Review: Sonic Splendor – Domingo, Conlon Lead Impressively Sung, Engaging “Walküre” for Los Angeles Opera, April 12, 2009

At Los Angeles Opera, the buzz was Achim Freyer’s often mysterious staging of “Die Walküre”,  the second of the four operas of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (for my review of the first of the “Ring”, see: Achim Freyer’s Fascinating “Rheingold” Begins L. A. “Ring” – March 11, 2009.) But, beyond the buzz about the production, the musical performance, led by the now legendary Siegmund of Placido Domingo and the conducting of James Conlon, was even more notable.

Readers of this website will be aware that “Die Walküre” is a significant opera in this reviewer’s experience – one that I have seen in live performance more than any other.  I have had the fortune of seeing many of the great Wagnerian performers of the past half century, beginning, when I was a young teenager, with a San Francisco Opera performance during the American debut seasons of Birgit Nilsson (Bruennhilde) and Leonie Rysanek (Sieglinde), with the remainder of the stellar cast including Hans Hotter (Wotan), Nell Rankin (Fricka) and Ludwig Suthaus (Siegmund). (See my description of the performance and the experience of attending it at Die Walküre – November 4, 1956 .)

This is the third time that I have reviewed a performance of the opera in which Domingo sang the role of Siegmund – each in a different and significantly non-traditional production. The first was the Kirov/Mariinsky Theater conceptualization from Saint Petersburg, Russia that was mounted in Orange County, just South of Los Angeles (See Domingo, Kirov “Walküre” in Costa Mesa – October 7, 2006.) The review of the Kirov opera includes a discussion of the great performers in the principal roles who appeared in California over the past five decades, particularly at the San Francisco Opera, which seems to have been a “must do” for most of the great Wagnerian singers for much of my lifetime.

The second “Domingo as Siegmund” production was that of the second part of an “American Ring”, conceived by the Washington National Opera and San Francisco Opera (See Zambello’s Dazzling “American Ring ‘’Walküre” at Kennedy Center – March 28, 2007). The former company has partially abandoned this project, scheduling “Siegfried” next month, but withdrawing from the co-production of “Goetterdaemmerung”. Three of the four principals in the WNO “Walküre” – Domingo, Kampe, and Watson – are part of the Los Angeles performance.

Thus, having seen most of the world’s greatest Wagnerian singers of the postwar years in live performance, I feel qualified to state that the Los Angeles audience heard a performance that should set the standard for contemporary Wagnerian singing.

Of course, the most famous performer, by far, is Domingo. The youthful Luciano Pavarotti redefined our expectations of how beautifully and with what dramatic effectiveness the tenor roles in the bel canto operas of Donizetti and Bellini can be sung. The mature Domingo (born just over half a decade after his lustrous colleague) has redefined our expectations of what such Wagnerian tenor roles as Siegmund and the title role of “Parsifal” can sound like – beautifully lyrical and dramatically expressive, sung as melodiously as that of a great  bel canto artist. Anyone who can secure a ticket to hear any of Domingo’s remaining Wagnerian performances should not think twice about doing so.

But this is not a vehicle to display the talents of a superstar. Since everything that happens at the Los Angeles Opera has Domingo’s imprimatur, it seemed a gesture of more than graciousness that led Domingo to take his solo bow at the final curtain fourth from the last, to be followed by Kampe, Kowaljow and Watson. To my mind, each of these latter singers should be considered among the world’s best in the roles they assayed. Perhaps each of them would each have received standing ovations from the traditionally generous Los Angeles audiences, but Domingo by bowing before them assured a vociferous approbation for all three.

Watson, performing in the opera’s title role, would by tradition always receive honor of the final solo bow at opera’s end. In most productions the Siegmund takes his solo bow at the end of the second act, following that of the Hunding and the Fricka, and the three leave the theater, since none of them appear in the final act. Freyer, reinforcing his unified conception of the work, has all of the singers of the opera remain for a final ovation after Act III. (For a review of another Watson performance, see: Liebesnacht: Treleaven’s Triumphant Tristan and Watson’s Wondrous Isolde at L. A. Opera – January 23, 2008.)

Finally, no discussion of the “musical” aspect of the performance would be complete without noting the extraordinary conducting of James Conlon and the responsiveness of the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra. A Conlon performance begins an hour before he actually raises his baton for the opera’s opening bar, because he personally delivers the “scholarly lecture” that American audiences have come to expect prior to each opera performance. And it is with great passion that he exudes his insights into the work he is about to conduct.

What most musicologists would make seem dry and arcane in Conlon’s absorbing delivery suddenly becomes interesting – how Wagner obliterated the great traditions of Italian opera (in which the syllabic structure and length of each line of the libretto took precedence over the drama being portrayed), as well as the elaborate system in both German and Italian opera of associating particular keys with human emotions and atributes. Conlon knows how to make Angelenos care about how Mozart differed from Wagner in using the key of D minor.

Thus the team assembled in Los Angeles proved to be spectacular from a musical standpoint, even if the visual show departed substantially from what can be considered “traditional” in postwar Wagnerian production. In fact, imaginative stagings of the Ring, that do not conform to Wagner’s stage directions, seem more the norm now than the exception. Sometimes the results of such flights of imagination seem mischievous, certainly anachronistic, and  in some cases pointlessly detracting from Wagner’s intent.

Usually, the non-traditional staging – in order to make some analogy that interests the production designer – sets the operas in times and places that would not have occurred, or even have been known, to Wagner.  In the case of Freyer’s “Ring”, however, I believe that Freyer follows Wagner’s storyline quite closely, and adds a dimension to it that Wagner himself might have found intriguing, once he had time to reflect on what Freyer is doing. (I am quite prepared to believe that Wagner, like some Wagnerians of our current time, would have howled in anger when he first encountered the results of Freyer’s thinking. I do believe that that both Wagner and skeptical contemporary Wagnerians might find Freyer’s ideas to be illuminating once one has had the time to study them.)

Unlike most “non-traditional” Rings, Freyer adds several elements to the story being sung and the leitmotivs being played in the orchestra that provide supplementary information to the audience to what is sung. He has devised unique symbols for every element of the drama. The forged Nibelung ring is a glowing hand-held orb, the Tarnhelm is a golden top hat, the sword Nothung is a long neon blue pole of light, when intact, or two shorter poles held in a “V” when it is in pieces.

These images appear, as, of course, they do in all “Rings” when the actual thing is supposed to be on stage, but Freyer also has his symbol for a thing appear somewhere on stage  whenever it is sung about by any character, or when the orchestra plays its leitmotiv, and, even, I suspect, when Freyer wants the audience to think about the symbol again. This, in itself, adds a rich new dimension to what the audience sees and hears.

For a Wagnerian novice, it might be something like a Rosetta Stone. If you recall either leitmotiv or symbol, you can translate the story in two ways. (Since the 1980s it has been commonplace to have the language of the opera simultaneously translated into the local vernacular as supertitles or some other device, so that opera performance is becoming an ever more complex multimedia experience.)

I refer you to my review of the Freyer “Rheingold” cited above, for the description of such Freyer characteristics as (to use terms I have developed to describe them) the character’s carapace into which forbidding shell the character returns from time to time, sometimes venturing away from his or her carapace as the character, or sometimes sending a similarly-costumed avatar as a representative. Often events of the later “Ring” operas are foreshadowed, and, by the second act of “Walküre” have become quite complex.

However, “Walküre” beguns with the most beautiful backstory  in all of opera – the episode of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s predestined meeting in Hunding’s home. In Freyer’s conception, each of the Waelsungs has half of the genes to produce the hero of the last two “Ring” operas and so are represented as half dark half blue-colored characters (too close to a similar theme in a Star Trek television episode from the 1960s to please a few of the Los Angeles audience.)

[Below: Sieglinde (Anja Kampe, left) and Siegmund (Placido Domingo) embrace Nothung, the sword that was destined for Siegmund; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The pairing of Domingo and the creamy-voiced Kampe is a delight I reported on in their Washington DC appearance, and my enthusiasm for their performances is undiminished by the Los Angeles appearance in a much different staging – centering on the woeful, yet well-sung Waelsung recollections.

To emphasize the duality of the two roles, Freyer often doubles them, so that each one’s avatar is on stage with them. Thus, when Sieglinde speaks of Siegmund as reminding her of her reflection she saw in a pond, Kampe and her avatar rush towards each other.

[Below: Siegmund (Placido Domingo, center left), Sieglinde (Anja Kampe, center right) and their avatars; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The surprise for me in the first act was how well Eric Halfvarson sounded as Hunding. The broad spread in his bass voice that I found marred his legato  passages in other performances I have reviewed (including his Fafner in the Freyer “Rheingold”) was not present in this performance (and Hunding is not a role requiring an excessive amount of legato singing).

The second act included the impressive Fricka of Michelle DeYoung, whose interchange with Kowaljow’s Wotan demonstrated that it is not just Domingo and Kampe who meets my definition of bel canto Wagnerian singing. But in this act Domingo’s Siegmund, who death and entrance to Valhalla is foretold by Watson’s Bruennhilde, demonstrated a rich baritonal sound.

[Below: Bruennhilde (Linda Watson, top) appears to Siegmund (Placido Domingo) to announce his death in battle the next morning, as he kneels to protect Sieglinde (Anja Kampe, bottom of photograph), edited image, based on Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Domingo has announced that he will be singing the baritone title role of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” at the Metropolitan Opera. Los Angeles Opera audiences were able to get a foretaste of how beautiful a performance that may prove to be.

In all three acts, as throughout the “Ring”, Freyer’s ensemble of 18 actor-dancers who, dressed in black leotards perform the myriad technical feats of the production, are sometimes avatars, sometimes symbols, sometimes stage-hands, but always absorb one’s attention and imagination. Below they are seen as Hunding’s men or as the agents of Wotan or Bruennhilde.

[Below: Siegmund (Placido Domingo, center) battles Hunding (Eric Halfvarson, left); edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

In “Walküre” Act III, Freyer’s imagination produces a series of spectacular events. It begins, of course, with the Walkürenritt, the iconic Ride of the Valkyries. Each of these Wotan operatives, tethered by long wide ribbons to an image representing Wotan, stands by a metallic machine whose front is a sort of tubular abstraction of a horse’s head and whose back is a crumpled bicycle wheel.

As the ladies begin their ride, Freyer’s basic circular disk rotates so that each of the Valkyries periodically comes to the front (usually when she has something to sing), but each individual valkyrie also spins in her own orbit so that she is always facing front.

[Below: the Ride of the Valkyries, from far left, clockwise, performed by Erica Brookhyser (Waltraute), Susan Foster (Helmwige), Buffy Baggott (Siegrune), Ellie Dehn (Gerhilde), Jane Gilbert (Grimgerde), Margaret Thompson (Rossweisse), Bonnita Miller (Schwertleite) and Melissa Citro (Ortlinde); edited image of a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

One recurring event is what I call the “parade of symbols” in which members of the Ensemble are costumed as people important to the story or as symbols – many of whom are not called for to appear, if at all, until later operas in the tetralogy. The paraders amble around the circular disk on which the Freyer “Ring” is staged. It is if the audience, like Erda, is able to see what has happened in the past and what will occur in the future.

In such a “Rheingold” parade, we met a grotesquely bare-bosomed  floozy who represents the woman whom Alberich impregnated lovelessly, and the giant Fafner, whose back has sprouted dragon scales.  The floozy is back in a “Walküre” parade and with her the baby buggy in which the lovelessly-conceived Hagen is spending a loveless infancy.

In the struggle between Wotan and Alberich, Bruennhilde acts to give Wotan’s side its chance to prevail. Intuitively knowing that Sieglinde is pregnant with Siegfried (immortals seem to pick up on these things), she protects Sieglinde against Wotan’s destructive rage, and arranges for Siegfried’s birthplace to be near Fafner’s cave.

[Below: the Valykries shield Bruennhilde (Linda Watson), who is protecting Sieglinde (Anja Kampe, front); edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

This single review is not the place to describe every Freyer concept displayed in “Die Walküre”. There will be ample time to construct an opera-goers guide to this galaxy of ideas. But several features are particularly noteworthy.

Wotan, when he leaves his carapace, appears in different guises. When he is a frustrated god, bound by the contracts he entered to obtain his great power, his head is surrounded by a cage. When he travels incognito in the world external to Valhalla, he wears a disheveled broad-brimmed, floppy hat.

[Below: Wotan (Vitalij Kowaljow) begins to be affected by Bruennhilde’s plea; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The first time we see Wotan affected by what we would regard as human emotion – when he yields to Bruennhilde’s plea to allow her to be awakened by the great hero who is to be born – we finally see the now bareheaded  Vitalij Kowaljow’s face.

[Below: Wotan (Vitalij Kowaljow, front) designates a circle where Bruennhilde (Linda Watson) will sleep until awakened by a hero; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Perhaps the most arresting image is the final scene of the magic fire. The image of Loge is called upon to build the flaming fortress that will surround the sleeping Bruennhilde. Each of the bicycle wheel – horsehead frame contraptions ridden by the valkyries one by one bursts into flame.

[Below: Wotan (Vitalij Kowaljow, left) encircles Bruennhilde (Linda Watson) with a magic fire; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

As Siegfried’s leitmotiv is heard heralding the next “Ring” opera, a giant blue figure of a man, bare-chested with six-pack abs, wanders through the magic fire. We can tell that the neon blue sword he carries is Nothung restored to its “Walküre” Act I form, and that he wears the gold top hat that represents the Tarnhelm, and carries the bright light that we know is the Nibelung ring.

In September 2009, “Siegfried” will arrive in Los Angeles, and early in summer 2010, the Freyer “Ring” will be presented in its totality. Controversies will continue to swirl over Freyer’s wildly unorthodox approach to the “Ring”.

This website will continue to report on the Freyer Ring’s progress, but now that we are halfway through it, it is clear that the Los Angeles Opera, that bet the house on this project, has produced an always fascinating artistic triumph.