I have a confession to make: for me all too often best things in Wagner happen in the orchestral pit, under the text and the plots, in the score. The Ring plot, ridden with arbitrary cause and effect connections, intricate feudal-like loyalties and sub-loyalties, the limitless exegesis of various ancient contractual obligations, the monological recaps of previous episodes, and at its centre the recognizably nineteenth-century bourgeois marital dispute around monogamy and mortgage, would, if staged even remotely ‘literally’—breastplates, horses, spears, forests–lose most of its relevance and force for the contemporary audience. (Had Fricka been written in the eighteenth century, she would not have been the goddess of marital nagging quite in the same vein, because the haute bourgeoise Victorian hausfrau did not yet exist at that time—is my theory.) My theory is also that the decades of regie in Germany, ranging from genuinely inventive to genuinely mad, and perhaps starting with the extremely bare and abstract Wieland Wagner sets, saved and will continue to save the Ring as a work of dramatic art for posterity.
All this to say that Atom Egoyan’s unambitious production of Die Walküre, with the one set for 4-plus hours and a lot of the stand-and-sing, combined with the longueurs in which a character recollects the Rheingold plot or explains what happened to him from the day of his birth to the arrival to the house of Hunding, had me occasionally struggling to stay awake. The set is smart — the Valhalla in ruins, its innards exposed, and the theatre spotlights all out to remind us of the artificiality of the tale – but the idea wears off after hour 1. There are exactly two coups de théàtre in the whole of the production: Brunnhilde’s announcement of death to Siegmund, with some nifty use of video projection, and the setting of the fire for Brunhilde’s sleep in the final scene. The Valkyries are the punks who wear corsets and hoop skirts with the Doc Martens-style boots, and the dead heroes they are collecting are wrapped in white body bags. All good, but this is where it ends. Everything else in the three acts takes place on the patch of gravel by the fallen tree trunk centre stage.
What gave the piece the rush of circulation last night was the COC orchestra under Johannes Debus. It was a crisp performance beginning to end, everything clearly outlined and phrased, well-balanced (give or take a couple of moments of overexcitement in the brass section), spritely where necessary, slow (but still alert and precise) where necessary. My highlights would be Wotan’s Monologue (Johan Reuter, excellent in the role anyway you look at it, but particularly so in the Monologue); Brunhilde’s death announcement to Siegmund, which had palpable suspense of a strenuous negotiation between a human and his fate, taking place before our eyes; the arrival of Brunhilde and the Hojotoho of course, in which we get the first taste of just how cheeky Christine Goerke’s Brunhilde is; and the Fire Scene, with its urgent orchestral ripples of something very close to cheerfulness and reassurance. From the Third Ring you could see who is playing what when within the orchestra pit—I had a perfect view over the cello section and its lead Bryan Epperson and the oboes with Lesley Young in the solos, both sections playing with flare and conviction.
Christine Goerke was a Brunny that redefines foxy: timbre and the force both perfectly right, acting too, the twinkle in the eye always there. Her Brunhilde is a fearless and lovable teen, with a go-get-‘er attitude, but there was plenty of gravity too, especially in the final act. You rarely see a singer having such fun with the role.
The Valkyries were a mix of the COC Ensemble, emerging and established singers and some of the solos were better than others. They didn’t strike me as a unified ensemble. Heidi Melton as Sieglinde also had her ups and downs. We lucked out, however, with Johan Reuter’s Wotan who owned the role as much as Goerke owned hers. Their interactions, too, were a treat. Two of them and the orchestra are the pillars of this production and the reason people should absolutely see it.
Performance dates and more info in the usual place.
Photos are by Michael Cooper.