Combat Mania Rages as Heroes Strut in Paris ‘Walkuere’: Review

On the opening night of Wagner’s “Die Walkuere” at the Paris Opera, director Guenter Kraemer and set designer Juergen Baeckmann were loudly booed.

This is the first production in more than 30 years of the four-part “Ring” cycle at the Paris Opera. Maybe the company could have waited a little longer.

Kraemer isn’t the worst offender in a field full of smart alecks who believe that operas have to be updated to go down with a modern audience. His innovations are based on a close reading of the text. The result, though, is unpoetic and often borders on caricature.

Except for the Ride of the Valkyries, “Die Walkuere” (1870) is an intimate work, consisting of scenes with two or three characters. This poses a problem on the huge stage of the Bastille Opera. Still, to fill it with an army of unscripted extras isn’t the answer.

Act I starts with two combat teams in fatigues. After a short fight, in which Siegmund’s unit is decimated, he flees into his enemy’s house. Hunding arrives with his victorious men, who share his dinner and laugh derisively when Siegmund tells the sad story of his childhood.

With its elegant waterfall windows and the sword hidden behind a silk painting -- which Sieglinde slits open with a knife, get the metaphor? -- Hunding’s home could be an upmarket Chinese restaurant.

Golden Apples

In Act II, we meet the Valkyries who are supposed to appear only in Act III. They sit at a long table, playing with the golden apples of eternal youth that we already know from “Das Rheingold.”

The inscription GERMANIA from the “Rheingold” finale also reappears. After his humiliating confrontation with Fricka, a furious Wotan knocks down three letters so that only MANIA remains, presumably an allusion to Germany’s downfall one Reich later.

Act III’s set looks like a morgue in which the Valkyries, white clad like nurses, are busy washing dead heroes who then walk away into the wonderland of permanently available “Wunschmaedchen” (desirable maidens).

In the background, a bunch of extras, also dressed in white, dance a kind of equestrian ballet, a reminder of Wagner’s idea to have the Valkyries arrive on horseback.

Bedding Brunnhilde

Instead of the usual rock, Wotan beds Brunnhilde on one of the washing tables, a prosaic finale.

Among the singers, the lovers are the weakest. Robert Dean Smith’s Siegmund articulates with fine taste yet his voice is smallish. Ricarda Merbeth’s Sieglinde, too, sounds undernourished; when she has to sing forte, her voice spreads.

Katarina Dalayman starts with a brilliant “Hojotoho,” and is moving in her final scene with Wotan. Thomas Johannes Mayer, who is alternating in the role with Falk Struckmann, is a warm, though unheroic, Wotan with a weak lower register.

The best singing comes from Yvonne Naef’s majestic Fricka, splendidly dressed in a red evening gown, and Guenther Groissboeck’s menacing Hunding.

Philippe Jordan, the new chief conductor of the Paris Opera, became more confident as the show progressed. His delicate shaping of the music, particularly the woodwinds, and his efforts not to overpower the singers were exemplary.

Rating: **.

“Die Walkuere” is in repertory through June 29. Information: http://www.operadeparis.fr or +33-1-7125-2423.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****           Outstanding
***            Good
**             Average
*              Poor
No stars       Worthless

To contact the writer on the story: Jorg von Uthmann in Paris at uthmann@wanadoo.fr.

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