'Die Walkure' quite a ride for opera fans
By Ruth Bingham
Special to The Advertiser
Mounting an opera from Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" cycle might make any opera company quake, but Hawaii Opera Theatre made it seem easy, delivering a triumphant Hawai'i premiere.
Although HOT has on occasion staged Wagner (most notably "Tristan und Isolde" in 2000), this production is its first foray into the "Ring" cycle, led by the production triumvirate of director Henry Akina (also general and artistic director of HOT), HOT resident scenic and lighting designer Peter Dean Beck and conductor Jari Hamalainen.
The "Ring" cycle, based on the same legends that inspired Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings," consists of four operas, an introduction ("Das Rheingold") and the trilogy of "Die Walkure (The Valkyrie)," "Siegfried" and "Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods)."
Together, the four operas relate the end of the age of gods, which marks the beginning of the age of man; throughout is woven that eternal tug-of-war, in which love is betrayed in quests for power.
HOT's production of "Die Walkure" easily ranks among the best by companies of comparable size — neither old-school staid nor avant-garde bizarre — but a delightful re-imagining with creative sets and costumes, excellent music, smooth staging and great singing.
Sets, designed by Beck and built by the HOT Scene Shop, consist of a stepped stage flanked by three backdrops, with two scaffolded structures framing the scenes.
Beck effects scene changes via projected images: stone walls, green forests, the craggy spires of quartz for the gods' world, the Valkyries' horses, and the red plains of Valhalla, populated with fallen heroes.
As the god Wotan's hopes and plans come crashing down in the final scene, the scaffolded structures fall to the sides, rent asunder by foolishness and fate.
Beck's lighting is so integral that it becomes one of the major characters, subtly shifting to create moods and conveying as much of the story as the music: forests "melting" into swirling mists as gods intrude, and stone walls "opening" into moonlit gardens as love blossoms — lovely, and very effective.
Imaginative costumes, designed by Helen E. Rodgers, and wigs, by Richard Stead, match the epic characters.
One might expect a heroine in flowing white and men in earth tones, but the gods were quite beyond expectation, in gothic black with silver piping and studs, long leather overcoats of the van Helsing type, and berets perched atop bountiful hair.
Adding nicely layered meaning, the angry goddess Frika even had an a-la-Bride-of-Frankenstein white stripe in her black hair and long silver "rings" that glittered, claw-like as she gestured, while Wotan wore an a-la-pirate-king eyepatch.
Under conductor Hama-lainen, the orchestra sounded wonderful, with notable solos that made it easy for the audience to follow Wagner's famous leitmotive, the musical phrases that relate what's happening.
Audiences can sometimes be intimidated by all the literature about Wagner, his leitmotive and the complexity of his music, but Wag--ner's operas, especially in the "Ring" cycle, are simply staged storytelling, in which the characters both tell and live the tale.
The drama is told primarily through the orchestra: we hear characters arrive before they step on stage, we hear their thoughts, the exchange of a glance, anger mounting, love stirring, and despair.
When we "live" in Wagner's music, just as we "live" in a good book, the story unfolds with a balance, pacing, and coherence attained by few opera composers —which is why the orchestra is such an important part of the production.
On Friday, the orchestra received enthusiastic applause and even occasional scattered applause mid-music, as in the prelude to Act III, the Ride of the Valkyries.
Particularly gratifying is the way Akina allows the staging to flow smoothly with the music, both during and in the pauses between singing.
Akina's stellar cast has excellent voices and suit their roles so well they seem to embody their characters.
Lori Phillips as Brunnhilde, the eponymous Valkyrie, was quite simply terrific. Her voice started out outstanding and kept getting better, her clarion upper register sending chills down spines. She was matched by Jake Gardner as Wotan, his dark rich baritone commanding and vulnerable by turns.
Their lighter heroic/lyric voices an intuitive match, tenor Kip Wilborn (Siegmund) and soprano Susan B. Anthony (Sieglinde) made a sympathetic human couple, their singing alluring enough to offset the incestuousness of their relationship.
As usual, the "bad guys" had some of the most fun: the tall, large bass-baritone John Marcus Bindel boomed imposingly around the stage as Sieglinde's coarse and dangerous husband, and soprano Mary Phillips was delightfully nasty as the goddess Frika, Wotan's righteously wounded and unyielding wife. (Wagner undoubtedly painted Frika as shrewish to gain sympathy for his own many infidelities.)
Last but not least, everyone's favorite covey of rambunctious Amazonian horse-riding deities, the Valkyries: Melissa Citro, Jill Gardner, Alexandra Picard, Jennifer Hines, Buffy Baggot, Shoshanah Marote and our local Orvis Opera Studio singers, Mary Chesnut Hicks and Pauline Taumalolo — all of whom were wonderful.
As much for those who love Wagner's operas as for those who have never seen one, HOT's "Die Walkure" is a must-see.