Die Walküre, Wagner
Bayreuther Festspiele 2010
The World Without Us
If Tankred Dorst’s Rheingold captivated with its transformative magic, his Walküre takes us hostage by force. In this second chapter of Wagner’s protean saga, the darker themes of abuse, exploitation, manipulation, and betrayal are explored with increasing violence (and some powerful singing to match).
Frank Philipp Schlößmann’s emotionally evocative design again sets the tone: the curtain rises on an abandoned former gymnasium or warehouse space that shelters a crowd of picnickers from a summer cloudburst. As the rain subsides and they venture out again, one curious boy lingers to uncover the shrouded Sieglinde, asleep in a chair. But here’s the chilling catch: up until now, the gods have been invisible to the humanity they live among; but the little boy recoils in shock - he has seen the sleeping woman - and runs out after his parents.
It is a clever detail: confirming our belief that the gods are in fact “real” and coexistent with our contemporary age, and that it is our grown-up assumptions that blind us to them.
The scene that then unfolded felt both plausible and gripping: Edith Haller convincingly played a beaten-down Sieglinde who secretly nursed a kernel of hope for her own rescue; with a combination of excellent lighting, stillness, and Johan Botha’s spectacular singing, we then actually believed that she and Siegmund might have felt an instantaneous and primal bond. As for Ms. Haller’s voice, it was not everything one dreams of in the role, being youthfully pretty (and plenty loud) but bland, and lacking fullness and security at the outer ranges.
Botha, meanwhile, gave a deservedly bravo-ed performance that it is hard to imagine being surpassed, in its lyricism, big-heartedness, and vocal mastery. And that without getting to show off his signature high notes!
Kwangchul Youn (who the previous evening had impressed in the smaller role of Fasolt) was also a superstar in the role of the abusive husband, Hunding. With a voice like a towering oak, his possessive rage boomed out into the opera house and left one cowering like Sieglinde (sheepishly doing the dishes in the background).
In the second act, Wotan and Fricka appear in their Rheingold costumes, except that their once pristinely white garments have become tarnished, blackened. They inhabit a strange sort of urban park/construction dump-site, which one gradually recognizes as a graveyard of desecrated, disposed (and deposed) Communist statuary. We build up our idols only to tear them down. The odd pedestrian wanders through, reading a paper, unaware that actual gods are perched on the decapitated stone heads of the false ones.
Albert Dohmen again delivered a sad and noble Wotan, this time perhaps a shade more defeatist and a shade angrier at his own impotence (forced to act against his will and his progeny by his manipulative wife). The tenderness Dohmen later exhibited towards Brünnhilde in their final scene was stunning, as was his ability to sing softly after hours on stage.
Brünnhilde (Linda Watson, with swathes of plushness throughout her range), sporting a fire-engine-red coif and Valkyrie armor of red leather, silk, and plexiglass, trots in with her famous war-cry, and suddenly the drama is injected with the uninhibited exuberance of youth. The effect of her persona was that of an overly friendly English Bulldog who wants to leap in to your lap, and I appreciated that Ms. Watson, an international diva and Bayreuth icon, still performs the role with such joie de vivre.
And then comes Act Three, the part we’ve all been waiting for, the part one hears ringing out from taxi-driver’s cell phones around Bayreuth: the Ride of the Valkyries!
The Valkyries did not disappoint. Swarming in like a flock of red pterodactyls (more leather, more plexiglass, very tall women, very long spears), Wagner’s famous band of woman-warriors, stocked with a stable of vocal power that surely only Bayreuth can assemble, created such a mushroom cloud of sound that the woman seated next to me literally sat mouth agape, palms pressed to her cheeks (“Home Alone” style) throughout the entire scene.
Sometime after that onslaught, Maestro Thielemann’s unrelenting aggressiveness in the pit started to wear me down, even as I understood the emotional logic of it, especially in this violent second chapter of the Ring. I began to feel like a moth bumping its head over and over against a light bulb, compelled against my will. But perhaps that’s the point?
The remainder of the act only grew in splendour. As the last few insubordinate Valkyries were scared off by Wotan, he was left to consign his uncomprehending daughter Brünnhilde to her fate. (The groove that Dohmen and Thielemann found in this tragic lullaby was truly mesmerizing.) Hidden deep inside the moonscape of an abandoned, strip-mined quarry, she at last lays down to rest within what becomes a glowing ring of molten lava. Wotan gently lays her shield across her body and then vanishes, silhouetted by billowing steam.
She may lie there for a millennium or a day, but, like the strip-mine, the mountain brought low, something of the tragedy and waste of Brünnhilde’s banishment is eternal.
Bottom line: Can you handle the truth?
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Conductor - Christian Thielemann
Director - Tankred Dorst
Set Design - Frank Philipp Schlößmann
Costumes - Bernd Ernst Skodzig
Lighting Designer - Ulrich Niepel
Siegmund - Johan Botha
Sieglinde - Edith Haller
Hunding - Kwangchul Youn
Wotan - Albert Dohmen
Fricka - Mihoko Fujimura
Brünnhilde - Linda Watson
Helmwige - Miriam Gordon-Stewart
Siegrune - Wilke te Brummelstroete
Grimgerde - Annette Küttenbaum
Rossweisse - Alexandra Petersamer
Gerhilde - Sonja Mühleck
Ortlinde - Anna Gabler
Waltraute - Martina Dike
Schwertleite - Simone Schröder