- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2003

Christmas comes to Washington early this week as the Washington Opera presents its new production of Richard Wagner’s sweeping “Die Walkure” (“The Valkyries”) at DAR Constitution Hall. It’s a winner, with a cast that’s strictly A-list, bursting with confidence and inhabiting every role with overwhelming human passion.

As Wagner’s doomed hero, Siegmund, Placido Domingo — still, at 60-something, the world’s reigning tenor — continues to amaze. Siegmund is usually a “heldentenor,” or heroic tenor, who can transcend Wagner’s considerable orchestral resources. Maestro Domingo claims not to be one, but he is too modest. Investing Siegmund with convincing authority as Wotan’s “free hero” and free radical, Mr. Domingo’s suave vocal expressiveness and sheer power carry this role into a transcendental dimension.

And what better Sieglinde could he ask for than soprano Anja Kampe? Drop-dead gorgeous and unusually willowy for a Wagnerian singer, Miss Kampe is the very soul of Romantic longing. Her surprisingly robust voice alternates honeyed lyricism with full, orchestra-annihilating volume. She is a major talent, and hopefully, we will see more of her in the future. The chemistry between her and Mr. Domingo is irresistible, magically transforming Wagner’s often fusty pageantry into a real love story.

Baritone Alan Held and soprano Linda Watson as Wotan, king of the gods, and Brunnhilde, top gun of the Valkyries, respectively, strike an eerily incestuous balance as father and daughter. Mr. Held, who sings Wotan at the Met and who got his early start here at the Wolf Trap Opera, turns in a dazzling dramatic performance as an all-powerful deity being eaten from within by his lust for power. We have seen Mr. Held here many times before, but rarely has he deployed his commanding voice with greater expressiveness, alternating between thunderbolts of rage and a tenderness that is nearly inaudible.

Miss Watson gives us a slightly different take on Brunnhilde. With a clear, knifelike voice, she interprets the Valkyrie less as a warrior-goddess than as a sympathetic Venus. It’s Brunnhilde’s kinder, gentler side, an interpretation that makes Miss Watson’s transformation into a mere human in Act III eminently believable.

In smaller supporting roles, bass Kurt Rydl and mezzo-soprano Elena Zaremba gave sterling performances as the brutish Hunding, Sieglinde’s real husband, and Fricka, Wotan’s intimidating goddess-spouse.

And smashing, both vocally and visually, were this production’s Valkyries, a collection of sopranos and mezzo-sopranos who storm the stage at the opening of Act III. Attired like Goth goddesses fleeing an awfully long Halloween party, these Valkyries collected dead warriors with a gusto that put their sisters in the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s “Ring” — seen here in 1989 — to shame.

The Washington Opera Orchestra played magnificently for the most part under its musical director, Heinz Fricke, who succeeded in melding the musicians into a single expressive instrument. Unfortunately, in the first and second stanzas, a few of the brass players failed to cooperate, tossing in an occasional sour mash of discords.

The postmodern industrial set by Peter J. Davison worked well in a situation where there aren’t a lot of physical options. Ditto for the creative and effective lighting design by Mark McCullough. But less successful, Valkyries aside, were the lifeless gray vinyl costumes by Anita Yavich, the most ridiculous of which were the weird skintight jumpsuits worn by the mincing warrior-souls in Act III. These dancers looked like minions of Ming the Merciless on loan from a 1930s “Flash Gordon” serial.

Finally, kudos to director Francesca Zambello.

Not only did she keep this nearly five-hour extravaganza moving and exciting, but she also coached her singers to develop sympathetic, complex characters, transforming great singing into great theater in the process.

****

WHAT: “Die Walkure” by Richard Wagner

WHO: Washington Opera

WHERE: DAR Constitution Hall

WHEN: 2 p.m. tomorrow; 6:30 p.m. Nov. 11, 14, 17 and 20

INFORMATION: 202/295-2400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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