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WNO's 'Walkure' Takes Flight

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 26, 2007

There is a very simple reason why the operas of Richard Wagner have become so extraordinarily popular over the past couple of decades, namely, the introduction of projected, line-by-line translations of the words the characters sing as they are performing.

Had it been presented a quarter-century ago, the Washington National Opera's current production of "Die Walkure," which opened Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, would have consisted of three long acts (more than an hour apiece) without a great deal of stage action, all presented in a language that few in the audience would have understood. In those days, unless one was fluent in German, it was necessary to read through an ornately complicated libretto or plot summary in advance, and then, in the theater, try to make sense of what used to be described as Wagner's series of "glorious moments and long half-hours."

Nobody says that anymore. Thanks to titles (I would call them subtitles, except at the WNO, they are projected above the stage), the general public is increasingly aware of the fact that Wagner was not only one of classical music's most extraordinary geniuses, but also perhaps the 19th century's finest dramatist in that long, fallow period between Goethe and Ibsen. Now that we have the technology, it makes no more sense to watch "Die Walkure" without translation than it would to rent "The Seventh Seal" or "Wild Strawberries" and insist upon following along only in the original Swedish.

Still, even in the "bad old days," this "Walkure" would have been a smashing success because the singing, at its best, was simply spectacular, world-class on every level. Indeed, I don't know whether the Washington National Opera has ever presented a more thrilling 70 minutes than Act 1, which featured the company's 66-year-old general director, Placido Domingo, as Siegmund and the wonderful German soprano Anja Kampe as Sieglinde in rapturous duet. Their voices -- fresh, lithe and lustrous -- easily filled the hall, but they never sounded strained and there was none of that amped-up shouting that so commonly passes for Wagnerian declamation. A glorious teaming: Exactly what an operatic love duet should be.

Bass-baritone Alan Held once more proved himself an eloquent and altogether admirable singing actor, who brought rich vocal and emotional dimensions to the role of Wotan: It would be hard to imagine a more moving "Farewell." Linda Watson has the vocal steel for the role of Brunnhilde, and grew progressively more tender as the evening proceeded, but I found Elena Zaremba's Fricka unrelentingly shrill and ferocious. One wonders why Wotan would put up with such a harridan; there is much more subtlety to the character than Zaremba let on. Gidon Saks was an appropriately chilling and malevolent Hunding. The cast also included Jane Ohmes, Caroline Thomas, Stacey Rishoi, Heidi Vanderford, Beverly O'Regan Thiele, Claudia Huckle, Magdalena Wor and Rebecca Ringle as a tough and eager gang of women warriors.

This is the second installment in what director Francesca Zambello has called an "American Ring" ("Die Walkure" is part of an interrelated quartet of Wagner operas known as "Der Ring des Nibelungen.") Some of the visuals were attractive -- the opening tableau, set in the midst of a storm, called to mind Auntie Em's house, ready to be blown away, and there was a succession of beautiful filmic cloud ballets throughout the evening. I liked the sinister underworld Zambello created beneath abandoned freeways in Act 2; moreover, she made the most of the excruciatingly awkward, achingly conflicted but profoundly loving exchange between Wotan and Brunnhilde that closes the opera.

But a lot of Zambello's work seemed either obvious or secondhand. The idea of Wotan as uber-capitalist has grown tired (it dates at least to the Patrice Chereau staging at Bayreuth in 1976), and the imagery in the "Ride of the Valkyries" -- airplanes, parachutes, modern warfare in all of its atrocity -- seemed to be lifted directly from "Apocalypse Now." I suspect that Zambello feels the imperatives of drama more acutely than she thinks about them, which is not a terrible flaw in itself (and certainly better than the reverse condition) but still somewhat problematic when one is called upon to re-imagine a distinctly German opera and transport the action to America.

Over the past decade, Music Director Heinz Fricke has turned the Washington National Opera Orchestra into an excellent ensemble: Tonal brilliance was common, flubs were rare and there were only a few drownings-out of the singers. It would be interesting to hear what this orchestra might do in a concert setting. Fricke's leadership was propulsive when propulsion was called for, leisurely and appreciative in some of the gentler passages, and musical and thoughtful throughout.

Get your tickets while you can -- as hard as it may be to believe right now, Domingo won't be singing forever.

Die Walkure will be repeated Wednesday, Sunday, April 5, 9, 14 and 17. For information: 202-295-2400 or http://www.dc-opera.org).

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