Never having seen a Wagner opera before, I finally took the plunge last April and went to the Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC) to watch the five-hour live high-definition broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), the second opera in the four-cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. The $16 million production by Robert Lepage has generated controversy – mainly because of the initial clumsiness and malfunctions of the high-tech set: a 45-ton moving machine consisting of 24 planks that shift alternatively to suggest, with the help of video projections, cliffs, mountains, rivers and even a herd of thunderous steeds ridden by the Valkyries.
For this novice, at least, the machine served its purpose. Heretofore, I had associated the hard-charging passage with the Vietnam battlefield in Apocalypse Now; but watching the silhouetted helmeted Valkyries astride the rising and falling planks, riding down to the battlefield to retrieve the dead heroes, was no less sublime.
I was riveted when Wotan, the king of the gods, laments to Brünnhilde, his favorite daughter, his regret about his past marital indiscretions, which, in breaking the rules of the gods, has resulted in his own loss of power and rendered him helpless in saving his mortal bastard son Siegfried from certain death in an upcoming duel. Norse mythology as interpreted by Wagner becomes symbolic of human existential truths. They are powerfully conveyed both in the orchestral web of sound, interspersed with recurring leitmotifs that gain in power like echoing memories, and the words, in which the characters reveal complex inner states. It was brilliant literature and ecstatic music combined.
A wonderful aspect of the live broadcasts is that you are in essence sitting in a front-row seat, seeing all the action up close. In addition, during the intermissions the camera goes backstage to interview the singers and other key players of the production. Plus, the broadcasts at UPAC and the Bardavon (the program of a dozen or so productions alternates between the two venues) usually have plentiful available seats (this isn’t the Berkshires), so you can literally decide at the last minute if you want to go, with a minimum of hassles. And tickets are only $23 general admission, $21 for Bardavon members, $16 for children under age 12.
All that is to suggest that the final segment in the Lepage production Ring cycle, Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods), which airs at the Bardavon on February 11 starting at 12 noon, is well-worth checking out. The role of Brünnhilde, who is punished in Die Walküre for rebelling against her father’s command to let Siegfried die, is sung by Deborah Voigt and Katarina Dalayman; the role of Siegfried is shared by Gary Lehman and Stephen Gould.
According to Lepage, “Götterdämmerung is different from the other Ring operas because it is about society. The more the story progresses, the more it moves away from the realm of the gods to focus on the power and ambition of human beings. Götterdämmerung is about Brünnhilde in society, her journey as a character and her role as the heroine who must restore balance to the world.”
Bardavon executive director Chris Silva said the high-definition opera showings have found an audience – though so far only Carmen, which aired at the Bardavon, has sold out. (A second screening was held, which attracted another 600 people.) The Italian operas tend to do well; Wagner results in a definite decrease, though not as severe as Philip Glass.
While opera may not have the following of a big-name pop performer, Silva noted that the broadcasts represent the crème de la crème. The Met’s “production values are mind-blowing,” he said. “There’s a scene in The Enchanted Island” – which recently screened at the Bardavon – “in which Placido Domingo looks like he’s floating underwater, with mermaids floating around him. With these productions, you’re really seeing some of the most amazing theatrical stuff you’re ever going to see.”
Coming up are Verdi’s Ernani on February 25 at 1 p.m. at UPAC; Massenet’s Manon on April 7 at 12 noon at the Bardavon; and Verdi’s La Traviata on April 14 at 1 p.m. at the Bardavon. For sustenance, physical and mental, just prior to the five-hour production of Götterdämmerung, visit the Artist’s Palate, located at 307 Main Street in Poughkeepsie, for lunch and a talk by Leslie Gerber, who teaches music at Marist’s Center for Lifetime Studies and writes the Playbill liner notes. Call (845) 483-8074 to make a reservation.
To purchase a ticket for Götterdämmerung, visit the Bardavon box office at 35 Market Street in Poughkeepsie, (845) 473-2072, or contact TicketMaster at (800) 745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com.