Ian Paterson, Wotan; Christine Goerke, Brünnhilde; HGO Supernumeraries

Die Walküre
April 22, 25, 30, and May 3
$20–264
Wortham Theater Center
501 Texas Ave
832-487-7000
houstongrandopera.org 

A hero is hard to find—a man who lives without the protection of the gods, free and fearless, ready to fight. Bonnie Tyler said it best in Footloose: “Where have all the good men gone, and where are all the gods?” In Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, the second work of the German composer’s four-part Ring Cycle, the good man has fallen in love with his sister, and the gods are stuck in a legal battle over contracts. But finding a hero is serious business, as the biting strings that open the opera on an insistent D tell us right away. The fate of the world depends on it.

The opera begins with a storm. A mysterious man named Siegmund stumbles into a hut, seeking refuge for the night. A woman who identifies herself as Sieglinde welcomes him cautiously into her home. She, we soon learn, is unhappily married to a rather uncouth hunter named Hunding, who, upon returning home, less than pleased to find Siegmund there—particularly when he discovers Siegmund is a member of the Wälsung, a rival tribe. Even so, Hunding offers the best of German hospitality, telling Siegmund he will let him stay the night, then kill him in the morning.

Meanwhile, Siegmund and Sieglinde marvel at each other—it’s like looking in a mirror!—and fall instantly in love, even as they also realize they are twins, illegitimately fathered by Wotan, the king of the gods, and long ago separated. (When it comes to pure bloodlines, House Lannister has nothing on these two.) “Bride and sister be to your brother, the blood of these Wälsungs is blessed!” Siegmund sings, closing the first act. 

But their incestuous union fosters unrest in Valhalla, where Wotan’s wife Fricka, the protector of marriage, tells her husband that he must let the son he hoped would be the long-awaited hero die in battle with Hunding. Wotan reluctantly agrees, only to have his wishes disobeyed by his rebellious daughter Brünnhilde, the eponymous Valkyrie who rides to Siegmund’s rescue.

Compared to last year’s spectacular and critically acclaimed production of Das Rheingold, Walküre is a little more muted. The HGO’s entire cycle, its first ever, is produced by Barcelona-based theater company La Fura dels Baus and directed by Carlus Padrissa. The Fura dels Baus Walküre retains Rheingold’s futuristic design and acrobatic stunts, but those stunts seem more gratuitous this time, less integral to the plot. The production design relies primarily on high-resolution video projections by Franc Aleu, which begin by spinning us through the forest to rest on the glimmering ash tree in Hunding’s hut. 

Perhaps the glittering Rhinemaidens who opened Rheingold suspended above the stage in water tanks created high expectations that couldn’t be met by its slower, more emotional sequel. There was nothing like Rheingold’s assembly line of golden bodies hung by their heels that complemented the projected depiction of a gold harvesting factory. Instead, for example, during Wotan’s second-act colloquy with Brünnhilde—a section of the opera that always feels as though it drags on forever—the screens were simply blank. When the third act opened with a swinging chain-metal globe covered with bodies, the audience applauded—finally, some of the acrobatics we expected from La Fura dels Baus!—but as it continued swinging back and forth during the singing like a Foucault’s Pendulum, the novelty began to wear off. That miscue was redeemed, however, by the production’s rendering of the opera’s powerful final scene, in which Wotan draws a ring of fire around Brünnhilde—an excruciating farewell and punishment in which Wotan essentially sacrifices his ability to love.

After all, Brünnhilde is the real hero of this opera, as American soprano Christine Goerke makes absolutely clear. Last seen as Princess Eboli in HGO’s powerful 2012 production of Don Carlos, Goerke has grown even more glamorous, even more sensational, her crystalline voice soaring like a genuine warrior and cascading across emotional boundaries. The last scene was hers. Begging Wotan to shelter her slumber—“Destroy your daughter, condemn me to die; cast not this shame, this cruel disgrace one me!”—Goerke captured the desperation and complexity of the moment with shivering beauty.

Her fellow Valkyries, eight glorious women who first appear on individual cranes (a production element familiar to those who saw Rheingold) that represent their magical steeds, open Act Three with their incredible, opulent singing. Sopranos Kelly Kaduce as Helmwige, Julie Makerov as Gerhilde and Natalya Ramaniw as Ortlinde, lit up the Wortham Center with the golden strength of their combined voices.

Overall, the women in this production trumped the men. As Sieglinde, Finnish soprano Karita Mattila brought out a rougher, huskier edge than I’m used to hearing, but it made sense, gathering the harshness of her character’s past and future in one unwavering timbre. She crawled on all fours for most of Act One, tethered like an animal and dressed in rags, but still managed to sing with stunning self-worth. Tasked with the grousing role of Fricka, American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton took her bickering character to new heights; her voice remains as pure as it was in Rheingold.

As Wotan, Scottish baritone Iain Paterson perfectly captured his character’s emotional conundrum, even if his voice sounded spare paired with Barton’s or Goerke’s. Alone, Paterson wields a hefty voice that wells up in fits of anger and pain. Paterson’s dejected exit—a gradual walk away from Brünnhilde down an aisle into the audience—marked Wotan’s transformation into the Wanderer—the identity he assumes in Siegfried, the next opera in the Ring Cycle. Simon O’Neill, the New Zealander whose tenor voice was plagued by a distinctly nasal twang in Otello earlier this season, sounded warmer than he did in October, but still lacked the hearty, masculine tone key needed for any successful Siegmund. It was unfortunate there wasn’t more for Hunding to sing. In his brief role, the Estonian-born Ain Anger’s bass voice boomed with a strapping intonation that left me wanting to hear more.

The orchestra, gifted here with what I consider the best music of the Ring Cycle, managed some divine harmonic interludes, but even conductor Patrick Summers’s reliably skillful direction could do nothing for the brass. A strangled trumpet in Act Two, sounding the sword leitmotif rather pathetically, seemed to encapsulate the overall issue of clarity throughout. But the strings and the winds dug into the score, pulling out the tenuous melodies behind the most robust themes.

The third act, a magnificent demonstration of Wagner’s ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, ends with a famous cliffhanger, with Brünnhilde lost and alone in a ring of fire when this curtain falls. Perhaps the moderateness of this production in comparison with Rheingold was intended to allow the audience to catch their breath before the cycle’s two climactic operas. As I left the theater, I couldn’t help but hear the name “Siegfried” echoing prophetically in the distance.

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