To stage any of Richard Wagner's gigantic operas requires courage. To mount "Die Walkure" -- the second music drama in the composer's vast "Ring" cycle -- and then take it on the road as a traveling show requires a breathtaking degree of audacity. Yet that is just what Virginia Opera has done, and very successfully indeed. Wotan, Brunnhilde and the rest of Wagner's gods, goddesses and demigods arrive at the George Mason University Center for the Arts in Fairfax tomorrow night, and you will want to be there.
There is some terrific singing in this production, and of course, the music is, more often than not, feverishly, convulsively beautiful. But what impressed me most about the performance I saw here Sunday afternoon was the compelling argument Virginia Opera made for Wagner as a master dramatist.
The "Ring" operas benefit more than most from the addition of surtitles. It used to be said that Wagner's works were made up of glorious moments and long half-hours, and, for spectators without an understanding of German, such a statement, while simplistic, may have had a certain validity. After all, Wagner's characters are given to stern, lengthy declamation rather than to succinct, catchy aria or ensemble. But surtitles allow us to follow along, moment by moment, with the travails of one of the most seriously dysfunctional theatrical families since the House of Atreus. Still, not all is doom and gloom: Indeed, I was surprised, once again, by how funny some parts of "Die Walkure" were -- shot through with a robust humor that cannot come across in synopses or by preparatory study of the libretto. In short, the neophyte need fear no Wagner.
As Siegmund, Thomas Rolf Truhitte spent much of the performance stripped to the waist, looking rather like one of those advertisements for European bluejeans that take up most of any given issue of Vanity Fair. Fortunately, he is handsome enough to get away with it (the lobby was all atwitter during the first intermission); moreover, he sings with power, conviction, musicianship and the requisite Wagnerian steeliness.
Soprano Jeannine Altmeyer retains such an astonishing degree of vocal freshness that I do not feel ungallant pointing out that she was already recognized as a great Sieglinde -- noble, impassioned and vulnerable -- a full quarter-century ago. Neither Susan Marie Pierson, who sang the role of Brunnhilde, nor Marc Embree, the Wotan, would seem to have a particularly lustrous voice, yet they acted so vividly and sang with such fervor and intelligence that they were utterly convincing -- shatteringly so in the wrenching duet that closes Act 3.
Tracie Luck's Fricka and Charles Robert Austin's Hunding rounded out the cast with distinction.
One might have wished for a larger, lusher orchestra than the group that Virginia Opera conductor and artistic director Peter Mark has in tow. Still, he summoned some glistening playing from the first-desk musicians, showed a remarkable command of the score's architecture throughout the performance, and was rightly cheered to the rafters at the conclusion of the long afternoon.
The staging, directed by Lillian Groag with scenic design by Robert Cothran, lighting by Robert Wierzel and costumes by Tracey Dorman, is starkly minimalist. (The "Ride of the Valkyries" could have come from a Halloween pageant starring Margaret Hamilton.)
Yet it works -- and it ought to travel well. If you miss the two performances at George Mason (tomorrow and Sunday) there will be a final run at the Carpenter Center in Richmond opening Oct. 18. When Virginia Opera finally returns to Norfolk (to prepare for a new production of Thea Musgrave's "A Christmas Carol"), it should be a proud homecoming indeed.