Opera Britannia, 24 May 2011
Stephen Jay-Taylor
Wagner: Die Walküre, Metropolitan Opera, (The performance dates attended by Stephen Jay-Taylor were 22, 25, 28 April 2011, as well as the HD relay 14th May at the Barbican Cinema)
Die Walküre: The Metropolitan Opera, New York, April & May 2011
Towards the end of my enthusiastic recent review of the Royal Opera’s very distinguished revival of Werther, I felt the need to mention the fact that I wasn’t “in an unaccountably benign mood. In fact, on the contrary, I’m feeling very demanding, fresh back from the Metropolitan, New York and six different operas stunningly cast to the gleaming teeth, including a Die Walküre I never expect to hear equalled if I live to be a hundred”. I was in New York in a purely personal capacity – for which read: I paid for my seats – and had neither been expecting, nor had been asked, to provide a review of anything I saw out there. However, in the interim the editor has asked me to do so, and ever-obedient to his wishes – for which read: in the sure and certain hope of favours in the future – I herewith oblige.

Alas, I arrived just a shade too late to catch the immediately preceding revival of Das Rheingold – new last year at the start of the season – which I had only otherwise seen in the HD relay in October: though in the event, I would not have encountered Levine conducting it, since he cancelled late in the day in order to conserve his evidently much-diminished physical energies for the new production of the second part of the tetralogy, due to open on the 22nd April. On either side of this I caught the last performances of both Le comte Ory (with Florez, Damrau and DiDonato) and Capriccio (with Fleming, and quite wonderfully conducted by Andrew Davis), as well as an Il trovatore in which Marcelo Álvarez was replaced after Act II with Arnold Rawls, not notably stylish, but staggeringly loud, and with the longest, most stupendously protracted high C I have ever heard since the palmy days of Franco Bonisolli (who, like a cat up a tree, could get there easily enough, but then never saw any immediate prospect of getting back down again, obliging him to sort of stay there until exhaustion – his, or the audience’s – set in, and the curtain finally fell). I suspect we will hear more of Mr. Rawls: indeed I’m slightly surprised his house debut wasn’t audible in London. In any event, the sheer can belto scale of his singing was much better geared to a cast otherwise comprising foghorns all, some absolutely thrilling – Dolora Zajick – some ill-advised – Dmitri Hvorostosvky, who, if you think he forces in Covent Garden, you should hear what he gets up to in the Met – and some just plain unpleasant – Sondra Radvanovsky – trill-free, boomingly strident and vulgarly verismic. The artful subtleties of light and shade which the Argentine tenor brought to his role when I heard him a few days later, this time singing the whole opera, were largely lost up against a cast amongst whom there was obviously some battle going on to see who could actually kill a bull at ten paces just by opening their mouths and yelling. Marco Armiliato conducted, with exactly the fire and precision missing in any performance I’ve heard by given by Fabio Luisi, who is nevertheless the House’s titular heir-in-waiting. I shall refrain from commenting upon the six – count ‘em – well-oiled meat Marys stripped to the waist banging their anvils in Act II scene I, there to remind you that you were watching a McVicar staging…

In fact, I shall finally get on with the matter in hand (muffled cries of “Hooray!”). Let’s get the staging - easily this whole project’s least distinguished feature, albeit its raison d’être - out of the way first. When I saw Das Rheingold last year at the Barbican, I thought both the Rhine maidens’ opening and the entry-to-Valhalla close were the most visually beautiful and brilliantly executed realisations of either passage I’ve ever seen: 45 tons and $16 million of computer-controlled stage machinery actually earning its keep. Alas, in the intervening 2½ hours, we basically had a concert performance, largely played out on a narrow strip of forestage in front of, and not part of, the pyrotechnical machine behind it, with singers in exactly the kind of cod C19th fancy-dress that everyone now affects to find so unacceptable in the old Schenk staging this new one replaced. The sight of poor Richard Croft as Loge having to walk backwards, UP the set, on troublesomely attached wires, was not edifying – his face a frozen mask of physical preoccupation, as well it might be – and never has the piling of the gold for Freia’s ransom or its aftermath looked more pathetically unconvincing.

So I approached the new staging of Die Walküre with some apprehension. The cast, on paper, could scarcely be equalled, let alone bettered, by any house in the world. But how would the staging fare; and how might its vicissitudes – literally, ups and downs – impact thereon? So: the good news is, this is considerably better directed at a personal level that the oddly rudderless Rheingold was. None of the significant duologues was in any way compromised or undermined by the scenic considerations. But the bad news is that most of them were in no particular manner reinforced either. If you had $16 million-worth of infinitely flexible machinery at your flick-of-a-switch disposal, don’t you think that you might manage something a tad more visually significant for the arrival of Spring in Act I – Wagner’s stage directions, supposedly sacrosanct in this staging, has the doors bursting open – than merely lighting the backcloth green? (it’s still the dead of night: Hunding’s asleep, and much is sung about the moon’s silvery light). Wouldn’t you come up with something rather more persuasive for the all-important image of Brünnhilde’s fire-girt mountain-top sleep in Act III than a body double hanging upside down in the middle of what looks like two dozen large fish fingers lit red, variously tilted this way and that, in strict symmetry? And if you’re going to propose, in the same act, that Wotan and his daughter’s wrangling is accompanied by projected avalanches down the mountain backdrop, shouldn’t they co-ordinate better with the dramatic rise and fall of the music? I had assumed form the first flurries that by the time of the enormous, orchestrally orgasmic final release at the end of their scene together, quantities of dislodged snow would overwhelm the décor completely: instead of which, nothing happened at all.

Equally, in Act II, from Wotan’s edgy departure to the very end, some 45 minutes later, the whole of the Todesverkündigung scene and the ensuing battle are played out on the shallow strip of forestage left by having the fish fingers, er “planks”, raised to the vertical and lit as trees (an image already familiar from Act I’s staged prelude, as Hunding’s relatives chase Siegmund through the forest). I don’t understand the logic of spending quite so much time and money on astonishing stage machinery, and incorporating levels of technology so cutting–edge as to guarantee practical problems of one kind or another (more anon) at virtually every single performance, only then to put it all to such little use – functioning for much of the time as barely more than a scrim to focus static projections - during whole tracts of the opera, parts of which actually cry out for some kind of scenic variety and/or interpretation. And, I have to say, when it moves, my God it’s noisy, especially when it’s changing height, as opposed to merely revolving the planks around its axis; the orgy of metallic clanking that accompanied it getting in to position for the great Wotan/ Brünnhilde scene in Act III quite drowned out the all-important orchestral transition that bridges the Valkyries’ departure up to Brünnhilde’s first utterance “War es so schmählich” (less evident in the HD relay, either because of acoustic considerations, or the fact that they’d sent somebody in with an oil-can in the interim, though with a 45 minute technical delay at the start he clearly needed to have used more).

Truthfully, as “Machines” go, I’d rather have the remarkable tilting/revolving/lifting platform that Josef Svoboda designed for Götz Friedrich’s first Covent Garden’s Der Ring in the 1970s, an altogether more practical and – more importantly - inhabitable theatrical space, and one which, though it filled the ROH’s stage from side-to-side and back-to-front, never once in all the years I saw it emitted so much as a squeak when in heart-stoppingly beautiful motion. This new Met show by Robert Lepage, designed by Carl Fillion, strikes me as conceptually entirely in hock to that ROH staging, without ever once really getting to grips with the dramatic substance in the way that Friedrich did (almost) without fail. And Lepage’s big “idea” of depicting some – though, inconsistently, not all, such as Sieglinde’s “Der Männer Sippe” – of the major back-narrations in some shape or form (animated silhouettes for Siegmund’s Act I life-story; a weird, far-too-“Lord of the Rings” giant pop-up eye full of this, that, runes and ravens for Wotan’s Act II re-run of Rheingold) probably works better in theory than it does in distracting practice, as we’d all have found out to our cost if poor Yuri Lyubimov, who had a mania for it, had ever got beyond Rheingold at the ROH (scuppered in 1988 by an objecting Bernard Haitink, who then got stuck with Friedrich’s dismal time-tunnel staging followed promptly by - much, much worse - Richard Jones’ desperate Eurotrash, proving that Karma most certainly exists).

Still, as with last year’s Rheingold, this new Die Walküre certainly has its moments: Fricka’s ceremonial arrival on the lava-streaked mountain top in a rams’ horn throne from which she never once budges – obliging her husband to do all the running around - is both a clever minimising of physical liability on the singer’s part – Stephanie Blythe, monumental in all senses – and a subtle depiction both of the inflexibility of her character and his ultimate weakness. And I like the idea that the sword in the tree in Act I is such an immutable fixture of the old homestead that Hunding hangs his coat on it, thereby hiding it from view until needed scenically later on. The Ride of the Valkyries at the start of Act III drew applause every night I saw it, though not from me, I should add, less from fastidiousness than the simple fact I didn’t think it was worth clapping, especially when one of the sisters fell off during her “dismount” and landed under the stage with a sickening thud (though it is still a damn sight better as a spectacle than the pitiable image offered up at the ROH in Keith Warner’s staging, where they straddle horse’s skulls in the footlights, Jesus Maria!) And that, actually, sums it up as a show: it isn’t particularly good, or illuminating, but it’s alright. (Unfortunately, in action it reminds me of Durand-Durand’s orgasmatron-thingy in Roger Vadim’s Barbarella – named in the film, very presciently, “The Excessive Machine” – which Jane Fonda’s boundless sexual capacity under torture causes to break down, prompting Durand’s affronted observation “O, you wanton slut!”) But even so, it’s still better than anything seen at Covent Garden in this repertory for about thirty years.

What we also haven’t seen , or more importantly heard, at Covent Garden for at least the same length of time is the kind of rock-solid, cast-to-the-teeth roster of six singers every single one of whom was – is – the finest living exponent of their role. In fact, three of them go beyond that starry enough status, and are actually, I sincerely believe, the finest voices ever heard in their respective roles in the whole history of recorded music. First, there is Stephanie Blythe, with a Wagnerian mezzo sound of depth, power, beauty, richness and solidity unparalleled in this or any other time. Then there is Jonas Kaufmann, quite incomparable as Siegmund, singing with a palpable sense of effortless magnificence, rich-toned beyond imagination, aristocratically phrased, line-after-line on barely a breath, and of a power and scale as to rattle the Swarovski chandeliers up in the ceiling, distilling the very musical essence of virility. I have never heard the like in my life, and never expect to again.

It isn’t even just a question of it being thrilling: it’s more like the absolute certainty that we are in the presence of exactly the voice Wagner wrote his music for; this is what a real Heldentenor sounds like, and neither Melchior – on the evidence of discs – or Vickers – on the evidence of my own ears – can run him anywhere close. Dark and dense as Sachertorte, with perfectly even emission, vocal texture and not even a hint of registral breaks, this is a voice in a million, and one that comes, if you’re lucky, once in a lifetime. Be grateful it’s in ours. In strict fairness, I should add that he’s not much of a stage animal. He’s inclined to all-purpose brow-furrowing and a kind of oddly aimless, occasionally awkward stage demeanour, as if he was never quite sure about what he is doing. But he works at it conscientiously: and frankly, if he was three times Botha’s size, I still wouldn’t care. Looking as he does, who cares at all?

As for Terfel’s Wotan, words fail me. All I can say is that on the strength of his only previous outing in the role, at the ROH, I would never have thought he had it in him to deliver a performance of such unstinting, unfettered greatness, which matches supreme dramatic insight at the microscopic verbal level to glorious tonal refulgence at the music’s expressive surface. Previously I had always preferred Norman Bailey’s warmth, and Donald McIntyre’s brooding power: but Terfel now combines the finest qualities of both, whilst bringing more sheer tireless voice than either ever had, not to mention towering stage authority and intensity. The fact, as I have heard reported, that he dislikes the production, oddly enough only serves to heighten admiration for his achievement: if this is what he’s capable of in a setting he finds unsympathetic, what glories may he go on to achieve in one he actually likes?

Eva- Maria Westbroek is similarly a known quantity as Sieglinde, having already appeared in the Warner staging here. I had, and still have, just a few reservations about her voice, which never strikes me as ideally focussed, with a tendency to slightly tremulous bleatiness on sustained high notes. Also, she never once at the Met performances under discussion managed to time the soaring phrase “O hehrstes Wunder!” in Act III in synch with the orchestra, as if the effort of will involved in just singing it somehow deafens her to the rhythmic realities going on underneath. Even so, I can hardly think of a finer exponent of the role alive today: and the chemistry between her and Kaufmann in Act I is everywhere apparent. Hans-Peter König I’ve encountered live before, but not in this kind of voice, supremely steady, quite beautiful in a blackly baleful sort of way, and effortlessly projected. As Hunding he seems to have come in to his own, exhibiting both a similar voice, and presence, to the late lamented Marti Talvela, which is praise enough indeed.

Deborah Voigt’s Brünnhilde has divided opinion quite sharply. I’ve certainly heard warmer, fuller sounds – Rita Hunter, for one – and definitely bigger – Nilsson, for another – but neither senior diva was ever expected to clamber around a death-trap set in order to sing her Act II opening (Voigt took a tumble on the opening night, and sang “Ho-jo-to-ho!” from flat on her face, where she’d landed, laughing it all off in character). And nor would either have been capable of suggesting the very girlish nature of Wotan’s sassy daughter, something Voigt captures to perfection. Indeed, of all the principals, she strikes me as the most naturally responsive, innately gifted actor, completely at home and at ease on stage in a way that none of the others really are, not even – quite – Terfel. This counts for much, particularly in the HD relay, where unforgiving cameras stare at faces and probe inquisitively into eyes that in most cases are to be found squinting furtively at the various monitor screens dotted around the stage in search of the beat rather than addressing the person to whom they are singing (Kaufmann quite the offender here). Voigt, in contrast, lives and feels the role, and seemingly sings without the need to refer to the pit for either encouragement or instruction. For a woman who not so very long ago was immobilised in her own then-enormous body, it is a remarkable achievement: and to see her shinning up, down and across the wall-of-death set so nimbly, and even taking the odd tumble in her literal stride, is little short of miraculous. That on top of all of this she has the notes, sings them accurately, and never once tires, even at the very end, and I would suggest that we are dealing with a triumphant success, from which no amount of carping about weak middles or pinched tone can, or should be allowed to, detract.

As for Levine’s conducting – now a very awkward and painful-looking business, clearly the work of a man battling against his own body – and the playing of the Met’s orchestra, there is no praise high enough. The sheer, seductive, sonorous sound welling up from the pit and filling every inch of the vast auditorium is a thing all opera lovers should experience in their life, both engulfing and incommensurate all at once, and eliciting a purely gut-reaction frisson of pure delight. In a few places – the central section of Act I; the Todesverkündigung in II– the pace can slow a little too much to a crawl, though never to the point where tension sags. Elsewhere, Levine drives it hard, but has learned how to “release” a climax, without either forcing the tempo or the dynamics, so that the effect is overwhelming, nowhere more so than at the point of Wotan’s capitulation to his daughter’s wishes in Act III, the powerful emotional surge of which left me in a heap every time I heard it. And there is no orchestra in the world - not in Berlin, not in Vienna - that can play this music with such frenzied abandon, yet with such lustrous, ravishing beauty. Lucky New Yorkers. And for once, lucky old me.

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