, April 25, 2011
By Peter G. Davis
Wagner: Die Walküre, Metropolitan Opera, 22. April 2011
The Machine Grinds On
NEW YORK -- The principal talking point of Robert Lepage's new production of Wagner's "Ring" cycle at the Metropolitan Opera has so far been the stage design by Carl Fillon, a huge set of 24 mobile metal planks that will be the basic scenic motif for all four operas. George Loomis discussed their construction and basic usage in his review of "Das Rheingold," first seen on opening night of the 2010-11 season last September, so I will not go over the structural technicalities here. Suffice to say that the machine grinds on in "Die Walküre," which had its debut performance on Friday night (April 22) and again demonstrated both the amazing flexibility and visual limitations of this unusual concept.

Simplicity was the theme for Act I as the planks arranged themselves in a vertical position to suggest the rough-hewn woodsy hut of Hunding with, at the center, a huge pole containing the sword, Nothung. Fair enough, but since that's not much to look at for an hour, Lepage has devised a few distractions for the eye, unfortunately none of them especially compelling. The dreary shadow play projected on the back wall to illustrate Siegmund's sad tale of his boyhood just looks puerile. Worse, when Siegmund ardently declares his love for Sieglinde, the ubiquitous planks merely rise a few inches to show a bilious green light projected on a blank white screen--a feeble substitution for the scenic coup Wagner wanted: a door suddenly flying open to reveal the moonlit spring night into which the two fugitive lovers will eventually vanish as the curtain falls.

The machine is more convincing at simulating the mountainous regions of Acts II and III, where the reformation into various shapes and rocky crags is ingenious if potentially dangerous to the singers. That could not have been more vividly illustrated on opening night as Deborah Voigt dashed onstage to deliver Brünnhilde's war cry, tripped on a plank in motion, and fell on her face, apparently without serious injury. That was an unfortunate accident, but for Wotan to put his errant daughter to sleep, surround her with red magic fire (here another tepid light projection), and then leave her hanging upside down as though she were some sort of valkyrie bat seems like cruel and unusual punishment, if not to say downright bizarre. Come to think of it, Brünnhilde's eight sister valkyries also look faintly ridiculous as they giddily frolic about, each riding a plank like a giant seesaw and then using them as slides.

At least Lepage's direction of the characters, despite a few miscalculations that may eventually be corrected, has far more dramatic life than his faceless "Das Rheingold," which comes off as little more than dull traffic management. The edgy Siegmund-Sieglinde-Hunding triangle in Act I fairly crackles with sexual tension, and all the other personalities are carefully individualized. Brünnhilde already seems to be emerging as the central tragic figure of the cycle rather than the chief god Wotan, who comes off here as little more than a testy manipulator with a short fuse. There's nothing especially new about this, but it will be interesting to see how Lepage develops it.

The clear standout onstage for now is Jonas Kaufmann, singing his first Siegmund and already complete in the role. Here is a tenor totally at ease with himself, capable of taking his voice in any direction he cares to without sacrificing an iota of quality or control. He commands ample vocal heft for the more heroic moments, but can scale the tone back to a caressing soft phrase that never loses its support or vocal presence--one can easily imagine him soon moving on to Siegfried and Tristan while still keeping the more lyrical Italian roles in his repertory. Kaufmann acts with nuanced subtlety to portray a figure of tragic vulnerability who also projects the underlying strength and determination that motivates Siegmund's every move, either as lover or warrior. The fact that he looks sensational--handsome, trim and athletic--doesn't hurt either.

Eva-Maria Westbroek, in her Met debut as Sieglinde, was not feeling well and could only complete the first act, although this excellent Dutch soprano, a radiant singer when at her best, will surely be Kaufmann's equal partner in later performances. In this emergency Margaret Jane Wray stepped into a role she has already sung with distinction at the Met, and once again proved that the company might profitably use her more frequently in the future.

This performance also marked Voigt's first Brünnhilde, a role that she once seemed destined to sing. It is now, alas, too late, although Voigt has always been a plucky singer and her earnest attempt to get the job done at least has merit. It's hardly her fault that she got off to an unfortunate start with an inadvertent tumble, further aggravated a moment later when, to the merriment of all, Wotan actually goosed her in the rear with his spear (surely a directorial touch destined for instant removal). Small wonder Brünnhilde's famous "Jo-ho-to-ho" came off as more of a desperate cackle than a joyous expression of high spirits.

Elsewhere Voigt's soprano emerges pretty much as we have heard it in recent years, increasingly thin and acidulous, chancy up top, and just sounding old for a singer who should still be in her prime. Her coltish valkyrie has its appealing moments, but there is no authentic core to this Brünnhilde, either vocally or dramatically.

Bryn Terfel was also once considered the Wotan of the future, but one wonders if he also waited too long. At the Met at least, his handsome baritone comes across the footlights as a size too small for the role, which only emphasizes a view of the character that seems more petulant than godlike. Perhaps Terfel was simply playing the part according to directorial instruction, since there is no question of his dramatic commitment or musical intelligence. In any case it only left one speculating about how differently his Wotan might register if seen in a smaller house and in a less problematical production.

Stephanie Blythe is the wife from hell during her short scene as Fricka, and she actually arrives onstage as the libretto instructs, in a small chariot drawn by two rams--how often does one see that? There may not be much time to create an effect in this role, but surely Blythe could do more with less as she mostly bellows out the music, shamelessly overusing her formidable chest register. Hans-Peter König is a dangerous Hunding, who uses his threatening bulk and black bass to good advantage.

Everyone now tiptoes around James Levine, with breath held and fingers crossed waiting for the next health update. He has already received ecstatic notices in some quarters for this performance, but to my ears that is either misplaced charity or simply wishful thinking. This was the first time I had heard Levine live this season, and although there were no outright disasters, the orchestral playing struck me as woefully unfinished, tonally undernourished and at times even tentative, as if the musicians were guiding the conductor instead of vice versa. It is painful to report that Levine looked very frail as he struggled onstage to take a bow at the end, supported on either side by Voigt and Terfel. The conductor continues to issue bulletins confidently saying that his strength increases daily, and one can only pray that it's true.


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