Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ringblogging II: Die Walküre in Seattle

To exemplify the sensitivity and imagination at work in director Stephen Wadsworth's superb Ring production, you could hardly do better than the scene between Wotan and Fricka at the beginning of Act 2 of Walküre. I've had occasion to rhapsodize about other aspects of this scene before, but what struck me on Monday night was how fierce and yet tender the argument between these two becomes in Wadsworth's staging.

Think about that showdown too often goes — an onslaught of legalism and passive-aggressive whining in which a henpecked husband is brought to heel (yes, he concedes that Fricka's right, but always reluctantly and generally without a hint of grace). But Wadsworth takes a much more humane view of this marriage — particularly in Rheingold, which is studded with little interludes of smooching and schmuggling, but here too, as the relationship comes under its most severe pressure.

In this version — and I've never witnessed the scene enacted with the degree of musical and theatrical vividness that Greer Grimsley and Stephanie Blythe lent it this time around — Fricka brings Wotan around to his better side through the sheer force of her love and the bond they share. She looks him face-on — fearlessly and firmly but sympathetically — and leads him, rather than merely chivvying him, through the steps of her unassailable case. And when she invokes the sanctity of marriage, it's not (or not only) in the spirit of a patroness protecting the prerogatives of her constituency. She's reminding Wotan of their own marriage, of what it has meant and still means to him. It's as though Brünnhilde, with her catty, callow remarks about storm and strife and womanly battles, is the child watching a parental fight with no understanding of the depth of feeling underlying it.

As I say, that's just one splendor among many. You could also point, for instance, to the extraordinary flux of emotional tension in Act 1, dispelled in a huge rush of liberation in the Winterstürme duet, or the contrapuntal skill with which Wadsworth deploys and individuates a gaggle of Valkyries in Act 3. It's a joy to hear and see this story told so fluidly and with such resourceful energy.

Musically, the performance was mostly superb as well, though I continue to wish that Robert Spano's conducting could match the zest and vibrancy of the staging. Stuart Skelton and Margaret Jane Wray were phenomenal Wälsungs, singing with unbridled power, precision and tonal freshness; their Winterstürme was a masterpiece of erotic urgency. Andrea Silvestrelli made a strong Hunding, and Grimsley was first-rate, from that detailed beginning to Act 2 all the way to the emotionally capacious Farewell.

The one problem — a big one — was Janice Baird's tentative, underpowered Brünnhilde. I knew even before she opened her mouth for the first "Hojotoho" that trouble was on the way, because I could see her going through the same mental calculations my cat makes before leaping onto the kitchen counter: gauging the height of the ascent, envisioning a practice run or two, re-checking the calculations, and finally making the jump. She boasts a lively, girlish stage presence, and there was some probing lyricism to her singing in Act 3; but she's no warrior maiden.


At 8/13/2009 1:41 PM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

Oopsie! Perhaps they should have stuck with Eaglen or hired Brewer, even better.

At 8/13/2009 9:48 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hi, Josh, looking forward to your Siegfried review. I didn't hate Baird as much as you did, but she's no Jane Eaglen.
Cheers, Melinda Bargreen

At 8/13/2009 10:05 PM, Anonymous Laurent said...

While I didn’t share your enthusiasm about Rheingold, I have to say I left this Walküre walking on air for the exact reasons you describe (too bad I came crashing down to the ground during Siegfried). I’d never seen the first part of the second act sung and acted with such brilliance — Blythe & Grimsley were absolutely outstanding. Even the orchestra had a sort of epiphany such was the intensity of the drama. I would also agree that Baird is no Brünnhilde, which is a significant problem for the rest of the cycle.

At 8/23/2009 9:35 AM, Anonymous John said...

Maybe you might want to see the RING again. I saw the secod cycle and Baird was FANTASTIC. And thank god she is no Jane Eaglen. This is a woman in the prime of her life. A true Gwyneth Jones type Walkure.

At 8/23/2009 9:37 AM, Blogger Joshua Kosman said...

Maybe you might want to see the RING again.

I do I do I do! :)

But I agree with you about Miss Baird. Read on...

At 8/24/2009 5:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well - I just saw the second cycle. I've seen many, and though I really loved the staging and sets on this one, and I loved most all of the singing, I was underwhelmed by Baird. I just couldn't get past the vibrato. Her acting is superb, however. I agree that I've never seen a more lovely awakening...but, ouch! that voice! Most everyone I have talked too was not too upset about it, so maybe it's just my ear that won't adjust. She was better in the latter part of Gotterdammerung, but I longed for a purer sound. I didn't like the conducting, either. Still - A Ring's a Ring and it's an experience like no other.


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