Critic’s Notebook: ‘Die Walküre’ and the shifting sands of dramatic restraint
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The singing gloriously came to the fore of Achim Freyer’s staging of the “Ring” in Sunday evening’s performance of “Die Walküre.” Plácido Domingo’s Siegmund and Linda Watson’s Brünnhilde surged magnificently in the Los Angeles Opera production, with Michelle DeYoung’s Sieglinde, Vitalij Kowaljow’s Wotan, Ekaterina Semenchuck’ Fricka and Eric Halfvarson’s Hunding rising to complement their rushing river of sound.
Freyer’s directorial vision is still visually oriented but not in the magically adventurous way of “Das Rheingold.” There’s more austerity in his handling of the mortal and precariously immortal figures of the second opera in the cycle, yet character lineaments grow more expressively human.
The movement of the drama, revolving around a circular stage marked with neon, is glacially paced. Events are monumental, yet almost geological in their gradual unfolding. What’s remarkable is how much variation Freyer achieves with his strict style and how he finds ways of graphically invoking different levels of time (human, earthly, divine) in an epic that’s as fixated with origins as it is haunted by endings.
The static quality of the opening act between a wounded, weaponless Siegmund and a distraughtly welcoming Sieglinde switches the theatrical cadence from dramatization to narration. Domingo and DeYoung, outfitted in matching black-and-blue getups that wryly illustrate the twisted romantic fate of their sibling-lovers, stand at opposite ends of the circle’s diameter. Their placement suggests a mutual shyness, as though they’re hesitant to seize their incestuous destiny, even as their doubles (a recurring motif with Freyer) move in anticipation of imminent bliss. The restraint brought to mind a contrasting memory: Otto Schenk’s orthodox staging of “Die Walküre” for the Met, in which Jessye Norman’s Sieglinde and Gary Lakes’ Siegmund dived into the passion with a lustiness that couldn’t be shackled. Freyer doesn’t permit any such amorous high jinks. There’s something almost sculptural about his layout of the scene, a chessboard of carefully manipulated statuary. The rigidity can be testing. But by resisting clichéd excess, he manages to make the intensity of the psychology more credible — no mean feat for a story that’s shameless in its fictional conveniences and, yes, sexual craziness.
Actually, there’s no need to recall Schenck’s forgettable production (which I saw in 1992) to find an alternative approach. Freyer himself offers other methods of accessing the emotional substance of the opera. Each act, in fact, reveals a new strategy, culminating with an apotheosis of father-daughter grief that allows Kowaljow’s Wotan and Watson’s Brünnhilde to poignantly explore new frontiers of the Freudian family romance.
As the “The Ride of the Valkyries” wafts in the air, the third act thrusts us into new terrain — a windblown setting of bicycle-like contraptions that’s like a cross between “Becket” and “The Wizard of Oz.” We’re in the mountaintops, and Brünnhilde is racing to save Sieglinde from her father, who has allowed Siegmund to be slain by Hunding and is furious with his daughter for opposing his will.
Wotan is acting out of loyalty to domestically anxious Fricka, who finds the idea of sister-brother lovers to be as distasteful as her husband’s compulsive adultery. But in fulfilling his obligations as husband, Wotan does violence to his deepest self. It is in this context that Kowaljow and Watson are set free to demonstrate the oneness of punishment and self-punishment.
The unbridled directness is a welcome relief from the directorial constraints of Act 2, in which the unwieldy plot is put on a tight leash. It’s not always easy to track the twists and turns of the tale in Freyer’s nonliteral line of attack. Vocally robust, the presentation is choreographically stingy, allowing circular pacing but not much more. It’s the music that’s the great source of fluidity — the characters are all too busy anticipating or recovering from disasters beyond their control.
The interpretive sophistication of the production (metaphysically centered on myth and its existential ramifications) continues to work out on the physical level but in such unexpectedly assorted patterns. Happily, this “Ring” manages to surprise us even when it feels sluggish. Wagner, obviously, was in no rush, and Freyer wants us to experience time from every possible vantage — whether it’s through clouds shuttling briskly or the stillness of a character kneeling to protect the last embers of hope.
-- Charles McNulty
Check back with Culture Monster next week for Theater Critic Charles McNulty’s takes on ‘Siegfried’ and “Götterdämmerung,”
Top: Plácido Domingo as Siegmund and Michelle DeYoung as Sieglinde. Bottom: Linda Watson as Brünnhilde. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times