, 04/26/11
by David Salazar
Wagner: Die Walküre, Metropolitan Opera, 22. April 2011
OPERA REVIEW: ‘Die Walküre’ directed by Robert LePage
On April 22, the Metropolitan Opera premiered its highly anticipated new production of Die Walküre, the second installment in Wagner’s celebrated Ring Cycle. Earlier this season, Director Robert LePage unveiled a new production of the Ring’s first installment Das Rheingold to mixed results and reviews. Most infamously, the production which projects video technology on 24 planks that run on a hydraulic system and weigh approximately 90,000 pounds, failed to operate during the climactic scene in which the Gods walk across a rainbow into Valhalla. The problem was later resolved for subsequent performances, but the stigma of “the machine” (which cost a whopping $16 million dollars for the four operas) not operating properly has hung over this production since. LePage used the same video technology in a previous production of Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust to awe-inspiring results (even thought it had its own share of troubleshooting problems). The technology was able to sense the intensity of the performers and react accordingly, leading to multiple variations in its performance from night to night. However, most critics lamented the lack of that ingenuity in the Rheingold Production and the expectations were that LePage would make up for it with the new Walküre. The stakes were heightened when one takes into consideration that of the four Ring operas, Die Walküre is by far the most beloved by the public (the craze was so high that there were even some audience members wearing the infamous horned helmets that have become stereotypical of opera singers).

The Production

But none of the expectations were to be realized. The production not only failed to live up to the expectations, but in many cases the results proved to be even more disappointing than those in Rheingold. More importantly, as LePage walked on stage to take his curtain call, he was greeted with massive boos and jeers from the audience who clearly did not appreciate his lackluster effort. The Met audience has been getting slighted for its increasingly hostile responses toward modern productions. While the response is not always merited, this time it clearly was. A new Ring Cycle production is no small matter in any house around the world. In an opera world where houses are starting to share productions, it is still essential to retain the autonomy of producing an exclusive Ring Cycle. Prior to LePage’s work, the Met had the honor of housing Otto Schenk’s famous production. It was polarizing for most critics because of its lavish sets that often overpowered the singers, but it was a clear-cut favorite amongst audiences worldwide. Schenk’s production was the last remaining traditional Ring to be found in a major opera house around the world, which proved a haven for opera aficionados looking for the ring “the way it was supposed to be performed and stage.” Peter Gelb, the general Manager of the Met, had been hyping this new production all year long, emphasizing the state-of-the-art technology and innovations.

So what exactly does this production do? As aforementioned, there are 24 planks that are computerized to swivel around into different positions and create different shapes. The planks themselves are visual screens which enables the projections to make them look like different objects depending on their configuration. As the opera started, the panels, which were laid flat across the stage rose and separated. Visuals of tree bark were projected on the planks, making them look like trees. Then the planks set themselves down standing upright to give the image of a forest through which a chase sequence was taking place. Afterward, all but two planks rose up to create the ceiling of a hut into which the hero Siegmund hides. As the planks configured into the hut, a stagehand crept onto the stage to fix the table prop, an early indication that there might be technical problems. The hut configuration was clearly lacking in imagination as the rest of the stage was black and bare, resembling that cheap looking Met production of Thomas’ Hamlet from a season ago. The waste of space was emphasized by the fact that most of the action took place around this central tree and table and that the singers looked awkward when they wandered too far from this area. To say that LePage wasn’t trying would be unfair. During a few expository moments in which Siegmund reveals his history to Sieglinde and his enemy Hunding, LePage had shadows portraying the action across the panels that were creating the roof of the hut. Unfortunately, the space was so limited and the shadows so small that any comprehensive action was indiscernible and the end result looked improvised at best. For the rest of the act, there are only a few light tweaks, but nothing that couldn’t be done with a less expensive technology.

Act 2 was no better. This time, the planks created a mountain with a crater in the center. Unlike the first act, the singers were asked to walk across the planks, leading to some nerve-wracking moments. According to rehearsal videos of this act (see the video below), Brünhilde, sung admirably by Deborah Voigt, was supposed to climb up on the plank and sing her famous “Hojotoho” war cry. However, Friday night Voigt slipped and fell as she tried to climb up. There was noticeable concern in the audience, but Voigt simply laughed it off and continued as if it was all part of the show. She proceeded to sing the section on the lower ground instead of climbing up on the planks. For the rest of the act, she seemed to avoid climbing the planks as much as possible, but when she later took the chance, it was clear that she was uncomfortable and very cautious. Later on in the act, Fricka, sung by Stephanie Blythe was transported on the planks by a large chair with animals as armrests that looked as if it belonged in a Disney movie rather than a Wagner opera. She sat during most of her scene, but when she tried to get up for a moment, she slipped and almost fell over. For the rest of the act, the beams creaked and wobbled as the actors walked across them. After such incidents it was difficult to watch the performance without feeling dread that one of the singers might slip and hurt themselves.

During another narrative section, Lepage had the planks rise and reveal the missing eye of the God Wotan, which projected a combination of images and colors to help the audience follow along with the lengthy story. But the effect was laughable at best. When Wotan speaks of the God’s palace Walhalla, the rainbow was projected on the eye. When the evil Alberich was mentioned, there were tiny messy shadows projected. And when Wotan mentioned the all powerful Ring, the famous image of the golden ring twirling around from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy appeared. It was an honest attempt to be sure, but it failed on all counts.

Act three is the moment that most audience members anticipate, for it begins with the famous “Ride of the Valkyries.” In LePage’s Faust production, he was able to project and create the effect of horse riding, so there was great hope that this would be replicated for the famous scene. This scene usually looks ridiculous in most productions considering that the Valkyries’ conversation revolves around their grazing horses, but there are never horses anywhere on stage. This was LePage’s opportunity for redemption, but he failed here as well. LePage opted for placing each Valkyrie on a single plank with other planks surrounding them. The planks that the Valkyries rode had the faces of horses projected on them while the surrounding planks had projections of the ground below. The effect was comical at best, eliciting lots of murmuring and laughing from the audience. One audience member remarked after the show that she had thought that the Valkyries were riding surfboards, which was not too farfetched. For the remainder of the act, the machine was negligible and distracting at best. During the emotional scene where Wotan must strip his beloved Brunhilde of her divinity and tie her to the rock forever, the planks converged into a large rock which had avalanches at seemingly random moments. Meanwhile the singers performed along the lower ground with the massive rock taking up the background so that the machine might have something to do. The final effect in which Brunhilde is tied to the rock and surrounded by a wall of flames was interesting and seemed to be the main motivation behind this production. However, it lacked the consummate beauty of Schenk’s more realistic flame effects. Overall, it seemed as if LePage was playing with his new toy and trying out experiments, but never really pushed the technology to its greatest capacity. Another recent Ring Production was created in Valencia, Spain utilizing similar video technology and it is safe to say that the technology is a major component of not only creating the world of the Ring, but highlighting its story and characters.

LePage’s main concern was clearly the machine, which meant that his singers were generally hung out to dry with little direction to create a truly driven dramatic interpretation. The Valkyries scrambled about the stage to protect Brünhilde from Wotan without any sense of unity. The entire scene essentially lost all dramatic force because of the lack of coordination and direction. The fatal moment in which Wotan must let his son Siegmund die in battle was poorly choreographed and vulgar in its execution. As Brünhilde and Siegmund prepare to battle Hunding and his army, Wotan comes out from the left of stage, tastelessly nudges Brünhilde out of the way and then breaks Siegmund’s blade. I will concede that LePage’s direction of Wotan holding Siegmund in his arms as his son dies was devastatingly beautiful. The same could be said when Wotan picks up Brunhilde’s spear and shield from the ground and hands it to her so that he may see her as his warrior daughter one last time. However, these moments were rare, due to his emphasis on the machine and the special effects. His direction was like that of a film director whose emphasis on visual effects overshadows the story, making it less effective.

I usually do not comment on costumes, but in this case, they were a laughing matter. In an attempt to give the Met audience a “traditional” Ring, LePage and costume designer Robert St-Aubin opted to go with a borderline stereotypical wardrobe. Brünhilde came with the shiny metal armor and the stereotypical horned helmet that has been the bane of opera imagery. Hunding had an animal skull across his vest to emphasize his vicious nature. Overall, the clothing ranged from cheap looking (Siegmund’s effeminate armor and tights) to over the top (Brünhilde’s aforementioned attire).

The Singers Prove to be the Remedy

For all the short comings of the production, there could be no impeding the success of the singers. The cast was built with household names and it was expected that they would provide the night’s greatest delight, despite the production. And they did not disappoint. Bryn Terfel was an incredible Wotan, packing a strong punch from his voice which cut through Wagner’s thick and often muscular orchestration. He imbued his Wotan with great humanity, showing rare tenderness for his frustrated Fricka, where most Wotans would be tortured by their own personal dilemmas. Terfel’s greatest moments were the aforementioned death of Siegmund in which his pain built to such a point that he led out a horrifyingly effective shriek of grief and rage as he killed Hunding. His moments with Brünhilde were heart-wrenching. Wagner wrote what is probably his greatest vocal writing for the Bass-Baritone during Wotan’s “Leb’ Wohl” in which Wotan bids Brünhilde one last goodbye. Terfel caressed every phrase, imbuing it with silky legato that is a rare treat from many Wagnerian singers. After seeing his muscle and strength during early portions of the opera, Terfel’s tenderness was a beautiful arrival for this most tragic of operatic heroes.

Deborah Voigt made her international debut in the role Brünhilde. Over the years, Voight’s upper register has been cause for concern due to its increasing instability. However, she proved to be more than capable of fulfilling Wagner’s demands for the role. Her performance was energetic ranging from coquettish and innocent in Act 2 to heartbroken during the climatic Act 3 confrontation with Wotan. Her upper range showed some frailty later in the performance, but she more than made up for any problems with a direct and vigorous performance.

Tenor Jonas Kauffman, also making his international debut as the tragic Siegmund, provided the role with rare youthfulness and flexibility. Many Wagnerian tenors who take on this role have already battered their voices from years and years of singing Wagnerian roles. The result is that many Siegmunds sound like worn old men rather than heroic youths. Kauffman has only sung two Wagner roles prior to Siegmund: Lohengrin and Parsifal. However, he has also sung a fair share of Italian and French repertoire to balance his vocal flexibility. His exquisite control over his pianissimo throughout the night portended a delicacy and frailty that few others can bring to Siegmund. His performance of the famous “Winterstürme” was particularly striking in its tenderness and suavity. However, when he was called upon to provide the requisite Wagnerian power and heft, he did so formidably. The most famous instant is when Siegmund must sing out “Walse” over an earth-shattering tremolo from the orchestra. It is written in the score as a half note with Fermata, though most tenors hold it for as long as their breaths can hold. To compound the difficulty of this passage, the passage is written first on a G flat and then on a G natural, which are located on the most fragile part of the tenor’s voice known as the passagio. Kauffman was more than up to the task, his upper range never showing any sign of fatigue during this climatic moment.

Eva-Marie Westbroek made her Met debut with a solid first Act. She was announced sick after Act 1, but Peter Gelb assured the audience that she would continue. However, she never showed up during Act 2. Her replacement Margaret Jane Wray was a formidable replacement, singing with somber intensity.

Hans-Peter König was a formidable Hunding. His booming voice was both menacing and thrilling, projecting a great sense of power and dignity for this villain. Stephanie Blythe was extraordinary as Fricka. She sat on her chair during most of her performance, but possessed authority throughout. She brought an uncomfortably beautiful color to her voice as she expressed her sorrow at being betrayed by her husband.

Conductor James Levine had canceled previous engagements during the last few weeks due to illness, but it was truly rewarding to see him at the podium for this premiere. He gave a fluid account of Wagner’s elaborate score, bringing out the plethora of details with such ease. His tempos were stretched throughout, enabling for such emotional moments like Siegmund’s death and Wotan’s farewell to Brünhilde, but he also never lost any of the vigor or force of Wagner’s glorious music. The first Act was particularly masterful in the exploitation of its architecture, with the music gaining unrelenting momentum until it exploded into its erotic climax.

The audience truly showed its appreciation for the singers, serenading them all with thunderous applause after each act. The notion that staging and direction are the most important to operatic theater has become increasingly popular nowadays. However, this premiere proved otherwise. Singing actors continue and will always rule the world of opera.


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