Opera Review The Valkyrie
By M.D. Ridge

Wagner’s glorious music — brilliant theme after brilliant theme, abetted by one superb singer after another — was the star at the Harrison Opera House February 5 for Virginia Opera’s production of The Valkyrie, an abridged version of Die Walküre.

The opera, which has been called a parable of punishment and violated laws, begins with a huge storm; Siegmund, vigorously sung by tenor Erik Nelson Werner, seeks refuge from his pursuers. He falls instantly in love with Sieglinde, the able Melissa Citro, whose early strong vibrato eventually mellowed. Sieglinde —she’s his sister but neither knows it yet — returns his love even though she’s married to Hunding, sung with believable menace by Todd Robinson. Justly suspicious of the stranger, who turns out to have killed some of Hunding’s own kinsmen, Hunding lets him stay the night but promises a fight to the death the next day. Sieglinde drugs Hunding and flees with Siegmund.

Then the gods get involved.

Kelly Cae Hogan brought a powerful, dramatic voice to the title role of Wotan’s warrior-maiden daughter Brünnhilde, who risks his wrath to save Sieglinde and her just-conceived child. (The plot, like most legends, is juicy, lengthy and incredibly complicated.) Brünnhilde is punished for her disobedience and condemned to sleep surrounded by fire until awakened by a mortal who will claim her as wife. Hogan’s vocal and dramatic range is amazing — from the lightness and charm of her VO debut in The Merry Widow operetta to such demanding roles as Salome, Norma and the Marschallin. As Brünnhilde, she had to project sympathy for the doomed Siegmund; tender compassion for Sieglinde, which overrode her duty to obey Wotan’s order to let Siegmund die; and heartbroken pleading for a less ignominious fate for herself — all of these in the context of the Valkyrie’s terrible mission to choose those who will be slain in bloody battle.

James Johnson’s huge, portentous bass-baritone established the power of Wotan, first among the gods, and determined to save his human son Siegmund until his wife Fricka, the goddess of marriage, sung commandingly by mezzo-soprano Nina Lorcina, convinces him that Siegmund must be punished for his adulterous relationship with Sieglinde. (The gods’ bickering drew some laughter.) Johnson brought out the tension between Wotan’s promise to Fricka, his love for his favorite daughter and his conviction that Siegmund’s child would be the hero to save the gods. In The Valkyrie’s second half, Johnson and Hogan poured incredible passion into their thorny, difficult dilemma, wringing the hearts of the entire audience.

Brünnhilde’s eight Valkyrie sisters were convincingly sung by Dianne Barton, Elizabeth Hogue, Rachel J. Holland, Nicole Jenkins, Joyce Lundy, Michelle Owens, Heather Sreves and Sarah Williams. In addition to their bravura cries of “Ho jo to ho!” they projected true sisterly horror that Wotan’s punishment would expose Brünnhilde to the rule of any passing man who could discover her resting place. (Think Turandot!) The much-touted fly-by was disappointing, more Wizard of Oz than grand opera.

The guest conductor was Joseph Rescigno, principal conductor of the Florentine Opera Company of Milwaukeee. His reading brought out the more lyrical moments, perhaps at the expense of some excitement and brilliance. But Wagner is never dull, not even when trumpets and horn are noticeably off; and Rescigno provided full punctuation of Wotan’s dreadful curse.

Lillian Groag, for all her genius, couldn’t do a whole lot to counteract Wagner’s endless declamations; there was a lot of standing around brandishing spears in different configurations, and running back and forth in the chase and fight scenes. Still, she gave the Valkyries movement, personality and even humor.

The angular, fairly minimal set served for Hunding’s house, with its huge, gnarled ash tree, as well as for the mountains and the Valkyries’ Rock. A long ramp that slanted across the back of the set served to spotlight certain figures; however, the location noticeably muffled the love proclamations of Sieglinde and Siegmund.

Kendall Smith’s lighting design was reasonable for the most part, but some of the special effects, such as the strobe-flash lightning, clouds of dense smoke, and the “looky here, see the sword?” lighting of the ash tree, were remarkably cheesy. Early on, a strange, giant face glowered on a blue scrim; not identifiable as Wotan, who had not yet appeared, it looked as though Ed Ames’s Mingo was morphing into the Black Swan. Some liked the way the final fire surrounded Brünnhilde, but the mechanism rumbled and creaked.

One has to wonder about the choices of wig and makeup designer James McGough. Sieglinde’s very long, very twisty, very blond hair was terribly retro, but not in a good way, reminding one of Flagstad unbraided. However, Fricka’s reddish wig netted with jewels was perfect. Whatever the glittery, Nike-like “swooshes” on the foreheads of Siegmund and Sieglinde were meant to be or do, they added nothing, nor did Brünnhilde’s yin/yang-ish circle. However, the raven feathers on Wotan’s left eye and in the Valkyries’ hair, and the crests of feathers on their left arms, were quite effective in distinguishing them from mere mortals. Tracy Dorman’s costumes worked well; the Valkyries’ long, spangly skirts and tough-girl leather or snakeskin bodices were striking.

The German diction, coached by Bernd Ulken, was excellent, with nice clear vowels and crunchy consonants.

A cursory look at the program found weird typographical choices and run-on words and sentences. What used to be listed as Artistic Staff is now coyly called the Creative Team.

As audience members were gathering, the voice of Glenn Winters was heard bellowing from the mezzanine; both he and the piano were overly miked, painfully loud and largely incomprehensible.

It should also be noted that in spite of a tremendous effort to sell seats, with “50 percent off” sales and orchestra tickets going at $24, there were several empty seats; some filled up after the interval.

The bust of Peter Mark still stands in the lobby.

Guest Conductor Honored
By John Campbell

When we saw Cynthia Wright Swain on Sunday at a chamber recital she told us a fine story. At opening night of Virginia Opera's production of Richard Wagner's The Valkyrie guest Joseph Rescigno was taking his bow when he was greeted by a wave of flowers tossed up to him from the orchestra pit. Maestro Rescigno's response was to gather the flowers and give them to the singers and finally to toss a single flower back to the players, returning their appreciation with his own thanks.

A good story but are we understanding it correctly. Was it choreographed by the director or was it initiated by the orchestra? A call to a trusted Virginia Opera Orchestra friend gave us the answer. The intrumentalists were pleased that "the only drama in the production was the one on stage" and that the conductor had a clear concept of what he wanted and communicated it clearly in a respectful way.

I was told tht saying this with flowers revived an old Virginia Opera Orchestra tradition. Years ago when VO had guest conductors they acknowledged the maestro in this fashion. His sending a flower back to the pit seems to have been his spontaneous reaction.

Opera Review The Valkyrie
February 9, 2011
By John Campbell

We saw The Valkyrie Wednesday evening. Several friends and long-time readers wanted to know our evaluation. So here goes.

In the October 2002 performance by Virginia Opera and a video of an earlier Met performance we were impressed by the lovely music and big, exciting voices but Wagner's characters were off-putting, keeping us at arm's length. We found it melodramatic and exciting but never touching the heart.

This performance was different. From the moment Siegmund and Sieglinde tentatively expressed their love, Steve and and I were hooked. These were flawed humans, like us, looking for a way to find happiness and giving the quest their all.

For the first time I was pulled into caring about Brünnhilde. And the god Wotan with all his powers is vulnerable and flawed in his ability to communicate his feelings and not even he can make things come out the way he likes.

Here was deeply touching, tragic drama. M.D. Ridge, in her review pointed out how conductor Joseph Rescigno "brought out the more lyrical moments, perhaps at the expense of some excitement and brilliance." This it true and I think that is why we found it so intimate and touching. With hugely talented big voices it is easy to slip into a melodrama of cardboard characters who are bigger than life. Art song is my first love and this more intimate approach worked and will send me back to the video of the Ring Cycle because I really want to see how things turn-out for Brünnihilde. There is one more performance on Sunday afternoon and then the show goes to Fairfax and then to Richmond. We highly recommend it.

We hope some of our readers will share their experiences with us.

Virginia Opera
March 19, 2011
Opera Review MADAMA BUTTERFLY
by M.D. Ridge

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which opened March 19 at the Harrison Opera House, is a perennial favorite. Told in absolutely glorious music, the story of the teenaged geisha “married” to an American naval officer and deserted by him is designed to tug at the coolest heartstrings. Conductor Joseph Walsh led an orchestra of Richmond Symphony players in a nuanced, passionate reading that made the familiar score seem freshly appealing.

Lyric tenor Brian Jagde, a baritone Spectrum Artist three years ago when he sang Zaretsky in VO’s production of Eugene Onegin, was a thrilling Lt. Pinkerton. His big, expressive tenor still had that wonderful baritone richness all the way up into the very top notes, making believable and entrancing the character’s shifts from egoistic declamation to passion and tenderness. Jagde doesn’t move very fluidly and was hampered by an ill-fitting uniform; but the voice was first-rate.

As Cio-Cio-San, Sandra Lopez turned in a serviceable performance; less than believable as a fifteen-year-old in the first act, her voice warmed up by the middle of the second act, finally drawing the audience into the magic when Butterfly sees her beloved’s ship finally returning after three years. Magdalena Wór‘s clear, calm voice was just right for the attentive, self-effacing servant Suzuki. Their duet in the pretty flower scene was lovely. Unfortunately, busy stage movement distracted from the iconic Humming Chorus.

Levi Hernandez was excellent as Sharpless, the U.S. Consul, who functions almost as a Greek chorus, warning Pinkerton that his young bride actually believes the marriage is real, and showing compassion for Butterfly’s dire predicament and admiration for her unflagging fidelity. Hernandez limned a supporting character in the best possible sense.

The lesser roles were spot on. Jeffrey Halili brought great physical agility and insouciant humor to the role of the marriage broker Goro as well as a clear, bright voice that has matured since he sang Nero in VO’s 2007 Agrippina. Ashraf Sewailam gave Cio-Cio-San’s uncle, the Bonze, a commanding vocal and physical presence. Michael O’Halloran was formal but believable (in spite of the Bollywood getup) as the princely Japanese suitor rejected by the abandoned Butterfly.

Andrew Ross René and Shelly Milam were fine as the Imperial Commissioner and Pinkerton’s American wife. Young Isaak Mihalap was rather large for Butterfly’s two-year-old child Sorrow, but his stage manners were perfect. In the nonspeaking role of the adult Sorrow, John Charles Holman was the first person onstage: a mysterious figure in a fedora, carrying a suitcase with a child’s lantern whose revolving shade was painted with a cross, a ship, an American flag and the Statue of Liberty. (Full disclosure here: I had to look again at the director’s notes and the cast list to find out who the character was supposed to be. Good symbols are ambiguous, not baffling.)

Stage director Dorothy Danner and scenic designer Peter Harrison were working towards an intimate production with a fairly minimalist set — the ramp from The Valkyrie became the mountain road to Butterfly’s little house; white boxes served as furniture; and white panels on rollers were whizzed around, sometimes distractingly, as the walls of various rooms; when lighted from behind, they showed only the shadows of crucial actions. However, the ramp and scrim served well in the last scene, when the various characters from Butterfly’s past — her geisha friends, the Bonze, her relatives, the spurned Yamadori — appear there, silently mocking her while she plays out her agony downstage.

Kendall Smith’s lighting design was unobtrusive for the most part, and particularly attractive in the flower duet scene. James McGough got the wigs right this time, particularly Butterfly’s long, unbound hair which became an emblem of both intimacy and desperation.

Several elements posed odd questions: why did the very large cherry blossom branch go stiffly up and down as if on an elevator? Why did all those panels need so much twirling? Why was Pinkerton wearing what appeared a 1940s civilian suit but a period naval uniform? Why were the pretty, backlit umbrellas in the night scene simply left onstage when the lights came back up? Why stick a bright red, Carmen-like flower in Butterfly’s hair? Why were there so many empty seats for this very popular opera?

But in the end, the questions fade, and Puccini’s soaring music ultimately conquers.

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