Wagner Notes

Harlow Robinson
September 2022

The Hollywood Bowl–site of so many glittering performances under the balmy Southern California skies–is celebrating its 100th anniversary this summer. Wagner was invited to the birthday party, which seems only fitting considering the outsize role his music has played in the history of the movies from the silent era to the present. (See Alex Ross’ recent article in The New Yorker, “How Wagner Shaped Hollywood.”) At sunset on July 17, the Los Angeles Philharmonic collaborated with the ever adventurous and innovative director Yuval Sharon and several distinguished Wagnerian singers (headlined by Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde and Matthias Goerne as Wotan) for a cutting-edge and very Hollywood performance of Act III of Die Walküre that takes the Ring narrative into a “retro-futurist universe” of virtual reality and video games.

Sharon is of course no stranger to Los Angeles, a city he has said he finds more open to his experimental ideas about opera than New York. It was here that he founded The Industry, a company dedicated to disrupting the operatic status quo with interdisciplinary and multi-media projects presented in alternative spaces including moving vehicles and escalator corridors. Sharon is also no stranger to Wagner’s operas, having staged them in various unusual settings (a recent Götterdämmerung at the Detroit Opera House Parking Center), and even at the shrine at Bayreuth, where in 2018 he became the first American ever to direct (Lohengrin).

As former Artist-in-Residence at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Sharon maintains a close relationship to the orchestra and its enterprising conductor Gustavo Dudamel, considered by many to be the most exciting and risk-taking maestro of any major American orchestra today. Dudamel, currently Artistic Director of the Paris Opera in his spare time, also continues to find new approaches to this traditionally conservative art form, such as the LA Philharmonic’s semi-staged production of Beethoven’s Fidelio this past season with a double cast of deaf and hearing performers.

“The Valkyries” — as the event was publicized — is a joint effort with Detroit Opera. Sharon currently serves as that company’s artistic director; the production will be staged in Detroit for three performances in September. In a video message on the Bowl’s website, Sharon warned that “if you are an opera lover, I hope this is something that you have never experienced before. We are presenting Act III of Die Walküre as a stand-alone opera, and creating a video game in real time before the audience’s eyes.”

The real action occurred on two enormous screens placed at either side of the shell housing the very large orchestra (there are 22 brass players alone). The singers stood mostly stationary in front of a green screen in back of the orchestra, in costumes that would have looked quite at home in Star Trek–lots of shiny chrome and high puffy collars. An army of technical wizards (with titles like “technology integration lead” and “disguise programmer”) produced the video imagery that appeared on the two screens in amazing three-dimensional space. It was a witty touch to have Sigourney Weaver, star of the kindred Avatar and other alternative-reality films, provide a short taped introduction, giving a recap of what had preceded. “Wotan has constructed a virtual universe,” she said, but the message of Die Walküre is that “Love is greater than the law.” Brünnhilde is the real hero Wotan is looking for, and what she offers are “love, hope and resistance.”

Instead of horses, the Valkyries (Alexandria Shiner, Laura Wilde, Tamara Mumford, Ronnita Miller, Jessica Faselt, Laura Krumm, Renée Tatum, Deborah Nansteel, all in excellent voice) arrive at the start of the act on futuristic motorcycles with urns attached to hold the ashes of fallen heroes. The dominant colors of the video projection are pink and blue and silver, constantly shifting, along with the respective placement of the characters, reflecting their emotional states. When Wotan is berating Brünnhilde, for example, she becomes tiny in the distance as Wotan looms in the foreground. Huge facial closeup shots challenge our sense of proportion.

With so much busy visual activity going on, the music could feel almost like an afterthought. But Goerke and Goerne gamely rose to the challenge, demonstrating their deep experience with these roles. Their voices (and the orchestra) were subtly amplified, so they were always audible, and without distortion of sound. Known for her willingness to push the boundaries of convention, Goerke appeared to thoroughly enjoy her identity as a virtual reality heroine, and gave the sort of polished, nuanced vocal performance we have come to expect of her. Goerne was vocally somewhat underpowered, especially in the lower register, but conveyed with touching clarity the conflicting emotions of love and duty Wotan feels towards his disobedient daughter. Amber Wagner made the most of her brief appearance as Sieglinde.

Under Dudamel, always in control but never overbearing, the LA Philharmonic sounded fresh and inspired, with clean attacks from the brass and a rich, creamy string tone.

It was a memorable night at the Bowl, for sure, and showed us once again (if we needed persuading) that Wagner’s music and storytelling possess almost infinite possibilities of dramatic, visual and emotional re-creation and renewal. Now that the video is in the can, perhaps you can expect to see “The Valkyrie” at a theater near you in the future.

© Wagner Notes, September 2022, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.

Harlow Robinson,

a WSNY member, is Professor of History, Emeritus, at Northeastern University, and the author of Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography and other books. He has written on a wide variety of musical topics for national publications and the Metropolitan Opera, and he has lectured for the WSNY and the Metropolitan Opera Guild.