Everyone should see at least one “Ring” cycle in a lifetime.
Given the resources demanded to perform Richard Wagner’s four-opera cycle “Der Ring des Nibelungen” — an enormous orchestra, a hefty number of rare, big-voiced singers, a theater and production staff and facilities to go with it — it’s a sure thing that St. Louis is not going to see a conventional production of it any time soon outside a cinema.
That makes little Union Avenue Opera’s decision to take on composer Jonathan Dove’s reduced version, one opera per season, both welcome and courageous. It’s welcome because this is the only way we’ll get to see as well as hear it live (the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra does do occasional concert selections); it’s courageous because most members of St. Louis audiences haven’t encountered it before.
Wagner does have a reputation for length and difficulty; the Dove reduction (accomplished with the aid of director Graham Vick’s verbal scalpel) takes care of the former, although it’s still a challenge for performers. Last summer’s opening entry, “Das Rheingold,” came in at one hour, 45 minutes instead of three hours. This year’s, “Die Walküre (The Valkyrie)” is three hours instead of five, with four Valkyries instead of nine; like “Rheingold,” it uses a chamber orchestra.
Seen on Friday night, “Walküre” continues stage director Karen Coe Miller’s smart, imaginative vision, with a minimalist set and lighting by Patrick Huber and projections by Michael Perkins and Lauren Garvey. As with “Rheingold,” it was more the small omissions than the large excisions that bothered me, but abbreviated Wagner is far, far better than none.
Any St. Louisan with any interest in opera should take in this production.
Even in a reduced state, “Walküre” is a big sing, and it demands careful casting. Artistic director (and conductor) Scott Schoonover found voices up to the task.
Alexandra LoBianco’s Brünnhilde, the titular Valkyrie, is a major talent, both vocally and as an actress. She’s a real dramatic soprano who uses her voice and body well, and she still sounded fresh at the evening’s end. If she’s careful in building her career, it will be an important one.
Mezzo-soprano Elise Quagliata is a superb singing actress as well. Her Fricka is an astute lawyer in goddess’s clothing, wielding her rich voice with intelligent delivery, to great effect. Nathan Whitson’s Hunding, a hulking basso tyrant in a hillbilly beard, was impressive in every way, with a big dark voice that didn’t quit.
As Wotan, bass Timothy Bruno offered an outstanding voice, big and opulent, and a somewhat callow characterization, especially in the early scenes. In “Walküre,” Wotan is not yet the weary figure of the two later operas in the cycle, but he can already see the end approaching, and there was little of that apparent in Bruno’s king of the gods. More concerning were the signs of vocal weariness toward the opera’s end, when his high notes sometimes failed him.
Bruno has an amazing talent, but he’s young, and even a reduced Wotan is a role for mature singers. He needs to take care of his voice, because opera needs voices like his.
As Siegmund and Sieglinde, tenor James Taylor and soprano Amber Smoke were well matched, as twins should be. Smoke was most impressive in her last moments onstage, when her beautiful high range was finally revealed. Taylor, a relatively recent convert from the baritone repertoire, has a tenor vocal coloring that, with Siegmund’s relatively low register, made him a good choice for the role.
Schoonover has a gift for communicating with and supporting his singers; some of his tempos, though, were a little stodgy at times in the first act. The orchestra was often ragged, most regrettably in the abbreviated “Ride of the Valkyries” and “Magic Fire Music.”
Sarah Bryan Miller is the Post-Dispatch’s classical music critic. Follow Bryan at Culture Club and on Twitter at @SBMillerMusic.
Where • Union Avenue Opera, Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 North Union Boulevard
When • 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
How much • $30 to $52
Info • unionavenueopera.org or 314-361-2881