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Music

Greek National Opera’s ‘Die Walküre’ Thrills at SNFCC

ATHENS – The energetic applause and standing ovations delivered by an appreciative audience after five-and-a-half hours of Richard Wagner’s ‘Die Walküre’ on March 24 at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC) said it all. Yes, they would have liked more, but there are no encores in opera.

The names of the gods on the stage of Stavros Niarchos Hall and presented by the Greek National Opera in the co-production with the Royal Danish Opera were Germanic, but the personas, foibles, and passions of Wotan, Frika, and Brunhilda were familiar to Hellenes, who surely thought of their equivalent gods Zeus, Hera, and Athena.

Stage Director John Fulljames says in the program happily printed in Greek and English that it is “an opera full of the most raw and honest conversations” but also the most tender, which in addition to the erotic, dramatic, and sublime music accounts for Die Walküre’s enduring popularity.

The eight Valkyries are torn between feelings of devotion to their sister Brunhilda, who defied their father, Wotan, and terror, fearing his punishment for hiding her.

While a five-hour opera cannot be summarized in this space, it can illustrated by noting that the bitter conflicts and tender resolutions presented include scenes of a loving father – Wotan, king of the gods, a stirring performance by baritone Tommi Hakala – and daughter, Brunhilda, with fine singing by Catherine Foster, and between a hero – Siegmund, performed by Stefan Vinke – and the gods, represented by Brunhilda.

And there was the age-old clash between husband and wife, after youth’s bloom has faded but the acid tongues only get sharper. Marina Prudenskaya as Frika was more than a match for Wotan, whose flimsy schemes to get around the promises and treaties of his youth are mercilessly exposed by his once-adored wife.

Besides Brunhilda, Greek sopranos comprised most of the eight other Valkyries – Wotan’s daughters whose job is to conduct heroes who fall on the fields of battle to Valhalla as recruits for his own army.

The tender moments, like the one above, between Wotan (Tommi Hakala) and his beloved daughter Brunhilda (Catherine Foster) combine with scenes where both express their anger to make ‘Die Walküre’ a moving opera.
Greek Bass Petros Magoulas broods, portraying Hunding wondering what his wife Sieglinde (Allison Oaks) and the stranger Siegmund (Stefan Vinke) are all about. When his forest home’s set revolves, it becomes Brunhilda’s famous rock.

The costumes created by Tom Scutt were bare – then again, the characters spend most of their time in the forest, not in the drawing rooms of many operas. His sets were spare, but they did the job – with them being spun around to show different aspects – of providing backgrounds for both the violence and tender actions that unfolded, Wagner’s brilliant score evoking all the emotions and thoughts the drama called for. Indeed, the Orchestra of the Greek National Opera was excellent under the very fine conducting of Roland Kluttig.

It was the first time that Wagner’s monumental Die Walküre, the second and most popular installment of the four-opera Ring Cycle, was performed by the GNO.

Petros Magoulas’ menacing bass as Hunding impressed despite his character’s repellent persona, and the most thrilling moment, as planned by Wagner 150 years ago, was Allison Oaks’ incandescent turn as Sieglinde announcing the advent of the hero Siegfied (“O herhstes Wunder”)… in the next opera.

The presence of world class productions like Die Walküre at the beloved SNFCC on Attica’s southern coast is no accident. Giorgios Koumendakis notes in the impressive program that “since 2017, when I took over the artistic directorship of the Opera, at the same time it started operating from its new premises at the SNFCC, my top priority was the gradual inclusion of the masterpieces of Richard Wagner in the repertoire of our national opera house… in our discussion with the Royal Danish Opera at the beginning of 2020 – as part of our company’s artistic outreach policy with the support of the SNF – Die Walküre was one of the first on the table.”

The production is yet another example of Athens’ many offerings that now attract visitors year round.

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