Dysfunctional mythical families in Wagner’s ‘The Valkyrie’ at Virginia Opera

The production, though puzzling, is well-sung.

Wagner called his Ring Cycle a “musical drama.” In Virginia Opera’s production of The Valkyrie, the second installment of the series, the music worked well. The drama not so much.

The singers all give creditable performances of Wagner’s always-challenging music. Tenor Richard Trey Smagur, as Siegmund, and soprano Meghan Kasanders, as his twin sister/lover Sieglinde, have outstanding sequences in the second act in which their singing not only expressed their passion but became integrated with the orchestral sound in the way that is a Wagner specialty.

Scene from ‘The Valkyrie.’ Photo by Dave Pearson Photography.

As Wotan, head of Wagner’s pantheon, bass-baritone Kyle Albertson sang vibrantly in the upper parts of the role, though less powerfully in its lower reaches. His wife, Fricka, sung by mezzo-soprano Claudia Chapa, was spot-on musically in her key one-scene role, giving greater depth to her character than one sometimes sees.  As Wotan’s daughter, Brünnhilde, leader of the Valkyries, soprano Alexandra Loutsion showed warmth and richness in her lower register throughout, an effective contrast to the passion and power she displayed in her final confrontation with her father. Bass Ricardo L. Lugo impressed in the brief role of Hunding, Sieglinde’s abusive husband.

The Virginia Symphony, conducted by Adam Turner, acquitted itself well, with a rich sound and in good balance with the singers. Turner maintained a steady, even stately, tempo throughout.

Three dysfunctional family relationships form the backbone of The Valkyrie. Falling passionately in love with one’s long-lost twin, almost at first sight, counts as a family issue even in the sometimes fantastical world of opera plots, and the Siegmund/Sieglinde connection sets the story in motion by rousing Fricka’s deadly outrage.

Claudia Chapa (as Fricka) and Kyle Albertson (as Wotan) in ‘The Valkyrie.’ Photo by Dave Pearson Photography.

Wotan and Fricka have a complex relationship in which Fricka, long angry over her husband’s constant philandering, gets her way through skillfully manipulating him, pushing every button to lead him to do something he desperately wants to avoid doing. Chapa, in the production’s best acting turn, shows the audience the psychological tools she uses to control Wotan, who emerges as the weaker partner in the marriage.

Wotan deeply loves Brünnhilde, whose dearest wish is to carry out what her father wants to do in his heart, even when contrary to what he orders her to do. Moved by Siegmund’s devotion, Brünnhilde rescues Sieglinde from Wotan’s wrath. Wotan, in turn, insists on punishing her for her defiance of his authority, even knowing the goodness of her motives. The opera’s final scene is an emotionally wrenching exploration of the dynamic between the two.

Joachim Shamburger’s direction is often static, frequently leaving the singers in the “stand in one place and sing” mode characteristic of opera productions of decades ago. On several occasions, a character (e.g., Wotan or Siegmund) sings on one of the platforms upstage, leaving another (e.g., Brünnhilde or Sieglinde) downstage facing away from the audience, with a follow spot squarely illuminating her back. Besides stranding singers in unflattering poses at some length, this denies the audience the opportunity to see the downstage character’s reactions, key in any drama.

The movement of key characters, particularly Siegmund, Sieglinde, and Brünnhilde, is often sluggish, and some moments of intense emotional engagement between Sieglinde and Siegmund, and Wotan and Brünnhilde, culminate in rather awkward hugs. Save for Chapa and, at times, Albertson, the level of acting in the production was not high.

The setting for the opera relies heavily on projections, which provide motion and activity lacking in the staging for the singers. The director’s note explains that his production concept involves the rise and fall of the gods as an allegory for human evolution, as we depart farther from nature into a virtual world. The result, however, is an excessively busy procession of images, a visual cacophony that frequently distracts from the characters and music. Some of the images are downright odd, such as Valhalla being pictured in terms of a large, motionless, disco-ball-like sphere in front of what looks like a busy airport concourse.  The overall effect is one of a concept imposed upon, rather than facilitating the presentation of, Wagner’s work.

Meghan Kasanders (as Sieglinde) and Richard Trey Smagur (as Siegmund) in ‘The Valkyrie.’ Photo by Dave Pearson Photography.

Without any apparently consistent vision in mind, the costuming ranges from traditional (Sieglinde’s and Siegmund’s neutrally colored garb) to showy (Fricka’s colorful dress and fan-shaped headpiece) to, once again, simply strange. Brünnhilde and the other Valkyries (four, rather than the standard eight, perhaps due to budgetary limitations) wear something resembling football shoulder pads. Two people sitting near me likened Wotan’s costume, especially his headgear, to that of a Star Trek Borg. (Having watched a good deal of Star Trek, I concur.) We can tell from the beginning that Sieglinde and Siegmund are related because they wear identical, equally preposterous, long white wigs.

Like Shakespeare, Wagner is a magnet for all manner of conceptual experimentation by directors. Sometimes it works. For example, the New York Times recently reviewed very favorably a new, explicitly experimental, Ring in Berlin. The Virginia Opera production was one of the occasions on which it didn’t. The staging problems did not diminish the enjoyment of the production’s musical virtues, however.

Running Time: Three hours 20 minutes, including one intermission (its length made possible by some seemingly judicious cuts from the original in the adaptation by Jonathan Dove and Graham Vick).

Sung in German with English surtitles. (To the venue’s credit, the October 9 performance was audio described for blind and low-vision patrons.)

The Valkyrie, produced by Virginia Opera, played in Fairfax, VA, October 8 and 9, 2022, at the George Mason University Center for the Arts and will be performed next October 14 and 15, 2022, in the Carpenter Theatre, 600 East Grace Street, Richmond, VA. Purchase tickets ($20–$110) online. 

COVID Safety: Masking at performances is not required, though is recommended. For Virginia Opera’s COVID-19 Protocols are here.

The Valkerie
By Richard Wagner, Adaptation by Jonathan Dove and Graham Vick, Orchestrated by Jonathan Dove

Conducted by Adam Turner and Directed by Joachim Schamberger
Scenic & Costume Design by Court Watson
The orchestra for this production is provided by the Virginia Symphony Orchestra

Kyle Albertson, Wotan
Alexandra Loutsion, Brünnhilde
Richard Trey Smagur, Siegmund
Meghan Kasanders, Sieglinde
Claudia Chapa, Fricka/Waltraute
Ricardo L. Lugo, Hunding
Lesley Anne Friend, Helmwige
Adriane S. Kerr, Rossweisse
Courtney Johnson, Grimgerde


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