Strong international cast finds the vocal beauty in Wagner

“Die Walküre” Lyric Opera

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

What: “Die Walküre”
Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through Nov. 30
Tickets: Lyricopera.org

Lyric Opera of Chicago has now unleashed the second opera in Wagner’s great Ring Cycle, which Lyric will complete in a couple years’ time. With “Die Walküre,” the most popular of the four Ring operas, Lyric has assembled a star-studded cast of international artists who are worthy of any opera stage in the world.

Soprano Christine Goerke leads the cast as Brünnhilde. She provides an in-depth account of this fascinating character, the favorite daughter of Wotan, the leader of the gods. She brings great force and ringing tone, with singing that immediately grabs your attention. She moves from coltish teenager, to willful young thing, to a wise-beyond-her-years woman, all in engaging fashion.

Bass-baritone Eric Owens was underpowered last year in Lyric’s “Das Rheingold,” but bursts forth in “Walküre” with tremendous power and passion. The character Wotan has enormous power, but also incredible responsibilities. The latter mean that he must sacrifice his own preferences for what his wife has convinced him is the common good. Owens brings splendid authority to his Wotan, not afraid to infuse it from time to time with a bit of bluster. But he also knows how to paint Wotan’s loving side with subtle color and shading. The farewell scene between Wotan and Brünnhilde is deeply moving, with two great singers putting in two great performances.

Sieglinde is given enormous pathos by Soprano Elisabet Strid, who draws out all her passions: the terror she feels in the presence of her husband, the love she feels for Siegmund, and the confusion she feels when she learns she is pregnant. Strid sings with clarity and emotion, helping to propel the story forward.

Siegmund is equally well sung by tenor Brandon Jovanovich, who has golden top notes and offers a rich sound in his middle register. He’s a heroic tenor through and through, able to bring swashbuckling might to difficult passages.

Bass Ain Anger is marvelously menacing as Hunding, and has inky dark sound at the bottom and admirable flexibility at the top.

Mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner is a suitably fussy Fricka and is convincing as she commands Wotan to do what he truly would rather not.

Lyric has assembled a stunning octet of singers to portray the Valkyries: Alexandra LoBianco, Whitney Morrison, Laura Wilde, Lindsay Ammann, Lauren Decker, Catherine Martin, Deborah Nansteel, and Zanda Svede. They each have attractive voices in their own right, but combine magnificently for tremendous and luminous choral power.

Sir Andrew Davis leads the Lyric Opera Orchestra and creates great sound that cushions the singers but never overpowers them.

Stage director David Pountney continues using the stage conceit he employed last year in “Das Rheingold,” which is to present the opera as a kind of play within a play, which includes clearly showing stagehands moving some of the props. It seems a trivial and unoriginal approach and one that is too thin to support this great work of art. It includes horses frozen in poses like those of a merry-go-round that are manipulated unconvincingly via large cranes that steal most of the stage. He also chooses to concentrate on making the opera seem as horrific as possible. Rather than trusting Strid to convey how horrible Sieglinde’s marriage to Hunding is, he casts her in a huge chain. In Act III, the Valkyries wear dresses drenched in blood and we see the fallen heroes they rescue for Valhalla as hideous pieces of dead meat. Siegmund’s sword looks like a cheap toy, less convincing than the Star Wars light sabers you can buy for children. It is part of a disturbingly yucky approach to the incest committed by the twins. The opera closes with a cheap carnival-like treatment of the Magic Fire Music. Taken all together, it makes you think that Pountney dislikes the opera and wants to make you dislike it too.

But the singing and the orchestral playing are glorious. Pountney couldn’t ruin that. And the music is reason enough to see this opera.