Review: Virginia Opera's Wagnerian shortcoming

Virginia Opera's "Die Walkure," its first production since the departure of longtime artistic leader Peter Mark, splices Acts 1 and 2 for a two-hour marathon still lacking in key character and musical elements.
Virginia Opera's "Die Walkure," its first production since the departure of longtime artistic leader Peter Mark, splices Acts 1 and 2 for a two-hour marathon still lacking in key character and musical elements. (For The Washington Post)
By Joe Banno
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 20, 2011; 10:44 PM

Opera producers brave enough to tackle Wagner - as Virginia Opera has just done with "Die Walkure," in a production that opened at the George Mason Center for the Arts on Friday - have to decide whether they're Wagnerian true believers or apologists.

True believers tend to embrace whole the composer's epic length, cathartic power and complex layers of thought. The apologists, meanwhile, are bending over backwards trying to sell his operas to skittish subscribers, with assurances that Wagner (to quote Mark Twain) is "a musician who wrote music which is better than it sounds." Wagner lovers sitting through Virginia Opera's jaw-droppingly abridged "Walkure" (billed as "The Valkyrie," though sung in the original German) could be forgiven for pegging the company as a bunch of apologists.

To be fair, there are defendable reasons for cutting a Wagner score - limited rehearsal time, budgets that would burst at the seams from the overtime costs to union musicians playing works that can run over five hours, a desire to introduce Wagner-phobic patrons to some glorious music in smaller doses, etc. But there's sensible trimming, and then there's whole-scale butchery.

Gone here is anything prior to Hunding's entrance in Act 1; all but six or eight token lines of Wotan's Act 2 narrative (considered by many to be the heart and soul of the entire "Ring" cycle); all of Sieglinde's delirium scene before the battle; and myriad smaller cuts throughout the piece. Sure, the opera moves faster - although that advantage is scuttled by the company's decision to splice Acts 1 and 2 together into a purgatorial two-hour marathon - but at the cost of key elements of character psychology, emotional resonance and musical shape.

A compelling production might have eased the losses. But with the exception of what appeared to be a mammoth, graphically detailed cast-iron phallus in the first act and an intriguingly painterly treatment of the magic fire in the final minutes of the opera, the sets (listed as "originally designed by Robert Cothran" and "reconceptualized by Kendall Smith") look shockingly cheap and amateurish. And the costumes (designed by Tracey Dorman), with bird-of-prey Valkyries and heavy-metal-cum-gladiator Wotan, are a mix of the inspired and the tired.

With the CliffsNotes version of the score and the unfortunate mise-en-scene, stage director Lillian Groag had her work cut out for her. She's done what she could to invest the key scenes with detailed dramatic interplay and clear-cut visual storytelling, but some of her singers are more credible actors than others. Happily, this is a vocally strong cast of natural Wagnerians.

The women - including a solid ensemble of Valkyries - share a tendency toward bright, vibrant timbres, but Melissa Citro's Sieglinde displays a welcome lower-register weight and intensity of expression, and Kelly Cae Hogan's Brunnhilde thrills with the seeming ease of her pure, pinging high notes. Tenor Erik Nelson Werner lavishes an unusually handsome voice on Siegmund, and veteran bass-baritone James Johnson is a Wotan of mahogany tone, offering a fine balance of power and supple phrasing. Joseph Rescigno's conducting, if matter-of-fact in the score's opening pages, develops into a luminous, finely pointed, purposefully forward-moving reading.

This is Virginia Opera's first production since conductor Peter Mark - one of the company's founders and its artistic leader for over three decades - left during an abrupt and publicly contentious change of administrations last year. Mark chose "Die Walkure" for this season, but it's impossible to say how the production might have looked or sounded with him in the driver's seat. One thing is certain: As the company seeks to redefine itself under new leadership, it can't afford to mount productions this provincial.

Banno is a freelance writer.

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