Review: Wagner’s ‘Valkyries’ makes history again at the Bowl

In 1938, Los Angeles suffered one of the worst floods in its history, caused by one-off storms in February and March. The LA River has overflowed. Over a hundred people died. The gods were angry.

That summer, the Hollywood Bowl hosted what was reputedly the most spectacular event in its history: a production of Wagner’s opera, Die Walküre, which chronicled mankind’s need to save a world being destroyed by greedy, angry, conniving, environmentally destructive gods. The bowl shell of the time, positioned on railroad tracks, could be slid aside to allow the fabled young warrior goddesses in armor and horned helmets to gallop down the hillside and onto the stage for the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. An enthusiastic Walt Disney was in the audience. History was made.

A lot has changed in the last 84 years. But when Yuval Sharon directed act 3 of what was now being advertised as “The Valkyries” at Bowl Sunday night, the gods still seemed very angry as this was the summer of a record-breaking Southland draft. I don’t know if the Disney Pixar crowd bothered to show up this time, but Hollywood Bowl history has been made again, along with live animated opera history.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic can no longer move its massive modern shell. The audience doesn’t connect much with nature in a more urban open-air amphitheater, although it was a comfortable night. No horses, but valkyries on motorbikes. No slope, but video screens. The gods have become digital devils. Restoring the world, including the planet we live on, has become the task of questionably capable people.

The evening started like this. Gustavo Dudamel and a very large orchestra (five, count harps) were on stage. Behind the orchestra was a green backdrop and a small stage for singers. On the video screens, Sigourney Weaver materialized to update the audience on what had happened so far in Wagner’s Ring, with Die Walküren being the second in the four-opera cycle.

A flat stage with a green screen, behind it an orchestra on stage.

The production used a flat stage with a green screen as the background.

(Timothy Norris)

In their tale, the gods operated on the digital plane and the system had “a ring error” that the chief of the gods, Wotan, had to wrest from an evil dwarf. This act revolves around his favorite daughter Brünnhilde, whom he banishes from the gods for disobeying her father, even though she only did what she knew deep down he wanted.

Love, Weaver says, is always greater than the law for the daughter. For the patriarch, love must always obey the law. “Wotan hardly knows that Brünnhilde was the hero he was looking for,” she says in the video.

Helmeted Valkyries in extravagant costumes entered the small stage. Men in green body suits helped guide them to their places. But they were essentially just singers on stage doing their usual Wagnerian business of following Dudamel and doing some acting.

On video, they were transported to an animated digital wonderland thanks to green screen technology. They climbed onto futuristic motorbikes and rode through a landscape that looked like it might have been designed by Buckminster Fuller, the one of geodesic domes. They hurtled through space with urns on the backs of their bicycles, with the Valkyries’ main job being to bring dead warriors to Valhalla, Wotan’s hilltop castle, which he paid for with illegitimate gold.

In the program notes (which you can only access digitally, that’s the current nature of the bowl), Sharon likens this to a live video game. The opera exists on two levels. What you saw on stage was traditional. Dudamel and the orchestra presided over Wagner on a grand scale. Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde and Matthias Goerne as Wotan, as well as the other Valkyries, made for great Wagner.

None of this is exactly new. Sharon – founder of experimental LA opera company The Industry – first came to LA as assistant to Achim Freyer when Freyer directed Los Angeles Opera’s revolutionary “Ring”. In Germany, Sharon has directed Valkyrie for the Karlsruhe Opera, which involved the use of imaginative recorded video.

Sharon’s production of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” for the Bayreuth Festival also questioned the Wagnerian patriarchy and actually had a grass-covered green man on the stage. During his three years as an LA Phil associate artist, Sharon experimented with green screen technology in a production of Andrew Norman’s children’s opera, A Trip to the Moon.

Despite all the surreal scenery, with striking turquoise and purple mountains, red skies and the unusual way the opera characters appeared – at one point a tiny Brünnhilde looked like Tinkerbell standing in Wotan’s gloved palm – this was quintessentially traditional Wagner. In fact, Goerke and Goerne can come across as old-school Wagnerians, so alike that the names of the American soprano and German baritone differ by just one letter. Goerke initially impressed with the sheer volume of a rich, space-filling voice. The stern Goerne was cold and imposing. They were mythical, unreal in an unreal landscape.

A digital screen shows figures in a futuristic forest.

Live action coupled with video animation for a futuristic production.

(Timothy Norris)

But each gradually revealed a weakness. Wotan knows the game is over, and Goerne has made his farewell to Brünnhilde a farewell to life. He is the true broken immortal who must keep up appearances. Even Goerke can no longer rely on a too light Valkyrie bluster. She must now become a much more formidable mortal heroine. Watching her experience what it means to be truly alive through close-up video showed how much we cheat ourselves with artificial digital reality.

What Sharon ends up achieving through this super technology is exactly that, the realization that there is more to life than video screens, that they shouldn’t control us, but open our eyes to the real world around us. Just as it is impossible not to look at the bowl screens, it was impossible not to look at the real orchestra and singers.

Not everything worked. The subtitles, small and yellow, were difficult to read. A strong cast inevitably included powerful Valkyries, but Amber Wagner’s Sieglinde would have stood a better chance of being effective if she had sung a few decibels lower.

Sharon’s 17-strong production outnumbered the cast, an array of designers and technical artists. With extremely limited rehearsal time in the bowl, they produced a miracle. Although a one-night wonder, this is a co-production with Detroit Opera, where Sharon is Artistic Director, and will present it for three performances in September. Wagner’s gods have something to be happy about. Review: Wagner’s ‘Valkyries’ makes history again at the Bowl

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