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