(Opera Australia, Melbourne, December 2, 2016) (Dir. Neil Armfield)
We have spoken of The Valkyries before in terms of Wagner’s dazzlingly great achievement, but before turning to this wonderful version of it, can we bang on a bit more about what the Maestro was up to here?
Die Walküre shows Wagner blossoming as musician and dramatist. In the words of Ernest Newman, “he abandoned himself luxuriously to the sheer joy of music-making, both enlarging the scale of his design for each episode and delighting in fine filigree work from bar to bar; at the same time he has acquired a completer command of what is really the whole art of musical-dramatic composition of this kind – making his leading motives serve simultaneously a psychological and a musical purpose, in a more effective way than had been possible for him until now.” [Newman, The Wagner Operas, p.493.]
Here, Wagner’s music “came of age,” when he moved from gods to humans (and semi-humans), rendering them in a startling, awful, human way. And his music freed itself as well, going from the stock four-bar phrase to free-flowing wonder, all set to his ‘focal points of feeling’ (or leitmotifs). It is the humanity of Die Walküre which has caused people (for example, Ralph Vaughan Williams), seeing it for the first time, yet to feel as if it is already very familiar to them.
It has been suggested that Wagner identified with Siegmund whilst writing the libretto (with Mathilde Wesendonck as his Sieglinde) and with Wotan also, seeking wealth and power whilst (arguably) refusing to renounce love. Wagner was reading Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation at the time, and wrote to August Röckel (his old friend from Dresden) that the source of the tragedy of Die Walküre (and the saga as a whole) was Wotan’s recognition that the loveless marriage between he and Fricka makes it necessary to “acknowledge change, variety, multiplicity and the eternal newness of reality and of life, and to yield to that necessity. Wotan rises to the tragic heights of willing his own destruction.” In other words, Wagner anticipates Freud’s phrase, applied to another crumbling patriarchal figure (Lear) in encouraging the aged figure to “renounce love, choose death and make friends with the necessity of dying.”
Act I in Melbourne was brilliantly delivered, as the tempestuous, erotic, elemental linchpin of the whole cycle – when Wotan hands the baton to his offspring, Siegmund and Sieglinde, whose incestuous coupling will produce the ‘boy-god’, Siegfried. The staging note here is simple – a hut in the dying snows of winter, an ash tree adjacent. Mr. Armfield dispensed with the ash tree but retained the sense of isolation and desolation, as the unhappy, taboo-suffused couple surrendered to love, and hence to pain. Pietari Inkinen and his brilliant orchestra rose to meet Wagner’s command to play ‘with more awareness!’ and Bradley Daley and Amber Wagner were wonderful as the incestuous siblings, Ms Wagner in particular reaching the heights (as the backwoods gal rescued from a lovelorn life for an equally challenging fate) with her voice and, during the many song-free orchestral interludes, her body language.
Act II packed a further wallop. Wotan (a magisterial James Johnson) bickers with Fricka (the great Jacqueline Dark) who glares at Brünnhilde as Jackie Collins would a rival in Dynasty. Here of course is where the ultimate hero of the piece learns about human love from Siegmund and dares to defy henpecked Wotan in order to work what she imagines is his real will, or want. In this key role of chief-Valkyrie, Brünnhilde, Lisa Lindstrom was superb, an athletic tomboy who risks all to galvanise human love, the downside of which she will come to experience. Her vibrant performance, beautiful singing and sheer athleticism – not commonly found in this role – were a revelation.
The staging was fairly free of caprices – plain-Jane costumes, minimalism the prevailing motto. We rather liked the circular, descending gangway serving as the vantage point for Valhalla, although the suspended stuffed animals continue to baffle everyone, from various reviewers to voluble patrons to the lady selling programmes, and we’ll leave it to Mr. Armfield – who otherwise deserves kudos for his work here – to explain it in due course. (Are they part of Wotan’s museum for the world he won, that has already petrified, leaving him pounded and pounding in the wake of the shocks coming from its replacement?). Valhalla and the butch Valkyries were fine, and whilst TVC can never shake off the sublime memory of Elke Neidhardt’s Wunder Bar in the Adelaide Ring, the sight of these warrior-gatherers descending from the flies and packing the glorious dead upwards like so many Christmas parcels, was spectacular.
By the time the opening winter’s rage had melted in the prophylactic pyre of Wotan’s design, he sleepwalking off to leave the kinetic Brünnhilde unusually supine (but in a profoundly moving way), there was little a viewer could do but dry the eyes, smash one’s hands together and stumble for the exit, disoriented by the greatness on show. Die Walküre may be bullet-proof, but when done well, as here, it is invincible.[See the interview with Lisa Lindstrom at http://www.classicmelbourne.com.au/interview-1-lise-lindstrom/]