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Sunday, 18 August 2013 11:49

Reduced Wagner still packs a punch in Union Avenue's "Walküre"

Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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The Details

Melissa Sumner as Helmwige, Cecelia Stearman as Waltraute, Alexandra LoBianco as Brünnhilde, Lindsey Anderson as Rossweisse, and Amber Smoke as Sieglinde
Melissa Sumner as Helmwige, Cecelia Stearman as Waltraute, Alexandra LoBianco as Brünnhilde, Lindsey Anderson as Rossweisse, and Amber Smoke as Sieglinde unionavenueopera.org / (c) 2013 Ron Lindsey

Union Avenue Opera is nothing if not fearless, often taking on works that strain the company’s space at the Union Avenue Christian Church to the limit.  Through next Saturday Union Avenue is presenting the second installment of its most ambitious project yet—Wagner's mammoth operatic cycle “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (“The Ring of the Nibelung”).  And it's pretty darned impressive.

“Das Rheingold” (“The Rhine Gold”), which Union Avenue did last August, sets up the characters and the story that play out over the course of the cycle. Wagner regarded it as a mere prologue, though, and “Die Walküre” (The Valkyrie) is where the rubber hits the road, dramatically speaking.  It's a tale of incest, murder, and ironic tragedy as the most powerful creature in the world—Wotan, father of the Gods—finds himself undone by his own machinations and powerless against the curse of the magical ring he stole from the dwarf Alberich back in “Das Rheingold”.

As the opera opens Siegmund, one of a pair of twins sired by Wotan with a mortal and separated at birth from his twin sister, stumbles into the home of Hunding, after eluding a vengeful mob. Hunding isn’t home—he is, in fact, part of the mob—but his wife is. Their attraction is immediate and it’s not in the least dampened when they realize that Hunding’s wife is Siegmund’s long-lost sister Sieglinde. Hunding arrives, recognizes Siegmund, and challenges him to a fight to the death in the morning. Sieglinde has other plans; she drugs Hunding and flees with Siegmund, but not before the latter plucks a magical sword from the trunk of a tree in Hunding’s house.

Back in Valhalla, Fricka is outraged that Wotan is condoning not only adultery but incest as well. She browbeats him into upholding the sanctity of marriage by letting Hunding kill Siegmund, even though Wotan had hoped Siegmund would be the hero who would save Valhalla from the descendants of Alberich. When the Valkyrie Brünnhilde (who, like all the Valkyries, is a daughter of Wotan and the earth goddess Erda) violates Wotan’s orders and tries to save Siegmund, Wotan is forced to punish her by turning her mortal, placing her into a magical sleep, and surrounding her with magical flames that only a true hero can penetrate. His farewell, which ends the work, is one of the most moving sequences in opera.

Sieglinde, meanwhile, has escaped. She’s pregnant with Siegmund’s child, Siegfried. But that’s another opera.  For a more detailed plot summary of the entire cycle, I refer you to Wikipedia.

The Union Avenue production uses a reduced version of Wagner's original created by English composer Jonathan Dove and director Graham Vick in 1990 that cuts over an hour out of the original’s run time of nearly four hours and takes its three acts down to two. That’s not the sacrilege you might think; Wagner the librettist does not always serve Wagner the composer well, and there’s much in the text that is redundant and discursive. That said, some edits in the first act delete too much of Siegmund’s back story, in my view, and compress the development of his and Sieglinde’s affection so much that it seems rather rushed. Wotan’s massive blocks of exposition in Wagner’s Act II and III, on the other hand, feel like they could use more editing. Dove and Vick also cut four of Brünnhilde’s seven Valkyrie sisters, which drastically shortens the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence that opens Wagner’s Act III—a pity, as it’s rather stirring stuff.

Still, this reduced “Walküre” still packs a considerable punch, thanks largely to some heavy-duty Girl Power in the cast.  Amber Smoke (Sieglinde), Elise Quagliata (Fricka), and Alexandra LoBianco (Brünnhilde) are all outstanding, with powerful voices and well-defined characters. Ms. Quagliata is the same commanding presence she was in “Rheingold” while Ms. Smoke perfectly captures Sieglinde’s passion and despair. Ms. LoBianco’s really big moments won’t come until the next two operas are mounted in 2014 and 2015, of course, but based on what I saw and heard here I expect very good things from her in “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung”. Melissa Summer, Cecelia Stearman (Erda in last season’s “Rheingold”), and Lindsey Anderson are a formidable trio of Valkyries as well. 

On the male side, Nathan Whitson is an appropriately thuggish Hunding (although there’s not much to the part in this reduction), but James Taylor is a bit bland as Siegmund. He’s very interesting vocally, though, in that he’s a baritone who now sings as a tenor. His voice has, as a result, a depth that one doesn’t normally associate with tenors and only very rarely did he seem uncomfortable in his top notes.

Timothy Bruno brings the kind of vocal power to Wotan that I missed last year when Kevin Misslich sang the role in “Rheingold.” Unfortunately, he mugs too much and is too physically "busy" (when will actors and directors understand the power of stillness?), undercutting the character's gravitas.  Still, Wotan's famous "farewell" scene with Brünnhilde was appropriately moving. 

Dove’s reduced orchestration is for 18 pieces—one per part. Conductor Scott Schoonover has beefed it up a bit with extra strings, but even so, Wagner’s music inevitably loses some of its visceral impact with a band this size. Intonation issues in the brasses, especially toward the end of the second act, didn’t help. The ensemble as a whole played well, though, and Mr. Schoonover’s tempo choices felt more right here than they did in “Rheingold” last year.

Patrick Huber’s unit set is the same one used for “Rheingold.” It’s dominated by a huge screen on which images and video (designed by Michael Perkins, whose innovative work has graced many a local stage) take the place of the elaborate scenery envisioned by Wagner. Those work better here than they did in “Rheingold” (although video playback is still a bit jerky), and are very effective in creating the right moods and sense of place. Unfortunately the screen, the catwalk above it, and the stairs to either side take up so much room that most of the action is played out in a fairly shallow area downstage. Director Karen Coe Miller does the best she can with this space, but it’s hard to create decent stage pictures under those circumstances. It’s also hard for Mr. Huber to light that space, apparently, given the number of times singers’ faces were in shadow.

Teresa Doggett and her crew have done well by the costumes. As in “Rheingold”, Wotan and Fricka are decked out as late 19th century European royalty while the mortals are all in peasant outfits. The Valkyries look appropriately martial, with costumes that have the look but not the bulk of stage armor, so they don’t impede movement or singing. English supertitles by Elise LaBarge and Philip Touchette are, as usual, clear and easily visible throughout the house.

There has not, to the best of my recollection, been a performance of Wagner’s “Ring” in St. Louis in my lifetime and given that our major opera company, Opera Theatre, seems allergic to the composer, there may not be another one for many years, if ever. That means that this may be your only chance to see a locally produced “Die Walküre.” If you have any interest in the “Ring” at all, you should grab it. This may not be a perfect production, but it’s a very good one and well worth seeing.

Union Avenue’s “Die Walküre” has two more performances this Friday and Saturday at 8 PM at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union at Enright in the Central West End. For more information: unionavenueopera.org. Note that there is a parking lot but it tends to fill up quickly, so you’ll want to get there not later than 7:30 if you can.

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