Review: Die Walküre – Orchestra of the Music Makers – 5 Jan 2020
Richard Wagner: Die Walküre (The Valkyrie)
Bryan Register (Siegmund)
Lee Bisset (Sieglinde)
Daniel Sumegi (Hunding)
Warwick Fyfe (Wotan)
Alwyn Mellor (Brunnhilde)
Caitlin Hulcup (Fricka)
Taryn Fiebig (Gerhilde)
Janani Sridhar (Ortlinde)
Antoinette Halloran (Helmwige)
Sharon Prero (Siegrune)
Jade Tan Shi Yu (Waltraute)
Cassandra Seidemann (Roßweiße)
Fiona Campbell (Grimgerde)
Dominica Matthews (Schwertleite)
Orchestra of the Music Makers
Tzelaw Chan conductor
Edith Podesta director
Esplanade Concert Hall
Sunday, 5 Jan 2020, 4pm
Review by Derek Lim
Can a bad person create great art? You don’t need to look hard in classical music for evidence to say ‘yes’. Richard Wagner – anti-semite, sexist, womanizer and wife-stealer – could be the poster boy of flawed individuals, yet his music can be heard anywhere a symphony orchestra exists – a tribute to its undeniable humanity. If Der Ring des Nibelungen was his greatest creation, then Die Walküre is its five-hour-long fiercely beating heart.
So it’s almost shameful that it’s taken 150 years for the Singapore premiere of Die Walküre. In the event, there was perhaps no better orchestra to showcase it than the nearly recklessly ambitious Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM).
It’s often been said that Wagner’s orchestra, endlessly commenting and supporting the musical drama with leitmotifs, is the unseen soloist. This semi-staged production at the Esplanade Concert Hall shifted the attention back to the orchestra, placing the OMM firmly in the limelight.
The concert stage was extended by removing the first few rows of seats, presenting a foreground stage; in later acts this area extended to the raised platform behind the orchestra, accessed by a flight of stairs on either side. Huge curtains obscured the choir galleries to take us further away from the concert hall, while a large projection screen half the width of the stage and nearly two stories tall served as the canvas on which director Edith Podesta projected her scenes and surtitles.
Act I is the best known of the three. Conductor Tzelaw Chan seemed to want to keep it low-key here, as if to preserve the energy of his forces for later acts. In the bigger scheme of things it paid off, but audience-members expecting a more vigorous approach would have been disappointed. Largely deferential to his soloists, the orchestra was more accompanist than a willing participant to the events happening on stage.
Despite some lovely solos, the orchestra sounded rather subdued and not as excitable or responsive to the changes in pace as we would have hoped for. Several moments passed without making their mark. For example, in ‘Ein Schwert verhieß mir der Vater’, Wagner tone paints at the word ‘Blitz’ in ‘Des Blinden Auge leuchtet ein Blitz’ with a shimmer from the violins – tonight, that passed for nothing.
It was left to the excellent trio of singers to carry the drama. As Siegmund, Bryan Register’s voice was refreshingly lighter than is usually heard – more lyric than Heldentenor, but not at all lacking in vocal heft where needed, though there have been Siegmunds with more swagger. Pacing himself excellently, he made some truly heroic sounds in his cry for his father at ‘Wälse!’ while remaining convincing as the ardent lover in ‘Winterstürme’, with some excellent attention to word-colouring, as he did again in his Act II exchange with Brünnhilde.
He played off beautifully against his Sieglinde, the radiantly expressive Scottish soprano Lee Bisset, whose acting is one of the best I’ve ever seen on the operatic stage. Vulnerable and feminine, yet vocally sumptuous and infallible, she had me hanging on to her every phrase, with ‘Du bist der Lenz’ a slow blossom that ravished the ears.
A physically and vocally imposing Hunding, Daniel Sumegi’s dark, though not totally black bass had a hint of metal – his huge voice allowing him to declaim powerfully and with ease. Apart from his pushing aside Sieglinde at one point, his was a dignified Hunding for whom it was not difficult to feel empathy.
A little about the production concept now. Two cameras were constantly trained at the soloists and projecting onto the screen behind in monochrome, with cut-scenes appearing during certain instrumental interludes – very film noir, especially at the beginning. This was at times distracting, especially when the images of each soloist were of different sizes, and when the cameras couldn’t pan quickly enough, but it was most effective in amplifying the actors’ facial expressions.
Lee Bisset benefited the most from this treatment with her wonderful facial expressions. As Siegmund recounted his woeful tale, her face took on a tortured mien, with a deep empathy appearing, even as Hunding (Daniel Sumegi) became visibly agitated in his body language. But Act I is all about the chemistry between the twins, and the two portrayed this thrillingly, with the passages after Siegmund’s climactic extraction of Nothung everything you could ask for.
Any reservations I had about the orchestra in Act were happily cast aside in Act 2 and 3. With the band rejuvenated after their break and ready to rumble, Chan led them through their paces commandingly but also more freely, outlining each leitmotif, especially the frequently heard ‘Wotan’s Frustration’, vigorously.
A lot happens in Act 2 and it was to their great credit that concentration was sustained throughout its 90 minutes. Making his debut as Wotan, Warwick Fyfe struck a stoic figure with a painted-on eyepatch. With his warm yet commanding voice, he seemed more comfortable singing in one place than with the blocking.
In his Scene 2 monologue, his frustration and anger at his helplessness were palpable, though this was not enough to lift it out of the tedium of what is after all, narrative exposition. It was in wrath that he was most convincing, pounding his spear and stamping his foot down in Act 3 as he became increasingly frustrated.
It was his stage-wife, Caitlin Hulcup, who stole the preceding scene as the imperious, shrewish Fricka. Wearing a wedding gown (yes, we get that she is the goddess of marriage, but that’s a little on the nose, no?), with feathers over the sleeves, she exuded power, hurt and strength all at once. Another wonderful actor, she acted as much with her rich, secure, velvety mezzo as with her facial expressions, exiting triumphantly after brow-beating Wotan into submission – with a devastating arch of her left brow – leaving him to lick his wounds.
Frustratingly, it was the titular Valkyrie, Brünnhilde (Alwyn Mellor), who struggled to match the lofty standards of her colleagues. The role is synonymous with vocal indestructibility. Although her playful, almost mischievous ‘Hojotoho’ entrance gave a glimpse of the vocal mettle needed to tackle the role, she had projection issues throughout Act 2 affecting many of her scenes – unfortunate, since she’s known for the role. It was possible here and there to catch shades of what could have been, and in the quieter, more sympathetic passages there were moments of rapt beauty – for example, in the moving exchanges with Siegfried, where after Register’s magnificent exclamation that he would kill both himself and Sieglinde if he could not be with her, she was moved to defy Wotan and protect him instead.
But as a whole, she suffered in comparison, especially in her long exchanges with Fyfe, who grew from strength to strength as Wotan. Increasingly commanding as the evening deepened, his wrath at the end of Act II was of cosmic proportions, but as if to show that he needed but a little finger’s worth of power to take a person’s life, his command ‘geh’!’ (go!) to Hunding was whispered – a most effective touch.
The Ride of the Valkyries that starts off Act 3 is perhaps the opera’s best known moment, and audience members waiting for it would not have been disappointed, though they may have wondered why the Valkyries were all wearing trench-coats. Poised and playful at their entrance, they captivated with their moving pleas to Wotan later in the act. But it was Lee Bisset who stole the scene again as Sieglinde – at the moment where she was told that she was bearing Siegfried’s child, about ten different emotions flashed across her face before she wiped out half the orchestra and half the stalls with the sound she produced in ‘O hehrstes Wunder! Herrlichstes Maid!’ No surprise that she is due to sing Brünnhilde herself soon – the moment, with its ‘Redemption of Love’ theme wonderfully spine-chilling in its anticipation of Götterdämmerung’s Immolation Scene.
Act 3 breathes on the ability of the singers to bring to life the relationship between Wotan and Brünnhilde. Rising to the occasion with ‘War es so schmälich’, Alwyn Mellor brought sensitivity, wrapped in pride, that brought a dignity to the role. Through their long scene together, Warwick Fyfe’s portrayal of Wotan slowly cooled the fire of his anger. In Wagner’s writing, this takes nearly half an hour, with many opportunities for dramatic interplay between father and daughter. Brünnhilde antagonizes him repeatedly with her words – angering him afresh with mention of the Wälsungs among other things – before he finally gives in. The director’s decision to place Brünnhilde at the raised platform while Wotan stood mostly on the foreground stage meant that there was always a huge distance between the two of them – representative, perhaps of the psychological gulf between them, but also making it impossible for any physical interaction whatsoever (check out Patrice Chereau’s Bayreuth Centenary Ring with Donald McIntyre and Gwyneth Jones to see how he made this play out).
This meant that at the climactic ‘Leb’ wohl’ (Wotan’s Farewell), Fyfe had to scale the left flight of stairs, with the psychological meaning that he was actually making the effort to bridge the connection between him and his estranged daughter – somewhat less likely, given Wotan’s immense pride.
Vocally, it was beyond reproach though, with Fyfe pouring out phrase after glowing phrase, each expressing hurt, anger and abject anguish at having to do what he had to do, and then never being able to meet his daughter again. Chan, with the OMM at the end of a very long evening, brought life to Wagner’s crushing sadness in the weary orchestra-only postlude which left this reviewer a blubbering mess, lighting up the mountain on which Brünnhilde would serve out her punishment with the protection of glittering Magic Fire Music.
An immense achievement for all involved, and the premiere that Singapore needed. Onward to Das Rheingold!