The New York Times
March 14, 2004
Someone's in the Kitchen With Brünnhilde
By Joseph Horowitz
THE great Wagner event of recent New York seasons was an abridged production sung in English with an orchestra of 18 in a theater seating 700. That was the Eos Orchestra's ''Rhinegold'' of 2002 at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. A new Eos production of ''The Valkyrie,'' the second opera in ''The Ring of the Nibelungs,'' will be performed on Thursday and Saturday. As before, the director is Christopher Alden and the conductor is Jonathan Sheffer.
The indelible impact of Eos's ''Rhinegold'' hinged on details of astute psychological portraiture not even attempted in the Metropolitan Opera's lumbering, hyper-realistic ''Ring,'' which returns, beginning on Saturday, with its orchestra of up to 97 and (for ''Götterdämmerung'') 86 choristers, all thrusting great volumes of sound into a cavernous 4,000-seat space.
Whether Eos's ''Valkyrie,'' at New York University's new 800-seat Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, can repeat the ''Rhinegold'' success is an intriguing question. ''The Rhinegold'' as a chamber opera is plausible. The story, in one big act, is often intimate, almost as in a drawing-room drama. The score abounds in exquisite chamber music. Eos's 110-minute pocket production, with a reduced cast, had to trim only 45 minutes. But ''Die Walküre'' as conceived by Wagner is a three-act opera lasting five hours (including two intermissions). Compared with ''Rheingold,'' it is weighted by gravitas, unrelieved by whimsy.
Yet at an Eos production meeting last month, Mr. Alden, whose work has been seen at the New York City Opera and Glimmerglass but never at the Met, effortlessly resituated all three acts of ''The Valkyrie'' in a kitchen where the only props are a stove, a refrigerator and a green Formica table with four metal chairs. Elements of continuity with the ''Rhinegold'' were apparent. The same mezzo-soprano, Linda Pavelka, sings Fricka. The meddlesome emphasis on dysfunctional family dynamics still holds sway. Mr. Sheffer again relies on Jonathan Dove's chamber orchestration, which originated with a 10-hour ''Ring'' presented in 1990 by the City of Birmingham Opera in England. The English translation is mainly the work of Mr. Alden and Mr. Sheffer.
In the Eos ''Rhinegold,'' Alberich, in grimy overcoat, was a dim and lonely onanist. To impress Wotan and Loge, he stripped to his underwear and socks, pulled a stocking cap over his eyes and pretended to be a dragon and a frog. This elegant solution to one of the opera's trickiest spots -- Alberich's stupidity is not normally so credible -- embodied the production generally: it was hilarious and touching in equal measure.
The Eos ''Valkyrie'' will necessarily be more sober. Retelling Wagner's story to his cast of eight (there are only three Valkyries), Mr. Alden likened the plot to a tawdry television drama about a man with two families. Wotan has promiscuously sired the Valkyries, who live with him and their stepmother in Valhalla. This is the ''power family'': the haves. The have-nots are Wotan's clandestine offspring Siegmund and Sieglinde. Motherless, abandoned by their father, they are traumatized twins who never had a chance.
In the Alden staging, the two families inhabit the same house -- or kitchen. The power family raids the refrigerator and bakes pies. The disempowered family moves in semidarkness, a drab working-class world Mr. Alden compared to Queens.
Brünnhilde, Wotan's favorite Valkyrie daughter, is the link between these domestic tableaus. A straight-A student (we see her busy with late-night homework), she idealizes her father and asks no questions. Then, one awful night, trapped by his own double-dealing, he throws a monumental tantrum, a sudden abysmal disclosure of weakness and insecurity. The central action of the drama ensues: a daughter's self-realization in painful separation from an adored parent. Brünnhilde switches sides to fight for her step-siblings, the abused and abandoned twins.
Detailing this synopsis for his singing actors, Mr. Alden made it all seem not so much clever as correct: a grappling with protean characters and situations furnished by a great dramatist. Mr. Alden takes ''The Valkyrie'' seriously. His interpretive response, if cerebral, is at least equally visceral. The same can be said for other ''Ring'' directors who have produced something memorable: Patrice Chéreau at Bayreuth in 1976 and François Rochaix in Seattle a decade later were compelling less for reinterpreting Wagner than for asking, tenaciously and intelligently, what is really going on.
If any aspect of Mr. Alden's exegesis seems controversial, it is the lovelessness of it all. Wotan's narcissism, in Mr. Alden's view, compromises the tenderness we associate with his long farewell to Brünnhilde at the opera's close. ''A standoff,'' Mr. Alden calls this momentous scene. ''A dead end between these two people.''
Of all the ''Ring'' operas, ''The Valkyrie'' is the one with the most sympathetic personal interaction; on one level, it constitutes a veritable treatise on the workings of compassion. Siegmund and Sieglinde, Wotan and Brünnhilde, Brünnhilde and Siegmund, Brünnhilde and Sieglinde all engage each other with an acutely rendered warmth and understanding. But these relationships remain complex. Mr. Alden's view, while not lacking compassion, punctures seeming certainties of virtuous behavior. How this will all play out is impossible to say. And the show's ruthless compression -- with one intermission, it will last less than three hours -- will not only speed up the action but also alter a master dramaturgical trajectory.
Does Mr. Alden question ''The Valkyrie'' itself? ''I feel that way about everything I do,'' he said recently. ''I'm always questioning the assumptions of Wagner or any other opera composer. Even on Wagner's own terms, the bottom line about 'The Ring' is that these operas are not heroic. They expose the holes in our culture. They're deeply critical of our civilization. They take us to dark and terrible places hardly visited by any other works of art. Especially in our own time, I don't think a heroic 'Ring' is viable.''
Whether this constitutes a definitive, one-and-only reading matters little. What sets the ''Ring'' dramas apart from most other Western masterworks of the stage is their limitless archetypal resonance. They mold their themes and characters to the moment. They tell us about ourselves and the times in which we live. That is what any inspired ''Ring'' performance confirms, and what Mr. Alden surely aspires to achieve.
Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, Washington Square South at La Guardia Place.
Thursday and Saturday at 8 p.m.
Joseph Horowitz is the author of ''Wagner Nights: An American History'' and other books.