The first performance of Wagner’s epic The Valkyrie was given last night by Pittsburgh Festival Opera in the Falk Auditorium at Winchester Thurston – an abbreviated, spliced version that stirred a great deal of animated conversation during the intermission. The program notes tell us that “The Valkyrie transports our audience to Valhalla for the second installment of the ‘Pittsburgh Ring,’ based on the internationally acclaimed version by Jonathan Dove. This version condenses the orchestration and length of the opera while retaining the authenticity of the original.” In truth, none of the action of The Valkyrie takes place in Valhalla, and while the condensation was obvious, authenticity was left to the ear and eye of the beholder.
“Reinvented” stagings of Wagner’s operas, Die Walküre and the rest of the “Ring” included, have become the norm rather than the exception for some decades now, even at the composer’s famous Festspielhaus in Bayreuth; but an argument can be made that, as the composer’s meticulously detailed set designs and stage instructions increasingly become a thing of the past, so, too, do the once common ten-year waiting lists for tickets to that hallowed hall of song. Wagner’s music can transport the listener’s imagination to the loftiest of heights, but when Act I of The Valkyrie flows immediately into half of the second, then picks up again with the second half of Act II flowing directly into the third, the most devout appreciation of the composer’s majestic creation is challenged considerably.
The three acts of The Valkyrie begin and end with some of Wagner’s most thrilling accomplishments, but arranged as they were last night, much of this was lost, with even the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” falling somewhat flat. It was to be expected that the reduced orchestration would contribute to this to an extent, but the instrumentalists were challenged to their full capacities and rough spots abounded throughout the evening. Just the same, there is a saving grace to this production in that an extraordinary cast of singers has been engaged for the performances, and if last night’s was an indication of what they will accomplish in the repetitions, lovers of Wagner’s vocal writing will not want to miss this rare treat.
Act I survived largely intact, and provided some of the best singing of the evening. Many years ago, when performances of Wagner’s music-dramas were heard in Pittsburgh more often than they are today, there was a single decade in which local audiences heard Lilli Lehmann, Olive Fremstad and Johanna Gadski in the role of Sieglinde – one of the composer’s most tragic, sympathetic and compelling of characters. Last night Elisabeth Rosenberg poured out a glorious rendition of the part that, judging from yellowing reviews, quite possibly equalled the efforts of those legendary ladies of a long gone era. Her voice – a powerfully plush instrument – positively thrilled an audience which would have given her a resounding ovation had not the first act bled directly into the second. The staging and cuts in the remaining acts stripped her of a couple of chances to shine even more brightly than she did, but her voice is solid and secure from top to bottom, and a list of superlatives to describe her singing would take some time to exhaust.
William Joyner, a splendidly appealing tenor, ably partnered Ms. Rosenberg’s Sieglinde in the role of Siegmund, her equally ill-fated, long lost brother – and lover. He possesses the “heldentenor” heft and slight baritonal shading the part requires, and sang mightily and tunefully throughout. He, too, was deprived of moments in which he undoubtedly would have excelled, and acted the part as well as the production’s direction allowed. Hunding, Sieglinde’s barbaric husband, was sung by Andrew Potter. He is imposing in stature, and his sonorous bass is especially musical in its colors and contrasts. The role is not especially large even in uncut productions, but he made the most of his opportunities, and in his hands the part was believably dramatic and rightfully fearsome rather than repugnant.
Wotan, the beleaguered king of the Norse gods, and his justifiably indignant wife Fricka, the only characters to return from Das Rheingold, were portrayed by bass Jeremy Galyon and Leah Heater, the gifted mezzo-soprano well remembered from her seasons with Pittsburgh Opera. Mr. Galyon is every inch a believable exponent of the role, and his resonant voice thrilled, despite the composer’s characteristic inclination to push singers’ voices into higher and lower territories than which they naturally lie. In a spot or two the music was transposed down a notch to better suit his cavernous range, and as a whole his interpretation of the part displayed the voice that has been heard here previously in all of its past glory. Ms. Heater sang her role’s one scene with her customary opulence, and acted the part in a manner that made it perfectly clear that Wotan had no choice but to bow to her demands.
Melanie Henley Heyn appeared in the difficult role of Brünnhilde, the Valkyrie, Wotan’s favorite daughter; the warrior maiden whose human compassion creates the crux of the drama. Hers was the character that probably suffered most from the peculiar arrangement of the acts, but her middle register, where most of her music lies, was frequently appealing. The occasional soaring top tones tended to be hollow and slightly shrill, last night, at least. The staging was responsible for the somewhat blurred delineation of the role’s complex array of emotions, but she sang the demi-goddess reduced to a disgraced mortal about as well as the production allowed.
Brünnhilde’s tongue-trippingly named sister Valkyries – Helmwige, Gerhilde, Ortlinde, Grimgerde, Rossweisse, Waltraute and Schwertleite (Siegrune seems to have missed her flying steed) – were sung respectively and vociferously by Hanna Brammer, Maria Bozich, Amanda Levy, Rebecca Sacks, Megan Potter, Kelly Lynch and Kristin Starkey. Their famous “Ride” was much curtailed, and too often it seemed as if it were every Valkyrie for herself rather than a well balanced ensemble.
While the arrangement, costumes and scenery might not suit all tastes, The Valkyrie rarely this way comes, and the singing talent alone is well worth the reasonable price of admission. The production will be repeated Sunday, July 21 (2:00 p.m.) and Saturday, July 27 (7:30 p.m.).
For tickets and more, visit Pittsburgh Festival Opera.
The Production Team for The Valkyrie –
Conductor, Walter Morales; Director, Jonathan Eaton; Scenic and Costume Designer, Danila Korogodsky; Lighting Designer, Bob Steineck; Costume Construction, Autumn Capocci; Hair and Makeup Designer, Jina Pounds; Assistant Director, Joshua May; Assistant Conductor and Rehearsal Pianist, Stephen Variames; Stage Manager, Carly Valdez; Assistant Stage Managers, Arwen Kozak and Layne Preston; Fight Choreographer, Randy Kovitz
Music and Libretto, Richard Wagner; Arranger/Orchestrator, Jonathan Dove; English Translation, Andrew Porter
Photography – Joshua Brown
A Pittsburgh native, George B. Parous began his studies of music and the ‘cello in grade school before his interests turned to opera, its performers and history while in his teens. He has been acknowledged as a contributor or editor of several published works (the first being “Rosa Raisa, A Biography of a Diva,” Northeastern University Press, 2001), and is currently working on his own biography of the German-American dramatic soprano, Johanna Gadski, who sang at the Metropolitan during the “Golden Age of Opera.” A retired IT Analyst, he is an avid genealogist, and has traced his maternal line to 8th century Wessex, England. He’s been a contributor to Pittsburgh in the Round since 2014.
Categories: Archived Reviews