Saturday, August 17, 2013

St. Louis' Union Ave Opera Production of "Walküre" is Triumph

Part II - Die Walküre

   I had the opportunity to experience part II of the Ring last night at Union Ave Opera of St. Louis.  They have embarked upon a 4 year project to produce all 4 Ring operas in the Graham Vick/Jonathan Dove reduction.  And right off the bat I simply want to say the performance last night was a triumph.  Union Ave Opera deserves much, much congratulations for tackling such a huge project (even in reduction the Ring is challenging) and for doing such an excellent job.  I want to also say that last night's Walküre was a big improvement over last year's Rheingold for reasons I will spell out below.  My review of Rheingold is below several posts.
    First, the cast was terrific - all of them.  James Taylor as Siegmund and Amber Smoke as Sieglinde even looked alike.  Their singing was beautiful, and their acting really drew you into them.  I felt more compassion for them last night than I had remember ever feeling before for them before.  And for the first time I felt like I wanted to go up on stage and tell Fricka to back off, and leave this poor couple of suffering twins alone.  Fricka was brilliantly sung by Elise Qugliata (returning from last year) and she was wonderful - cold and manipulative.  Everything you want in Fricka.  The Wotan of Timothy Bruno was also very effective (he was much better this year I thought).  At times I felt he displayed a little vocal unevenness, but this disappeared by the Farewell scene at the end and he really did an outstanding job of bringing the audience into his own pain and struggle.  Ultimately Wotan is not a terribly sympathetic character - he is arrogant and cruel.  But Timothy Bruno found a way to make us actually care for this god, even in the midst of his heartless cruelty to his Walsüng twins.  Nathan Whitson was a great Hunding - what a gorgeous sonorous bass voice!  I was sorry so much of his part was cut as I would like to have heard more of him (this is true with Siegmund as well).  The 3 (yes count them 3) Valkyries were very good - singing in close harmony they all nailed their hiyotohos.  Their part and scene was drastically cut so we didn't get to enjoy them as much as we might have.  
    Without taking anything from anyone else the star of this production was without a doubt Alexandra LoBianco as Brünnhilde.  I have seen the complete Ring many times - in the theater, at the Met, at LOC, on TV, Video, YouTube, etc...  I probably watch through the entire Ring at least a couple times each year.  And Alexandra can stand equal to the best Brünnhildes I have ever seen.  She was terrific in every way.  Vocally she nailed the role - not a small feat even in this reduced version and smaller venue.  Her voice was always shimmering and beautiful.  One thing I always watch for is how the Brünnhilde manages the decision to defy Wotan. This is not an easy scene dramatically and not every Brünnhilde pulls it off convincingly.  Not so here, I totally believed her.  What other choice could she have made.  Which then made Wotan's reaction to her all the more heart-wrenching and unreasonable.  It really became all about his need to be in control.  Brava Alexandra for allowing me to experience the best Brünnhilde I have experienced since Hildegard Behrens over 20 years ago!  This soprano deserves a major career.
     That being said I have to say that while Scott Schoonover did a great job pacing this opera there were problems in the pit.  In fact the only musical problems of the evening came from the pit.  Specifically (sorry - I can't ignore this) - intonation in the brass.  At times it was just terrible!  Yes I now the parts are hard, probably even more so in reduction (I have played reductions of other scores and I know that it increases the workload).  But come on, the pitch problems were at times so blatant that they detracted from the stage.  Also, the lower strings (specifically the celli) struggled in Act II.  Otherwise the orchestra was good.  The woodwinds were wonderful - I especially loved Donita Bauer on Bassoon and Jeanine York-Garesché on clarinet (but it is her bass clarinet work that really stood out).  My old friend and colleague Ann Homan played beautifully as well equally on oboe and English Horn.  The upper strings were terrific and there were times when both Principal Horn Nancy Schick and Principal Trumpet Robert Souza were really glorious.  The percussion/timpani balance (which I complained about in the Rheingold review below) was much better.  On the whole the orchestration works pretty well.  But one criticism from Rheingold continues - there needs to be more low brass.  This score needs a tuba!  Would it have ruined the concept to have added the tuba into the score.  I would like to petition Jonathan Dove to please add back in at least a tuba and maybe even a bass trombone.  (What in the world are they going to do with that incredible tuba solo at the beginning of Act II of Siegfried?).
     On the whole the cuts worked much better in Walküre than they did in Rheingold.  A couple of the cuts in Rheingold were very awkward and disconcerting (especially the cut at the beginning of the Niebelheim scene).  But not so with Walküre.  For the most part they were pretty seamless and smoother.  I really only noticed a couple of them.  For example, I was sorry that Vick/Dove felt they had to cut the death of Hunding.  So instead we have Wotan waving his spear and Hunding collapsing.  It would have added maybe 5 minutes max to have included Wotan's bitter lines - "go pray to Fricka - weh, weh, weh."  The changing of act arrangement was ok and probably necessary, but I thought ending Act II quietly was anti-climactic and disappointing.  I really didn't mind that the Ride of Valkyries was cut so drastically, it really doesn't add much to the plot and with only 3 Valkyries and I don't think the banter would have worked.  But I was surprised they chose to cut Waltraute.  She is going to make an appearance in part IV and the connection, I think is important.  Now maybe Graham/Vick will cut the Waltraute scene from Götterdämerung (I hope not) - so then it won't matter.  But just like cutting Mime from Rheingold I think it detracts from the connecting of the Ring together.
    The costumes were really nice - much better than Rheingold and I liked the projections - especially the fire at the end - very effective.  Some of the mountain projections looked a lot like LOTR scenes.  And my son pointed out to me that Nothung seemed to be an exact copy of Narsil from LOTR.  I like the connections with LOTR, even if they are not explicit (there were more in Rheingold).  
     In closing I just want to say again, this was a terrific production.  Ultimately the best part of this reduced production is to heighten the psychological depth of the story.  And I found this quite moving.  Union Ave. Opera deserves much congratulations for this. Thanks and Bravi Tutti!