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The Valkyrie: A Vex Me, Hex Me Study of Strong Women

On the heels of Washington National Opera's fine production of Richard Wagner's opening Ring Cycle opera The Rhinegold conceived and directed by Francesca Zambello, the Dresser saw The Valkyrie on May 2, 2016. The role of Brünnhilde (and yes, Dear Reader, she is The Valkyrie) was sung by the incomparable Christine Goerke because the scheduled soprano Catherine Foster was injured in rehearsal some days before.

Catherine Foster as Brunnhilde Alan Held as Wotan.jpg

Perhaps because of this last minute substitution of Goerke who sets the performance bar high, the overall cast performance was several notches above the satisfying performances delivered in The Rhinegold by such singers as Alan Held (as Wotan) and Elizabeth Bishop (as Fricka).

Christine Goerke - photo by Pierre Gautreau Photography.jpg

Zambello's Valkyrie runs five hours and ten minutes with two long intermissions (40 and 35 minutes). This is not opera for sissies or for someone who dresses uncomfortably. Also the subject matter is rather racey. The Valkyrie deals with incest, adultery, a father killing his son, and a rather strange intimacy between a father and daughter.

What an operagoer needs to know before understanding what happens in the three acts of this opera, is:

--Fafner (the giant seen in The Rhinegold) has transformed himself into a dragon to guard the gold he was given by Wotan in payment for building Valhalla. (Wotan stole the gold from the dwarf Alberich who stole the gold from the Rhine maidens.)

--Committing adultery with the Earth goddess Erda, Wotan has fathered Brünnhilde.

--Wotan has also sired eight more daughters known as the Valkyries with an unnamed goddess who might also be Erda.

--To cap off his infidelity to his wife Fricka, Wotan has also fathered the twins Siegmund (Christopher Ventris) and Sieglinde (Meagan Miller) who are not immortal since their mother was a mortal being.

Act I depicts the twins meeting as young adults as Siegmund, who is wounded, is fleeing from the kinsmen of a woman whom Siegmund rescued from a forced marriage. The twins were violently separated in childhood when Sieglinde was kidnapped and later forced into an unhappy marriage with a brute name Hunding (Raymond Aceto). Immediately the twins are drawn to each other until it finally becomes clear that they are brother and sister. However, the attraction is sexual and weirdly neither of the twins find this morally unacceptable. The act is a long one and sees Hunding returning home only to discover that the man he and his friends are hunting is in his house. He chains Siegmund up and goes to bed with a nightcap that Sieglinde has laced with sleeping potion. Sieglinde then frees Siegmund and tells him about a sword thrust by an old man into an ash tree that no one has been able to remove from the tree. Siegmund knows instantly that this is the sword his father promised him. So Siegmund claims the sword from the tree and his sister from a bad man.

In Zambello's production, the staging is remarkable for the fire burning in front of Hunding's house. This fire takes on metaphoric significance not only for the kindling of the physical love between the twins but also for the wall of fire that will protect Brünnhilde from just any man trying to claim her as his bride. The Dresser also admires Michael Yeargan's set for the flyaway front of Hunding's house so that we, the audience, can enter his house.

Now backing up for a minute, the Dresser will talk about the use of projections between the acts. As the lights dimmed indicating the start of the opera, the Dresser has wondered if she would still like the concept of projections. And, yes, the variety and organic-ness of images shown--like a wolf--running through the forest--worked very well. In the case of the wolf, Siegmund says in trying to keep his identity under check, "Wolf was my father."

Act II is divided between two locations. At Valhalla, Wotan tells Brünnhilde, his confident, to ensure that her half brother Siegmund defeats Hunding, but Wotan's wife Fricka shows up and demands Siegmund's death saying incest cannot be tolerated. Wotan, then changes his orders to Brünnhilde.

In the forest where the twins flee, Brünnhilde visits Siegmund to tell him he will die but then is swayed by Siegmund's love for Sieglinde. Hunding fights with Siegmund, but Wotan appears and breaks Siegmund's sword allowing Hunding to kill Siegmund. However, Wotan then kills Hunding while Brünnhilde escapes with Sieglinde and the broken pieces of Siegmund's sword.

At the center of this lethal flurry is the wrath of Fricka. As the protector of marriage, she has demanded Siegmund's death. Siegmund has disrupted the marriage between Hunding and Sieglinde. Siegmund, who is calling his sister Sieglinde his bride, is committing incest. But through no fault of his own, Siegmund is the offspring of Wotan's illicit relationship with Erda. It is clear that Wotan loves his son, and that Fricka is both furious with and jealous of Wotan who has produced all these children who are not hers. By having Fricka stand silently on a hill observing, Zambello makes it clear that Fricka is the cause of Wotan's agonies--the death of his son Siegmund and the punitive anger against his favored daughter Brünnhilde. Costume designer Catherine Zuber punches up Fricka's anger by having her appear in two red dresses. At Valhalla, Fricka's red-accented dress stands in noticeable contrast to the muted gray-black clothes worn by Wotan and Brünnhilde. However, in the forest, Fricka's all-red dress makes her stand out as she burns with righteous anger.

Act III introduces Brünnhilde's eight sisters, the Valkyries who parachute on stage bringing news of fallen heroes. Zambello uses this scene to pay tribute to real American soldiers lost in battle. Each sister carries in a portrait of an American soldier killed in recent times. The Dresser also wants to acknowledge that among the Valkyries is mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti who is making her Washington National Opera debut as Siegrune. In 2005, Gigliotti played Gertrude Stein in Karren Alenier's and William Banfield's jazz opera Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On, which was developed and premiered by Nancy Rhodes' Encompass New Opera Theatre.


When Brünnhilde and Sieglinde arrive seeking protection of this army of Valkyries, the sisters, fearing Wotan's wrath, turn them away. Brünnhilde makes Sieglinde run to Fafner's forest where she believes Wotan will not follow. Wotan appears and condemns the daughter he loves above all others, almost as if she were his lover, saying he will divest her of her immortality, put her to sleep, and allow the first mortal man to awaken her to claim her as his bride. Brünnhilde begs her father to surround her with a ring of fire to ensure that the man who wakes her up will be worthy. The Dresser was awe struck by the fire on stage and worried that this spectacularly directed, casted, and staged opera would burn down the Kennedy Center.

Brunnhilde Fire.jpg

In Cheryl Clarke's poem "next (french film after the euro)," the reader meets an emotionally charged narrator filled with jealously of the lover's husband. Money is involved. What the poem doesn't reveal is that the narrator could be a woman and therefore the adulterous relationship could be between two women, further complicating the emotional state. The poem depicts a situation that plays resoundingly against Fricka's outrage and Brünnhilde's complicated relationship with her father. For the Dresser, the question remains about why Wotan allows Fricka to dictate his actions against his beloved children. Does he still love his wife? Or is he driven by moral edict to punish himself for his failure to prove himself stronger than the giant Fafner who has Alberich's cursed ring of power?

next (french film after the euro)

you kiss me deeply by ourselves and next
in front of me kiss your husband deep-
ly too for that stock tip. your tongue digs deep creep-

ing under on top diving swimming locking and
the acrid sweet of your spit. so deep next suction lock/auction
block ..then the long trip (voyage longue)

down onto the Tunisian runner of bright coloration leg
resting on the rung of that squat leather tufted bar stool more
comfortable in romance than in the language of trade

and need next to someone so strung out and onto the vortex em
seguida alors, alors
vex me. hex
me. proteja-me tongue me c'est à qui next

to each other (sans mari). no text like a tongue. only the text-
ure of tongues next tongues deep (avec mari).
em seguida. alors, alors. vex me. hex me.
proteja-me .. tongue me .. c'est à qui

by Cheryl Clarke
from By My Precise Haircut

"next (french film after the euro)" copyright © 2016 Cheryl Clarke

Christine Goerke--photo by Pierre Gautreau
Production Photos by Scott Suchman


Comments (1)

barbara goldberg:

Wow. What a fiery story and production! the poem by Cheryl Clarke is hot too!

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