NSO’s Die Walküre

Featuring:
Taiwan’s 國家交響樂團 (NSO)
Wotan- Jukka Rasilainen
Fricka- Jamie Barton
Hunding- Andrea Silvestrelli
Sieglinde- Anja Kampe
Siegmund- Simon O’Neill
Brünnhilde- Jennifer Wilson
(and more)

Carlus Padrissa, Esteban Muñoz, Roland Olbeter, Chu Uroz, and the crew of La Fura dels Baus and Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia are back for the next installment of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Last year, we got Das Rheingold as the first installment, and the inaugural performance at Taiwan’s National Opera House in Taichung (台中).

Compared to Die Walküre, it’s a short one, a foreword, really, two and a half hours with no intermission, but I went last night to the second of three performances, and with a a staging and performance that is as all-around captivating and encompassing as what we had last night, the four hours of the opera fly by. Instead of trying to describe all over again what this production is like, here’s a trailer for it:

I’ll begin by saying that we had an absolutely world-class, stunning cast. Everyone listed above was really just superb. Anja Kampe stood in for Petra Maria Schnitzer, who fell ill, and didn’t even complete a general rehearsal before the performance Wednesday. She was absolutely magnificent. She and O’Neill made a great sibling pair, as they both seemed completely, comfortably at ease with the huge shoes they had to fill in this work. Rasilainen, at 61, had one of the most demanding roles, as Wotan, but was spectacular.

I have to say, though, my favorite was one of the characters who got the least stage time, Jame Barton as Fricka, who doesn’t reappear in any of the subsequent Ring installments. Her scenes were powerful, poignant, and I’d say she was one of the most convincing of the evening, as if she were playing a cameo as Fricka herself rather than acting. Gestures, facial expressions, and movement all contribute to the naturalness and power of a performance; this is acting, after all. And that’s to say nothing of her astounding voice. She was hands down my favorite. Could have watched her for hours.

But back to the story. Die Walküre picks up not where Das Rheingold leaves off. Once Loge confides to his audience that he’ll destroy the gods (spoiler alert), the first opera ends. We begin the second installment with two new characters, and only later discover their relation to Wotan as the drama continues to unfold. I could go on (as I did over a ginger ale and wasabi soda with my concert-going friend yesterday) about the elegance of Wagner’s storytelling and how beautifully the smallest decisions and actions are the seeds for an enormous epic that illustrates amazing character flaws, tragedies, failures, disappointments, love, greed, hate, jealousy, sorrow… but you all know that.

For those of you who may be new to the opera experience, as were two women who sat to my right (it seemed, maybe), the first thing you’ll realize is the ‘dryness’ of most opera house acoustics. There’s no echo as you’d have in a concert hall (at least not nearly as much), so there’s this kind of insulated, intense quiet, and then the music fills every corner and crack when it begins, bathing the audience in sound. This is true of any opera, but really to an extreme with Wagner.

Just listen to the first notes of the Orchestervorspiel. As I told my concertgoing companion, walking into the opera house is like buckling up for a roller coaster, strapping in for a white-knuckled ride, and sure enough, after the orchestra had finished tuning, without any applause for Maestro Lü, there were strobe flashes of light as the orchestra suddenly and grippingly roared to life, and thus it begins.

I did get to thinking I’d be spoiled for any future staging of this series. It’s sci-fi/fantasy with choreography, pyrotechnics, acrobatics, incredible AV elements, like the projected screens both in front of and behind the performers, something that’s in many ways so over the top, but then in the same way so suitable to this work, and true to the story. I can’t think of a single moment in the entire three acts that popped the ‘suspension of disbelief’ bubble of the work, of watching a story unfold, and when it’s a story you already know, and still find yourself at the edge of your seat, you know it’s being presented well.

Hunding’s home is represented by a circle of bones and a small, smoldering bonfire, with the giant man’s wife and strange visitor crouching on their hands and knees for almost the entire first scene. Sieglinde wore a leash made of a ragged, coarse rope, and this almost caveman-esque portrayal underlined the rawness and in some ways brutality of this environment.

In contrast, then, we have the gods, who fly around in their cranes, which were treated basically as chariots, with the performers not ignoring their existence but gesturing for them to come hither, or to be gone, and the operators as servants, blending into the tapestry of the work. In this way, Fricka and Wotan, in glimmery, sci-fi white, high off the ground, are so different from earthlings, but as we continue the story, we see they’re inextricably connected.

An interesting thing happened just before Act III. I’ll say I was decidedly not blown away by Wilson’s Brünnhilde at first, but perhaps that’s just in comparison with everyone else. Her singing wasn’t flawed at all. She has a beautiful, crystalline voice, but maybe I expected more of it. Her gestures, though, movement, the spirit of the character seemed somewhat lacking, although after one of the intermissions, my friend told me she did not feel that way. In any case, just prior to the beginning of the third act, there was an announcement made, in Chinese then English, that due to “(something something) disposition”, Wilson’s singing may be affected, and let’s give her our full support. Curiously, though, she was by far the most convincing in the third act. Her singing didn’t seem to suffer, besides being slightly softer, but I did look her up on YouTube and she seemed to give a hellaciously great Brünnhilde, so I don’t hold anything against her. (For the curtain call, when she came out, after much supportive, assuring applause, she put a fist to her mouth as if to make a coughing gesture. Who cares, though? Overall, the whole thing was amazing, and you can’t not feel for poor Brünnhilde as her sisters and father leave her behind.)

There’s something both ineffable and ephemeral about an opera performance. This staging is taking place three times (Wed, Fri, Sun), and I heard Friday was better than Wednesday. But everything from who you sit next to, to what the performers ate or drank that morning, the weather, the news, the overall atmosphere, all of those things besides matters of performance are a part of an individual listener’s experience on any given night, so to sit here and try to convey what my experience was like, the gasps and climaxes and near-tears and wash of thoughts and highlights is silly, but the overall idea is that with crews and teams of people just behind the scenes, not to mention performers onstage and in the pit, it takes a veritable army of people to stage an opera like we had last night, and it was superb.

We’re halfway through the Fura dels Baus Ring cycle with Padrissa, and the pieces only get longer from here. I don’t know that I’ll even be here in two more years for Götterdämerung, but it’s certainly a compelling reason to stay. The only disappointment is now that it’s over, I have no idea when we’ll be privileged to get another real opera experience in the opera house, not just an opera concert, but whatever it is, I look forward to it. See you soon!

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