World-renowned singer Placidio Domingo graces the stage of DAR Constitution hall in the Washington Opera’s performance of Die Walkure, the most popular of Richard Wagner’s four-opera Ring cycle.
There is no doubt that the entire cast is vocally equipped to handle the music’s intricacies, adding a virtuosic dimension to a cast of characters from Norse Mythology. The exaggerated dynamic ranges typical of Wagner’s style force the singers to match both the power of a full brass section and the whisper of scattered flutes.
The least action-packed segment of the opera, Act I highlights the emotions and vocal abilities of each singer. But despite the lack of plot movement and reiterated dialogue, it does not drag or feel overly dramatic.
As Siegmund, Domingo displays an exceptional ability to capture specific emotions through perfectly controlled sound and vocal inflection. Setting his talent apart from other cast members, Domingo contains his volume and resonance within subtle differences to conjure specific shades of emotion.
Domingo’s stage movements, however, did not appear as natural as those of his romantic counterpart, Anja Kampe, who plays Sieglinde. In her Washington Opera debut, it seemed as if Kampe is instinctively conducting the orchestra, whereas Domingo sometimes looks like he is moving in response to musical cues. The orchestra’s tone echoes Kampe’s reactions, creating an interpretative look at her internal monologue.
Kampe’s stage presence does not allow audience members to lose focus as they glance back and forth from the stage to the caption screen. Because Act I revolves around emotions, her impeccable timing communicates the subtle nuances of her character.
A native German, Kampe rolls through the text with clarity and ease, while other characters’ diction sometimes sounds heavy or artificially stressed. Her bright soprano vocals are an ideal match to Domingo’s graceful tenor. Lightly-colored vocals in love scenes between Siegmund and Sieglinde set the stage for a compelling contrast to the bellicose world of the Valkyries in the next two scenes.
In his role as Wotan, king of the warrior gods, Alan Held’s authoritative baritone commandeers the stage. Linda Watson’s confident soprano is an effective match. She plays Brunnhilde, Wotan’s favorite daughter. Interplay between these strong characters and voices is a wakeup call from the tranquil close of Act I. Brunnhilde challenges her father’s authority when he orders her to let Siegmund die in combat. The warrior king and his wife disapprove of Siegmund’s love affair with his sister, Sieglinde.
But apparently, even some warrior princesses think incest is best.
Woton is furious when Brunnhilde attempts to protect Siegmund in battle. In his rage, Woton violates the supernatural laws of war, killing both Siegmund and his opponent.
Act II features the Opera’s most memorable tune, “Ride of the Valkyries.” This melody is featured in numerous movie scores, as well as the Elmer Fudd classic, “Capture the Rabbit.” Because of this and other moments of orchestral brilliance, the score of Die Walkure is able to stand alone; it is often performed without the theatrics.
Combined with the performers’ skills, the music distracts the audience’s attention from the often-laughable set and special effects, but not from DAR Constitution Hall’s long lines for bathrooms and overcrowded foyer. Though the show’s high caliber warranted the attendance, the opera’s overall momentum was crushed during each intermission as people pushed their way through a sea of grumbling opera-goers.
After the frustrations of intermission, the momentum is rebuilt in Act III. The scene is fueled with a tragic and mystical ambiance from chilling dissonances sung by Woton’s eight daughters, the Valkyries. The power struggle between Woton and Brunnhilde returns as Woton condemns his daughter for disobeying his command and Brunnhilde defends the strength of love in a passionate aria.
Woton orders Brunnhilde to leave the Valkyries and live among mortals. Brunnhilde is forced to marry the first man who can wake her and brave the ring of fire that now surrounds her. Regardless of cheesy special effects, the point was made.
Wagner composed Die Walkure in the late 18th century, attempting to invent a new art of musical drama. In his model, he composed both lyrics and score. The compelling themes are continually reinforced, and this masterful combination of music and drama must be handled with care. The Washington Opera’s performance meticulously harnesses its performers’ skills to accomplish this task.