A Wagner Virgin No Longer

I finally bit the bullet and attended a cinema broadcast of Wagner's Die Walküre, which is the second opera in the Ring Cycle, though it works quite well on its own.

There were no live horses, though...

Though I've always been an opera enthusiast, something about Wagner's considerable body of work definitely intimidated me. Wagner fans are hardcore, the music is hardcore, and Norse mythology is hardcore. Everything about this aspect of the opera scene is hardcore, in fact; you've got to go big or go home.

Therefore, the Met Opera's broadcast of Die Walküre was a really good way to introduce me to the work without having to contend with the usual stresses and restrictions of an opera house; chilling with my Yogen Fruz and hard candy was a really fantastic way, as it always is, to watch opera. This format harkens back to the days of opera when people thought nothing of eating in a theatre, even during a performance. This was such a popular concept that there were songs written in operas specifically for the moments when people would be eating their ices and not paying attention to the performance. So it definitely felt more genuine than actually being in an opera house.

The first of many surprises that night was Plácido Domingo introducing the audience to the opera and going behind the scenes. I knew about the behind the scenes aspect of these broadcasts, but it was sooo good to see Plácido Domingo hosting it.

Now, the actual opera. Die Walküre is the second part of the Ring Cycle (known as the Rinse Cycle by people who aren't fans...), and follows two stories. First, there is the story of Siegmund and Sieglinde, the twin siblings of Wotan (Walsungs) who are also very much in love. This story is interconnected with the perpetual family drama of the gods. This time, Wotan is having issues with his wife, Fricka, while his daughter, the titular Valkyrie Brünnhilde is loyal to her father to a fault. Also appearing are a magical sword named Nothung, eight other lower-case 'v' valkyries, Sieglinde's husband Holdung, and a cliffhanger ending reminiscent of The Empire Strikes Back.

Incestuous twins: check, unexpected parentage: check, cliffhanger ending: check people frozen in time waiting to be reawakened: check...

The cast was a stellar one typical of the Met:

Bryn Terfel: Wotan
Jonas Kaufmann: Siegmund
Eva-Maria Westbroek: Sieglinde
Deborah Voigt: Brünnhilde
Stephanie Blythe: Fricka
Hans-Peter Koenig: Hunding

I have a one major quibble before I'll get to praising the performance. There were some serious issues with staging. Die Walküre is already a very glacial opera, about ten times more introspective than the epic movies Wagner merits comparison with. It seems to act as a bridge between the first and third parts of the Ring Cycle, albeit with a love story and some fantastic musc thrown in. The director, Canadian Robert LePage, so well-known for his work on the Cirque du Soleil, seemed to have some real issues introducing dynamism to the piece. There were a couple moments of absolutely terrifying stasis, which seemed always to occur during the expository songs.

However, any drag that occurred that was not the fault of the orchestra and its conductor, the immortal James Levine. The music, in all its layers and complexities and leitmotifs, clipped along at a luxurious pace, allowing the audience to fully appreciate the full sweep.

The singers were all more than capable of meeting the demands that Wagner makes of the voice in his scores. Something I noticed with this opera is that there is rarely more than three people on the stage, almost in the tradition of an Ancient Greek tragedy. Even the valkyries acted as little more than a Greek chorus for Brünnhilde. Needless to say, this presents a real challenge to the singers, who are unable to take a break between epic arias and extended duets. However, there were no lightweights on this cast. Everyone delivered in terms of singing and dramatic presence. Bryn Terfel, Jonas Kaufmann and Deborah Voigt were particularly fantastic, though I have trouble picking favourites.

The third and final act was my favourite by far. Starting with the famous Ride of the Valkyries, it ended up making me cry.

The Met Opera will be broadcasting the last two parts of the Ring Cycle this coming season. I will definitely be there.

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