The Wall Street Journal, APRIL 26, 2011
Wagner: Die Walküre, Metropolitan Opera, 22. April 2011
Where Intimacy Walked the Plank
"Die Walküre," the second opera in Robert Lepage's new "Ring" cycle at the Met, which opened on Friday, is almost as much a slave to the 45-ton set of 24 rotating planks as its predecessor, "Das Rheingold," was. This time, Mr. Lepage did more to integrate the singers with the set, but its precipitous complexity still makes it better suited to grand backdrop tableaus. Two cases in point: Deborah Voigt, making her first-ever entrance as Brünnhilde, tried to scamper up it toward Wotan (Bryn Terfel), but she stumbled and slid to the ground. Whoops. A few hours later, when Wotan left the sleeping Brünnhilde on her rock, the set did its most dramatic transformation of the night. It reared up to create a vertical wall, with a Brünnhilde double suspended upside down at the top, a tiny, remote figure surrounded by fire, as if seen from above. It captured her abandonment, and the tragedy of that moment, in a very cinematic way. The production's elaborate technology can certainly create effects that are unimaginable without it. No doubt everyone wants to know what Mr. Lepage will do with the apocalyptic end of "Götterdammerung."

However, "Die Walküre" is an opera about love—the incestuous passion of the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde; Wotan's doomed love for his son, Siegmund; the deep father-daughter love of Wotan and Brünnhilde; and the frayed marital bond of Wotan and Fricka—all of which ultimately lead to the downfall of the gods. In a production that was all about the set, and one that isn't easy for opera singers to negotiate, the human interaction required to convey love successfully onstage took second place, and, as in "Das Rheingold," Mr. Lepage's direction of the singers was rudimentary and generic. Mr. Terfel and Jonas Kaufmann, making a thrilling role debut as Siegmund, brought energy and insight to the physical interpretation of their characters, but they were working in a vacuum.

The set, designed by Carl Fillion, created dramatic stage pictures and transformations, especially when coordinated with the video images of Boris Firquet, which were more consistently used this time. Act I went quickly from a snowstorm to a forest of vast trees, through which Siegmund was pursued by men with lanterns, to the interior of Hunding's hut, with the planks serving as its tilted ceiling and the center one a silvery tree with the sword stuck in it. In Act III, the Valkyries rode the planks like horses and slid down them ("The Slide of the Valkyries"?) to the ground. For Wotan and Brünnhilde's final confrontation, the set became an icy mountain peak from which avalanches streamed down. Etienne Boucher's lighting created extra drama, like the blood-red sky as the furious Wotan pursued Brünnhilde.

Other choices were counterproductive. Most of Act I was set downstage in a kind of trench behind the stationary apron planks, which limited the singers' vocal projection. Mr. Terfel dashed gamely around on the machine, coping bravely with its occasional wobbles, but Stephanie Blythe, as Fricka, sang her entire scene immobilized in a grand chair at the top of it. When Brünnhilde told Siegmund that he would die, one of the most haunting moments of the opera, and one that demands some kind of magic, Ms. Voigt simply walked on from stage right.

Even with the lighting and the projections, the staging is cold and bleak and François St.-Aubin's costumes, which were inspired by early productions of the "Ring," are monochromatic. Mr. Terfel's armor is annoyingly reflective, and the fabric bunching around his lower half makes him look bulky—though an eye patch is an improvement over the "Rheingold" look, a lock of greasy hair hanging over one eye. The Valkyries look more elegant than Wotan in their chain mail and skirt ensembles.

Mr. Terfel was much more engaged in "Die Walküre" than he was in last fall's "Das Rheingold," singing with power, commitment and presence. There was tremendous raw passion in this commanding portrayal, like the moment at the end of Act II when he cradled the dying Siegmund and snarled "Go!" at Hunding (who, not surprisingly, fell over, dead). But his Wotan could have used some directorial subtlety: He seemed to know that his convoluted scheme to regain the Ring and save the world was a sham from the beginning, even before it was pitilessly unmasked as such by Fricka, and his dominant modes were anger and frustration, without much dramatic development.

Ms. Voigt's soprano sounded pinched and lacking in clarion ring. Her opening "Hoyotoho"s came out well, but she didn't reliably soar over the full orchestra, especially when she was upstage. This novice Brünnhilde also suffered from lack of direction. Her relationship with Wotan was set up playfully, but she wore a fixed smirk throughout Act III, as though she might still be able to talk her way out of trouble.

Mr. Kaufmann was a riveting, very handsome Siegmund—his rich, varied tenor was full of anguish portraying the desperate outcast who falls headlong into love. Eva-Maria Westbroek, making her house debut as Sieglinde, worked valiantly to match his energy in Act I; before Act II, it was announced that she was ill, and Margaret Jane Wray replaced her honorably for Acts II and III. Hans-Peter König's powerful bass and imposing frame made for a threatening Hunding—he even shoved Sieglinde around a bit to make the point. Ms. Blythe brought a brilliant, trumpet-like timbre to Fricka, the moral center of the opera, but being stuck in her chair didn't give her much opportunity to explore Fricka's complexity. The eight Valkyries were lively and game for sliding.

The star of the show turned out to be the orchestra under James Levine, who led a particularly sensitive performance. Rather than pump out a lot of Wagnerian noise, Mr. Levine worked for intimate detail, and carefully balanced the orchestral sound with the voices. Moments of tenderness came welling out of the pit, spacious and full of feeling, as if Mr. Levine were trying to tell the stage, in all its bleakness, what this opera is about.


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