Mixing narratives, like mixing drinks, can either be a revelation or a bad mistake. Much, one may presume, has to do with the skill of the mixer. Francesca Zambello’s mapping of an American grand narrative onto Wagnerian music-drama, itself mapped onto Germano-Norse mythologies, continued to engage in tonight’s performance of Die Walküre.

The Valkyries and Alan Held (Wotan) © Scott Suchman
The Valkyries and Alan Held (Wotan)
© Scott Suchman

Shifting montages framed the production in the meta-narrative of the corruption of the natural world, linking this catastrophic decline to the inexorable 20th-century rise of the USA. Visions of man-made blight, of nature pressed down and oppressed, brought the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins to mind (about whom indeed Anthony Burgess said was the first to musicalise or Wagnerise an experience in English). “Squandering ooze to squeezed/ dough, crust, dust… masks and manmarks/treadmire toil there/Footfretted in it.”

Footfretted indeed, but still vainglorious about progress: railways, skyscrapers and highways were all kaleidoscopically evoked. The blight was redeemed momentarily in the snatched love of Siegmund and Sieglinde, set against the moon and a glowing dawn; more often it was concealed by the ‘worthless splendour’, the lurid Technicolor, of the gods. It is Wotan’s cross that he recognizes it to be so. In a sensitively-choreographed scene, the debris-strewn underbelly of a highway overpass, complete with old tyres and abandoned sofa became the unheroic concrete wilderness where Siegmund met his end, and the god Wotan, previously seen in the sleek comfort of his corporate tower, confronts the vile moral dilemma which he has brought on himself. Fallen indeed, and squalid too.

Alan Held (Wotan) and Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde) © Scott Suchman
Alan Held (Wotan) and Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde)
© Scott Suchman

Catherine Foster’s unfortunate injury during rehearsal last week brought us instead the wonderful Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde (fresh from singing the role in Siegfried yesterday at the Houston Grand Opera). With her lovely freedom of tone and abundance of sound in the high register, we were not disappointed. An engaging stage presence from the very start – a gamey, ungainly boy-girl, booted and with satchel, enjoying her status as favourite and fun-loving daughter, even if her preferred sort of fun takes the form of spear-wielding and irrepressible hoi-jo-to-hos, her character’s maturation, through witnessing human love, was powerfully portrayed and sung. Wagner and comedy aren’t necessarily obvious bedfellows, and I am sure there are purists who can permit of nothing frivolous in this epic saga. But it has been refreshing to see the strand of the comic played up, in familial dynamics and relational nuances, drawing a chuckle from the audience, or a rueful smile of recognition. Once again, Elizabeth Bishop redeemed Fricka from being a mere scold into something more morally convincing: getting the upper-hand over Wotan by degrees, eventually sitting in his place, reading his newspaper. Her presence, above the scene of Siegmund’s slaughter was chilling, and she took on the ultimate gesture of power, tearing up the contract she had made Wotan sign for his son’s death, and dropping the pieces beneath.

The Valkyries parachuted in as aviatrixes, and gave us a vocal oestrogen-fest of a high order – they even shrieked in tune – articulating both the solidarity and collective terror of the sisterhood in front of the angered patriarch. The patriarch in question, Alan Held, performed powerfully, not least when his anger finally spent, he acceded to his beloved daughter’s final request. No straw god, he projected strength complicated by achingly deep vulnerability.

Meagan Miller (Sieglinde) and Christopher Ventris (Siegmund) © Scott Suchman
Meagan Miller (Sieglinde) and Christopher Ventris (Siegmund)
© Scott Suchman

Christopher Venrtris as Siegmund had a finely-articulated voice and met the lyrical and dramatic demands of the role, from the anguish of his early flight to the passionate warmth of the Spring Song to the pity and terror of his death. Meagan Miller’s Sieglinde was an obviously battered wife, whose rough treatment put into relief a sweet voice, perhaps a shade too heavily vibrated to my tastes, but soaring finally when she becomes aware of her impending maternity. Hunding, Raymond Aceto, was every inch the chauvinist brute – bass in every sense of the word – his wife, a piece of property, as much a trophy – though living – as the dead animals’ heads flaunted on the walls of his survivalist cabin in the woods.

On that note, the production again scored in blending Americana and things Norse. If this necessitates a suspension of disbelief, it is something we can handle, accept that there are guns as well as spears in this peculiar fusion-world. Despite an overly-restrained orchestral accompaniment to Hunding’s fearsome entrance, and a Ride of the Valkyries that didn’t quite have me on the edge of my seat, the orchestra certainly came into its own tonight, much more so than in Rheingold. From spare textures, subtle voicing to the lushly lyrical, they played finely indeed, rising  from the ‘mystic abyss’ when the music takes over and says the things that characters either cannot or will not.

****1