Associated Press, April 23, 2011
Wagner: Die Walküre, Metropolitan Opera, 22. April 2011
Terfel leads starry cast in Lepage's 'Walkuere'
Displaying a new haircut and a new mobility, Bryn Terfel as Wotan strode energetically on stage to summon his warrior daughter Bruennhilde to battle.

That moment is from Act 2 of "Die Walkuere," which opened in a new production at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday night. And it symbolizes how much director Robert Lepage has changed his approach for the better in this second installment of Richard Wagner's four-part "Ring" cycle.

His staging of the first opera, "Das Rheingold," was all about "The Machine," the vast metal structure with 24 movable planks that twist and turn to take on all manner of shapes, from the waters of the Rhine, to a cavern, to a rainbow bridge.

But while the set was performing wondrous feats, the singers were mostly confined to the narrow apron at the front of the stage, where their movements were pretty much limited to standing and facing the audience. Terfel, in particular, looked uncomfortable — an impression furthered by a lock of hair covering the eye that Wotan is supposed to have given up in winning his wife, Fricka.

This time, Lepage has turned Wotan loose (and given him a shorter haircut and an eye patch.) "The Machine" still creates some dazzling effects — it turns into a forest for the opening scene and into horses for the Ride of the Valkyries — but they're far better integrated into the action. So now, when the planks take the shape of a mountain slope, Terfel is able to climb up and down at will.

The effect is to liberate him dramatically and vocally. The Welsh bass-baritone creates a Wotan of tremendous power and poignancy, a god keenly aware of his own imminent demise and helpless to stop it. The role is an endurance test for any singer, and Terfel at times pushes his voice to its limits but never quite over. He ends his long scene of farewell to Bruennhilde in Act 3 sounding as fresh as when the evening started.

That scene, with Wotan's anger at his daughter's disobedience gradually giving way to the most tender display of affection, points up another big improvement in the staging.

"Rheingold" is basically an ensemble piece, and it suffered at times from a lack of sharply drawn interactions among the characters. In "Walkuere," much of the action unfolds in a series of dialogues between two characters at a time. Lepage and his cast have worked hard to imbue these encounters with telling details that heighten the drama.

Nowhere is this truer than in Act 1, which reunites Siegmund and Sieglinde, twin children of Wotan and soon to become lovers. As portrayed by Jonas Kaufmann and Eva-Maria Westbroek, their physical attraction is palpable from the moment he first gazes into her eyes.

Later, when their hands brush as he walks by, she gazes at her hand with wonder.

Kaufmann, taking on the role of Siegmund for the first time, imbues the character with a melancholy nobility and sings with unforced, ardent tone. Vocally, the part lies perilously low, and the German tenor is less comfortable when singing at the bottom of his register.

But when his voice gets a chance to ring out, as in his cries of "Waelse! Waelse!," the effect is thrilling.

Westbroek, a Dutch soprano making her Met, debut, has a warm and powerful soprano, but she was announced as feeling ill and withdrew after Act 1. Margaret Jane Wray, an American who has sung the role at the Met before, took over and sang beautifully.

The fourth principal cast member, Deborah Voigt, was, like Kaufmann, making a role debut. The American soprano has been working for years toward the role of Bruennhilde, a pinnacle of the dramatic repertory — and her initial outing must be counted on balance a success.

Granted that her voice is no longer the glorious instrument it was 10 years ago. Still, she sang with clearly focused tone, mostly dead-on high notes, and a surprisingly ample lower register. The slightly hollow sound in the middle of her voice is still there, but less obtrusive than it has been on some other recent occasions. Her "Ho-jo-to-jo" battle cries, a dreaded first utterance for most Bruennhildes, were respectable if not flawless.

And dramatically, Voigt made a most winning warrior maiden. She looked terrific with flowing red hair, and acted with conviction and nuance.

One particularly arresting moment was her entrance when she must tell Siegmund of his impending death in battle; her reluctance to carry out her duty was plain in her halting step and anguished look.

Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe brought awesome vocal and dramatic fire to her one scene as Fricka. Lepage had her appear seated on a throne from which she rarely stirred, but the lack of mobility scarcely impeded her impact. Bass Hans-Peter Koenig was a rich-voiced Hunding, Sieglinde's boorish husband.

Music director James Levine conducted a performance of majestic beauty, though at times he slowed the pace so much it threatened to turn slack. Hobbled by back problems and other ailment, he was helped on stage at the end, and Voigt, Terfel and Blythe took turns helping to support him while he acknowledged the audience cheers.

All six remaining performances of "Die Walkuere" have long been sold out. The final performance, a matinee on May 14, will be broadcast on the radio and transmitted in high definition into movie theaters worldwide.


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