Wild Ride At The Bowl: Director Gallops In With A Bold Spin On Wagner

Video screens flanked the Hollywood Bowl for a performance of Act III of Wagner’s ‘Die Walküre’ with Gustavo Dudamel leading the LA Philharmonic. (Photo by Timothy Norris/Los Angeles Philharmonic)

HOLLYWOOD — If there is a single, most popular, most-often-performed act in Wagner’s Ring cycle, it would have to be Act III of Die Walküre — the one that opens with the famous/infamous “Ride of the Valkyries” and closes with the sparkling “Magic Fire Music.”

One of the Hollywood Bowl’s historical landmarks was a Die Walküre in 1938 in which 18 costumed Valkyries galloped down the slopes overlooking Daisy Dell on white horses. Act III was the vehicle that served as a dry run for the Georg Solti/John Culshaw Decca Ring, which gave impetus to recording and releasing the rest of the cycle for the first time — an audacious gamble for the late-1950s. Much closer to our time, in 2019 I remember an Act III at Tanglewood in which a tremendous clap of thunder greeted Andris Nelsons as he ascended the podium, followed by a real howling thunderstorm during the “Ride” that didn’t halt until the exact point where Wagner’s stage directions indicated the storm was over. Wow.

Yuval Sharon

And now the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in the latest of Gustavo Dudamel’s annual summer explorations of concert opera, turned maverick director Yuval Sharon and his green-screen technology experiments loose on Act III in a co-production with Sharon’s Detroit Opera at the Bowl on July 17.

Sharon’s idea was to give the outdoor audience a simultaneous choice of which staging to view. Behind Dudamel and the LA Phil was a green screen before which the cast of Walküre went through their concert poses occasionally accompanied by little green men (my term) who acted as stagehands.

On four giant video screens flanking the Bowl and smaller video monitors in front of the apron, the cast members were catapulted into a no-man’s land of geometrical electronic landscapes where they seemed to fly on digital motorcycles during the “Ride,” walk thoughtfully about, hide behind rocky clefts, or ascend a peak on a celestial escalator. In his program note, available only online (it figures), Sharon calls it “a video game in real time.” Okay.

The live action onstage was rather routine and static, but at least those who want to be their own stage director could pick and choose which characters to focus upon. For the digital action, which was more enticing to the eye, you had to rely on the director’s choice. To catch everything in one pass was to miss something or other along the way — another Sharon trademark. Most of the time, I found this digital-age multitasking rather cold and uncommunicative, at odds with the hyper-Romantic music coming from the orchestra and the all-too-human family drama among the gods.

The one section that really connected with the music was the “Magic Fire” sequence. Brünnhilde was put to sleep in a bubble surrounded by a spectacular backdrop of stars, galaxies, meteors, and comets that looked a lot like the images the Webb telescope just sent back to Earth. When Wotan commanded Loge to surround the bubble with fire, a bolt of fire worked its way up the digital mountains and commenced orbiting the bubble as Wagner’s orchestration sparkled. Now, that was amazing — and Sharon’s showman instincts left those final images lingering in the mind the most vividly.

Amber Wagner (left), Christine Goerke (third from right), and the Valkyries. (Timothy Norris/Los Angeles Philharmonic)

The casting of singers was world-class from top to bottom. Soprano Christine Goerke repeated her imposing Brünnhilde from the 2019 Tanglewood production, and another member of that cast, the mellow-toned yet powerful soprano Amber Wagner, returned as Sieglinde. Baritone Matthias Goerne easily scaled the high range of Wotan’s first music and brought further resonance, solidity, and compassion to “Wotan’s Farewell.” The Valkyries (Alexandria Shiner, Laura Wilde, Tamara Mumford, Ronnita Miller, Jessica Faselt, Laura Krumm, Renée Tatum, Deborah Nansteel) were appropriately wild in voice, and the Bowl’s amplification favored the voices in general. Actor Sigourney Weaver narrated a video primer before the “Ride” started up, laying out the plot of what came before in the Ring as an electronic soundtrack droned underneath.

And somewhere within this future-world production lay Dudamel and the LA Phil’s contribution — conventionally paced, if a bit on the fast side, and beautifully played, with five harps rippling prominently through the “Magic Fire Music.” One wonders if a full Ring is in the back of Dudamel’s mind as he conquers the opera houses of Europe — including his own Paris Opera — and if this, like the early Solti recording, is but a teaser for coming attractions. In any case, it is a coming attraction as-is for Sharon’s Detroit Opera, which will present Act III indoors Sep. 17, 18, and 20 with Goerke back as Brünnhilde and Andrew Davis conducting.