Wagner: Die Walküre. Evelyn Herlitzius, Iain Paterson, Stuart Skelton, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Tobias Kehrer, Daniela Sindram. Donald Runnicles, conductor. Das Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin. Apr 14, 2017.
With the Prologue, otherwise known as Das Rheingold, having set the scene, we’re now down to the business of Die Walküre, also known as Erster Tag or the First Day. The Deutsche Oper cast sheet, all of one twice-folded piece of paper, contained a short note that due to illness of American tenor Brandon Jovanovich, Siegmund would be sung by Australian tenor Stuart Skelton. Both very fine singers, so not a downgrade in the least. The curtain was an unusually early 5 p.m. With two intermissions, we got out around 10:30 p.m. Quite a marathon, but that’s what being a Wagnerite is all about! Still, I prefer to think of it as an operatic feast, not an endurance contest.
And a feast it was. Top vocal honours went to the Walsung Twins, Stuart Skelton as Siegmund and Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde. They benefited from the modified “subway tunnel set” with a wall upstage, which served to bounce the voices forward into the auditorium. Both of them have good volume to begin with, but here they sounded huge. “Der Manner Sippe” and “Wintersturme” were two of the many highlights of the evening. To be sure, Skelton doesn’t have the slim figure and cover-boy looks of Jovanovich, but he makes up for it with a beautiful, robust tenor and firm technique. Faced with such stiff competition, Tobias Kehrer still managed to hold his own as Hunding, offering strong vocalism, if without the ultimate malice in other Hunding characterizations.
With the beginning of Act Two, the wall at the back disappeared to reveal the tunnel once again; one could even vaguely see movements of vehicle lights at the very top. The chief curiosity for me was the Brunnhilde of German soprano Evelyn Herlitzius. The best Elektra of our time, is Herlitzius also a Brunnhilde? As sopranos go, she’s tiny, so one is struck by the huge sound coming from such a small person. A fine actress, her stage persona possesses an uncommon sincerity and touching vulnerability. She paced herself well, sang with assurance if not quite the opulence and refulgent tone. One missed a true high piano, but in the end, I was moved by her musicality and sincerity onstage.
Part of her success could be attributed to the excellent Wotan of British bass-baritone Iain Paterson. They had great chemistry, and her petite size next to his hulking frame added to her vulnerability. The extended scenes between father and daughter in Act Two Scene Two, and the Act Three finale were truly moving. Paterson is a singer I’ve heard only infrequently, the last couple of times as Gunther in both Munich and the Met. From a Gibichung to the head god is quite a jump, but I needn’t have worried. He is a fine Wotan, with a sturdy bass-baritone and firm top. Dramatically, he has all the requisite gravitas to be believable, and he sang a moving Farewell.
Daniela Sindram repeated as Fricka. The higher tessitura of the Walküre Fricka is more congenial to her. Her Fricka has the right balance of seductive femininity and Machiavellian manipulativeness. The eight Valkyries in this production look more like leather-clad motorcycle molls with their outlandish gyrations than warrior maidens as Wagner intended. At the beginning of their scene, they tend to the injured warriors on eight hospital beds, the first time I’ve seen this novel directorial touch. Vocally it was a fine bunch, particularly Gerhilde (Seyoung Park) who started the Ride of the Valkyries very nicely, immediately followed by the bright, big sound of Helmwige (Martina Welschenbach).
Production-wise, with modifications for Act One, it manages to make it work. One forgets that everything takes place in an underground tunnel. I found myself just focusing on the music. The eight fiery clusters that surrounded the sleeping Brunnhilde were real fire and smoke, unlike the very lame design of our own COC Walküre. I also liked the Act One backdrop opening up during the “Winterstürme” scene, revealing an enchanted nightscape. I came to realize that, despite the radical setting, the stage direction of the Friedrich Ring is actually rather traditional. Runnicles used a fast tempo in Rheingold, but here he slowed right down for the more lyrical and introspective moments, caressing the score with affection, shaping it with a fine arc and sweep. The audience was rightfully ecstatic, with curtain calls lasting something like twenty minutes. Siegfried tomorrow!