Houston ‘Walküre’ Showcases Two Starry Sopranos

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Brunnhilde, Wotan
Wotan (Iain Paterson) commands a ring of fire around his rebellious Brünnhilde (Christine Goerke) in ‘Die Walküre.’
(Houston Grand Opera photos by Lynn Lane)
By William Albright

HOUSTON — When casting Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Houston Grand Opera probably didn’t think of the frothy, intriguingly fidelity-testing comedy as a potential breeding ground for future Wagnerians. But that’s what it has turned out to be.

Making her first U.S. stage appearance as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre on April 18, Christine Goerke was HGO’s Fiordiligi eight years earlier.

(Lane)
Wagnerian siblings: Simon O’Neill as Siegmund, Karita Mattila as Sieglinde.

And Karita Mattila, in her role debut as Sieglinde, established solid Mozartean credentials in Così’s soprano lead not once but twice, in 1988 and again in 1991, when she also sang Donna Anna opposite Thomas Allen’s Don Giovanni and Renée Fleming’s Donna Elvira. Indeed, the 1988 Così fielded an especially fertile Wagnerian farm team. Gösta Winbergh, the Ferrando, went on to sing Lohengrin (HGO 1992), Erik, Parsifal, Walther von Stolzing, and even Tristan.

Die Walküre is the second installment in Houston’s Ring Cycle, which began last season with Das Rheingold and continues through 2017. The cycle marks the American premiere of the project first created by the Catalan theater group La Fura dels Baus in 2007, directed by Carlus Padrissa, and captured on Blu-ray and DVD.

(Lane)
The Fura dels Baus concept combines sci-fi and Stone Age imagery.

A co-production of Valencia’s Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia and Florence’s Maggio Musicale, it is noted for its innovative use of acrobats and computer-generated imagery. Padrissa also directs the Houston production, which is conducted by Patrick Summers, the company’s music director, who had previously conducted Rheingold and Tristan here. He sometimes let quieter musical lines slacken, but the full-throttle moments packed plenty of drive and punch. And the staging was visually stunning. Placing singers atop mobile cranes prevented any slippage into park-and-bark stasis, and the fallen warriors transported to Valhalla by Brünnhilde and her sisters  were arrestingly shown as humans and mannequins dangled in a giant mobile or swung pendulum-like in a huge openwork ball. Padrissa observed Wagner’s call for an eye patch for Wotan, but otherwise he let his fertile imagination give the opera a decidedly (and excitingly) nontraditional look.

Goerke, 45, had sung the rebellious Valkyrie only twice before: in a 2012 concert performance in New Zealand (talk about an out-of-town tryout) and onstage early this year with Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company. But by then, she had already been scheduled to replace Deborah Voigt, who these days seems to be steering her career into the less vocally exacting realm of cabaret and Broadway musicals, in the Metropolitan Opera’s 2018–19 revival of its controversial Robert Lepage Ring Cycle.

Goerke is making her debut in the role. (Lane)
Goerke is commanding in her U.S. debut as the rebel Valkyrie.

There were a few harsh and slightly under-pitch moments in her performance here, but on the whole Goerke met the role’s many demands commandingly. While her middle voice lacks ideal roundness and warmth, her soprano’s strength and quick vibrato (uncommon in these wobble-plagued times) allowed it to pierce Wagner’s heavy orchestration. And she sang and acted with passion and sensitivity, whether sounding her battle cry, informing Siegmund of his imminent death, or pleading for Sieglinde’s safety and Wotan’s forgiveness.

Sieglinde’s theatrical challenges are especially daunting in this production. Director Padrissa has Hunding’s brutalized wife literally live like a dog. Her arms tattooed with a row of geometric shapes, she is leashed with a long rope around her neck, moves about the stage in a crouching duck walk or on all fours, and cringingly hunkers down when not in motion. She finally stands up on understandably shaky legs as Siegmund liberates her. All that must be hard on knees and muscles, but Mattila, 54, took it all in (no pun intended) stride and sang with thrilling richness and steadiness. Her soprano soared with ease in Sieglinde’s ecstatic outpourings, which makes one wonder why she waited so long to tackle the role — and why she now seems to be dabbling in mezzo material.

In the Met’s 2016–17 season, Mattila will essay the Kostelnička in Janáček’s Jenůfa, a role often filled by dramatic mezzos, and in 2017–18 she will appear as Klytämnestra, a haggard character often assigned to veteran mezzos, opposite the Elektra of Goerke.

Goerke and Mattila were supported by several experienced Wagnerians. Simon O’Neill, HGO’s Lohengrin in 2009, has performed Siegmund all over the world, and his Parsifal, Stolzing, and Erik are also well-traveled. He acted stalwartly, catapulting himself into Hunding’s hut with a forward shoulder roll. And his singing was strong and ringing (he seemed to be going for a new length-record on the first-act cries of “Wälse!”), if also at times a bit nasal and lacking in light and shade.

Paterson's Wotan confronted by Fricka. (Lane)
Vengeful goddess Fricka (Jamie Barton) challenges Wotan (Paterson).

Iain Paterson’s seasoned Rheingold Wotan was seen here last year, and his international résumé includes all the major Wagner baritone roles except, it would seem, Lohengrin’s Telramund. He provided imposing acting and a warm, solid voice capable of both tenderness and heft. Ain Anger has sung all the big Wagner bass roles throughout Europe, and his aptly menacing Hunding boasted booming, ink-black tone. Jamie Barton, Fricka in HGO’s Ring Cycle-launching Rheingold last year, is as new to Wagner as her soprano colleagues, but the vengeful goddess’s music benefited from her full, ripe mezzo.

A combination of sci-fi and Stone Age imagery characterizes the innovative work of set designer Roland Olbeter, costume designer Chu Uroz, lighting designer Peter van Praet, and video designer Franc Aleu. The action unfolds in what look like a planetarium show, a video game, and a snow globe. Stage-filling projections show planets (including Earth), balls of boiling gases, eclipses, a slow-moving comet, gentle snowfalls, the scary eyes of Hunding’s hunting dogs, and the vast blackness of space flecked with pin-point stars. Especially impressive is the sword-bearing tree in Hunding’s hut. With a trunk approaching baobab thickness, it rotates and changes shimmering textures and colors like a cuttlefish.

Hunding’s hut also features a ring of huge animal bones that presages the circle of magic fire that will be lit by a platoon of torch-bearers to protect the sleeping Brünnhilde. The human characters wore tattered clothes or shaggy animal hides, while the gods sported futuristic robes and moved around the stage, bobbing and swooping, atop boom-like cranes propelled and manipulated by dark-clad stagehands. There were cranes for only four of Brünnhilde’s eight Valkyrie sisters, but both the airborne singers and the grounded ones teamed up downstage for a lusty face-front rendition of their iconic Ride.

William Albright is a freelance writer in Houston.

Four of the Valkyries were on cranes. (Lane)
The visually arresting ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ puts four of Brunnhilde’s sisters airborne atop moving cranes.