`Walkure' full of vocal pleasures

Washington Opera, Domingo easily give Wagner his due

OperaReview

November 14, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

From the moment the orchestra starts churning a persistent, anxious theme to conjure images of storm and pursuit, to the final, luminous sound-bath that suggests magic, majesty and mystery all at once, Wagner's Die Walkure casts an unbreakable spell.

At least it does when you have the requisite vocal and instrumental forces, not to mention inspired conducting and stage direction. It's a tall order never easily met, but the Washington Opera has risen to the challenge in remarkably satisfying fashion with a production that literally fills Constitution Hall.

On Tuesday night, the company even managed to send in reinforcements effortlessly when faced with a wounded Brunn hilde in Act 2 - soprano Linda Watson injured her leg upon making her first entrance, but managed to complete the act moving gingerly and singing with a good deal of style.

During intermission, a doctor advised Watson to abandon the performance. Her cover for the role (opera-speak for understudy), Caroline Thomas, was all ready to sing as Helmwige, one of Brunnhilde's eight noisy sisters, the Valkyries, but switched gears to become Brunnhilde for Act 3. And a member of the company's newly named Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program, Maria Jooste, gamely sang Helmwige's music standing on the sidelines, dressed in street clothes.

Got all that? The important thing was how well the old show-must-go-on principle worked. Thomas acquitted herself well, producing a silvery tone and such intense phrasing that it was hard to remember she hadn't been Brunnhilde all along. And Jooste let loose a take-notice soprano with all eight cylinders firing to help make the Valkyries' famous ride smooth and exciting.

Watson is still unable to go on, so Thomas and Jooste, this time both in costume, will sing tonight. Watson hopes to sing the two final performances.

Back to Tuesday night. The vocal pleasures started with Placido Domingo in the role of Siegmund. At 62, this celebrated tenor continues to defy the odds and nature. His Dorian Gray vocal cords summoned more sound than Wagnerians half his age, and he made much of the music's lyricism. A few cloudy low notes and a not-quite-there high one at the end of Act 1 mattered little in light of all that vintage Domingo warmth.

As Sieglinde, Anja Kampe served notice of a major star in the making. With particularly fabulous middle and low registers (the top was somewhat constricted, but still effective), the soprano's singing enveloped the hall. Superbly detailed acting - this Sieglinde's sly glances to Siegmund in Act 1 spoke volumes - completed the extraordinary performance. Elena Zaremba nearly stole the show as Fricka with marvelously secure, theatrical vocalism and a truly regal presence.

Alan Held was a degree or two short of the ideal vocal size and tonal coloring for Wotan, but what artful phrasing and verisimilar acting he offered. He inhabited the character of this tortured god and made every word count. Kurt Rydl brought an unruly bass, but physical impact, to the role of Hunding. The Valkyries did vocally potent work and cavorted spiritedly. Heinz Fricke conducted with authority and sensitivity. The orchestra encountered bumps but held on firmly enough.

Peter J. Davison's set design made an omnipresent background of scaffolding, ramps and stairs integral to the proceedings. The post-industrial look seemed just right, especially the abstract shower of metal that served as the tree in Act 1 and the way that subtle lighting and projections turned the set into a prison-like environment for the gods in Act 2. Anita Yavich's costumes - including Euro-trashy leather for the Valkyries - likewise fit neatly into the concept.

As in her Fidelio production for the company last season, director Francesca Zambello seemed energized by the hall's limitations. She made use of every possible space, including most of the aisles. Maybe the balletic bits during the Hunding/Siegmund fight and the Valkyries scene didn't quite work, but everything else did as Zambello tapped imaginatively into the timeless issues of Die Walkure. I just wish she had instructed the sword-wielding soldiers who swept through the hall in search of Siegmund at the opera's start to smite the dolts who ignored the request to turn their cell phones off.

Die Walkure

When: 6:30 tonight, Nov. 17 and 20

Where: DAR Constitution Hall, 18th and C streets, N.W., Washington

Admission: $41 to $285

Call: 202-432-7328 or go to www.dc-opera.org

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