My Ring Journey: Valkyrie

During the needed break between Valkyrie and tonight’s Siegfried I did what every serious blogger does – work on his blog. I hunkered down in my office, patched together interviews, uploaded content to YouTube, and monitored site traffic. For the weeks and months leading up to the Seattle Opera’s Ring I regularly listened to Wagner. Last night, I gave a new compilation of Prokofiev piano sonatas a spin in the stereo.

My break didn’t last too long. And in fact, there was no break at all. I suspect most people who experience Wagner’s Ring find it hard to take a break from the human story that began to unfold in Valkyrie.

In the productions I have watched on DVD, Valkyrie stands in stark contrast with Rhinegold. Musically, Rhinegold deals with establishing the core motives — the DNA —  that will reappear throughout the rest of the operas. In productions, Rhinegold lurches from scene to scene avoiding anything approximating a likable human emotion or trait. There are human elements, but they are of the surly, unattractive kind – greed, trickery, disdain, duplicity, and nagging.  Valkyrie is the first act in the three part story proper.  With the music established, Valkyrie has the chance to develop the human world and the human condition.

Seattle Opera’s production of Rhinegold is different, and probably the reason why I have liked Rhinegold the best so far. It is buoyed by the supremely talented Greer Grimsley and Stephanie Blythe. Grimsley turns Wotan into a character I feel compassion for. Fricka, isn’t a nag, but is more like a concerned wife who has a deep affection and love for her husband. Grimsley and Blythe continued to imbue their otherworldly gods, with very human characteristics in Valkyrie.

Fricka points out Wotan’s shoddy thinking on how he might fix the mess he made in Rhinegold. Wotan, laments his predicament to Brunhilde in a crucial – but unnecessary – scene in Act II. And, finally, Wotan is gripped in pain as he has no choice but to dole out a partial punishment to Brunhilde.  Banishing her from the Valkyries and putting her to sleep.

Of course, all of these human emotions are being conveyed by the gods. What about the humans in the opera? The humans – and to some degree – Brunhilde – doomed Seattle’s Valkyrie for me.

Siegmund (Stuart Skelton) and Sieglinde (Margaret Wray Jane) sang unbelievably well. I don’t have other live Ring experiences to compare these two with, but at least in the first cycle they were able to make an impact vocally. However, their acting was staid and both remained immobile a good deal of the time they are on the stage. There are moments with Skelton wandered around the stage. Then there is Sieglinde who does flee – walk briskly actually – from Wotan. But that’s about it. What movement and acting there was, didn’t convey any human depth.  The music was left to convey Valkyrie’s emotion.   While Wagner’s music is grand, it lacks personal moments. It’s up to the singers through their acting ability to provide this.  In this regard, Valkyrie wasn’t a success.

These observations firmed in my mind after I talked with a friend on the telephone. Separated by thousands of miles, we are both making our way through the Ring for the very first time. He is watching Otto Schenck’s recently retired Met production on DVD and I am experiencing Seattle’s beloved “green” Ring.

Our experiences, as one would expect, are vastly different. Stephen Wadsworth is acknowledged as a master of instilling character into the Seattle Ring’s characters. Schenk’s famous production is known for its stodgy, old fashioned sets and staging.  I have been impressed with most of Wadsworth’s staging decisions so far.  He has a real sense for how Wagner’s characters relate to each other and the emotional possibilities.

We debated what we had seen. I asked if Freia was chased by Fasolt and Fafner. No, the giants, sternly eyed Freia. Jesse Norman, a phenomenal Sieglinde, is as stationary as Valhalla.

“I would imagine, each Ring could be vastly different depending on the production.” He said with a mixture of surprise and disappointment. Two operas into Schenck’s Ring, the cycle isn’t for him. He did, however, confess an attraction to Valkyrie because it is more human than Rhinegold.

I am noticing a greater depth from Seattle’s veteran singers. Richard Paul Fink was a wonderful Alberich. I hope it continues tonight. I’ve already written about my fondness for Grimsley and Blythe. No need to repeat myself. Since these three characters underpin Rhinegold no wonder I liked Rhinegold better.

Blythe and Grimsley are in Valkyrie but interspersed between their winning moments of powerful singing and expressive acting, are duller performances by some of Seattle’s newcomers.  Janice Baird’s first Seattle Valkyrie was disappointing early on.  Her voice fluctuated too much and there were moments where her acting reminded me of teenager rather than one of Wotan’s stalwart Valkyries.  After the Valkyrie intercedes on behalf of Siegmund and rescues Sieglinde, Baird’s Brunhilde seems to mature before our eyes.  Baird’s Brunhilde grows in stature and emotional depth.  Near the end of Act III Brunhilde begs her father to not just put her to sleep to be awakened by any schmuck who comes along.  Wotan obliges, and the hall ignited with magic fire — and music.  Baird’s performance convinced me of her predicament.

I wonder what will happen tonight with Stig Andersen. He made an impetuous, jerky Siegfried in the Coppenhagen Ring. I liked his performance. About what I would expect from the Brunhilde-waking-hero-to-be. What will he bring to Siegfried tonight? In a few hours I’ll know.

Mulling the Ring is not what I expected to do on my day off from the Ring. Resting, watching trashy tv – anything else – sounded more appealing by the time I got home from Valkyrie on Monday. But once Wagner sinks his chromatic harmonies and epic vision into you, there is no turning back and mulling the Ring is exactly what you want to do.

By the time the curtain comes down on the final Twilight of the Gods, Skelton, Andersen, Baird, and the other newcomers will have perfected their Seattle Ring roles.  Like Baird’s Brunhilde did over the course of a few hours, I expect each new singer’s character will mature and evolve as they become more comfortable with Seattle’s Ring.   Just in time for us all to start thinking about the 2013 Ring.

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3 thoughts on “My Ring Journey: Valkyrie

  1. Thanks for putting that video up there so that I can hear the voices in the Seattle Ring. The Siegmund has a good timbre, but I would have to hear the whole performance to make a better assessment. The Sieglinde’s voice is thinner, more crystaline than the Norman performance I am watching. No comparison. I am sure Baird’s selection is geared more for her human Brunnhilde than her Valkyrie performance, which isn’t that impressive even in the clip. The Wotan and Fricka have great voices. Strong and deep, their voices work well for Wagner. Hope the Ring continues to amaze.

  2. Hi Zach: I have to disagree with one of your comments above. You call the scene between Brunnhilde and Wotan in Act II “a crucial – but unnecessary – scene” this seems strange to be. I think that this scene is both crucial and necessary. It is the first time that we really see inside of Wotan’s head: we feel his pain, his frustration, his impotence, and his desire for rest – even if this rest means the destruction of the Gods themselves. At this point Wotan is close to being a broken man: Fricka has completely defeated him – his plans have failed and it is only in this scene with his “will” that we get to see inside his head and to feel his pain.

    • Thanks for the comment. Our Wotan really shines in the scene, and I do think it is crucial to underscore Wotan’s predicament. It is crucial to create the connection between Brunhilde and Wotan which ultimately adds to Wotan’s problems later on. But, the length of the scene is unnecessary and the details are unnecessary. This isn’t the last time the audience will be subjected to a scene like this. Does Wotan really need to retell the story up to that point all over again? Maybe Wagner could have come up with an equally effective but more concise scene.

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