The great German composer Richard Wagner had a profound influence on Italy’s musical landscape. By the end of the nineteenth century, his work found acceptance here as besotted as it was anywhere. Italian composers from the 1860s on had to grapple with his influence, as did writers, painters, philosophers, filmmakers, and other creatives nearly to the present day. Even now, the provincial whose nose gets out of joint when told of Wagnerian splendor in Italian theaters can easily be proved wrong by a stellar performance.
So it went in Naples in April, where the jewel box Teatro San Carlo Theater, in operation since 1737 and a model for European court theaters that followed, revived its one-off staging of Wagner’s Die Walküre, the second part of the composer’s tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen. More than any other part of the Ring Cycle, Walküre stands on its own as a work of what Wagner called “music drama” instead of “opera,” which he considered an outdated term that failed to respond to the social innovation he sought in musical theater. Indeed, some observers have argued that Walküre’s first act alone is a functional drama. As such, the opera is the most frequently performed work from the cycle as a stand-alone. Naples launched Federico Tiezzi’s simple yet effective production nearly twenty years ago and never developed a full cycle around it, nor does the company appear to have any plans to do so in the future.
Walküre tells the fate of its title character, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, whom Wagner sourced in medieval Germanic epics. Brünnhilde’s greatest significance to the Ring Cycle is her ill-fated marriage to Siegfried, its late-hour protagonist. As Wagner explored Siegfried’s tale, however, he felt compelled to write his origin story. The opera he had planned around Siegfried’s death was thus joined by a prequel about Siegfried’s earlier life. That in turn gave way to material on Siegfried’s parents, the semi-divine Volsung twins Siegmund and Sieglinde and, before them, to the struggle of the gods.
When Walküre opens, a wounded Siegmund enters a strange house during a raging storm. He is tended by Sieglinde, to whom he is attracted but whom he soon recognizes as the sister he lost in childhood. Sieglinde’s unhappy life since their separation has consigned her in marriage to Hunding, a hide-bound woodsman whose kin turn out to be the very enemies from whom Siegmund is fleeing. Customs of hospitality require Hunding to offer Siegmund hospitality, but they must fight in the morning even though Siegmund is defenseless. Sieglinde drugs her husband into a deep sleep and reveals to Siegmund that a stranger once plunged a sword into an ash tree that grows in the middle of the house. So far, no one has been able to pull it out again, but emboldened by Sieglinde’s love, his own despair, and his destiny, Siegmund succeeds. Rather than remain to fight Hunding, he ravishes Sieglinde and they run off into the night.
In the next act, we learn that this was all the plan of Wotan, the king of gods, who had sired Siegmund and Sieglinde with a mortal woman. As he tells Brünnhilde, his favorite daughter by the earth goddess Erda, his reason was to create a free hero who can right a wrong from the cycle’s first opera, Das Rheingold. In the course of events, Wotan had been forced to trade a cursed ring of power for his fortress of Valhalla, where he had gathered an army to help him rule the world. The ring’s current owner is the giant Fafner, who also acquired a vast treasure and now guards it in the form of a dragon. Wotan cannot take it directly, so Siegmund had to be conceived as an unwitting champion. This has drawn the wrath of Wotan’s wife Fricka, who points out that Siegmund is merely a reflection of Wotan’s will and therefore not a free agent at all. His recent running off with Sieglinde also violates Fricka’s guardianship of marriage, on which the gods’ rule also depends. She quickly browbeats him into removing the magic from Siegmund’s sword so that Hunding can slay him.
Wotan instructs Brünnhilde to oversee this cruel action, but she knows his heart deeply enough not to proceed. After succumbing to Siegmund’s blandishments, she defies her father and champions him in battle. Only Wotan’s direct intervention ensures his son’s death, though he also smites Hunding. He pursues Brünnhilde, who reveals to Sieglinde that she is pregnant with the noblest of heroes, Siegfried. Sieglinde escapes, but Wotan punishes Brünnhilde by leaving her on a rock surrounded by a fire through which only the boldest hero—Siegfried—can emerge.
Tiezzi’s production eschews the interpretive fripperies and psychological baggage common in contemporary Wagner productions in favor of appealing abstractions. The main set, by Giulio Paolini, is an angled cubicle structure that supports production elements essential to each of the opera’s three acts. These often include mirrors that reflect the characters’ introspection. In the first act, such a mirror contains the sword within what looks like the outline of a tree. In Act II, the cubicle is strewn with boulders to suggest the rocky cliff where Siegmund’s fate is discussed. In the third act, a central platform serves Brünnhilde’s Valkyrie sisters as they take fallen warriors to Valhalla and finally serves as her place of punitive slumber. Throughout, cool colors permeate the stage, lending a soupçon of science fiction. When Wotan conjures up the magic fire, the lighting warms to a crepuscular red. Giovanna Buzzi’s costumes suggest the nineteenth-century milieu in which Wagner lived. Hunding carries a double-barreled shotgun. Wotan wears a fur-lined mantle that he later enhances with armor. Brünnhilde sports a red dress that evolves into plainer outfits for her warrior maiden deeds.
The excellent English baritone Christopher Maltman took on the role of Wotan for the first time in this revival. A versatile singer who has made a strong international tour through the challenging baritone roles of Giuseppe Verdi’s operas, the voice reaches sufficient depth for Wagner’s deity. Carried by a solid technique and superb legato, his Wotan had an almost lyric quality as he explored its emotional range from sorrow to rage to resignation. The portrayal was sad rather than furious, but Maltman imparted the character’s pathos with a fresh consistency of sorrow that few other singers have explored in it. Audiences awaiting the Royal Opera House’s new production next season will delight in him.
Okka von der Damerau is mainly a mezzo-soprano or lower—this summer she is contracted to sing the contralto parts of Erda and the First Norn at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, Germany. Both musically and dramatically, however, she rose to the challenge of Brünnhilde, a high dramatic soprano part. Her mezzo training allowed her vast maneuverability in the part’s lower and mid-ranges, but the gleaming Bs that the score demands emerged with skill and distinction.
Luxury casting came in Jonas Kaufmann’s bright but steady Siegmund. He was announced sick with a “light influenza” in this performance, but rarely was this debility in evidence as he captured the part and sang to his reputation as Germany’s leading singer. His Sieglinde, the young Latvian soprano Vida Miknevičiūtė, proved a fine companion, fresh and eager in the all-critical moments. John Relyea has come a long way in his stentorian portrayal of Hunding. The sound is gravelly and menacing rather than muddier earlier attempts might have suggested. Varduhi Abrahamyan was suitably hectoring as Fricka.
Teatro San Carlo’s music director Dan Ettinger conducted at a glacial pace that made for a ponderous affair. Even with intermissions of only twenty minutes, the performance clocked in at over five hours. At times, he captured the score’s dramatic sweep but too often he seemed content to plod along. The strings tended toward a gritty sound and the horns, while radiant in sounds, sometimes came in a little too eagerly. Nevertheless, this enjoyable performance will register in the annals of successful Wagneriana.