|Wil Kellerman, Elisabeth Shoup, and William Reed in Manhattan Opera Studio's production of Die Walküre|
We will never forget the first time we saw Richard Wagner's Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera; the Otto Schenk production emphasized the mythological character of the story. We were privileged to see this version a few times before it was retired in favor of the present post-modern variation (not a favor, thank you very much) which alienated us completely. We would prefer to see it without any production values whatsoever and that is exactly what we got last night from Manhattan Opera Studio.
A number of years ago we discussed with our dear friend soprano Olivia Stapp the possibility of producing The Ring Cycle in a small accessible theater with a reduced orchestra. And THAT is exactly what we got last night.
Everything in life is a trade-off. At times we missed the sheer overwhelming sound of the Wagnerian orchestration that envelops one in emotion. On the other hand, Maestro Benoit Renard created a viable soundscape with less than a dozen instrumentalists, offering an opportunity to isolate the strands that were woven into a tapestry of sound; one could clearly hear each leitmotif.
This gave an opportunity to young voices to explore the roles, voices that may not be ready for the cavernous Metropolitan Opera. The only time that we truly missed the full orchestra was in the famous "Ride of the Valkyries".
All the singers wore black with no attempt at costuming. There was no set. The action took place in front of the upstage orchestra giving the singers an experience of better aural contact with the instrumentalists, or so we were told.
The opera is actually a domestic drama. There are a series of confrontations, each one involving moral ambiguity. A sad browbeaten wife is rescued from her brutal husband by a sad unfortunate stranger. A jealous wife confronts her philandering husband and demands his defense of marriage. A controlling father confronts his rebellious daughter and exacts severe retribution.
The Wotan of this second part of The Ring Cycle is not the powerful god of Das Rheingold. Christiaan Snyman portrays him as a broken man, diminished by the unforeseen consequences of the bad decisions he made out of greed. Like any man losing his power, he exerts what little power he has left on someone he can intimidate, his favorite child. Mr. Snyman not only sang this demanding role to fine effect but conveyed a lot about the character that we had not heretofore appreciated.
As his rebellious daughter Brünnhilde, Lauren Hunt turned in a fine performance, singing with luster and power; she created a relatable character who does her best to fulfill the inner desires of her father-- with disastrous consequences. Through Ms. Hunt, we witness an impetuous young woman who uses the same manipulative devices that she has observed in her father, in order to save her skin. As she matures, she accepts her fate and wins a concession from Wotan.
Both of them now know that the child in Sieglinde's womb is the only chance to save the world. Everything is set up for the next installment of the cycle--Siegfried. Although Ms. Hunt does not look like a warrior woman she scored points for her singing and for limning a relatable character.
We have long wanted to hear Elisabeth Shoup singing Wagner and we got our wish. The texture of her voice was just right for Sieglinde and she too showed maturation in the character she portrays. The "marriage" she has with Hunding is not the kind of marriage we would recognize today outside of India and the Middle East. In the Dark Ages, women were bought and sold or conquered as the spoils of battle. We are firmly in tribal territory here!
We admired the change in vocal color as she emerged from her terrified shell and allowed herself to flower in the warmth of love. Additional vocal colors emerged as she and Siegmund fled from the pursuing Hunding. Still more coloration illustrated her self-castigation and guilt. And then there was the grief stricken widow, uncaring whether she lived or died. A shred of hope crept into her voice when Brünnhilde tells her she is carrying her twin brother's child.
In the role of the hapless Siegmund we heard William Reed whose short pudgy frame did nothing to match Ms. Shoup's tall slender body. Fortunately, his finely nuanced singing and acting compensated for the physical mismatch. Helped along by Wagner's music we mentally cheered him on as he drew Nothung from the (invisible) ash tree. Of course we know that Wotan will shatter the sword and he will die, but still we wanted him to win the battle --because Mr. Reed's performance made us care about him.
The scene in which Brünnhilde announces his death is our third favorite scene in the opera. His eloquence, his love for his sister/bride, his refusal to submit to his destiny--all brought tears to our eyes.
In the role of Fricka, we had the powerful Lorraine Helvick who brought all her jealousy of Wotan's other women to bear upon her wish to destroy Siegmund. She must defend the rites of marriage, even though her definition of marriage is not consonant with our own. The scene between Wotan and Fricka is a compelling one and she can be just as manipulative as he is. He knuckles under and we are angry with him for his weakness. Her believability in the role matched her vocal gifts.
Wil Kellerman made a fine Hunding, twisting his handsome features into snarls of suspicion, domination and resentment. According to unwritten laws of the time, he must offer hospitality to the stranger Siegmund--but will try to kill him in the morning. Mr. Kellerman has a fine instrument with great resonance in the lower register and seems born to play the "heavy".
We mentioned our third favorite scene but there are two scenes vying for first and second place. "Du bist der Lenz" is the one joyful scene in the opera and we hear two lost souls finding each other, love, and meaning.
The other masterpiece is "The Ride of the Valkyries". Anyone who sees our Facebook page "Voce di Meche" has noticed the photo at the top, taken a few years ago at Santa Fe Opera. All of the Valkyries were in the Apprentice Program; we wonder where they are now. We have no intention of changing the photo!
Last night we heard Grace Kim, Julie Van de Grift, Belem Abraham, Melinda Harper, Amanda Kendrick, Brittany Walker, Isabella Stollenmaier, and Marja Kari. We loved the way they stood together in fellowship, narrating the offstage foibles of each other and their respective horses.
Much credit for the success of this production goes to Stage Director Lisa Nava whose direction emphasized the interaction of the singers. Often she had them circling each other, a device repeated from scene to scene. The suspicious Hunding circles the exhausted stranger Siegmund. Wotan circles Fricka in their battle of words. Wotan circles Brünnhilde as he makes her take responsibility for her disobedience. And finally, a ring of fire must circle the sleeping warrior maiden.
The fire of course was in our imagination and the sets of Günther Schneider-Siemssen appeared in our mind's eye, along with the costumes of Rolf Langenfass. Better to have a bare production filled in with memories and imagination than some meretricious "regietheater" abomination.
We consider the evening a total success. The five hours seem to fly by. We are eager to see what Manhattan Opera Studio comes up with next!
(c) meche kroop