Monday, April 1, 2019

Contrasts in Opera

This weekend provided two very enjoyable operatic experiences. The Met's much-criticized "machine" production of Wagner's Ring is being revived after a few years: Saturday afternoon we went to an HD presentation of the live performance of Die Walkure in the movies. This, the second opera in the four-opera series, is the strongest of the tetralogy. 

While it continues to story of the Ring of the Nibelung, it introduces the two most important female characters in the operas: Brunnhilde, the Valkyrie of the title, and Sieglinde, sister and wife of the hero Siegmund, and most significant as the mother of Siegfried, star of the last two operas and the hero whom Wotan, the increasingly beset king of the gods, hopes will do no less than save the world.

Two fine singers filled these roles. Christine Goerke, an American soprano, rose to the demands of Brunnhilde's mightiest appearance (she, as with Witan, appears in three of the four operas--not the same ones) and Eva-Marie Westbroek rendered a sparkling performance as Sieglinde, who, with Wotan, a resolute Greer Grimsley, holds the stage for the longest stretches.

The opera presents in stark form the moral and ethical trap in which Wotan finds himself ever since he stooped to trickery to take possession of the ring forged by Alberich who stole the Rhinegold from the Rhinemaidens. One might almost conclude that there was no good way to resolve this story since if Wotan had returned the ring to the Rhine--we are constantly reminded that the world will not be at peace until that occurs--what would have prevented Alberich or a similar-focused villain, from stealing it again and starting the whole cycle over.

Now Wotan has sought to set the stage for a great hero, who will be Siegfried, to save the gods and the world, but he is undone by his wife, Fricka, jealous of his romantic dalliances (one of which resulted in the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, the Walsungs), who insists that Siegmund lose the battle with Hunding, the snarling and snivelling basso who is married to Sieglinde, taken from the burning house he and his comrades had inflamed.

The message of the Ring often seems to be that no one's really all good or bad--well, not exactly: no one: Alberich the dwarf, his son Hagen, and brother Mime are unremittingly evil. Wotan is forced by his moral code to cast out his favorite child Brunnhilde (also the result of a dalliance with an unidentified woman not his wife) when she follows the message of his heart rather than his direct order and tries to save Siegmund.

Although the third act starts with the famous Ride of the Valkyries and proceeds to the magnificent Wotan's Farewell and Fire Music, the first two acts in this Met revival played wonderfully both dramatically and musically. Siegmund and Sieglinde brought the first act to exciting levels with their singing and acting, and Brunnhilde's appearance in Act Two enlivens the opera immediately. Even Jamie Barton, in the unsympathetic role of Fricka, was marvelous--she is younger than she looks as she won the Met's National Auditions only a few years ago. As always, the Met Orchestra, brought by the now non-person James Levine to its high level, performed Wagner's challenging score magnificently.

Sunday afternoon I saw music and drama students at Catholic University present Handel's early-17th century opera, Julius Caesar in Egypt, in a fine production at the Hartke Theater. It is amazing to realize that not only were countertenors often principal singers in the opera seria produced most notably by Handel (the roles were written for castrati) but none less than the might Julius Caesar is played by a countertenor.

We seem to be in an age when the revival of baroque has brought countertenors to the fore after a couple of centuries of being omitted from opera. Last year it was delightful to hear two countertenors singing Handel in a Broadway production of Farinelli and the King starring the great Mark Rylance. The performance, part of a three-day run at CU, was entirely student-performed, stage-managed, and designed: it was superbly done. Baroque opera, even by Handel, is a definitely different species and one which takes some getting used to. The harpsichord accompanying the recitatives also shows how some half a century or so later, Mozart would refine this standard of baroque into a more amazing technique in the three DaPonte operas.

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