures form integral parts of the stage setting. When the audience’s point of view was in the depths of the River Rhine, the figures (encrusted with marine life) were horizontal at the Rhine’s surface. In Walkuere’s Act I, they formed pieces of Hunding’s house and the ash tree containing the magical sword meant for Siegmund.

By the third Act of “Walkuere” there is even more interaction between the figures and the stage business. One of the figures hovers horizontally above the stage. At the moment in the opera when a furious Wotan arrives to punish Bruennhilde, Wagner calls for her eight sisters to fly away in fright. The Kirov Ring, however, has two of them remain behind as stagehands. One rolls out a circular stand that serves as a place for Wotan to sit as he and Bruennhilde negotiate the terms of her banishment from his realm and a stool to stand on when he creates the magic fire.

[Wotan (Mikhail Kit) prepares Bruennhilde (Olga Sergeyeva) for a long sleep until awakened by a hero; edited image, based on a Christine Cotter photograph.]

The Valkyries help lower the hovering figure and position it so that it becomes the rock on which Bruennhilde sleeps until awakened in the third act of the next Ring opera. Then Wotan stands on the stool and calls on Loge to create the magic fire. (The flameheads we first met in “Rheingold” with their neon-red headgear – there are analogous figures that surround the Scythian goddess Tabiti – reappear to surround Bruennhilde’s rock.)

[Below: the “Magic Fire” protects Bruennhilde’s Rock; edited image, based on Natasha Razinka photograph from Mariinsky Theatre.]

Soon “Walkuere” is over, with a day and 19 hours before the next episode in the Kirov Ring is to begin.

Whom do I regard as the most memorable of the various singers in “Walkuere” roles that I have seen since my first one, 50 years ago this month, 40 miles to the North at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles? The 1956 San Francisco Opera performance by Birgit Nilsson (her American debut was earlier that month in San Francisco) and later performances by Nilsson at San Francisco in 1972 and 1981 towered above all other Bruennhildes, although I found the performances (all in San Francisco) by Jeannine Altmeyer (1983), Dame Gwyneth Jones (1985), Janis Martin (1990) and Jane Eaglen (1995 and 1999) also to be impressive, but Sergeyeva deserves to be placed on the list as well.

The Siegmunds were also an extraordinary list of the Wagnerian tenors of the last half of the 20th century, including Ludwig Suthaus (1956), Jon Vickers (1963 and 1976), Jess Thomas (1968, 1972, 1976 and 1981) and James King (1981). Peter Hofman (1983 and 1985) approached Wagnerian legato cavalierly, but was visually a convincing hero. Twenty years ago I would have been surprised to learn that Domingo would emerge as the standard for 21st century Siegmunds, but here we are.

The role of Sieglinde, as in most of the major Wagnerian houses in the three decades after mid-century, was the property of Leonie Rysanek (1956, 1976, 1981). Besides being a consummate singer and actress, she was Wagnerian innovator, adding the orgasmic scream (controversial at a time when many people were horrified at any non-textual additions to operas) to “Walkuere’s” first act as Siegmund draws the magic sword out of the ash tree. Regine Crespin (1968), as noted earlier in this essay, was one of the most beautiful sounding Wagnerian singers. Her Sieglinde and that of Deborah Voigt (1999) must be included in the first rank.

My first Wotan, Hans Hotter (1956) was one of the century’s most important Wagnerian bass-baritones, and he must be placed first among these gods. San Francisco Opera is associated with the Wotan of James Morris. It was Terence McEwen, Kurt Herbert Adler’s successor, that persuaded him to add the role to his repertoire and he sang it there in 1985, 1990, 1995 and 1999. A somewhat lighter voice than Hotter’s or Morris’, Thomas Stewart is remembered for his insightful acting in his Wotans of 1972 and 1983.

The formidable role of Fricka is associated with some very formidable mezzo-sopranos, and it was my good fortune to see Nell Rankin (1956), Regina Resnik (1962) and Helga Dernesch (1983, 1985 and 1990). This performance’s Larisa Diadkova belongs with this list. For Hundings I especially liked Lorenzo Alvary (1956) and John Macurdy (1990), but doubt that Gennady Bezzubenkov in this performance can be bested in this role.

This performance’s eight Valkyrs were first rank as a group. However, for the record I will note that in past performances I have seen Janis Martin as Waltraute (1963), Nancy Gustafson (1983 and 1985) and Patricia Racette (1990) as Helmwige , Dolora Zajic as Schwertleite (1985), and Nicolle Foland as both Gerhilde (1995) and Ortlinde (1999).

For my comments on the Kirov “Das Rheingold”, see: Going For the Gold: Kirov Ring’s “Das Rheingold” in Costa Mesa – October 6, 2006

For my comments on the Kirov “Siegfried”, see: Kirov’s “Siegfried” Slays Dragon, Conquers Orange County – October 9, 2006

For my comments on the Kirov “Goetterdaemmerung”, see: Mariinsky “Goetterdaemmerung” in Orange County – “Hehrstes Wunder” October 11, 2006

For additional comments on Domingo’s impact on Wagnerian opera, see: Domingo is the Redeemer of L.A.’s spellbound “Parsifal”: December 8, 2005

For a discussion of my first performance of the opera, 50 years ago, see: Die Walkuere – November 4, 1956

Tags: 2005-2016: William's Reviews