The Valkyrie (Die Walküre) in Concert

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

22/07/2012 - 22/07/2012

CBS Canterbury Arena, Christchurch

25/07/2012 - 25/07/2012

Auckland Town Hall, Auckland

28/07/2012 - 28/07/2012

Production Details

Once-in-a-lifetime Wagner opera in concert with the NZSO 

Never before has the momentous Wagner opera The Valkyrie (Die Walküre) been performed in concert with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

An international stellar cast of singers and full symphony orchestra, featuring more than 100 musicians, will join forces this July to bring you the ground-breaking music of Richard Wagner’s epic music drama – The Valkyrie (Die Walküre).

Full of love, abandonment, infidelity, and incest, The Valkyrie is the second of four operas that form the cycle The Ring of the Nibelung (Der Ring des Nibelungen). It features some of Wagner’s most memorable music, including the popular excerpt Ride of the Valkyries. In fact, you may have already heard this masterpiece used in films such as Apocalypse Now (when the Air Cavalry regiment plays it through loudspeakers during a helicopter attack) or even on a New Zealand television advertising campaign featuring a toilet and a duck!?

Despite its frequent use in popular culture, Wagner developed this epic tale of gods and men from Norse mythology. So, we invited none other than the crème de la crème of New Zealand and international singers to represent these dramatic characters in this once-in-a-lifetime opera in concert with your national orchestra.

Helden baritone John Wegner is no stranger to the role of Wotan, King of the gods, with an impressive six seasons at Bayreuth Festival – the spiritual home of Wagner’s music. He finds his match in the dramatic prowess of Margaret Medlyn’s Fricka. Internationally-renowned Wagnerian tenor Simon O’Neill returns home to sing the demanding role of Siegmund – one he has already performed at the Royal Opera House and La Scala – and the exquisite soprano Edith Haller is Sieglinde, who was first heard in this role at the 2010 Bayreuth Festival. Dramatic soprano superstar, and prestigious Richard Tucker award recipient, Christine Goerke will be an indomitable force singing the role of Brünnhilde, and in the role of Hunding is another shining star – the charismatic New Zealander Jonathan Lemalu, whose rich, resonant bass makes him an audience favourite.

Supported by an astounding hoard of eight “Valkiwis” (Valkyries who are all Kiwis), and backed by a super-sized New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, including three harps, four French Horns, four Wagner Tubas, a contrabass trombone, bass trumpet, steerhorn, and even a thunder machine, this extraordinary musical event, conducted by critically acclaimed Music Director Pietari Inkinen, will be cherished and remembered for years to come.

Wagner’s epic tale of gods and men will grab you by the horns and not let you go. Well, not for five hours and 40 minutes that is (including two intervals). So book your meals with us, bring a cushion, escape from the cold, and prepare for an unforgettable musical memory with the NZSO.

You simply can’t miss this rare opportunity to hear the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in The Valkyrie, in memory of Lloyd Morrison with support from the Wagner Society of New Zealand and the Wagner New Zealand Foundation.

Renowned New Zealand bass-baritone Roger Wilson will give a free 30-minute talk in all three centres, 45-minutes prior to each performance. For more details about each NZSO pre-concert talk, visit

WELLINGTON / Michael Fowler Centre / Sunday 22 July / 3 pm 
TICKETEK / 0800 842 538 / TICKETEK.CO.NZ 

CHRISTCHURCH / CBS Canterbury Arena / Wednesday 25 July / 5 pm 
TICKETEK / 0800 842 538 / TICKETEK.CO.NZ

AUCKLAND / Town Hall / Saturday 28 July / 4 pm

Duration: 5 hours 40 minutes including two intervals

Fast Facts  

When the NZSO received the complete set of scores for Wagner’s The Valkyrie, they weighed 32 kgs altogether. 

Star tenor Simon O’Neill appeared on the 1998 NZ one-dollar performing arts postage stamp. 

This is NZSO Music Director Pietari Inkinen’s debut performance of Wagner’s The Valkyrie with the NZSO. 

It was Richard Wagner’s 199th birthday on Tuesday 22 May, 2012. 

This is the first time, since performing Parsifal in 2006, that the NZSO has performed an opera by Wagner. Parsifal, conducted by Anthony Negus and featuring Sir Donald McIntyre,Margaret Medlyn, Simon O’Neill, Paul Whelan, Martin Snell, and Grant Dickson, was staged as part of the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts. Before that the NZSO performed a concert version of Das Rhinegold in 1997 with NZSO Conductor Laureate Dr Franz-Paul Decker, also part of the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts. 

Outside of an international tour, this is the single largest undertaking for the NZSO.

The Valkyrie includes a number of unusual instruments including a steerhorn and thunder machine, which are both played off-stage. The steerhorn is described as a long medieval bugle horn. It has a conical bore, no bell flare, and a straight tube.

It also includes four Wagner Tubas, an instrument originally invented by Richard Wagner for his operatic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. The Wagner Tuba combines elements of both the tuba and French Horn and is sometimes referred to as the Bayreuth tuba. Wagner was inspired to create the instrument after visiting Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, in Paris in 1853. Composers Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, and Bruckner, amongst others, have written for the instrument.

In Norse mythology, a Valkyrie is responsible for deciding who dies during battle. Valkyrie originates from the Old Norse ‘valkyrja’ – a “chooser of the slain” and is one of a host of female figures.

Wagner took his tale from the Norse mythology told in a collection of old Norse poems Poetic Edda and in the legendary saga – the Volsunga Saga.

The Valkyrie premiered in Wagner’s Bayreuth Festival as part of the complete cycle on 14 August 1876. Earlier it premiered at the National Theatre Munich, 26 June, 1870 at the insistence of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. 

The “Valkiwis” (Valkyries):
Morag Atchison, Amanda Atlas, Sarah Castle, Kristin Darragh, Wendy Doyle, Lisa Harper-Brown, Anna Pierard, Kate Spence

5 hrs 40 mins incl. two intervals

Valkyrie rides into a new era for Kiwi opera with performance of a lifetime

Review by Sharon Talbot 24th Jul 2012

The standing ovation said it all really – musically and dramatically, this was the performance of a lifetime. As a full-length, full-scale concert performance of The Valkyrie (a Wagner Ring Cycle opera), this performance made history. It also heralded a new era for opera in New Zealand by bringing to us a starry cast of international opera singers, including ten Kiwi singers who are cutting it on the world stage and who we rarely get a chance to hear live.

Having world-class singers and a 100+ piece orchestra was always going to make this an event to remember, but it could easily have been a musical event only. Instead it was a night of music drama that will long be talked about. And this was despite there being no set, no costumes, minimal lighting, a single prop (piano stool) and just a narrow strip of stage in front of the orchestra to act on! Not really theatre then, you say?

But that’s the point of Wagner, which I myself finally understood from this performance. Wagner set out to create music drama at its most integrated (Gesamtkunstwerk), and he succeeded: the music makes the drama. He did it by composing musical themes (Leitmotifs) played by particular instruments to portray characters, their feelings and/or crucial features of the drama. Examples are the motifs of Siegmund, the magic sword, love, Wotan’s wrath, and the famous ride of the Valkyries. Wagner interweaves and layers the many motifs using instrumental colours in such masterly fashion that, for example, internal conflicts of characters are exposed while coming danger is foreshadowed. 

While the music is complex and was revolutionary in its time, Wagner’s story is rather tiredly familiar. Fugitive warrior hero (Siegmund) falls in love with desperate housewife (Sieglinde), who then recognise each other as long-lost siblings. But their love is overwhelming, so they run off together after Siegmund has freed the required magic sword from a tree, pursued by furious husband (Hunding).

King of the gods Wotan (secretly the lovers’ father) stops warrior goddess daughter Brünnehilde from protecting the lovers from Hunding’s blade because nagging wife Fricka pulls rank as protector of marriage vows. When Brünnehilde meets Siegmund, she foretells his heroic death and entry to Valhalla. The pivot of the story comes when Brünnehilde is so moved by the sincerity of Siegmund’s love (he turns down everlasting drink and girls in Valhalla because his mortal beloved won’t be there), that Brünnehilde whips Sieglinde off to take refuge with her sister Valkyries.

However, Wotan can’t allow Siegmund to escape, despite his sympathy for the hero’s love, because Siegmund has broken too many laws.  So Wotan shatters Siegmund’s sword as he fights Hunding, causing his son’s heroic death. Wotan then zaps Hunding and punishes disobedient Valkyrie daughter by putting her to enchanted sleep on a high rock. But by surrounding Brünnehilde with a ring of magic fire, Wotan ensures that his favourite daughter will only be awakened by a true hero who will, of course, fall in love with her… And so we are left literally hanging on the cliff, waiting for the next instalment of The Ring. (Sound familiar?!) 

Yes, this opera is awfully long (over four and a quarter hours!) and, yes, the story is silly. Superficially, it’s about heroes and warrior girls charging around in horned helmets in some mythical Norse twilight. How can that be relevant in our country, so far away in time and place from Wagner’s cultural tradition? Because it’s actually about universal human urges and emotions, that’s why.  

Falling in love with the wrong people, protecting those we love, struggling with conflicting family obligations, and doing anything for money or political power – these situations cause tragedies in NZ now just as much as in Valhalla in the legendary past. All effective drama – from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Spielberg – works because it taps into our fundamental humanity. We recognise the feelings and conflicts portrayed and respond with our gut as much as our brain.

But the drama only comes alive in this complex, lengthy music if it is superbly performed, because Wagner gave us some of the most demanding vocal and orchestral music in the repertoire. On Sunday night in Wellington, the NZSO and the singers under the inspired baton of Pietari Inkinen truly did make the drama live. 

The cast was led on by tenor Simon O’Neill as the hunted warrior Siegmund. He sang with such conviction and virtuosity that he brought tears to many an eye in the audience before the end of the first act. His powerful voice has always had a laser-like cut, but now he can also produce a spectacular heroic shine in true Heldentenor style. He can also fine it down to sing lyrical passages tenderly, such as in the love duet and Spring episode. O’Neill has remarkable diction and uses his consonants expressively.

Born in Ashburton and studying in NZ before New York, O’Neill has recently performed this role at the big three of the opera world: The Met in New York, the Royal Opera House in London and La Scala in Milan. This is superstardom in the opera world, so we are very lucky to hear him back home. He was instrumental in getting this project underway with the NZSO and so deserves our thanks. O’Neill was obviously having the time of his life singing his music, so the audience enjoyed it too! 

Falling for Siegmund and so triggering the tragedy in Valkyrie is Sieglinde, gloriously sung by Italian soprano Edith Haller. Her beautiful voice shimmered and glowed effortlessly through Sieglinde’s long phrases, and complemented O’Neill’s voice very well, despite its different timbre. Physically, she made a good pair to O’Neill, which is important as their characters are (long-lost) twins. (Yes, its incest – that’s one of the reasons it all goes horribly wrong.) Haller’s naturalistic acting gave us a sincere and dignified portrayal of the battered wife, blossoming lover and (later) ecstatic expectant mother. 

Hunding forcibly married Sieglinde before the opera began. His return home to surprise the lovers is heralded by a hunting horn motif, which foreshadows his pursuit of Siegmund. He is sung by the starry young NZ export, Jonathan Lemalu, whose warm, dark, almost grainy voice and brooding presence gave Hunding gravitas as well as menace.

As a bass-baritone, Lemalu’s voice is still maturing. But already he has won a Gramophone award and is performing in major international opera houses, including the Met and Covent Garden. Give him another decade and who knows which Wagnerian role he might be playing?! (Could he perhaps twitch the mantle of our great Wotan Donald McIntyre? Time will tell.)

Brünnehilde is The Valkyrie of the opera’s title, so really it is her story. Erica Challis on Radio NZ Concert last week aptly described Brünnehilde’s often parodied “Hojotoho” calls as “a happy, happy Huntaway dog” straining at the leash! This is how Christine Goerke played the role – young, eager and brimming with sympathy and affection. 

In this American superstar, we are fortunate indeed to hear a great dramatic soprano just coming into the height of her powers: her voice is stupendous!! She soars over Wagner’s enormous orchestra, and her sheer brilliance of timbre sends shivers up the spine. Goerke has sung most major soprano roles in the top international houses, and is just moving into the bigger Strauss and Wagner roles. She garnered the loudest cheers during the ovation on Sunday in Wellington, and thoroughly deserved them. We aren’t likely to get a chance to hear her voice live in NZ again. Don’t miss out! 

Wotan is the powerbroker in this opera and all of The Ring cycle. It is his lust for glory no matter the cost that led him to use the stolen ring of power to get Valhalla built in the preceding opera (The Rhine Gold), thus risking the very existence of the gods. The role is one of the most demanding in the repertoire, and unfortunately Australian John Wegner was suffering from a throat infection on Sunday.  

This became evident early on when his voice began to break up in the lower register, and later he didn’t attempt to over-ride the orchestra in full flood. The collective anxiety of the audience about whether he would last the distance probably added to the gripping emotional tension of Act III! But Wegner has sung such roles many times, and his pacing of his impaired vocal forces throughout this marathon sing was exemplary. To anyone who has ever aspired to be an opera singer, his performance was a lesson in consummate professionalism.

In spite of this vocal weakness, John Wegner radiated power as Wotan – he truly was the ‘still centre of the turning world’. He somehow drew focus, often while seemingly doing nothing. I think some of his dramatic power came from his movements being completely in sync with the music: when it was silent, he was completely still; when it was furious, he was driven into motion, but always with minimal gesture. For example, just slowly turning his head and focussing his eyes into a glare suddenly showed he was in charge, despite being the smallest person on stage.

The subtlety and intensity of his performance highlighted Wotan’s musical motifs so clearly that I, personally, really ‘got’ Wagner’s music for the first time. It had seemed so dense, complex and overwhelming before, but John Wegner’s performance clarified it for me. 

Fricka is Wotan’s wife and conscience, whom he has betrayed many times but whom he is bound to honour. Her anger at his instructing Brünnehilde to protect Siegmund from Hunding’s marital vengeance is expressed in furiously agitated music. It drives away the love motif when Wotan tries to argue that Siegmund and Sieglinde are true lovers.

Wellington’s own Margaret Medlyn personified Fricka’s fury as she swept on stage in a suitably imperial purple gown. Her voice was especially rich and dark in the lower register, where she almost growled at Wotan, giving us a passionate portrayal of a wronged wife who is unarguably right. Wegner’s response when he couldn’t out-argue her was to try to seduce her, and the sexual frisson between these two experienced actors was striking: we understood why she stays with him.  

Spontaneous applause greeted the entrance of the eight other Valkryies to the famous Ride of the Valkyries music. (Yes, it is the attack music from Apocalypse Now!) The ‘Val-kiwis’, as they dubbed themselves, are sopranos Morag Atchison, Amanda Atlas and Lisa Harper-Brown (actually an Australian, made an honorary Kiwi by her sisters in crime), and mezzos Sarah Castle, Kristin Darragh, Wendy Doyle, Anna Pierard and Kate Spence. With such a line-up of soprano talent in full cry and the orchestra at full volume, the roof of the MFC nearly lifted off! The Val-kiwis were clearly having a ball, and the audience loved them. 

With all this great talent to draw on, why was The Valkyrie not fully staged? Funding is the answer – the lack of it, of course. To stage this opera, or any of the Ring Cycle, is a hugely expensive project due to the massive forces required. And in NZ, we will spend millions of taxpayers’ dollars on world-class sports events like the Rugby World Cup, but only a tiny percentage of that on our world-class performing artists. And before you protest that far more Kiwis are interested in rugby than opera, take a look at the stats of New Zealanders’ leisure activities on the Ministry of Culture and Heritage website. Far more Kiwis sing in choirs than play sport!   

However, this concert version did allow us to hear the full glory of the orchestra, Wagner brass section and all, which is not always possible from the orchestra pit in a theatre. On the concert hall stage, with the singers in front, the orchestra became part of the cast. When Siegmund and Sieglinde were discovering of their love from either side of the stage, the solo cellist playing the achingly beautiful love motif between them became the one drawing them together. To see and hear Wotan rage with an army of furiously working bow arms behind him was stirring stuff indeed. 

If you are at all interested in opera or musical drama, and you can be in Christchurch on the 25th or in Auckland on the 28th, go grab a ticket for The Valkyrie. With the very existence of the NZSO now at risk, show your support for one of our national treasures and treat yourself to the performance of a lifetime! 


Make a comment

Standing ovation for NZSO's Wagner

Review by John Button 24th Jul 2012

No-one in the world of music has polarised opinion as much as Richard Wagner, and no creative endeavour has so transcended the narrow world of music quite like his vast cycle of four music dramas – The Ring of the Nibelung. Yet, here in July 2012 was the first time the most “stand-alone” of the four operas has been performed in New Zealand, albeit in a concert performance.

So this was a significant event, and, although the hall was not quite full for the four hours of turbulent music drama, there was intense interest by a big audience of a wider range of age than usually attends formal musical events in the capital. At the end the performance was greeted by a standing ovation of an intensity unprecedented in my experience. Was it for the performance or was it a recognition of Wagner’s extraordinary imagination? Both, I would suggest. [More]  


Make a comment

Wellingon City Council
Aotearoa Gaming Trust
Creative NZ
Auckland City Council