Back in Command: Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in Wagner’s ‘Die Walküre’

02.02.15
Christine Goerke
The New York Times

By Anthony Tommasini 

TORONTO — It’s always news in the opera world when an important singer takes on a touchstone role of the repertory for the first time. Preferably, an artist stepping up to such a challenge wants attention, but not too much.

But for months the entire field of opera, it seemed, was waiting to see how the American soprano Christine Goerke would fare on Saturday night here at the Canadian Opera Company when she sang Brünnhilde in Wagner’s “Die Walküre” for the first time in a staged performance. (She tried it out in concert in New Zealand in 2012, but singing it onstage is vastly more challenging.)

Ms. Goerke, 45, who emerged in the late 1990s as an outstanding singer of Mozart, Handel and Gluck, went through a vocal crisis about a dozen years ago. Since then, step by step, she has re-emerged as an exciting dramatic soprano, with triumphant performances in recent years of the heavier Wagner and Strauss roles, including a sensational run as the Dyer’s Wife in the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of Strauss’s “Die Frau Ohne Schatten” last season.

Brünnhilde, the summit for a dramatic soprano, seemed the inevitable next step. Ms. Goerke is already lined up to sing the role in various “Ring” productions over the next few years at the Houston Grand Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago and, during the 2018-19 season, the Met. So were the high hopes for her Brünnhilde warranted?

In a word, yes. If Ms. Goerke was feeling the pressure, she did not show it on Saturday in this revival of the company’s boldly modern “Walküre” production by the film director Atom Egoyan. From Brünnhilde’s first appearance in Act II, when she greets Wotan, her father, with her signature “Hojotoho!” salute, Ms. Goerke looked and sounded in command. Her gleaming tones sliced through the glittering orchestra. She leapt effortlessly to the high B’s and C’s, which though cut off short, as written, were truly sung, not squawked. And the trill on the midrange F-sharp that builds to the sustained high B was a real trill, not a faked one. All those years Ms. Goerke spent singing vocal embellishments in Mozart and Handel came in handy here.

Then, in the next passage, when Brünnhilde warns Wotan that his wife, Fricka, is approaching fast and looking angry, Ms. Goerke showed that she had thought through this role deeply. With all the vocal gymnastics of the moment — one of the most famous entrances in opera — it’s easy to forget that the feisty Brünnhilde is poking fun at her father. To her, it looks like Fricka is gearing up for a marital spat. But Brünnhilde, a Valkyrie, a warrior maiden, cares nothing about such silly things.

Every phrase in Ms. Goerke’s performance of this daunting role was driven by what her character was saying. She made the words matter, not just through clear German diction but through the meaning and intention of the phrase.

She certainly has the voice for Brünnhilde. Her sound lifts Wagner’s phrases and carries easily, especially on this night in the company’s inviting 2,000-seat house, with its splendid acoustics. Vocal concerns never seemed to distract her. During the long scene known as Wotan’s Narrative, Wotan (the stentorian baritone Johan Reuter), in a rare moment of vulnerability, tells Brünnhilde the whole sorry story of his life — of his hunger for power and knowledge, of his rash act in stealing the ring. It was moving just to watch Ms. Goerke’s Brünnhilde listening to her father, astonished at his openness and remorse.

And in the final scene, when Wotan punishes Brünnhilde for defying him, Ms. Goerke’s poignant singing conveyed the whole range of the daughter’s emotions: her bafflement over the extent of Wotan’s anger; her disbelief that a father she adores is about to abandon her. Still, even during this scene, in crucial moments, sparks of the fiery, headstrong Brünnhilde would come through as well when Ms. Goerke sang a phrase with steely Wagnerian power and cool intensity.

Ms. Goerke’s career path to this moment is instructive of something about opera that may seem hard to fathom. Singers spend years training and developing technique. Yet it can be frustratingly hard for them to figure out the true dimensions and potential of their voices.

At the start of her career, Ms. Goerke seemed basically a lyric soprano type, with extra vocal body and power. In her early 30s, her voice, as sometimes happens, started getting bigger. Yet, as she later explained in interviews, rather than letting her voice expand and support the sound, she tried to maintain her agility and coloratura lightness and started singing in a constrained way.

She found the mentor she needed in the soprano Diana Soviero, who had become a noted teacher. Ms. Soviero advised Ms. Goerke to follow her voice where it seemed to be heading and support it. To simplify a complex issue, if some singers make a mistake by pushing their voices in an attempt to produce more sound, Ms. Goerke had been erring by reining hers in.

In 2004, she sang Donna Elvira in a new Met production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” by Marthe Keller and won big ovations and good reviews. Her work with Ms. Soviero was paying off, it seemed. Yet Ms. Goerke already knew that she would not be singing this role again. Her move toward dramatic repertory had begun.

Just days after the Met’s “Frau” opened last season, Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, announced that Ms. Goerke would be singing Brünnhilde when the company brought back the Robert Lepage “Ring.” It made sense to invite her “sooner rather than later,” Mr. Gelb said in an interview, because “I don’t want anybody else stealing her from us.”

The Canadian Opera Company’s “Walküre” was part of an unusual project. The company inaugurated its new home in 2006 with a “Ring” production involving four directors, one for each show, though unity was achieved by having a single set and costume designer, Michael Levine. All the action in Mr. Egoyan’s “Walküre” is set amid a maze of metal ramps, ladders and cables. There is a downed oak tree in the center of the stage and shards of a destroyed building. In the background are walls of what seems to be Valhalla. The imagery suggests the ramshackle elements of an opera house and its stage. It’s from this pile of refuse that stories are told and operas performed.

The cast was strong for this “Walküre.” The tenor Clifton Forbis, though a little leathery-voiced at times, was an honorable Siegmund, singing with formidable power and anguished intensity. The young soprano Heidi Melton brought a big, appealing, if sometimes shaky, voice to Sieglinde. The rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Janina Baechle was engrossingly persuasive as Fricka. And the bass Dimitry Ivashchenko was a menacing, vocally chilling Hunding. The conductor, Johannes Debus, drew sure-paced, dark-hued playing from the orchestra in a performance alive with striking details.