Opera Warhorses

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

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An Incredible Domingo and Other Marvels of the Los Angeles Opera Ring – “Walkuere”, May 30, 2010

June 2nd, 2010

Over the past year, I have reviewed the first night of each of the four operas of the Los Angeles Opera’s production of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs”. Regrettably, schedule conflicts have made it impossible for me to see the four operas in succession concentrated in a nine day period, or even to repeat all four operas, but I could not resist traveling to Los Angeles for a performance of the first Ring’s “Walkuere”.

I may possibly be the only person to attend and review Placido Domingo’s first performance conducting Washington National Opera’s first ever production of Thomas’ “Hamlet”  at the Kennedy Center, and then his appearance eight nights later singing the role of Siegmund for the Los Angeles Opera. (For my review of the previous performance, see: Michael Chioldi, Micaela Oeste Enrich Washington National Opera’s Theatrically Absorbing “Hamlet” – May 22, 2010.)

[Below: Siegmund (Placido Domingo) in the second act of “Die Walkuere” with the avatar of his twin sister, Sieglinde (here, performed by a member of the Achim Freyer Ensemble); edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

For me, I found that just traveling to the two cities on opposite coasts, attending the performances, and writing the reviews, seemed like it could exhaust a person.  Yet Domingo in the same period of time conducted two complete performances (May 22 and 24)  of the moderately lengthy “Hamlet” (the first of which had an unexpected cast change of the prima donna role halfway into the opera).

Then Domingo began the rehearsal process for Achim Freyer’s intensely choreographed production of “Die Walkuere” on May 25th in Los Angeles, in order to be ready for its late Sunday afternoon performance (May 30)  of the second part of  the Los Angeles Music Center’s first “Ring”. After that performance his schedule had him flying to the other coast to conduct the June 1 and 4 performances of “Hamlet” at Kennedy Cernter, then he is back in L. A. for the second (June 10) of his three scheduled Siegmunds.

Domingo, of course, is not merely a conductor and the most important singer in the roster of both opera companies, he is the general director of both. On one coast he had to manage the consequences of important cancellations by the originally announced artists for a work unfamiliar to most opera goers. On the other coast he had to experience the politics of a production of the  “Ring”, some of whose detractors have proved mischievous during a challenging economic time for all opera companies, much less one presenting  a complex and demanding cycle of the four Wagnerian operas. And, to add personal trials to his professional and artistic challenges, he has had medical concerns as well.

Domingo’s schedule would have been  draining on any artist. Domingo’s stamina and ability to perform at high artistic levels in the quite different but both physically demanding skills of conducting and singing opera now ceases to be merely noteworthy. For this marvelous artist (the adjective intended in the full force of its principal meaning) his abilities as he nears the end of his seventh decade of life, have taken on an element of incredibility.

Conductor James Conlon, in his pre-performance talk presented, as usual, an hour before curtain (always a reason in itself to fly to Los Angeles to attend a Conlon-conducted opera) uttered the opinion that in the dress rehearsal Domingo was singing phenomenally.

On this website I have reviewed his performances of Siegmund in the Gergiev/Mariinsky production in Orange County in 2006  (see Domingo, Kirov “Walkuere” in Costa Mesa – October 7, 2006), in the Washington National Opera Zambello “Ring” in 2007 (see Zambello’s Dazzling “American Ring ‘Walkuere’” at Kennedy Center – March 28, 2007) and in the first performance of the Freyer Ring’s “Walkuere” in 2009 (see Sonic Splendor: Domingo, Conlon Lead Impressively Sung, Engaging “Walkuere” for L. A. Opera – April 12, 2009).

Domingo has always sounded good. At this performance, for which one, under the circumstances, might have expected even a tiny hint of vocal stress, he was in prime voice, still the incomparable Siegmund. A persuasive case could made that he is the greatest Siegmund in the role’s history. No one disputes that he is one of a very small group of the greatest.  The fact that he is scheduled to sing it two more times in Los Angeles and that it is still possible to obtain tickets should motivate both Domingo fans and Wagner fans to travel to the Los Angeles Music Center to see him.

Yet, the scheduled presence of Domingo is not the only reason I would give for attending the Los Angeles Ring “Walkuere”. Strength in conducting, and in the remainder of the cast, also made this a memorable evening, and the remaining performances deserve to be a Los Angeles style “hot ticket”.

Notes on the Production

Achim Freyer’s production of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” has been controversial, dividing the very Wagnerians one would expect to be the core audience. I consider myself a proper Wagnerian (I have seen “Die Walkuere” more than other opera and am scheduled to see two more performances of the opera elsewhere within two weeks of the performance I am reviewing here), and would have no problem decrying the production, if I felt a negative review of it was appropriate.

The objections of the production’s detracotrs fall into three principal categories – those who feel the production was too expensive and should have been canceled, those who don’t like the costumes and scenery, and those who don’t like the staging. (Of course, a few people don’t believe that any Wagner should be performed, but this website is not a sympathetic forum for that sentiment.)

I am reviewing the performance, not the decision making processes for committing to this particular “Ring”. However, I know that any commitments to major artists require legal contracts that impose substantive penalties should either party renege on the contractual terms, and it has been many months – perhaps years – since the opportunity for actual savings could have materialized by canceling all commitments to the project.

If I am consulted, say,  for some future revival as to whether any of the costumes should be redesigned, I would have some suggestions, but there is no costume that I believe justifies a person who enjoys Wagnerian opera staying away from these performances. The oddest costumes admittedly make the characters seem not to be human – but in the “Ring”, the gods, Nibelungen, giants, dragon, woodbird and Rhinemaidens are not human to begin with, and the actual humans that absorb our attention were born gods or are directly descended from gods. (Perhaps the Gibichungs have descended from generations of human stock, but it is not a family with which most of us would want to be associated.)

Thus, the characters in the “Ring” do not require the casting of handsome people in elegant costumes. But it is not the costumes that to me makes this a great “Ring” –  it is the orchestral music conducted by James Conlon; the cast whose brightest star, Placido Domingo, is only one among several stunning performances; and the stage direction of  Achim Freyer. Of course, many will argue Freyer’s stage directions are inseparable from his costumes and scenery, but I will posit (as I have in the past) that it is Freyer’s staging that is insightful, absorbing, and, to me, “ultra-Wagnerian”. (Hyperlinks to my individual reviews of the four operas of the Freyer “Ring” may be found at A Wagner Summer in the Golden West – 2010.)

Wagner refers to characters and things in three basic ways. First, his characters do or say something that we experience with our own eyes and ears. Second, his characters talk about things that have happened in the past or will happen in the future. Third, the orchestra associates people, things and ideas with short musical themes called leitmotivs. The orchestra plays these when something important is happening onstage, and sometimes when a character is singing (or even thinking) about whatever a given leitmotiv describes.

This is conceptually pretty intricate in itself. But Freyer (this is why I call him an “ultra-Wagnerian”)  adds other layers of complexity. He materializes the leitmotiv structure by creating visual leitmotivs, by having the avatars move about or by using symbols appear that represent things being described, whether or not they are actually supposed to be present in that scene. Nowhere is this more evident than in those parts of the “Ring” in which a character is summarizing past events, such as when Wotan in the second act (as will be described below) tells his daughter Bruennhilde about the story of “Das Rheingold” and what happened after that.

Notes on the Performance

In a stylistic device we have previously seen in science fiction TV shows, the Waelsung twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde, are dressed as two halves of the same person. As I have described before, the principal singers in a given scene may have structures (that I call carapaces) that surround a disk that at important times revolves. The singers for each role sometimes stand behind their carapace, sometimes move about the stage as themselves, but sometimes are represented by identically costumed doubles that I call avatars.

Domingo’s sister in the production is Michelle DeYoung, an alumna of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artists’ program, whose career has been based in the mezzo range, with striking performances as Fricka in the Freyer/Los Angeles Opera productions of “Rheingold” and “Walkuere” and Waltraute in “Goetterdaemmerung”. On the previous evening performance DeYoung had sung the mezzo Fricka, but for “Walkuere” she took over the soprano role of Sieglinde (that Anja Kampe had performed in the April 2009 performances), and DeYoung’s large and luscious voice matched Domingo’s in this most lyrical of Wagnerian music.

[Below: Sieglinde (Michelle DeYoung, right) sings as her avatar (a member of the Achim Freyer ensemble) carries a drink to Siegmund; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

In one of the many magical Freyer concepts, the central disk begins rotating as Domingo’s Siegmund eloquently sings the first act’s famous  Winterstuerme wichen den Wonnemond. Domingo sings rapturously with DeYoung’s Sieglinde as both ride the disk’s circumference diagonally to one another. Also effective were the fox-like kinsmen of Hunding (portrayed by Eric Halfvarson) with their red laser swords.

In the second Act, the disk was surrounded by several carapaces, those of Wotan, Fricka, Hunding, Bruennhilde, and Siegmund/Sieglinde distributed around the motionless periphery of the disk’s circumference.

Like DeYoung, Ukrainian basso Vitalij Kowaljow sang in the previous night’s “Rheingold”, although he played Wotan in both operas. He, like Domingo and DeYoung, is an extraordinary singer, one of the great basso cantantes of his generation, and he presented a forceful, compelling portrait of the conflicted head god.

[Below: Wotan (Vitalij Kowaljow) standing with his spear; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

His wife Fricka in this “Walkuere”, in a Los Angeles Opera debut (in the role that in April 2009 had been sung by DeYoung), was Belarusian born Ekaterina Semenchuk. Possessing yet another world class voice, she showed mastery of this powerful role – a woman who understands her husband’s strategic machinations and knows how to oppose them effectively, even if her husband (and all her family’s world) are ultimately destroyed in the process.

[Below: Fricka (Ekaterina Semenchuk, front) prevails in her battle with Wotan (Vitalij Kowaljow, rear) who now must instruct Bruennhilde (Linda Watson, center) to bow to Fricka’s will; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

An archetypal staging of the Freyer concept occurs when Linda Watson’s Bruennhilde wishes to know how the things that now trouble Kowaljow’s Wotan came to be. The disk begins to revolve as he tells his daughter what has occurred. As he mentions Alberich and the Rheinmaidens and the Dragon Fafner possessing the Ring, the avatars for each of these characters step onto the disk and revolve around, each eventually stepping off. The predictions of future events are displayed also. A bare-bosomed floozy represents the surrogate mother whom Alberich will pay to conceive his son Hagen. (The latter is now in a baby buggy that is also on the rotating disk).

Yet, of the many wonders of the “Walkuere” second act, the Todesverkuendig (in which Bruennhilde appears before Siegmund to announce that he will meet death in battle the next morning), is almost always one of the opera’s most emotionally moving moments. In the Los Angeles production, Domingo’s spectacular Siegmund was paired, as it has so often been, with Watson’ brilliantly played Bruennhilde.

Sieglinde, of course, the only character to appear in all three acts of the opera, has music of great beauty in the first and third acts (including the incomparable O hehrstes wunder exultation of the unborn Siegfried in her final scene), but the second act is the one that allows a Sieglinde the greatest dramatic range, and DeYoung gave a chilling portrait of the despondent Waelsung.

The next act’s Walkuerenritt provides a scene to interest a stage director who wishes to do something more unconventional than placing eight ladies, each standing with spear in hand, in position. Imaginative stage directors have demonstrated that there exist innumerable ways to engage the audience in this exposition of extraterrestrials singing the most famous music (other than the wedding march from “Lohengrin”) that Wagner ever wrote.

Even so, it is hard to conceive something as out of the ordinary as Freyer’s Valkyrie vehicles –  horseheaded bicycle-wheeled machines, that can be made to burst into flames later in the act to fuel the Magic Fire.

[Below: the Ride of the Valkyries; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The final scene between Kowaljow’s Wotan and Watson’s Bruennhilde proved to be as poignant as any presentation of the celebrated end of the opera, with Wotan’s Farewell and the orchestral music of the Magic Fire. In one of the vivid Freyer images, the blue-skinned image of Siegfried, with his bearskin britches and wearing the gold top hat that in this “Ring”  represents the Tarnhelm, crosses through the Magic Fire, as he will in the third act of “Siegfried”.

My enthusiasm for Freyer’s conceptualization of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” remains unabated. Yet even a person who prefers a more cinematic, “human”-looking “Ring”, should consider attending this production of “Walkuere” to see and hear Placido Domingo’s legendary Siegmund,  strong performances from DeYoung, Kowaljow and Semenchuk, a steadfast portrayal of Bruennhilde by Linda Watson, and a beautifully wrought performance by Conductor James Conlon.

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