All five of the Houston Grand Opera’s performances of Die Walküre sold out immediately – more than 13,000 seats – and there are several good reasons why. Primarily, one would think that it was because the cycle marked first American performances of the inspired, enormously effective and widely acclaimed production seen in Valencia, Spain and at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino by the Catalan theater group La Fura del Baus, which uses wild, Cirque de Soleil imagery and machinery. A closer look, however, spots the deeper reason – HGO and conductor Patrick Summers have assembled, arguably, the finest cast available for this opera in the world.

Christine Goerke (Brünnhilde) © Lynn Lane
Christine Goerke (Brünnhilde)
© Lynn Lane

“Timeless” is the word people like to use for Wagner’s Ring, and Carlus Padrissa’s direction on the production by Fura del Baus, abetted by Chu Aroz’ costumes, Roland Olbeter’s set, and Franc Aleu’s videos, is precisely that. From the pre-historic, Stone Age opening to the futuristic world of the gods, all of time and space seems to unfold in front of us. The opening storm is depicted by a mad race through a dense forest with almost three-dimensional hunting dogs in pursuit, the tree in Hunding’s hut takes up most of the stage and shimmers and throbs, there are animal bones strewn about, and Sieglinde, tattooed and in animal skins, is on a leash and crawls when she is not walking on her haunches. Act II introduces us to the gods against a background projections of bubbling gases, laser lights and the heavens and planets, and Wotan, Brünnhilde and Fricka arrive on cranes (with protective bars to keep them steady while aloft), operated by black-clad figures who raise and lower them. (Padrissa has stated that this is a nod to Greek drama’s Deus ex machina.) There are very few props, but the goddesses have their breastplates and helmets, Wotan has his patch (and a long, white robe), and Siegmund has his spear. The visual pièce de résistence comes at the opening of the last act: a giant hanging ball with the bodies of a couple of dozen slain heroes (some mannequins, some acrobats) swings back and forth as the Valkyries ride against a background of ever-changing sky. Four of the sisters are suspended on cranes, the others are at stage level; at one point the four on cranes are suspended over the orchestra pit. The effect is staggering. And at the finale, Wotan places Brünnhilde in a real ring of fire, against a golden backdrop.

The remarkable thing about all of these “effects” is that Padrissa still manages to make the characters real. Siegmund’s confusion and strength, Sieglinde’s love – and the fact that she begins to walk upright once the bond between her and Siegmund becomes clear – Hunding’s stalking, are all riveting and clear. The confrontation between Wotan and Fricka, which begins as a squabble and ends in a knockdown, is enormously moving – Wotan literally falls to the ground, dropping his spear, once he capitulates. As Wotan tells his daughter of his woes, a huge sun-background eventually goes into eclipse, leaving a ring of flame. Stage and word are invariably wedded.

Act III <i>Die Walküre</i> © Lynn Lane
Act III Die Walküre
© Lynn Lane

All ears were on Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde and she did not disappoint. With a warm, womanly tone, absolutely free from top to bottom, from her opening battle cry to her final plea, she proved to be the ideal: enthusiastic and fun at the start, then disobedient and headstrong, then rueful and resigned – and we could hear, in Goerke’s expressive singing, the learning arc. Brava! Wotan was bass-baritone Iain Paterson, regal of stature, generous with his rock-solid tone and attentive to each of the god’s changing situations. His second act grieving and third act rage were equally potent. The young and remarkable Jamie Barton was a Fricka who, at first, wheedled, but would not be put off; her anger grew, and by the time she had dipped into some vicious chest tones, we knew that the Ring had changed direction.

Iain Paterson (Wotan) © Lynn Lane
Iain Paterson (Wotan)
© Lynn Lane

The non-gods were just as impressive. Ain Anger, a tall Estonian bass, was a brutal Hunding, skulking about and menacing in voice and action. Karita Mattila, daringly singing on her haunches (can one think of another soprano who is physically fit enough to sing like that?) was making her role debut as Sieglinde. Her quiet, shy singing was wonderfully apt at first, gaining confidence as the act progressed. And her joyous outburst as she leaves in the last act brought the only mid-act applause of the day. The audience erupted at her curtain call. Simon O’Neill, rolling into Hunding’s hut as if his life depended on it, sang with a true Heldentenor sound (not a pushed up baritone), great energy and remarkable breath control. A bit of nuance may have been welcomed in the Tödesverkundegung from him and Ms Goerke, but I’m nit-picking, and the lack may have been due to the tempi. The Valkyries, flying and running furiously and fearlessly, were all of a unit, all in pitch, and wonderfully concentrated.

Patrick Summers led an intense, story-telling, rather than myth-building performance, with quickish tempi. As hinted above, the Announcement of Death could have used some more gravitas and affection but otherwise, he led the HGO is a remarkable, living performance, with the opening storm starting with a roar and ending with a dark, solo string, the Ride filled with thrills, and a final scene of such sadness and beauty that it left the audience breathless. Breathless and waiting for Siegfried.