Review: Chicago’s Imaginative New “Walküre”: Goerke, Owens, Jovanovich, Strid Excel – Lyric Opera, November 30, 2017

Chicago’s Lyric Opera mounted its momentous new David Pountney production of “Die Walküre”, the second of the four operas of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs”.

“Die Walküre” requires six principal singers. It enlists an additional eight female voices for the third act scene containing the famous “Ride of the Valkyries”. For its new production, the Lyric assembled a world-renown cast that would be the envy of any opera house.

Christine Goerke’s Brünnhilde

New York dramatic soprano Christine Goerke led the cast with a powerful, sensitively drawn portrait of the valkyrie Brünnhilde, the most famous female role in German opera.

Goerke soared vocally over Lyric Opera’s expanded orchestra and she soared literally into the upper reaches of the stage (in this production that uses machines to to represent the valkyries’ flights).

[Below: Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde aboard her horse, Grane; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

We live in an era in which both Wagner’s “Ring” and opera singers who are persuasive actors draw audiences. Goerke’s acting was superb. She showed empathy for the hero Siegmund, love and fear of her father Wotan, compassion for Sieglinde and discomfort in the presence of Fricka.

[Below: Brünnhilde (Christine Goerke, left front) as the favorite daughter of her father, Wotan (Eric Owens, right rear); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

Previously I have reported on Goerke’s daunting presence in the Brünnhilde roles of each of the three “Ring” operas in Barcelona’s La Fura dels Baus production at the Houston Grand Opera [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 and Review: Houston Grand Opera’s Spectacular “Götterdämmerung”, April 22, 2017.]

Although relatively early in what is likely to be a long career in the Wagnerian repertory [see Rising Stars: An Interview with Christine Goerke], Goerke’s performance in Chicago showed the confidence of an artist that already has achieved great success in each of the iconic Brünnhilde roles at the Houston Grand Opera and at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. In addition, she will sing Brünnhilde in future “Ring” performances at the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Eric Owens’ Wotan

Pennsylvania bass-baritone Eric Owens was an authoritative Wotan, whose richly resonant vocal power was complemented by persuasive acting. Demonstrating that the carefully laid plans of even the king of the gods can be upended by a determined wife, Owens was masterful in projecting the dissolution of Wotan’s will as he realized that he has trapped himself in his own schemes. See: Rising Stars – An Interview with Eric Owens.

[Below: Eric Owens as Wotan; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

Although I have reviewed Owens’ performances in operas by composers as diverse as Verdi, Dvorak, George Gershwin and Weill, I had seen him before in one other Wagnerian performance [Review: Fair Weather and a Well-Sung “Flying Dutchman” at Washington National Opera – March 7, 2015.] Owens’ effectiveness as Wotan suggests that the full range of Wagnerian heldenbariton roles should be at his command.

Brandon Jovanovich’s Siegmund

Montana tenor Brian Jovanovich sings and acts the role of Siegmund with such a naturalness, that one could imagine the role having been created for him.

Siegmund is the archetypal jugendlicher tenor role, embodying the heroic youth. Physically believable in the part, and possessing the controlled legato line that Wagner intended, Jovanovich had the requisite vocal power and the sweet vocal beauty to assure that the his melodious aria Winterstürmme wichen dem Wonnemond was a highlight of the evening.

[Below: Brandon Jovanovich as Siegmund; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

I have been fortunate to have reviewed Jovanovich performances since early in his career [Rising Stars: An Interview with Brandon Jovanovich], beginning with his Pinkerton a decade ago [The Remaking of San Francisco Opera Part III “Madama Butterfly” – December 8, 2007] and including his first two nights singing Wagnerian roles [“Rheingold” Evolves in First Full Zambello “Ring” – San Francisco Opera, June 14, 2011] and [Power Singing, Powerful Imagery in Zambello’s “Walküre” – San Francisco Opera, June 15, 2011.]

Elisabet Strid’s Sieglinde

Swedish soprano Elisabet Strid was Sieglinde. In this production’s first scene Sieglinde is dehumanized, restrained by a large chain that ties her to her husband Hunding’s dwelling. In a production where acting ability is of supreme importance, Strid was mesmerizing in the early scenes as the victim of Hunding’s cruelty.

[Below: Elisabet Strid as Sieglinde; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

Once freed from her fate by Siegmund, Strid’s luxurious soprano was enlisted for the Wagner’s melodious love music that ends the first act.

In the final act Strid gloriously sings the soaring melody Hehrstes Wunder, the overpowering expression of joy when Sieglinde learns she is carrying the unborn Siegfried.

[Below: Now free, Sieglinde (Elisabet Strid, bottom left, lying on ground) has been freed by her brother Siegmund (Brandon Jovanovich, bottom left, kneeling); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

Sieglinde is the only character who sings in all three acts of “Die Walküre” (although in this production, Wotan makes a brief appearance at the opening curtain).

[Below: Brünnhilde (Christine Goerke, top) appears to Siegmund (Brandon Jovanovich, center), who guards Sieglinde (Elisabet Strid, on ground) to tell him that he will be killed the next morning; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

Tanja Ariane Baumgartner’s Fricka and Ain Anger’s Hunding 

German mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner brought a warm sound and steely acting to the role of Fricka, whose assertion of her rights as a goddess derails Wotan’s plans and changes the entire course of the “Ring” and ultimately the fates of the gods and of humans.

Baumgartner was utterly convincing in the role, her interplay with Owens’ Wotan an example of the inherent theatricality of much of Wagner’s “Ring”.

[Below: Fricka (Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, right) explains to Wotan (Eric Owens, left) what would be consequences of his ignoring her request; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

Estonian-born bass Ain Anger, who had been Daland to Owens’ Dutchman in the Washington National Opera performances, referenced above, was a somber and sinister Hunding.

[Below: Ain Anger as Hunding; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

The Eight Valkyries

Spectacular performances as Brünnhilde’s eight sisters were performed by Lindsay Ammann (Rossweise), Lauren Decker (Schwertleise), Alexandra LoBianco (Helmwige), Catherine Martin (Waltraute), Whitney Morrison (Gerhilde), Deborah Nansteel (Siegrune), Zanda Svede (Grimgerde) and Laura Wilde (Ortlinde).

[Below: the eight valkyrie sisters are riding their horses, gathering heroes (and parts of heroes to stitch back together) for Valhalla; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

Sir Andrew Davis and the Lyric Opera Orchestra

Leading the musical performance was Maestro Sir Andrew Davis, whose elegant conducting emphasized both the  dramatic intensity and lush beauty of “Die Walküre’s” musical score.

[Below: Sir Andrew Davis; edited image, based on a publicity photograph from Sir Andrew Davis’ website.]

David Pountney and the Production

The physical production and staging was always interesting. During the very first notes of the storm that opens the opera, before Siegmund arrives at Hunding’s house (a large branch with a table), Wotan and the three Norns appear to get things ready for Siegmund’s part in the drama.

[Below: Director David Pountney; edited image, based on a publicity photograph for the Welsh National Opera.]

Machines were effectively used to represent the flying horses ridden by Brünnhilde and her valkyrie sisters skyward and to represent Wotan’s habitation on Valhalla. Every scene in the opera was filled with interesting details, often giving new insights into the many facets of Wagner’s “Ring”.

Recommendation

Although all performances of “Die Walküre” have been completed this year, it will return in 2020 as the second part of complete performances of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs”. The 2017 performances of the Pountney “Die Walküre” augur well for the success of the complete “Ring of the Nibelungs” in 2020.