Norfolk, VA – Had you asked me a year ago why I would make the trek to Norfolk on a pleasant September night in 2022, I would have likely told you, “To cover a great show with hard pounding rock, probably metal, or even country music with a great stage show!” As it turns out, taking in Virginia Opera‘s rendition of Richard Wagner‘s, “The Valkyrie” (“Die Walküre”) at the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk, VA on September 28, 2022, fit that prediction to a tee.
Before I get started, I need to emphasize this is not an academic review or analysis of the performance nor is it an educated look into what made Wagner’s mind tick as he put this, the second of four operas in his “The Ring of the Nibelung” (“Der Ring des Nibelungen”) series. Instead, this is going to be a dive into the production and story, looking at them from a ‘pop culture’ and a somewhat German / historical perspective from it’s creation in the late 19th century to this Jonathan Dove and Graham Vick adaptation of Wagner’s work.
The performance kicked off with some interesting graphics projected on the stage curtain. The graphics had a somewhat futuristic feel and also conveyed a feeling of being lost. Enter Siegmund (Richard Trey Smagur, tenor), an exhausted, unarmed man in a medieval cloak. He collapses in the forest close to the home of the lovely Sieglinde (Meghan Kasanders, soprano). She sees a hero in need of care, and nurses him back to health. As expected, they fall for each other. The term that came to mind was the Florence Nightingale effect, however, I would assume it would be called the Sieglinde effect for the purpose of this production.
The Valkyrie – Photo Gallery 1
As fate would have it, the lovers would endure an uphill battle as Sieglinde was married to Hunding (Ricardo L. Lugo, bass). To say he was the jealous type would be an understatement. When he returns home and finds Siegmund, he challenges him to battle. Siegmund tells Hunding his life’s story and, sympathetically, Hunding agrees to let Siegmund stay the night but needed to be ready for battle the next morning. In an effort to save her new love, Sieglinde drugs her husband so that she could spend what could be their last hours with her lover.
As they talk, the story gets a little convoluted. It turns out that the lovers are also, (you should be seated for this revelation), twins (brother and sister), children of Wotan (the leader of the gods, based on the Norse god, Odin), who had abandoned them to fend for their mortal selves years before. I am not sure of the incestual significance of the story, however, the idea of incest (but did not result in the act) also appeared on Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” (also German).
This is where a some Arthurian folklore comes to light. As it turns out, Wotan, before abondoning his children, planted a sword of invincibility in a tree and only his son could free. While Arthur was given the all-powerful Excalibur, embedded in a stone by his father, Uther, Siegmund would be granted all power, should he indeed be Wotan’s son, and was able to draw the sword (called Nothung) from the tree. He is successful. Sieglinde was thrilled, knowing that her brother / lover, will triumph over Hunding with the help of Wotan’s sword. Together, they run into the night.
Up until this time, the backdrop has been era (Mediaeval) appropriate. Enter Wotan (Kyle Albertson, baritone), the father of Siegmund and Sieglinde. The Opera team told me the costumes of the gods were Matrix in nature, but I felt Wotan was more Star Trek The Next Generation with a Borg type feel. In a conversation with his other daughter and Valkyrie, Brünnhilde (Alexandra Loutsion, soprano), they decided, because he had abandoned his mortal children, Brünnhilde would protect Siegmund in his battle with Hunding. Brünnhilde also has a deep love for the twins (her half-siblings) as well and is overjoyed at her father’s decision to spare Siegmund. It should be noted that the literal translation of Valkyrie from Norse mythology is, chooser of the slain, because they chose heroes on the battlefield who were worthy to be admitted to Valhalla.
The Valkyrie – Photo Gallery 2
Happy with his decision to save his mortal children, he rushes to tell his wife, Fricka (Claudia Chapa, mezzo-soprano) of his brave decision. Here it gets a little complicated as Fricka is not only Wotan’s wife and mother of SOME of his children, she is also the goddess of Marriage and she really did not approve of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s adultery and incest, telling Wotan he is wrong and must put both to death. This adds an interesting twist because Fricka is condemning the couple to death for adultery when her very husband is their father and she is not their mother. Wotan makes the case that Siegmund, with Nothung, can be the great warrior that saves the world from the ring (I will not go in to a lot of detail, but the concept of the ring here was also used in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series. It was obvious Wagner had a great influence on Tolkien’s work). His case falls on deaf ears and, sticking with the adage, ‘Happy wife, happy life‘ (which is really important if you happen to be immortal), Wotan caves and agrees to end the lives of his children. This adds to the Borg theme also, as it was obvious that ‘resistance is futile‘.
Brünnhilde is not quite as easy to convince. She argues extensively with her father to no avail. Obviously, he feels he can deal with his daughter much easier than he can deal with his wife (again, wondering if he was worried about the adultery card she may have been holding over his head). With tears in her eyes, she agrees to do as her father orders… a chooser of the slain.
As Siegmund awaits his battle with Hunding, Brünhilde appears and informs him of his fate. Notably telling him that the only reason he can see her is because of his death sentence and that Wotan had removed all magical powers from Nothung. He was doomed. Siegmund says he will resist but finally accepts his fate. He prays that Sieglinde, and their child, will be spared. In battle, Brünnhilde does try to spare both, but Wotan steps in and breaks the sword. Hunding, with the help of Wotan, seals Siegmund’s mortal fate. Hunding is also killed.
Disobeying her father’s order (which seals her fate), Brünnhilde spares Sieglinde and actually pleads with her to live, as Sieglinde says she cannot live without her brother and father of the child she is carrying. This blatant disobedience does not go over well with Wotan, who seeks assistance from the other Valkyries, Waltraute (Claudia Chapa), Helmwige (Lesley Anne Friend), Rossweisse (Adriane S. Kerr), and Grimgerde (Courtney Johnson) in finding Brünnhilde to deliver her punishment.
Being a good daughter, Brünnhilde appears to accept her punishment, which is mortality and a deep sleep until awoken by her future husband. She pleads with her father, asking why the harsh punishment for doing what he had originally ordered? He had no good answer, but agreed to spare Sieglinde and child. Brünhilde’s punishment would not change and she would be made mortal, stripped of all her power, and laid to sleep. He expresses his love for his daughter and pledges to protect her with fire that can only be penetrated by the bravest hero. This hero will awaken her and be her husband. It is interesting that the leader of the gods’ fear of his wife’s wrath drove him to kill his mortal son, ordered his mortal daughter killed (but allowed her to live) and then stripped his immortal daughter of her status, condemning her to mortality and marriage to a hero. Perhaps the moral to this story is, “fear is warranted the moment you realize there is no wrath like a Fricka scorned.”
With Brünnhilde in deep sleep, Wotan summons the fire, which is projected on the stage in digital glory. The curtain came down, setting the scene for the next in the series, “Siegfried” in 2023. There was was a lot to digest.
Throughout I noticed a lot of artistic freedom in what I would assume is Valhalla. Yes, Wotan was in the image of the Borg and, like the Borg, it did not seem as though he could not think for himself. The projected background was very digitalized and futuristic, almost Tronlike (old school) or even Matrixesque in nature. It was interesting to me because it would be reasonable to think of the gods in a more advanced timeframe than those they ruled. In Wagner’s time, pop culture and the Norse mythology theme of this opera warranted Viking warrior attire for the residents of Valhalla. In 2022, where much of the Norse mythology is not prevalent in pop culture, a more Marvel superhero / Sci Fi theme made perfect sense. I loved it!! Of course, those of us who remember a very Viking Elmer Fudd singing an operatic “Kill the Wabbit” to the tune of “Ride of the Valkyrie” (a major piece in this opera) as he pursued a very cunning Bugs Bunny, playing himself as well as a steed riding, Nordic Brünnhilde, would have still appreciated a Nordic Valhalla, but this one was much more fun.
The Valkyrie – Photo Gallery 3Website l Facebook l Instagram l Twitter l
I have to wonder if the Medieval Norse / Germanic theme in this piece was at all influenced by Wagner’s relationship with King Ludwig of Bavaria. Ludwig, known for his infatuation medieval lore and castles, held Wagner in highest regard, even promising a stage in his castles for him to perform. Knowing of Ludwig’s fetish, it is easy to see why the theme and costumes of the original production reflected a Viking Valhalla. Later, with a traditionalist view of the opera and artistic freedom in entertainment, this opera had significant influence on American pop culture into the 1970s. The same type of artistic freedom that merged the Viking Valkyrie into the pop culture of the 70s introduced current pop culture into this production. This is very important, as in order to keep the art alive, it must appeal to the now, while doing everything possible to preserve the ‘then’. Dove and Vick’s adaption, under the direction of Joachim Schamberger with costume and scenic design by Court Watson did a wonderful job of capturing the then and now. This production has an appeal for everyone from the opera enthusiast, or a Trekkie (of the Next Generation), to a cosplayer with an interest in Marvel comics.
Opera itself has had influences throughout the music industry for ages, in particular in the rock and metal genres. Of course, The Who’s “Tommy” comes to mind immediately as being one of the most famous, however there are many others. One that comes to mind for me is Rush’s “2112“, complete with Arthurian themed guitar that saves the world. I would also be remiss not to mention the opera influence on one of the most mainstream metal opera acts, Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Whether “Streets, a Rock Opera” or “Dead Winter Dead” from the predecessor, Savatage or their iconic Christmas tours as TSO, they are, and always will be the the flagship in bringing the giving modern music an opera feel. Kudos goes out to the production and music team at Virginia Opera for giving this classical opera a modern feel.
Last, but definitely not least, I have to look at the music. Virginia Symphony, conducted by Adam Turner, was phenomenal in conveying the emotion and mood throughout. The artists’ vocals were superb, especially when you realize that operatic vocals are without mic. Again, as an engineer, I wanted to see how their voices projected throughout the Harrison and was floored by the purity of the baritone to soprano range I could hear in all corners of the building. That, my friend, is power in every sense of the word. In my rock and roll world, that is as metal as it gets… in a medieval sort of way. I can’t want until Part 3 in 2023.
Show Date: September 28, 2022