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Review: Houston Grand Opera’s ‘Die Walkure’

by Olin Chism 4 May 2015 5:07 PM

The sheer vocal power on display in this second installment of the HGO’s Ring Cycle overcame some of the strange staging choices.


hgo flying gods

Flying gods and goddesses? Or Imperial Walkers? Photos: Lynn Lane

HOUSTON — The Houston Grand Opera’s Die Walküre is a triumph, of sorts — a triumph of voice over gimmickry. Some of the gimmicks are interesting, some are irritating, but the musical performance is always the dominant, and sometimes saving, factor.

Die Walküre, which closes Sunday, is Round 2 of the Houston Grand Opera’s four-year cycle of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung. Round 1, Das Rheingold, was presented last year. Rounds 3 and 4, Siegfried and Die Götterdämmerung, respectively, will come in 2016 and 2017.

To deal with a couple of Walküre’s irritations first, director Carlus Padrissa has Siegmund and Sieglinde crouching down in a kind of frog posture, hamstrung by ropes and wearing something resembling animal — or perhaps cavemen — costumes.

This not only robbed the two of even a trace of dignity but seemed inescapably uncomfortable. After a considerable length of time, they assumed a more conventional posture, but the memory of their ordeal lingered.

What became another irritation had a more justifiable foundation but didn’t work quite as it should have. The principal singers had crane-like apparatuses that lifted them high above the stage floor. The idea was certainly defensible: to free them — gods that they were — from earth’s bounds and allow them to soar in three dimensions.

But in practice, the trick left some of the singers and some in the audience a little uncomfortable: The seatbelt-like safety mechanism that kept the gods from falling seemed a little awkward in fastening and unfastening, and the guys who operated the cranes sometimes seemed to miss a cue (I remember a scene in Das Rheingold in which a goddess apparently was temporarily stranded on high).

But these are minor complaints and fade in light of Houston’s across-the-board superb vocal and orchestral performance (heard on April 22).

HGO walkure1

Iain Patterson as Wotan, Christine Goerke as Brunnhilde.

Heading the list of standouts was Christine Goerke as a Brünnhilde producing thrills of power and tone that make one eager for the next two years’ Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Goerke has full Rings at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Metropolitan Opera on her schedule; she looks likely to be known as one of the Wagner greats before she’s through.

Wagner’s twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde, were taken by Simon O’Neill and Karita Mattila. If not quite scaling the heights of Goerke, they produced vocal beauty and power sufficient to create memorable impressions.

Iain Paterson had the voice and sense of command to create a top-rank Wotan, though it seemed to me that he was showing symptoms of vocal fatigue toward the end of the evening.

The Hunding of Ain Anger and Fricka of Jamie Barton, as well as a consistently superb group of eight Valkyries, made the evening an all-round vocal and dramatic success.

Not least of the performance’s strong points was the mastery of conductor Patrick Summers and the playing, both subtle and grand, of the Houston Grand Opera orchestra.

The production team, in addition to Padrissa, was Roland Olbeter (set designer), Chu Uroz (costume designer), Peter van Praet (lighting designer), Franc Aleu (video designer) and Antonio Castro (lighting realizer).

Those last two positions show how much technology has invaded opera. Aida with elephants and camels? Those were the good old days. No more. Now they’d be high-tech projections — virtual elephants and camels, surrealistically designed.