“Die Walküre”, Houston Grand Opera’s second installment of their one a year commitment to the four operas of Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelungs”, is one of the early steps in Christine Goerke’s ascendancy to the title of world’s reigning Wagnerian dramatic soprano.
In the mid-1950s Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson, with her steel-edged power voice, came to be recognized by all the world’s opera houses as the greatest Brünnhilde and Isolde of her time. After her retirement, even though many fine singers assayed these great Wagnerian roles, none achieved the world recognition of being the best performer, to repeat my phrase – “of her time”.
Having attended Nilsson performances over many years (beginning as a junior high school student), I believe that the current excitement about Christine Goerke’s Brünnhilde is fully justified.
Goerke’s vocal insturment has emerged as both extraordinarily powerful (which an artist needs to sustain long periods of singing over the top of a mountain of orchestral sound), yet a subtlety and expressiveness to portray Brünnhilde’s vulnerability and humanity (during four of Brünnhilde six “Ring” acts, she is a human being)
[Below: Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
There is a dimension to Goerke’s Brünnhilde that one would not associate with Nilsson. Goerke shows an ability to master the complexities of staging operas in productions that many of Nilsson’s contemporaries (and probably Nilsson herself) would have resisted.
The “Ring” in Houston was created by the theatrical company in Barcelona, Spain, most famous for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1992 Olympics held in Barcelona, This “Ring”, first seen in Valencia, Spain, is the one being seen in Houston
In the Fura dels Baus production, which was rarely uneventful, Brünnhilde and all the other gods are often strapped into conveyances that thrust them into the sky or back to ground depending on to whom they are conversing or what they are trying to do. Only immortals travel this way. Humans have their own means of locomotion.
[Below: the Valkyries move through the air in their special conveyances; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Karita Mattila’s Sieglinde
The evening would have been an incredible experience if its only virtue were Goerke’s Brünnhilde. But it would have also been an incredible experience if its only virtue were Karita Mattila’s Sieglinde.
The only character of “Die Walküre to appear in all three acts, Sieglinde has extraordinarily beautiful music in the first act and music with intense emotion in the second. In her relatively brief scene in the third act she intones “O hehrstes Wunder” jubilant in learning that she is carrying the hero Siegfried – one of the great melodic leitmotivs that build one upon another in the “Ring’s” final moments.
Mattila’s Sieglinde sang with the intensity and stylishness we have to associate with this great Finnish opera singer. [See also Brilliant Belohlavek Conducts Mattila’s Masterful “Makropulos” – San Francisco Opera, November 28, 2010.]
Like Goerke’s Brünnhilde, Mattila’s Sieglinde had to cope with the idiosyncrasies of the production, which placed quite different physical demands on Mattila. We know the backstories of Sieglinde and Siegmund, the children of Wotan, raised as if creatures of the animal world.
Both Walsung siblings spend much of their time on all fours and move in a duck walk until after Siegmund sings Winterstürme and gains confidence that he will prevail in the next day’s battle with Hunding to the death.
At that point, Mattila’s Sieglinde begins very shakily to walk upright. Throughout the act Mattila’s posture changes to reflect the new information she is processing.
[ Below Karita Mattila as Sieglinde; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
The Fura dels Baus production fuses many elements including projections. Several of the production’s most effective images come in the first act, beginning with the opening storm scene in which we sense we are looking at a forest receding in the distance and occasionally see a running wolf.
Hunding’s house in a large, rotating tree that takes on magical properties.
[Below: Hunding’s house; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
The musical performance
Patrick Summers, the musical director of the Houston Grand Opera, who has had an important influence on the careers of several of the participants in the opera, was the conductor.
The Siegmund was New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill, who has become a Houston Grand Opera mainstay in such roles as Lohengrin (with Goerke as Ortrud) [Summers Leads Sumptiously Sung “Lohengrin”: Houston Grand Opera, November 13, 2009] and Otello [Review: O’Neill, Pérez and Vratogna Impressive in Houston Grand Opera’s “Otello” – November 1, 2014].
In addition to his vibrant heldentenor was O’Neill’s mastery of the lyricism that infuses Siegmund’s music in the closing scenes of the opera’s first act.
[Below: Siegmund (Simon O’Neill, above) guards the sleeping Sieglinde (Karita Mattila; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Another rising star, American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, was a fierce Fricka and foil to the Wotan of British baritone Iain Paterson in the critical second scene that forces a change in Wotan’s long-term planning (and ultimately leads to the demise of the gods.)
[Below: Fricka (Jamie Barton, right) demands that Wotan (Iain Paterson, right) not dishonor her; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Esthonian basso Ain Anger, always a consummate artist in the basso roles, made a strong impression as Hunding.
Brünnhilde’s Valkyrie sisters were Kelly Kaduce as Helwige, Meredith Arwady as Schwertleite, Renee Tatum as Grimgerde, Julie Makerov as Gerhilde, Catherine Martin as Waltraute, Natalya Romaniw as Ortlinde, Eve Gigliotti as Siegrune and Faith Sherman as Rossweisse.
The Fura dels Baus Production
Carlus Padrissa directed the production on behalf of the Fura dels Baus. Roland Orbetter created the sets, Chu Uroz created the often elaborate costumes.
[Below: the wrecking ball carrying the bodies of fallen battlefield heroes (Houston Grand Opera supernumeraries) to Valhalla; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
The technical staff of Lighting Designer Peter van Priest, Video Designer Franc Aleu, and Lighting Realizer Antonio Castro deserve praise for their parts in bringing forth the often brilliant images and always inventive imagery.
[Below: a scene with the Valkyrie sisters, the wrecking ball of heroes’ bodies now glowing red at the right; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
In a production in which constantly moving projections and light images are important to the theatrical experience, it is hard to convey its effect in the theater in production photographs, even granting the special skills that any photographer for an opera house should (must) have.
The Fura dels Baus passed the test for me by the two important criteria I would judge an opera production. Nothing they presented interfered with the story that Wagner told, and nothing done diminished the musical performance.
In its best moments, the production images were memorable, certainly including the creation of the Magic Fire to encircle the disc on which Brünnhilde will sleep until the yet unborn Siegfried comes of age. Wotan, lifted by the mechanical conveyance to a place above the sleeping Brünnhilde, invokes the Magic Fire as the Supernumeraries (until recently crammed together in the heroe’s wrecking ball, now clad in black encircling the disc), each lights a torch.
[Below Wotan (Iain Paterson, above center) commands that the Magic Fire (Houston Grand Opera supernumeraries) surround the sleeping body of Brünnhilde (Christine Goerke, lying at center of disc); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
I recommend this cast with great enthusiasm, and especially the performances of Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde and Karita Mattila as Sieglinde, which I regard of historic significance. I recommend the production for its inventiveness and visual imagery.