VIENNA, Va. (February 20, 2011) – The Virginia Opera brought its new production of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre to George Mason University’s Center for the Arts this past weekend. Re-titled The Valkyrie by the company, it’s fair to say that this version of the opera—the second of four in the composer’s epic “Ring Cycle”—wasn’t quite what Wagner had in mind. Brutally chopped down to roughly three and one-half hours’ running time including intermission, this was more like a Reader’s Digest abridged version of this substantial work.
It’s not like operas, oratorios, and even some of Shakespeare’s plays aren’t trimmed here and there by performing arts companies. Often, it’s to get running times down for impatient contemporary audiences. There’s also the added bonus that shorter run times save a lot of money, cutting high-wage hours off the labor clock for union casts and crews, both of which have become relentlessly expensive in recent years.
From an artistic standpoint, sometimes-judicious cutting actually works. In some of Shakespeare’s lesser plays, particularly those in which there were clearly other hands involved in the writing, careful trimming eliminates some weak material and strengthens plot and character. In opera, this can also be the case.
For example, one of the reasons 19th century French grand operas are rarely performed today is because French audiences expected, and got, full-length ballets written into their operas. With today’s opera companies stretched to the limit, budget-wise, such magnificent extravagance—which involves hiring and costuming an entire ballet troupe, conducting numerous dance rehearsals, and finally paying for it all once again at union scale—simply can’t happen. So the choice is either to forget about performing these wonderful operas altogether, or dropping or severely truncating the non-vocal extravaganzas. The latter, unfortunately, often feature some of these operas’ finest musical moments.
Which brings us back to The Valkyrie. The brainchild, apparently, of the Virginia Opera’s recently fired longtime music director Peter Mark, this production was almost certainly an attempt to diversify the fiscally-challenged company’s slowly calcifying selection of operas which increasingly tends to favor iconic Mozart and Puccini audience faves. (Madama Butterfly is up next, notwithstanding the fact that the Washington National Opera is also staging it this week at the Kennedy Center.)
It would seem that Mr. Mark’s strategy here was to add the prestige of a Ring opera to the company’s repertoire while cutting its length, thus avoiding ticket backlash from the Virginia Opera’s largely suburban patrons who might be inclined either to skip any four or five hour opera entirely or to simply avoid it because it’s not Puccini. And again, there’s also that aforementioned bonus of reduced union-scale wages.
In any event, what audiences got this weekend was an opera that retained much of its musical inventiveness and richness while missing many of its key motivating moments. Notably, the cruelest cuts of all were assigned throughout to poor Sieglinde (Melissa Citro), greatly diminishing the importance of her crucial role. If you’re going to cut Wagner, it’s probably better to use a scalpel than a meat-axe.
To a large extent, however, The Valkyrie was actually a qualified success. The soloists—not always a strong point with this company—were proven Wagner veterans and significantly above average, save for a couple of the junior Valkyries whose offstage notes wobbled badly.
As Sieglinde, soprano Melissa Citro made the most of those musical moments that didn’t wind up on the chopping block, making us wish for more. She navigated the role’s considerable range without seeming effort, and it would be good to see her again at some point singing the role as it was written.
Although his part, too, was severely cut, tenor Erik Nelson Werner’s mournful yet heroic Siegmund drew the audience deeply into his tragic character in spite of his relative lack of quality time on stage.
This production, in fact, due to diminishing the roles of Siegmund and Sieglinde, tilted its focus toward the relationship between Wotan and Brünnhilde even more strongly than is the case in the original version of the opera. Yet again, the company was fortunate to have two fine singers to pick up the slack.
As Wotan, bass-baritone James Johnson projected authority tinged with a fading majesty, in spite of key trims to his central scenes at the opera’s midpoint. An added plus: every note was clear and finely enunciated, sometimes a problem in Wagner as the large orchestral forces can and often do overwhelm vocalists in this range.
Better still, as Brünnhilde, soprano Kelly Cae Hogan was a revelation, handling her magnificent, quintessentially Wagnerian part with great power and assurance in a performance that at times was viscerally exciting. Her tragic interplay with Wotan in the opera’s concluding moments was as emotionally moving as any performance of this opera we’ve seen, and not a few hankies were produced—a real rarity in Wagner, at least in this country.
In the smaller roles of Fricke and the brutish Hunding, mezzo-soprano Nina Lorcini and bass Todd Robinson also sang well.
The Virginia Symphony, which accompanied the singers under the able baton of substitute conductor Joseph Rescigno, performed admirably as they worked with unaccustomed material. In Wagner, the symphonic quality of the orchestra is intentionally as important as the singing. The orchestra’s playing was elegant and sensitive once the players had warmed up. The only flaw, particularly in the early going, was consistently weak and muddled playing from the horns—not a good thing in brass-rich Wagner.
The Valkyrie’s evolving set was simple and inexpensive in keeping with the budget motif. Usually, the fine quality of the singing served to keep us from noticing this too much.
The most notable scenic moment in the production was the opera’s concluding fire scene. It’s sometimes sustained by carefully controlled gas jet flames in more expensive productions. Here, the curtain parted behind Brünnhilde’s table rock to reveal glowing expressionist-style panes of faux-glass glowing red and orange as fiery mists rolled in. It was surprisingly effective. That is, until a symbolic fence of flames—constructed, it would seem, of cheap plywood or paperboard painted gold—wobbled into place. Oh, well…
Costuming in this production ranged from effective to eccentric. The beleaguered Siegmund and Sieglinde were attired in the customary tatty rags, a tradition in this opera befitting their status as tragic fugitives. Wotan, Brünnhilde, and her fellow Valkyries all sported odd left-eye doodads, possibly a riff on Wotan’s own missing eye over which he usually wears a patch. But the look here reminded us more of “Star Trek’s” Borg hive.
Wotan’s hair and uniform also seemed vaguely reminiscent of the ancient Klingon battle garb, but then again, maybe we’ve been watching too many TV re-runs.
The Valkyries themselves were oddly attired in menacing red-purple-black attire enhanced by sweeping feathers and impossibly long, claw like fingernails. They resembled the stylized vampires we’re familiar with in some of today’s teenybopper horror-thriller film epics. But they actually looked fairly cool.
In the final analysis, this weekend’s audiences at GMU witnessed a genuinely fine musical performance of Die Walküre excerpts, a welcome treat, as far as it went, for suburban audiences more accustomed to opera Top 40 than heavier fare. And indeed, this abridged version may very well have been welcomed as just enough Wagner for the average opera fan.
Yet it’s really tough to know what to think about this kind of artistic slicing and dicing. Is this the only way for diversified opera programs to survive an uncertain fiscal future? Is this kind of bowdlerization going to bring in new audiences for opera? Or is it a kind of pandering to the masses that will alienate audiences who still seek quality and high art? This critic is, frankly, ambivalent, as there are good arguments either way. Eventually, time will tell.
Meanwhile, we’ll have more to say about the Virginia Opera—and its new, not-so-surprising competitor—in a later column.
Rating: ** (Two stars.)
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