Chicago Opera Review: DIE WALKÜRE (Lyric Opera)

by Frank Arthur on November 11, 2017

in Theater-Chicago

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A DIE WALKÜRE ON THE WILD SIDE

The Lyric’s new production of Die Walküre, the second part of Wagner’s Ring cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen), is an engaging dramatic affair whose spare setting allows for the world-class singers and the fabulous Lyric orchestra to shine through. Despite some design missteps, the captivating acting of the entire cast keep what could be a lengthy five hours a taut family drama.

The “Ride of the Valkyries” in Act III is undoubtedly the high point for neophytes and Wagnerites alike. Where the rest of the opera excels in its intimate duets, the Ride is a sumptuous assault on all the senses. As the heroic trombones finally let loose, they are joined by a veritable army of cavorting Valkyries (a very solid collection of mostly Ryan Opera Center members) upon their majestic mechanical horses.

Less successful is the arrival of spring at the end of Act I, as the change of seasons is heralded by a slow-moving green backdrop and fake grass inching its way downstage. Another missed opportunity is the climactic Act II confrontation between Hunding and Siegmund. The staging forfeits any sense of dynamism as the combatants stand on raised platforms across the stage from each other; they can only glower menacingly and mime their duel. The final scene is also marred by the portrayal of the ring of fire that surrounds Brünnhilde. Dancers carrying what look to be red glow-in-the-dark pool noodles turn a tender paternal farewell into a ridiculous, undignified end.

Thankfully, the Lyric assembles a stellar cast for this daunting operatic venture. As the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, Christine Goerke dominates the show. Her strong, rich voice has both a metallic shimmer and a surprising tenderness when she lauds the forbidden love of Sieglinde and Siegmund. Eric Owens continues his masterful portrayal of the king of the gods, Wotan, succeeding especially in his Act II monologue to his warrior daughter Brünnhilde. He is an expert storyteller whose warm, dark timbre rises and falls to follow the contours of the German language. Even as Owens is visibly straining on a few high notes, his commanding presence convinces us to believe in his character’s struggle between duty to his wife and love for his illegitimate children. Mezzo-soprano Tanja Baumgartner once again steals the show as the jilted wife of Wotan, Fricka. She ensnares us with her range of colors, both vocal and dramatic, and her velvety singing makes for an alluring villain as the goddess seeks to end Sieglinde and Siegmund’s illicit affair.

A frequenter of the Lyric will probably recognize the tenor Brandon Jovanovich from past leading roles. While his characterization of the young hero Siegmund is credible here, his pacing is inconsistent. The opening scene is weak, as if he needed more time to warm up, and though Jovanovich recovers and truly shines for the touching love duet with Sieglinde in the middle of the first act, he seems exhausted for the high notes at the end of the act.

On the contrary, making her Lyric debut, Elisabet Strid as Sieglinde is a force of nature. Although diminutive, her formidable voice soars over the orchestra even at the low extremes of her chest-register. Strid’s eyes are startling as they dart furtively between her newfound lover and brother, Siegmund, and her hated husband, Hunding. Her performance is extremely demanding physically; she is yanked across the stage by a chain and throws herself on the ground in the throes of passion, all while singing some of the show’s most lyrical lines. Another standout Lyric debut comes from the bass Ain Anger as her vengeful husband, Hunding. His deep, consistently beautiful voice and menacing bearing lend themselves perfectly to the depiction of a self-righteous scoundrel.

Conductor Sir Andrew Davis gets the best sounds of the season from the Lyric orchestra, masterfully commenting on and driving the drama forward. The director David Pountney does some tremendous work ensuring that all of the acting choices are clearly motivated, even when some of the costume and design choices don’t seem to mesh with what’s happening on stage or in the pit (Robert Innes Hopkins, sets [after Johan Engels]; Marie-Jeanne Lecca, costumes; and Fabrice Kebour, lights). For example, is the “Ride of the Valkyries” supposed to be set in a World War I field hospital, a shipwreck, or an assembly line of the dead?

In any case, this is a wonderfully sung and confidently acted production of a Wagner epic that can too often become a mythological mess. If you are at all interested in the spectacle that is the Ring, don’t miss the Lyric’s new installment.

photos by Cory Weaver
poster costume design by Marie-Jeanne Lecca

Die Walküre
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
ends on November 30, 2017
for tickets, call 312.827.5600 or visit Lyric Opera

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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