Opera: Richard Wagner / Journey To Valhalla

KC Lyric Opera (2024)
Composed by Richard Wagner (Arr. Michael Christie)
Featuring
Kyle Albertson (Wotan), Rebecca Nash (Brünnhilde), Corby Welch (Siegfried), Robert Stahley (Siegmund), Meghan Kasanders (Sieglinde), Sarah Saturnino (Fricka), Peter Morgan (Alberich), Kelli Van Meter (Forest Bird, Woglinde), Christine Boddicker (Wellgunde), Sarah Saturnino (Fricka), Deanna Ray Eberhart (Flosshilde), Michael Christie (Conductor), Joshua Horowitz (Director), David Murakami (Projection Designer), Selena Gonzalez-Lopez (Lighting Designer).


At Muriel Kauffman Hall once again to attend the capper to the KC Lyric Opera‘s 2023-2024 season, a home-grown project called Journey to Valhalla. This KCLO exclusive is a compendium or Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung adapted by music director Michael Christie. In this arrangement each of the four individual Ring operas distilled down to one act apiece, each act running around 45 minutes. An intermission neatly bisects the Das RheingoldDie Walküre and SiegfriedGötterdämmerung episodes.

I had asked a rep from the KC Lyric before the show if the production could be described as highlights from The Ring, and they replied with an emphatic no – that Journey was an entity all to itself. We’ll see about that, I thought, as I was at a loss to think of what else it could be.

THE RING

I can’t find an online version of the synopsis for this truncated version of Ring of the Nibelungen, and I don’t want to kluge up this review by attempting my own hatchet job on it, so if you like you can check this page on the Chicago Lyric’s site for an overview of the whole shmear.

For me The Ring of the Nibelungen has always been problematic because the story seems the stuff of comic books, which I do not read. As in comic book fare the supernatural nature of the story lets the tale zigzag wildly from dramatic episode to episode and nothing really makes any sense. You don’t have to get very far along with the and of the Ring plot lines before they gets too quizzical to follow. In addition, this crazy quilt fantasy is so gleefully bloody it makes Breaking Bad seem like a bunch of Friends reruns.

But despite these aspects to Wagner’s Ring that leave me cold, I knew that this abridged version wouldn’t take 4 days of my life away from me. So I set aside my biases and headed up to my seat in the Grand Tier to sit back and enjoy.

ACT I: DAS RHEINGOLD

From the opening scene with Kelli Van Meter, Christine Boddicker, and Deanna Ray Eberhart as the Rhinemaidens, the continuity of KC Lyric casting is evident. In a season where I’ve seen these three in Roméo et Juliet, and Van Meter and Boddicker in The Haberdasher Prince, they already seem like family.

As the scene opens, a triptych of panels slowly lower from the ceiling behind the stage. As the plot lines are too numerous to include in the action, text and images are projected upon the panels to assist in telling the story. The Rhinemaidens enter in elegant street clothing carrying a blue sating-y length of fabric to represent the waters of the river. They dance about a large lump of gold sitting on a pedestal and sing of its powers.

The dwarf Alberich, sung by Peter Morgan (who is not a dwarf, and in fact isn’t even short), lurks just outside the follow spots lusting after the mystic lump. He somehow manages to steal it from the Maidens, and with this self-serving act he sets into motion a downward spiral of greed, betrayal, patricide, misery, adultery, perversion, dragon slaying, gory death, and abject eternal despair on which Wagner’s immortal legacy and his Bayreuth Festival was founded.

The lump of gold was my favorite prop of the evening. It was probably just a big wad of Reynolds Wrap with some reflective gold enamel but as you can see from the stills it looks quite convincing and even I lusted after it a little myself. But I know I would never have gotten it together to steal it because I generally find a trio of half-naked river nymphs infinitely more fascinating than a hunk of unprocessed gold ore. This could be why I’ve never been very successful in business. So from the very opening scene of his major opus I find Wagner’s dramatic logic hard to follow.

Kyle Albertson‘s Wotan appears in an eye patch, sheer blue chiffon cape, and clutching a spear. Albertson is very virile and strong in voice, he shines in this segment. I admit to being prejudiced in favor of baritones but I don’t think I’m wrong about the depth of his talent either. He sings about wanting the gold for himself so he can pay off the some giants for a palace renovation project they did for him.

Ok so I confess to being stopped cold here. Wotan is the grandest god in the heavens – why does he needs to steal gold to settle his debts? Is there no one in all of Asgard who will extend this guy a line of credit? And since when do gods even need money? Don’t they just wrinkle their nose of something and things just happen?

I’m not sure how I’m feeling about the costume design in Journey. (I should put costume design in quotes). The costumes for each character consist of the singers in their formal street clothes that have been partially draped in some kind of thin chiffon fabric. The props like swords and spears look like they are of a drama club grade construction. It’s a little strange. At first I wanted the players to either just appear in modern clothing or advance to the front of the stage in breastplates and horned helmets, but neither of those options seemed correct either; so I guess if you had to choose one of those three options, for this production ‘costume light’ was the way to go.

Sarah Saturnino played Fricka, Wotan’s wife. This character is somehow loyal to Wotan despite the fact that he’s in hock up to his eyeballs to a couple of giant general contractors and fools around with every goddess, handmaiden and valkyrie in the kingdom he can get his mitts on. Saturnino was very lovely in both voice and appearance as a cocktail dressed Fricka which enhanced the drama for us in the crowd, cementing in our minds the idea that Wotan would have to be a perfect moron to be fooling around on her.

ACT II: DIE WALKÜRE

This segment of the program is dominated by the love affair between Siegmund and Sieglinde. But as with every relationship ever conceived by Richard Wagner… it’s complicated.

In Die Walküre, Wotan’s son Siegmund is caught in the rain and offered shelter by Sieglinde and her husband Hunding who offer him refuge in their home. In no time Siegmund starts fooling around with the wife of his host. But that’s not the half of it; in a Wagner opera you can’t just have good old fashioned adultery; Sieglinde turns out to be Siegmund’s long lost sister, so you get some incest thrown in as a bonus. The fact that they are related does not give Siegmund or Sieglinde pause, it just seems to make them hotter for each other.

Soon enough Siegmund’s half-sister, Brünhilde, shows up from out of nowhere to try and break up these philandering sickos and to tell him Wotan, his father, is out to kill him so he better pull a sword out of a tree to defend himself. When Wotan shows up he puts a spell on that same sword which renders it useless. This allows Siglunde’s jealous husband to kill Siegmund before he gets killed himself by Wotan – though I’m not sure why the husband has to die and it is at this point that the plot abandons me completely.

Thankfully Michael Christie‘s study guide version of all of this just gets to the heart of the matter with the plot simplified to focus on the adulterous couple, with Sieglunde mooning over Siegmund as he pulls some crazy looking sword out of a stump. The panels are a welcome informational element and give some needed visual dimension to the proceedings.

Where operatic sopranos are concerned Meghan Kassanders is just as cute as they make ’em, and has a lovely powerful voice besides, so I was convinced as to why Robert Stahley‘s Siegmund was ready to defend her to the death with his (temporarily) mighty sword, Nothung. And the music played by Christie’s gang was so stirring that it put me in a reverie and I suddenly had a strong yen to shack up with a relative and find a weapon to give an affectionate name to.

INTERMISSION

My press tickets offered me by the Lyric put me in a section called the Grand Tier area. This sounded pretty swank and I was flattered to have been put in such a place, until I checked the seating chart before showtime to find that “Grand Tier” is the equivalent of upper deck at your typical ballpark.

Plainly this would not do, so in the interest of quality journalism, when I got to my assigned nosebleed location I scanned the Orchestra section far, far below me until I located an unoccupied seat. When the house lights came up for intermission I saw that it was still unoccupied, so I followed the winding staircase to the main level and drifted on cat’s feet into the Orchestra section to claim it.

But just as I got there a half dozen distinguished and slow moving philanthropists who were retaking their places in the middle of the row. As I stood politely looking on, some rogue came up to me and asked if the seat I was holding onto for dear life was available. With an aristocratic air I informed this human vulture that the seat was mine and, banking on his not examining it too closely, brandished my Grand Tier ticket at him. He apologized profusely before moving on to find easier pickings.

Seat hoppers at the opera. The nerve of some people!

ACT III: SIEGFRIED

The lights dim, the orchestra revs up with a bit of prelude, and we’re off to the races with more convoluted tales of Teutonic dysfunction with the reduced version of Siegfried.

Things gets crazier in this third part of the story where you get introduced to a whole litter of Wotan’s other bastard Valkirie children, other relatives plus dragons and more giants thrown in just to keep everything lively.

The main character who gives this act its name is the son of another incestuous relationship between his father’s twin children who heroically sets out to claim the love of his grandmother (kind of).

You see, everyone and everything is connected in The Ring, even to the point where our hero Siegfried can’t even source his own sword – he has to rebuild a new one from the pieces of his father’s sword, Nothung. So even the goddamn sword is conceived in incest, as it owes its existence to the twisted family history of its own metallurgy.

But this reconditioned weapon turns our to be very effective. Siegfried uses it to slay a blacksmith and a dragon, after which he drinks the dragon’s blood, gets some advice from some forest birds, and survives the crossing of a ring of deadly fire.

Corby Welch is cast in the the role of Siegfried, pressing his ringing tenor into service of projecting the existential angst of someone toting around such superhuman talents and emotional baggage such as you and I could only struggle, and fail, to imagine.

ACT IV: GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG

As Conductor Christie’s concoction enters the most dramatic heights of the Ring in this final act, Götterdämmerung, we find Rebecca Nash‘s Brünnhilde more than up to the task for the überdramatisch finale of Journey to Valhalla. But I get ahead of things here.

Götterdämmerung (EN: Twilight of the Gods) is where everything falls apart. Siegfried is still looking to get together with his grandmother Brünnhilde but dodgy characters and evil spells consipre to keep them apart. Why Siegfried doesn’t see any romantic possibilities with the Rhinemaidens – who are again key players in this segment – I cannot say. He’d rather agonize over an impossible union with Brünnhilde which always involves playing with fire. In Siegfried he nearly gets BBQd finding her; in this final act he really does get burned up, this time in a funeral pyre lit by Brünnhilde which is about as intimate as he ever gets with her because as the pyre’s flames reach their apex she climbs onto a horse and rides into the blazing pyre to burn up with him.

In the finale everything literally goes all to hell. There’s more fighting over the ring, the Rhine floods over, the Rhinemaidens reclaim the ring, someone named Hagen lunges for it but it pulled under by the trio and drowned, Valhalla catches fire (the rear panels show a video of Valhalla going up like crepe paper) and all the gods and mortals die together in the raging inferno. Everyone except the Rhinemaidens, that is – proving that my instincts about women are very sound.

All of this is difficult to stage in the context of the storyline abbreviations of Journey, of course, but the panel art and motion graphics do their best to provide depth.

And it’s here that Rebecca Nash jumped into the fray to really deliver. Standing alone on the stage in the slightest excuse for a costume, her Brünnhilde more than hinting at the scale and emotional impact of this epic work. Her performance elevated the final act to a high plane indeed – her soaring soprano evoking the glory of the larger-scale work and giving the crowd a preview of the rewards to be gotten in experiencing The Ring of the Nibelung realized in the full scale edition.

REFLECTIONS ON JOURNEY & THE RING

The KC Lyric feels that Journey To Valhalla was not a highlights program, but it certainly is that. Though it’s not by the general definition of an opera highlights property in that it’s not just top singers dressed in gala togs belting out arias, duets and scenes that have been arranged with neatly truncated codas; Conductor and Music Director Michael Christie‘s arrangement conception was to create a ‘Ring’s Greatest Hits’ with music that flows seamlessly between sections and integrates enough plot elements to let an audience follow along. Focusing on the parts of The Ring that have endured in the imagination of music lovers was to do it in the only way that really makes sense, and Christie’s condensed score does a fine job of presenting the larger work in a version that you can get through easily in one evening.

As far as The Ring goes, I’m still not resigned to the bonkers plot lines. But my take on all of it is borne of not ever having really immersed myself in the massive work. Consider that any multi-season television drama seems uninteresting and maybe even dumb until you actually sit through a few episodes; great art rates some investment of time and focus. Even if that great art delivers to you a welter of transcendental tragedy, perfidy, and off-the-charts dysfunction among gods and their family members who find each other devilishly attractive and are expected to marry their sisters just for the hell of it.

My irreverent take here about The Ring of the Nibelung is only one facet of my thinking of it. The great thing about Journey to Valhalla that it’s gotten me interested in listening to the full Ring again. I have a recording of it on Decca from 1967 – the legendary recording of Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic featuring Brigit Nillson, Kirsten Flagstad, Joan Sutherland and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – that is considered not just the greatest recording of the Ring cycle, it’s considered one of the finest audio recordings of all time. Thanks to Michael Christie and the KC Lyric‘s mounting of his Journey putting this in my ears, I will soon be revisiting that amazing work.