(*homocinematically inclined)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Reverend’s Reviews: Wagner’s Valkyries Reign Supreme in LA

While they don’t enter fully until the final third of Richard Wagner's Die Walkure, the fabled and fearsome bird women of Valhalla and their attendant musical theme have been the opera’s breakout stars since its premiere.

Walkure, the second chapter of LA Opera’s yearlong production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, opened over the weekend and plays through April 25. Like its predecessor, Das Rheingold, it has been given a heavily-symbolic interpretation by director/designer Achim Freyer. It is also an increasingly fascinating and sure-footed interpretation, and I say “sure-footed” despite Freyer’s overuse this time around of a rotating, carousel stage that occasionally threatens to send its human, divine and beastly occupants tumbling.

Die Walkure is much more of a character study than Rheingold, focusing on the successes and failures, past and present, of Wotan, king of the gods of old. The gods’ reign over creation is quickly slipping away, as the glowing arm of the center-stage clock ominously reminds them and the audience. (Special mention must be made of the uncredited, black-shrouded ensemble member who meticulously keeps that clock arm ticking — sometimes backwards — for the better part of three hours.)

Bass Vitalij Kowaljow was in excellent form, musically and dramatically, opening night as Wotan. So was LA Opera’s general director, Placido Domingo, as Siegmund, Wotan’s mortal son. I have never had the opportunity to hear Domingo sing live before; what a privilege and pleasure it was to see and hear his gifts on full display opening night.

Soprano Anja Kampe made an exquisite Sieglinde, Siegmund’s long-lost sister who, once reunited with Siegmund, becomes his wife. Their incestuous affair raises not only audience members’ eyebrows but also the wrath of both Sieglinde’s husband, Hunding (a suitable Eric Halfvarson), and Wotan’s wife — and goddess of marriage — Fricka (the fabulous Michelle DeYoung).

After all manner of threats and negotiations, a recap of Das Rheingold and heartbreaking tragedy, the Valkyries, led by Brunnhilde (an at-times shaky but ultimately triumphant performance by Linda Watson), make their entrance as Freyer’s cool video curtain is literally blown away at the start of Act 3. Charged with carrying the spirits of warriors killed in battle to the afterlife in Valhalla, the other Valkyries find themselves caught in a power struggle between Brunnhilde and Wotan.

Die Walkure ends with Brunnhilde and the stage engulfed, spectacularly, in flames, and the audience ready (or at least they will be after recovering from this installment’s five-hour running time) to witness the future adventures of Siegfried, the son of Siegmund and Sieglinde whom we are told will become “the greatest of all heroes.”

Whereas Freyer’s staging of Das Rheingold got a decidedly mixed reaction from both critics and audiences, Die Walkure received a rapturous ovation opening night. Ring purists and cultural elitists have seemingly adjusted to Freyer’s carnival-esque take on the epic, and Freyer himself is clearly gaining a better command of both the material and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s stage. While I could do without the raked floor rotating as much as it does (and noisily at times), LA Opera’s ongoing Ring saga is in great hands.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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