Review: Die Walkure – LA Opera
The key to opera in most minds, especially the filmmaker, is that of the drama and cinematic elements. Opera can be overwrought but simple in its metaphors. The key is to look at older works in more contemporary perceptions without losing the time frame of the material and make a mistake by going too modern as many have tried. With the new production of “Die Walküre” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion under the auspice of the LA Opera, the aspect of Richard Wagner, which has always been highlighted in mainstream perception in “Ride Of The Vaylkries”, takes on an essential neo-modernist take while still having its heels planted firmly in Nordic Mythology.
The key is setting. With Achim Freyer’s design and directing what would normally be a pursuit in sword and sorcery becomes one of isolation and of neo-classical revision. By creating a set that is more sensory perception than dissertation, Freyer creates a vision that is poignant but also makes the audience focus purely on the relationship in movement with the characters, especially their subconscious.
The opera is broken in three acts over a 4 1/2 hour period. While the 1st act creates the groundwork with a mostly static perception of a love growing, it is truly the 2nd act that shows the brilliance of the production. Notwithstanding certain technical glitches because of the new age lighting of the piece, the iconic imagery is made quite clear. The 2nd Act maintains its best material because of the high drama and tragedy it revels in. But beginnings are important.
The opera follows the forbidden taboo love of Siegmund and Sieglinde as they come to be called, with LA Opera General Director and famous tenor Plácido Domingo taking on the role of the former. Most of the first act speaks of love and wars but within the minds of the individuals which forces the audience to focus on the storyline and the music which is quite clever despite a lack of energy. The first essence that becomes clear, and was also apparent in the story elements from the pre-performance lecture by conductor James Conlon, is the comparison to both “Lord Of The Rings” and “Star Wars” in certain aspects of the production. Of course, Wagner was much earlier but he himself got his ideas from Nordic Mythology.
What is really prevalent in the first minutes of the opera is the lightwands that act as stand-ins for swords. They create a neon fabric that directs the eye but also makes one think of lightsabers (ala “Star Wars”). The set itself is on a tilt using a rotating disc that is both practical and industrial looking which adds a different dimension to the production. The first act belongs purely to Domingo and Anja Kempe who plays his love Sieglinde. They end the first act with their love but tragedy is yet to come.
Act Two revolves in two arenas: one of the gods and one of the battlefield. What this allows in terms of music, set design and mood are a sense of the abstract balanced with high drama. The discussions between overall God Wotan and the Goddess Fricka speak to a tender element of immortals which resides in vanity. Like Zeus with Perseus, Wotan seems proud of Siegmund who he seems to consider a son. Again like “Star Wars”, there is aspect of the father who becomes blinded by his own ambition with his two twins wrapped in a taboo slowly unhinging his kingdom. The character who is brought in to create the Harbinger much like the Medusa in Greek Mythology is Brünnhilde, who as a Walküre (Valykrie) brings the wrath onto mortals and the battlefield. During one sequence as Wotan and Fricka discuss the manipulation of Brünnhilde, we get to see the different pieces of manipulation that flash through his mind to make Siegmund relent. Here Freyer’s design begins to evolve into something between David Lynch and Tim Burton with odd troll-like beings and long limbed canines parading in shadow while other thoughts have grotesque babies and deathlike would-be courtesans. It is actually quite groundbreaking in terms of classical opera reinterpretation.
What is even more interesting, probably purely by coincidence, is that the icon of Wotan’s helmet even though it resembles a cyclops eye is at times used with a hat that makes it look very much like Rorschach from “Watchmen”. When the parade of deviance is gone, Wotan provides Brünnhilde with orders that are contradicting from the start which cause her eventual downfall of conscience. The sequences where the two lovers are struck down each in their individual ways has the most effective brilliance in the context of the entire opera. When Siegmund is standing over his love dead as the Harbinger of Death in the form of Brunnhilde stands in shadow behind him (see above picture), the effect is quite chilling and great. When the tables are turned and time is repeated, Siegmund is struck with his own mortality. The curtain fall creates a great cliffhanger.
Act Three, by comparison, comes off as a bit of an anti-climax through no fault of its own. “Ride Of The Valkyries” is the setting point and the flying of the warrior women begins with great fanfare but then retreats into very static motion and delivery. Despite the well meaning proponent of the performers, a bulk of the remaining story focuses on Brünnhilde trying to talk her way out of Wotan’s wrath. The vision of it becomes repetitive despite a later cinematic ending with tinges of “Sleeping Beauty”. It is, at this point however, that the opera seems to run out of steam. That said, even in great stories and performances, there are weak angles. In retrospect, the 3rd Act was simply anti-climatic in comparison the second act. It has been the case with many artistic visions (none the least was “Empire Strikes Back” to “Return Of The Jedi”). A shorter 3rd act showing the swift wrath of Wotan might have been more jarring and would have been in keeping up with the look of the opera. Granted this is an opera that has been performed in essence for centuries so it is canon. But, in a form of criticism, the perception of the 3rd Act’s shortcoming is valid.
“Die Walküre” is an opera that is both groundbreaking and classical in its new production showing at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion. With a stellar 2nd act, brilliant new visuals by Achim Freyer and stellar performances all around, especially from Anja Kampe as Sieglinde, Vitalij Kowaljow as Wotan and Plácido Domingo as Sieglund, this new production, heightened by the music work of James Conlon, has cinematic overtones and drama to boot.
To buy tickets to LA Opera’s production of “Die Walküre”, click here.