The Atlanta Opera 2023-24 Review: Die Walküre

Magnificently Executed Atlanta ‘Die Walküre’ Kills Da Wabbit Dead

By Benjamin Torbert
(Photo credit: Raftermen Photography)

Of late, The Atlanta Opera (TAO) makes possible the nearly-impossible. In March, your reviewer summarized the robust health this company enjoys despite the current fiscal climate that shrinks arts organizations. With each gut punch to classical music lovers in the United States—the Metropolitan Opera Guild evaporating and Opera News taking the form of a brief supplement in Opera, the Mostly Mozart Festival expiring, companies such as Maryland Lyric Opera closing, &c—a fan of Richard Wagner’s music might hear in their ear his eschatological leitmotif accompanying bad news. But in the Peach State, TAO’s transformative general director Tomer Zvulun has enlisted some deep-pocketed allies, surrounded himself with a deep roster of competent staff, and tended a culture of deep attention to detail. Introducing TAO’s second installment of Wagner’s Ring cycle, “Die Walküre,” after thanking a long list of donors, and veteran Brünnhilde, Christine Goerke, for jumping in on short notice, Zvulun segued to downbeat with the signoff, “without further ado, kill da wabbit.”

A brand new staging of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” constitutes the Mount Olympus of classical music performance, as Zvulun puts it in Mark Thomas Ketterson’s profile in the May 2024 issue of Opera. He contextualizes the challenge with athletic and corporeal language. Mounting a Ring Cycle “forces the organization into a different metabolism.” Noting that a Ring wasn’t possible when he arrived in Atlanta a decade hence, he reports that committing thereto creates new competencies in the company: “When you do a Ring opera, your Traviatas and Carmens are better, because your infrastructure gets bigger. The capital investment that you make in an LED wall or turntable, or projection devices, heightens your possibilities.”

A huge undertaking, grounded in big-picture thinking—using Wagner to strength-train the company. Little else in Classical music requires this degree of organizational dedication. Works like Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and Schönberg’s “Gurre-Lieder” swell human resources and break the bank too—for a week. The next week, an orchestra breathes a sigh of relief as they serve a Harry Potter film score, casual fans hoovering up the tickets. But the nearly-superhuman effort and extreme financial investment the “Ring” requires means that you’d better run multiple performances of all four operas as you phase it in, perform the entire cycle once “Götterdämmerung” completes the set, and then later revive or at least lend out the staging, given all that sunk cost. For a company proud of its recent attainment of “budget one,” A-level status, there’s no more appropriate flex than a new Ring Cycle. So TAO gives the United States its first new complete Ring since the COVID-19 pandemic, and the first ever in quite a radius of Southern states. And, they assembled a great cast despite having to compete with the Dallas Symphony, who performed “Das Rheingold” and “Die Walküre” in concert the very same week.

Unless you count the apparently dormant Meyerbeer, Wagner reigns as the least feasible operatic composer to perform. Pick an obstacle: cost, casting, vast orchestration, staging, duration, Anglophone phobia of the German language, the composer’s personal sociopolitical toxicity, maybe a dash of mythological twincest—Richard’s got it all. But. Those ten major works prove infinitely revisitable, endlessly thought-provoking, and stupendously musical. We count good reasons to perform Wagner yet, and “Die Walküre” arguably marks the pinnacle of his art.

O Hehrstes Wunder!

In Humanities classes, including one on operatic repertory, I give undergraduates a deceptively simple-looking but difficult task. First, distill the story into five sentences; then, drawing from that, précis the essence of the drama in a single sentence. Reductive and expansive at once, this exercise aims to focus their minds on, among other matters, why anyone would sink a few million bucks into staging two-century-old operas. What, exactly, is so darn good about this opera specifically? “Die Walküre” remains the only Wagner music drama we’ve syllabused in that course, and the only one for which they receive a model for that précis exercise. Seattle Opera boasted the services of an extraordinary education director in the 2000s, the late Perry Lorenzo, whom we lost to cancer early, in 2009. In a Wagnerian-scoped series of twelve hours of four classes on the “Ring” in 2005, backed by a slide of Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” (1818), Lorenzo cut to the dramatic heart of “Die Walküre” in one unforgettable sentence. “Every character in this opera loses the person they love most in the entire world, forever, in the space of twenty-four hours.”

After catching my breath, I checked his work. It’s airtight: Siegmund and Sieglinde lose each other; Hunding, Sieglinde. Wotan and Brünnhilde lose each other; Fricka, Wotan. And presumably the other eight Valkryies all love their sister Rudolph best, er, Brünnhilde—who wouldn’t love her best? Lorenzo’s identification of the essence of the drama’s shattering impact on the listener explains too why staging the “Ring” can be so tricky. Post-WWII, “naïve” productions of Wagner sometimes emit a light stench of erstwhile performance history by Fascists, but if you saddle the “Ring” with too laborious a Regie Théâtre concept, it gets in the way of the perfectly constructed drama, especially in “Walküre,” which might be the top-100 opera least demanding of a staging concept. The hexagonal tragedy demands no sprucing, and freighting the work with a staging that loudly calls attention to itself easily goes awry.

For good reason, companies most excerpt “Walküre” from the cycle, and orchestras pull all three acts in isolation for concerts, each of the three a contained opera-within-an-opera. Complete, the triptych form a whole unified by the structural integrity of classical drama, like Sophocles’ “Antigone,” with each and every scene, every utterance indissolubly connected to the whole, every dramatic tension in equilibrium. The three acts’ form demonstrates classical balance, the outer acts symmetrically just past an hour, and the longer second act creating a ratio of 3:4:3. A perceived longueur unfolds in Wotan’s monologue to Brünnhilde, and you’ll hear people say Wagner should have edited harder, but they misunderstand. Take a red pen to some bits of “Götterdämmerung,” or to Siegfried and Mime’s sniping in the third opera, maybe, but never “Walküre.” Not a spare word or note clutters in four hours. Nothing’s perfect, but “Walküre” comes as close as humanly achievable. If you get one opera right, let it be this one.

Zvulun’s production—he directs, too—struck the optimal balance of attention to text, attention to orchestral leitmotif, and refreshing the opera with ideas that didn’t insist on themselves, instead privileging the work itself. A dynamic frequently glossed over drove Act one and its fallout in Acts two and three, foregrounding Sieglinde, sometimes the least featured of the six major characters. Hunding’s property, she lives in a home defined by terrifying domestic violence, seeing no escape before the events of the opera. The mythological import of the siblings falling in love as a physicalization of Wotan’s executive overreach remains, and springtime Eros throbs yet, but a more immediate motive for the events of the drama emerges. Sieglinde must get the hell away from Hunding, perceiving her first, sole opportunity when Siegmund crashes onto her hearth.

Alles wär’ dir das arme Weib

Act one relied heavily on the projection design of Erhard Rom and Lauren Carroll, before and  behind a spare but sufficient set recalling Scandinavian wood both live and sawn, Hunding’s hut a monochromatic, quadrangular stanza reminiscent of an efficient IKEA showroom, unadorned but for the ash tree’s trunk, representing the hollowness of Hunding’s home where Sieglinde cannot love him. Downstage left sat a sturdy dinner table, oft violently pounded by Hunding, and downstage right, a fire pit, at which he smoked a hookah pipe. Dazzling then, later, when spring burst in on the lovers in an emerald explosion of light and forest, and green leaves snowed upon the stage throughout the duet, recalling and reversing the autumn leaves of the famed Robert Carsen “Eugene Onegin,” still in North American rotation. The shades of green also recalled Seattle’s exquisite 1995 “Pelléas et Mélisande” by Neil Peter Jampolis with sets of Dale Chihuly’s glass. At opening curtain, the projections visualized the storm we hear in the prelude, rain breaking in forceful waves, and three martial artists, Myric Andreasen, Julianna Feracota, and Crystal Yau roughed up Siegmund in the antecedent battle; they’d stick around to menace Sieglinde when Hunding paused.

Soprano Laura Wilde’s Sieglinde arrived in a RennFestish green and brown dress, with a lean, secure spinto-sized sound, contrasting Christine Goerke’s Brünnhilde to a greater degree than many productions that cast Sieglinde as a Brünnhilde-in-waiting—a suitable choice in a medium-sized house like Cobb Energy PAC. She doesn’t really “sound Wagnerian,” which a descriptive rather than prescriptive approach will recognize as unproblematic. A glimmer of early Deborah Voigt before her up-faching could be heard in Wilde’s rosy timbre. And she dramatized the part with screen actor-skill. Our first clue of Hunding’s wife-beating came when she couldn’t eye-contact Siegmund for their first several exchanges; this broke when the orchestra’s Italianate slancio accompanied their sharing the beverage. Tenor Viktor Antipenko’s Siegmund sounded like it was the best water he’d ever slurped, before Wilde shut him down with the lines about her person and the real estate being Hunding’s property.

Wilde reacted with contained but palpable terror when bass Raymond Aceto’s Hunding barreled home, manhandling her, slamming stools, and spiking an axe into their dinner table. Aceto performed terrifyingly, with an attractive, booming, woody bass, with seething rage, and the sort of bald cranium that makes a man look very authoritative; at moments he gave Till Lindemann at a Rammstein show, about to boil some poor sap in a cauldron. He performed the scariest Hunding I’ve seen, finding pleasure in yanking Sieglinde’s hair, pulling her onto his lap with a Heimlich maneuver, like an unruly child, and transmitting a desire to kill Siegmund upon first sight, even before finding justification. The backstory serves the gravy; this man stands ready to kill, from the jump, undermining Fricka’s later framing of him as the good guy. The more heartwarming, then, when Wilde’s Sieglinde furtively allowed herself to trust Siegmund, incrementally through the first act, using her voice in the duet to communicate extreme vulnerability but also feeling safe for the first time. Her “Der Männer Sippe” and “Du bist der Lenz” flowed in an appropriately Germanic idiom with surprisingly strong chest voice below and ringing white gold at the top when telling Siegmund of the stranger (Wotan) plunging the sword into the tree. Cleverly, the staging repurposed Hunding’s hookah for Sieglinde slipping him the mickey that buys her and Siegmund time for the duet. He’d have noticed had he spent less time glowering at Siegmund.

Siegmund heiß ich!

Wilde’s Wälsung twin-boo, Viktor Antipenko, made for a tremendously appealing Siegmund. He staggered onstage worn from battle, in a weathered, chest hair-forward Robinhood getup, balancing Siegmund’s need to display masculine force in a warlike milieu with instantaneous tenderness towards Sieglinde. He knelt before her during “Du bist der Lenz,” and sang the half of “Winterstürme” lying down, snuggled with Wilde. With recent turns as Melot and Froh in Seattle, Antipenko journeys stepwise up the Wagnerian ladder. An acquired taste is a fast vibrato, but his sounds pleasant even following sometime straight-toned onsets, and his bright timbre must surely be on a collision course with Lohengrin in particular. He knocked “Wälse, Wälse” clear out of the house and into the adjacent Braves’ baseball stadium, easily holding the thrilling second fermata on G for a stopwatch-demanding duration. At the act’s close, Sieglinde cleared the dishes onto the floor and invited Siegmund upon herself for coupling atop the dinner table, to follow the orchestra’s climax and lights-out.

Trauma revisits the survivor on the regular, and waking from nightmares in Act two, amid scrim-projected images of flight, Wilde endured her memories emerging from a thin green shawl in which Antipenko had blanketed her, giving her harrowing vocal account of attacking dogs and human violence. No sooner than he had re-soothed her to sleep, Christine Goerke’s Brünnhilde arrived for the Todesverkündigung, backed by a silver and black obscured sun in a twilight sky demanding the viewer’s gaze. While this would have worked splendidly on a random Tuesday, it made greater artistic impact following so closely April’s North American total solar eclipse.

Du folgtest selig der Liebe Macht

During tech week, TAO lost to respiratory illness the services of soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer, days shy of her role debut as Brünnhilde, graduating from Gerhilde and Freia. The company instantaneously arranged a jump-in by one of today’s most accomplished essayists of the role, Christine Goerke, who punched out a ludicrous to-do list in about 120 hours stretching about her TAO debut. She finished “Turandot” with the Metropolitan, checked off the dress rehearsal and prima of “Walküre” in Atlanta, hit a recital at Washington University in Saint Louis, and returned for the second “Walküre,” presumably swelling her frequent flyer account meanwhile. Goerke qualifies as one of the most successful movers from lighter to heavier fach in recent decades, and while her voice doesn’t remain quite as fresh as ten or fifteen years prior, the degree to which she has successfully maintained vocal health garners admiration, especially under the duress of all those Turandots. She still brings a girlish spunkiness to Brünnhilde, and offers nuances only someone who has long inhabited a role can do. That made her suitable to meet Greer Grimsley’s legendary Wotan, but the Ring cycle’s dramatic fulcrum, the Todesverkündigung, is the Valkryrie’s greatest moment, a whole opera in about twelve minutes, depicting her movement from instrument of Wotan [and Fricka’s] will to salvatrix.

A scrim first divided Antipenko and Goerke, which rose to allow him unobstructed gaze upon her as she informed him “wer micht gewahrt, zur Wal kor ich ihn mir,” the light escaping the eclipse becoming bluer. Antipenko’s unusual timbre paired strikingly well with both Goerke, and the ‘celli. He gradually moved closer to the immortal in their series of questions and answers, briefly back to the sleeping Wilde, for his key question about whether Sieglinde would join him in Valhalla, and then back in Goerke’s face for his pronouncement that he refused to come there. Gone are the days of a park-n-barky approach to this scene; Zvulun’s direction intensified the human energy in the drama between mortals and gods alike. Goerke excelled in the scene’s mid-low tessitura, all the dynamics baked into her muscle memory. As she changed the course of the entire Ring with her disobedient, love-driven resolve to fight for Siegmund, they tapped weapons, and the eclipse gave way to thunderstorm clouds. When Siegmund and Hunding’s battle closed Act two, projections of Brünnhilde’s white horse and Wotan’s black one made the outcome clear before it happened. Live action designer Ran Arthur Braun gave Siegmund an unusual end, Aceto’s Hunding throwing a knife into his throat from several paces away, somehow more brutal than the customary single thrust of a spear.

Knie vor Fricka

Those projected white and black horses derived from the seconds act’s first two scenes, set in a grayscale, Games of Thrones-ish library, where Wotan and Brünnhilde played chess and Fricka soon checkmated him; Brünnhilde bid farewell sadly to a forlorn pawn representing Siegmund, whom Wotan retracted his orders for her to protect. Greer Grimsley’s Wotan had entered a resigned mode, giving Ian McKellan’s Gandalf visually. His voice is still a marvel in his late 60s but sounded more weathered than 2023’s “Rheingold” Wotans in Atlanta and Seattle. Of course, that works for “Walküre” and “Siegfried.” We find his cedar timbre still intact and his decades of experience in the role overflowing the most emotional of the Ring operas with nuance. The audience was so impressed with his long monologue that something I’ve not heard before happened: applause interrupting his two closing utterances of “das Ende,” smack in between. Hardly anyone ends act twos with Wagner’s theatricality, and if there’s a parallel to Puccini’s inimitable “tre assi e un paio,” with its myriad possibilities for delivery, it’s Wotan’s double “geh,” finishing Hunding. Grimsley gave the first pensively, the second as a thundering, pained shout after having to kill his own son Siegmund, whom the ‘celli had just pronounced dead.

Gretchen Krupp’s formidable Fricka sent him there, triumphally; Grimsley’s Wotan looked completely defeated at the beginning of their duet, not the end. Krupp gets the “Walküre” Fricka right; in the piece, there’s no villain per se, but to the extent that there’s a bad guy, Fricka suffices, and not for the reasons so many believe. In Alex Ross’ Wagnerism, he quotes the best known 21C Fricka, at least in North America, Stephanie Blythe: “Whenever someone asks me what I’m doing next, and I say Fricka, the first thing out of their mouth, ninety percent of the time, is ‘God what a harpy. What a horrible woman.’ I have never had to defend a character as much as I’ve had to defend Fricka.” The casual misogyny of audience who disprefer listening to a woman working her husband over shouldn’t be held against Fricka. Rather, she prescriptively chooses being right over getting it right, in the Ring’s framework whereby the descriptive rectitude of love always trumps that of power. Krupp rolled in with Cruella DeVille couture courtesy Mattie Ullrich’s costume design, chess’s black queen to Grimsley’s white king. She got all the moves. Grimsley cradled one of the books as if that would protect him, while she wielded a flogger in his direction. Stronger in higher register than low, with a cold, imperious sound, she unleased a powerful trill with “so ist es denn aus mit den ewigen Göttern.” In her pronouncement to Brünnhilde about how the duel would play, she communicated contempt for both stepdaughter and husband. Embraced by the winds and strings, Grimsley’s Wotan growled parlando the oath Fricka demanded, before receiving her kiss he didn’t want. Have no doubt Fricka is right—Wotan admits his responsibility, at length. But she loses everyone, including the room.

Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind

Act three’s set offered everything essential and nothing superfluous, a boulder and a smaller rock, a ring of light on the stage where Brünnhilde would commence her quarter-century nap, and a sad waxing crescent moon and stark starry sky behind. A smart flock of Valkryie sisters did the honors, gleefully executing their kill-da-wabbit duties by spearing the bodybagged remains of warriors they’d carried from battle. In order of vocal appearance, Julie Adams (Gerhilde), Yelena Dyachek (Helmwige, entering antiphonally), Catherine Martin (Waltraute), Meridian Prall (Schwertleite), Alexandra Razskazoff (Ortlinde), Aubrey Odle (Siegrune), Maya Lahyani (Grimgerde) and Deborah Nansteel (Roßweiße) combined to form a vocally and dramatically coherent ensemble, six in their company debuts—indeed, most of the cast were making their debut runs at TAO. (Not Grimsley, Krupp, Odle, or Razskazoff). Martin’s Waltraute quietly curated Brünnhilde’s helmet, spear and shield she’d dropped at the smaller rock when Wotan declared her disowned. Wilde returned for a soaring “O hehrstes Wunder” cutting into the auditorium, before Grimsley and Goerke met as they have before to enact that most heartbreaking daddy-daughter day at the Valhallan office.

“War es so Schmälich, was ich verbrach” made for Goerke’s strongest stretch of the opera, as should be the case. Her delivery consistently postured Brünnhilde as gently forcing her father to explain himself, rather than truly protesting her own innocence. She’d clearly learned effective cross-examination from Fricka’s lawerly approach, now leveraged to support her thesis of love. People always get mad when someone argues the answer to the problem is more love; Grimsley shook in angered hurt noting how easy love for the Wälsungs came to her when Goerke curled a beautiful legato arc with “Der diese Liebe mir ins Herz gehaucht.” In suggesting the magic fire to protect her, Goerke sang as if conjuring it herself—here is an activist Brünnhilde, so to speak. Still looking at her wounded hand he’d crushed early in Act three, she backed away from him as “Leb wohl” began, only trusting his expressions of love when he’d consented to the magic fire.

They embraced at the orchestra’s loudest outpouring of the “love for the Wälsungs” motive. For his part, Grimsley worked all the old magic; these days his voice suffers, just slightly, only by comparison with itself in years gone by, and each performance of Wotan sparkles as each of a waning number of jewels remaining in a long career. If you’d thought it impossible to love a Wotan as much as James Morris, Grimsley has demonstrated himself every bit his senior colleague’s equal. He performs Wotan’s farewell with the entirety of its potential impact, not only the loss of the daughter he loves most, to doing what hurts you the most because you must, to the integrity of his daughter’s quasi-Christic sacrifice, and to losing oneself. In viewing Grimsley’s Wotan, killing his son and losing his two daughters in a few hours, one is reminded of Father Horvak’s warning to Clint Eastwood’s Frankie in “Million Dollar Baby (2004); “If you do this thing, you’ll be lost, somewhere so deep you will never find yourself.” Replies Frankie, “I think I did it already.” We’ll see in Atlanta next year, as Grimsley gifts us again The Wanderer in “Siegfried.”

Maestro Arthur Fagen’s orchestra acted as a true accompanist to the singers. All over the USA, it seems that the 20C wave of the orchestra’s symphonic passages upstaging the singers in Wagner has broken and rolled back out to sea, no matter how much we may have loved James Levine’s “Parsifal.” The cascading d-minor prelude began the night with bracing tempo, and dramatic dynamic contrasts marked by remarkable restraint in the low strings when piano. “Die Walküre” leans heavily on the violoncello—that’s a big part of why it’s one of the most beautiful scores in all opera—and principal Charae Kruger won her big moments. The strings and winds never disappointed, and the brass only in a few spots. Wagner makes clarinets so loving. Even the orchestra’s showiest moment, Walkürenritt, unfolded as accompaniment to the eight sisters rather than hey-look-at-us. They dialed back when Grimsley began “Der Augen leuchtendes Paar” pianissimo. Fagen led an appropriately deliberate, savoring tempo for the magic fire music, with those six gorgeous harps, and the brass now rising to the occasion in Siegfried’s music anticipating the third music drama.

What a strong start for The Atlanta Opera in the first half of their Ring Cycle, with the staging of “Walküre” more effective yet than last year’s “Rheingold.” A few old heads will pearl-clutch at the heavy reliance on video projection, but it was deployed skillfully and that’s simply how staging Wagner will have to occur, as revenue streams dry. Otto Schenk and Günther Schneider-Siemssen aren’t coming through that door again, to build entire forests and massifs. Zvulun reports that 2024-25’s season will be themed by that most durable of monomyths, the hero’s journey. We should expect a fine “Siegfried” next year. Thank goodness that anyone in North America can mount an entire Ring in the 2020s.


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