PostHeaderIcon Falling Under Wagner’s Spell

Three score and ten years. It’s taken that long for me to have seen two segments of Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle.  I resisted for so long yet fell completely under the composer’s spell this week! I did see a PBS broadcast over 15 years ago from the Met in New York, under James Levine’s baton, which I saw that on a 13″ Sony, but doesn’t count.

I can now better appreciate the cult that surrounds Wagner and his messy tale of imperfect gods and the quest to recover a magical ring. Devoted fans are known to spend thousands of dollars traveling to whatever city is mounting this high point of the operatic form. Lyric Opera in Chicago is the “Ring Nuts” latest destination. Lyric is mounting one opera of the tetralogy each year through 2019 and  staging the complete cycle in the 2020-21 season. You can be sure Lyric is already processing ticket requests.

In the world of opera, Wagner exists on a different, more mythic, plane from such composer superstars as Verdi and Puccini. Wagner can also be said to be the granddaddy of the multi-part serial. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that George Lucas, Peter Jackson, and no less a figure than  J.K. Rowing, took a page from Wagner’s playbook in crafting their cinematic and literary blockbusters.

Eric Owns & Christine Goerke

Eric Owns & Christine Goerke

But to the opera on stage,  “Die Walkure”. In brief, Lyric has pulled out all the stops. I can’t imagine a better, more perfectly blended cast of internationally-celebrated singers for the four major roles: Eric Owens as the chief god, Wotan, Brandon Jovanovich as Siegmund, Wotan’s mortal son, Elisabet Strid as Sieglinde, Wotan’s daughter and Siegmund’s twin and Christine Goerke as Brunnhilde,  Wotan’s favorite Valkyrie daughter. They were assisted very capably by the singers playing Fricka, Wotan’s wife and also the goddess of marriage (who doesn’t approve of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s incestuous affair) and and Hunding, Sieglinde’s cuckhold. Not in the rear by any means were the fine direction by David Pountey and the masterful baton of music director, Sir Andrew Davis, marking his 30th year with the company.

Christine Goerke as Brunnhilde

Christine Goerke as Brunnhilde

It’s challenging keeping the names and the story straight. As “Walkure” begins, Wotan is plotting to recover the gold ring that he had to give to the giants as payment for building Valhalla, his fortress home. Wotan knows that, without the ring, his power is ephemeral. So, he sires two mortal children with earth mothers, Siegmund and Sieglinde, who are separated. When they discover they are brother and sister, they become lovers but this upsets Wotan’s plan and he is forced to agree to Siegmund’s assassination. He dispatches his daughter, Brunnhilde to do the job but she relents to Sieglinde’s pleas for mercy and is banished from Valhalla and reduced to being a mortal.

From Act I’s downbeat to the end of the score, nearly five hours later, I was enthralled by the singing. Two supreme moments that stick in my memory were the impassioned love duet between Siegmund and Sieglinde in Act I and the fierce exchange between Sieglinde and Brunnhilde as the former pleads the latter to spare Siegmund’s life.

 Brandon Jovanovich & Elisabet Strid.


Brandon Jovanovich & Elisabet Strid.

Sieglinde appeared in both and Elisabeth Strid, making her Lyric debut, gave a totally convincing portrayal. I hope we see more of Ms. Strid in future productions. Goerke gave one of the greatest Lyric performances I ever witnessed in the 2012-13 presentation of Strauss’ “Elektra”. She was equally compelling, both vocally and dramatically, as Brunnhilde.

Besides the vocal fireworks to delight the ear, Lyric has provided treats for the eye as well. There are flying horses, a wall-like net sporting a dozen hanging Valkyries and a stunning “Valhalla Hall” that descends from above, bisecting the stage into heaven and earthly kingdoms.

The opera’s 5-hour length scares most people away. Don’t let it or you will miss a spectacle full of emotion that aims straight for the heart. I can’t explain Wagner’s musical mastery but it seems to me he knows how to slow time down.  For example, Siegmund and Sieglinde’s love duet goes on for a full half hour yet I was so engrossed that it seemed much less. You are caught up, as in a spell, either listening to the lover’s enchantment or with Brunnhilde as she pleads with Wotan to not banish her. During those moments, time melted. By the end, I knew I had lived through a peak artistic journey. My only regret is that I must wait a whole year to learn what happens next.

Die Walkure” is running through November 30. Only five more performances remain. Don’t miss it! For tickets, go to www.lyricopera.org.

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