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Wagner: Die Walküre (Met, Levine, Terfel, Voigt, Kaufmann, Westbroek, etc.)

14 May 2011

Wagner: Die Walküre

Bryn Terfel (Wotan)
Deborah Voigt (Brünnhilde)
Jonas Kaufmann (Siegmund)
Eva-Maria Westbroek (Sieglinde)
Hans-Peter König (Hunding)
Stephanie Blythe (Fricka)
Kelly Cae Hogan, Molly Fillmore, Marjorie Elinor Dix, Mary Phillips, Wendy Bryn Harmer, Eve Gigliotti, Mary Ann McCormick, Lindsay Ammann (Valkyries)

The Metropolitan Opera
James Levine (conductor)

Robert Lepage (director)
Carl Fillion (set designer)
Etienne Boucher (lighting designer)
Boris Firquet (video images)

Metropolitan Opera House, New York (and Live in HD)
Saturday, May 14

I was entirely unconvinced by the Met’s new Das Rheingold. Then, however, I saw the production only in the cinemas: for Die Walküre I shelled out, for the first time in my life, sufficient cash to sit in the stalls. Owing to problems with The Machine, we started 45 minutes late (the problems were explained to the cinema audiences, but we in the hall heard absolutely nothing, which is a disgraceful state of affairs that show where the Met’s priorities lie nowadays), but once we got going this was a completely different experience: besides a few qualms, of course, this was simply one of those days at the opera.

I shall get to Robert Lepage’s production in a bit, for that remains where most of the problems lie. The singing, however, was superb.

I had expected Jonas Kaufmann’s first Siegmund to be outstanding, and he was predictably good, but he was completely outshone by Eva-Maria Westbroek’s more worn-in Sieglinde. Westbroek fully inhabited her role, moving slowly from nervous pet through woman-in-love, woman-madly-in-love, woman plain mad, and then the tragic heroine. The sheer power of her voice combined with phrasing of a quality one rarely hears and quite brilliant intonation and focus. Her delivery of that crucial line in Act III, to the leitmotif of Brünnhilde’s immolation, was terrifyingly good, Levine providing a special rit to aid her with a line that so often falls flat. She even managed to act convincingly, too.

Kaufmann I was less sure about. Sometimes he has a slightly recessed tone (he had it in the first half of a recital I reviewed earlier in the year too), which he never really escaped from here: his hefty tenor, hardly a pure Heldentenor despite its baritonal hue, didn’t penetrate the orchestral din as much as one might like. That said, he’s still already the best Siegmund around, with phrasing, emotional weight, diction, and acting qualities far outweighing any minor issues. The buildup to “Wälse! Wälse!” lacked oomph, but by “Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond” Kaufmann was in full control, delivering a thrilling conclusion to Act I. His duet with Brünnhilde in Act II was deeply moving: Kaufmann, in this case at least, is clearly going for a ‘noble’ Siegmund much like Jon Vickers. More abandon in Act I, and more penetration, would pretty much make this role complete.

I have no qualms whatsoever about Deborah Voigt’s Brünnhilde. Whether she has the stamina for Götterdämmerung is a question unanswerable as of yet, but her emotional journey here from naive assistant to full-blown heroine (with thickening of tone to match) raised few questions except ones I want raised by Wagner. Her scenes with Siegmund and later Wotan were particularly special, the latter having a wonderfully conversational patter helped by unusually un-languid tempi from Levine. I have not yet heard Nina Stemme in this role, but Voigt left little to be desired.

When I look at Bryn Terfel, I still want John Tomlinson, but the big Welshman was on good form here. Terfel is the Simon Rattle of bass-baritones, with every accent, every word, every phrase carefully planned and then deliberately executed. Sometimes this is overly fussy, but at others, such as in his Act II monologue or when bidding farewell to Brünnhilde, it feels just right. With Terfel individual words and phrases stick in the memory, like the bittersweet tone of “das Ende!” in Act II, or his spitting of “gewesen” at the errant Brünnhilde’s godhead, or, best of all, his whispered and well-placed final line to his daughter, “Denn so kehrt der Gott sich dir ab, so küsst er die Gottheit von dir!”. My question would be one of intangibles: with Tomlinson on DVD, you can see yourself in the presence of a God, but with Terfel, even in person, things are mundane. Sometimes that works, like when he’s flirting/joking with his daugher: at others, like when he’s in full Schopenhauerian mode in Act II, things are less credible.

The other two major soloists were equally impressive. One struggles to find adequate adjectives for Stephanie Blythe’s massive voice: here she was a little wayward, but how many Frickas have both battered and caressed Wotan into submission so forthrightly, whilst seeming so human and godly at the same time? Hans-Peter König’s Hunding lacked that final ounce of menace, but otherwise was faultless. Our Valkyries made a hell of a din, combining sass and spunk to frankly erotic effect, as Wagner’s intention undoubtedly must have been.

And what of the embattled James Levine? This was his final occasion conducting anything for quite some time, and it was mostly very successful. The middle bits of Act II faltered significantly, almost losing their way at times with some particularly ropey (i.e. mistimed) playing from his orchestra, especially the massed brass. Act I was very very slow, with limpid detail if not total clarity. It was shaped quite magnificently though, the arc of the act quite clear. Levine seemed cautious, as if determined not to overload the singers with noise to battle through – at least until Act III, when he let rip. True, Wagner’s writing style has not by this point allowed the orchestra completely to dominate his music-dramas (Tristan sees to that), but revelling in quietness doesn’t always suit. Act III was totally different, inspired by that famous opening (ruined here, as I will get to) to an absolutely electric performance, fully worthy of Levine’s sometimes bloated reputation. Finally, after a year of trying, I understand why he is hero-worshipped, as he was here at the beginning of each act. The final scene was intolerable, and left me quite literally stunned.

Which leaves me only one thing to talk about: Robert Lepage’s production. It is vaguely imaginative at times, but my problem is that it consists – in its entirety – of a little person-to-person relations, and an awful lot of look-at-me tricks from the Met’s main investment, The Machine. The Machine, with its clunking and clanking, its temperament and its inconsistencies, sometimes has more personality than… well, than the people Lepage directs on stage. There is resolutely no Konzept, there is no insight into anything Wagner wrote or illumination of the themes he was dealing with. This is not Wagner, it’s showbusiness.

The only thing that promised – or seemed to – anything came in Wotan’s monologue in Act II, with the appearance of a giant contact lens (see above). Symbolism! Finally! Does it perhaps represent the eye that Wotan forsook in his craven search for power? Or his failed attempts at all-seeing omniscience, his failed plans? But wait, the colour of the eye changes? What does that mean? Perhaps it’s just a depiction of a solar eclipse – Wotan, after all, is slowly realising that the twilight of the Gods is approaching fast, and is slowly renouncing himself and his creations. But no, no no. One quickly realises that the giant contact lens is just a screen for video projections which regurgitate what Wotan is actually singing. And so we see the Ring that Alberich forged and Wotan wore; we see Valhalla through a projection of the lurid rainbow colours we saw at the end of Das Rheingold; we see Erda, depicted not as a sage but an ordinary woman bearing Brünnhilde; we see the ravens Wotan flies on… and so on. This trick Lepage has already used though, for Siegmund’s monologue was given the same silhouette treatment on The Machine (shaped like a ceiling, soon to become a roof when the Wälsungs leave Hunding’s house), completely unnecessarily, though impressively in terms of sheer, mere technology. But The Machine is so constricting, when there are so few other props (and not in a Wieland Wagner minimalist kind of way): how does the world of the Valkyrie differ from that of the loveless Rheingold? Where is the intimacy, the fear, the point? What, in short, makes Walküre Walküre, in Lepage’s vision?

Sometimes, I will admit, The Machine works wonders. This happens especially when Etienne Boucher is allowed to work his magic with lighting: take, for instance, the utterly credible tree effects in Acts I and II. And take the combination of those trees and Lepage’s Cirque du Soleil effects, with Hunding’s minions clambering up and over the planks chasing Siegmund. Take, too, the Valkyries’ neighing planks at the start of Act III (which drew protracted applause and “oohs” from the audience – what is this, Bellini?).

This was undoubtedly effective, as was Brünnhilde’s final resting-place on Valkyrie rock (done, I hope and think, with a body double).

Pity the poor Siegfried who has to win her over (step forward the brave Gary Lehman). Sometimes – all too rarely, for philosophy or even purpose are not things this production even nods to, let alone deals with – something more abstract is hinted at too. For instance, Fricka delivers her scolding to Wotan perched high above him on a throne, showing who is wearing the trousers, as well as hinting at the ultimate power of women in Wotan’s world. But then there is the final scene, prior to the hailing of Loge, which takes place against the backdrop of Valkyrie mountain – which seems to have some difficulties with avalanches. Is Wotan’s world falling apart, crashing to the valley floor? Has Brünnhilde some kind of sinking feeling? Does the increasingly icy rock feel increasingly foreboding to her? Who knows.

And so I reach my final point (if you have got this far, bravo). Wagner left opera – or music-drama – a conflicted legacy for the stage. On the one hand, a position used to justify stagecraft such as this, Wagner is seen as constantly berating the theatres of his day for being insufficient, constantly wanting more and more from the theatre itself, in terms of what could be put on, and how. That is Lepage’s starting point here: a production for the twenty-first century, and for twenty-first century America more to the point (don’t get me started on the irony of such a costly, so intrinsically capitalist and vacuous production failing so often to express anything more than itself – the medium is the message, after all – or even work). But Wagner the theorist would have scoffed at the idea of such a feat. The Ring, like Tristan, Die Meistersinger, and Parsifal, has a point. It has political value, as Patrice Chéreau knew. It was, indeed, written as a method of political conversion, of consciousness-awakening.

Some want spectacle from their opera – and don’t get me wrong, for on a purely visible level, this production is outstanding, if ultimately not as impressive as Valencia’s recent efforts with La Fura dels Baus. But some want Schopenhauer and Feuerbach, we want more than mere glitter, more than “göttlichen Prunkes prahlende Schmach”, as Wotan describes the trappings of his power (“divine pomp and shameful boasting”). We want Wagner, not Verdi. And to have Wagner, we have to deal with ideas.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Rob permalink
    15 May 2011 5:57 am

    Totally disagree with John. This review is spot-on, as far as I’m concerned. Westbroek, despite the fact that she’s leaving the opera scene for several months due to health issues, although definitely not 100% percent, managed to perform admirably. Kaufmann still has a way to go to be my perfect Siegmund, I just don’t think he really has the voice. As beautiful as the voice is, in itself. He lacks abandon, penetration and just will have to adapt his voice to the Siegmund character, not the other way around. Also not really convinced by his acting.

  2. Jim Devin permalink
    15 May 2011 1:33 pm

    I attended the HD transmission of the performance. Thus all that I saw and heard would be quite different from what the theatre audience saw and heard. It was fine but not spectacular. Jonas Kaufmann looked more heroic and romantic during the interview with him after Act One. However I do think he was the best actor. The production team does not know how to dress him and I could have found something that fitted him better at the local charity shop. Stephanie Blythe looked like a huge float in Macy’s Christmas parade. The forest trees looked so contrived in closeup and with the video blocking. However the theatre audience was spared the gushing and hubris of the interviews. The HD audience should be provided with plenty of warning when Placido Domingo or Renee Fleming have hosting duties so they can come equipped with ear plugs.

    I found the Act Three opening with the mounted Walküren less spectacular than the row of engaged teeter-totters in the community park at the end of my street. ‘The Machine’ cannot compare with Patrice Chereau’s fire scene.

    The production of this Ring is marred from the beginning by the hubris of all involved but this is standard fare for Peter Gelb.

    Please share your insight into James Levine’s power to elicit gushing.

    • Rob permalink
      15 May 2011 2:10 pm

      I, for myself, wouldn’t like to think Jonas was the best actor. Because it obviously says something about the performance of the others. And I happen to think he was probably the worst. As you say, he should have been heroic and romantic in Act 1, but he wasn’t. And then he has this way of singing with his eyes almost closed. It’s okay for audio, but it didn’t really work for me in the HD broadcast. Of course, he might have the looks of a hero (not the body), but I don’t really think that’s enough.

  3. Ig Nobel permalink
    16 May 2011 7:06 am

    Kaufmann’s acting was very convincing; and his singing was very impressive to me. I especially loved immensely his singing and acting in Act 2 which was helped by Levine’s pacing.

    Stephanie Blythe’s vocal power was amazing. I thought she looked fantastic in dark blue colors exuding power from her throne yet confined to it as well.

    Deborah Voigt’s Brünnhilde was stunningly beautiful but although she sang wonderfully, she lacked Blythe’s sound penetration. One thing I did not like was her acting in the very last section of the last scene with Wotan. She didn’t act strong and dignified enough. In that scene, when Wotan grants her wish, I wanted a strong dose of bittersweetness from both of them but received just sweet.

    Perhaps it was where I was sitting but the HD audio didn’t sound like surround sound at all.

    Concerning the Machine, I don’t have qualms about it in Acts 1 and 2; but in act 3 the Machine was mostly a huge waste. Although I liked the concept of the Valkyries on those bobbing planks, I was not impressed by the planks themselves; they were all grey with barely a hint of white. I wish Lepage had projected an clearly animated blue/white/grey image so that it would give the impression of flight in the sky with clouds and light. For the rest of the act, the Machine was a non-presence until the magic fire scene. And here the magic fire was a deep blood red which completely looked like a pool of blood rather than a magical fire; it should have been more vibrant or even blue evoking perhaps an aurora.

    Considering the immense cost of the Machine, the effects are somewhat disappointing compared to what La Fura dels Baus did in their 2008 production which also used machinery and extensive image projection.

  4. robert permalink
    13 July 2011 12:58 am

    I’m afraid that i will stil be sticking to my point that wagner can only be sung by Germans. All but Kaufmann and Konig were struggling with the pronunciation.
    In general I thought the voices were a bit disappointing. Voices used to be better in olden days, with mostly bad acting. Now it seems to go just the other way: better acting but less impressive voices.

    ‘The machine’ only worked for me at the very end. i thought that was brilliant. At first i thought we were watching the Vancouver Winter Olympics coldrons all over again, including the technical glitches. NO MORE COLDRONS please!

  5. Monika permalink
    18 July 2011 8:41 pm

    I recommend that viewers of this page also read David Allen’s “more reflections”:

    That is where I posted my May 18 comment, which I’m now adding to this forum since it is easier to find.

    Yes, the May 14 Die Walküre was “one of those days at the opera.” As I viewed the opera in Southern Pines NC, I too was impressed by all the performers, and I appreciate your insights into how events and characters express themes about love and power. So much that is special about Walküre was realized in this performance–richly varied vocal and orchestral music, sustained emotional intensity, strong women characters, character growth and development, and a plot driven by persuasive arguments and by variations on the themes of family and power, love and transgression.
    As an HD viewer, I noticed how the video closeups highlight the realistic acting and close interactions of the characters and bring out qualities that might be less evident in the theater: the chemistry between Siegmund/Kauffman and Sieglinde/Westbroeck; the inner struggles of Wotan/Terfel as he comes to the tragic recognition that a god’s power restricts his freedom and forces him to destroy those he loves most; and the transformations of the relationship between Wotan and Brünnhilde/Voigt, from loving companionship to fury and guilt to confrontation and reconciliation. I was moved, as you were, by how Deborah Voigt portrays Brünnhilde’s evolution. From the close-ups, it is evident how distinctively she sings and acts each of her roles: her father’s charming, flirtatious collaborator, the dignified angel of death, the courageous knight-to-the-rescue, the contrite transgressor, and finally the tragic heroine and goddess whose argument from love rivals Fricka’s argument from custom.

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