Opera News, July 2011
Wagner: Die Walküre, Metropolitan Opera, 4/22/11
Die Walküre
The encounter between Wotan and Fricka in Act II of DieWalküre is a pivotal moment in the opera, indeed in Wagner's entire Ring. But its centrality to the work has never been clearer to me than on April 22, at the premiere of the Met's new production. In the dramatically charged performances of Bryn Terfel and Stephanie Blythe, the two gods represented monumental opposing forces; the outcome of their confrontation had historical gravitas. The optimism of the preceding events was here irreparably crushed, and the ensuing tragedy became inevitable.

Robert Lepage's production of Walküre had enough moments like this to make one wish that the dramatic impetus had been sustained throughout the evening. It was not so, although the production delivered a stronger theatrical charge than the season-opening Rheingold. Like that first installment of Lepage's Ring, this Walküre, staged amid the mammoth planks of Carl Fillion's unit set, contained moments of impressive spectacle. The huge sci-fi eyeball that reflected Wotan's ruminations in his monologue created an appropriately otherworldly effect. In the Ride of the Valkyries, each warrior maiden rode atop her own plank, holding its reins as it whinnied up and down — a kinetic, ebullient realization of this totemic sequence.

Still, some of the scenic effects were surprisingly plain. The magic fire was a static circle of red; the coming of spring elicited nothing more than a wash of bright green projected against the cyclorama. Even worse was the decision to stage most of Act I in a trough behind the bottom row of planks, cutting the performers off at the knee (at least as seen from orchestra level) and creating thirty feet of dead space between them and the audience. It was a puzzlingly anti-theatrical gesture, making one suspect that the mammoth set has proved (and may continue to prove) as much a hindrance as an aid to realizing Wagner's dramaturgy.

The cast clearly was working as a team toward a common end, striving to render the complexity of Wagner's interweaving strands of politics and passion, godly myth and human drama. Deborah Voigt was Brünnhilde. The soprano has had some uneasy outings in recent seasons, but her Valkyrie was marked by clarity of tone and seriousness of purpose. She could not summon the breath to fill out the great arching lines of a phrase such as "Der diese Liebe mir ins Herz gelegt," but she was an engaging, sympathetic heroine, showing glimmers throughout of Brünnhilde's eventual transformation into a loving mortal woman.

Terfel is not a singer who can deliver Wotan's farewell in waves of cavernous sound. But he found lyricism throughout the role, especially in his care to bind the knotty German consonants into the singing line. The staging called for him to engage in moments of ungodlike flinching; Terfel managed to enact these and remain the imposing deity. After Terfel's disengaged Rheingold Wotan, it was a relief to encounter him here in a performance so varied, so nuanced, so attuned to the dramatic moment.

As is so often the case, Blythe proved herself a house treasure — a riveting theatrical presence as well as a vocal phenomenon. The stupendous scale of her mezzo-soprano made palpable the strength that allows Fricka to override Wotan's will. But this was no simple harridan; Blythe managed to suggest, even at Fricka's most intransigent moments, that a heart beat within the goddess's breast. In her interplay with Terfel, one caught glimpses of tattered connubial affection that only accentuated the melancholy nature of the present situation.

Jonas Kaufmann delivered a Siegmund quite unlike any other I've heard or seen, bringing to Wagner the virtues of an experienced Schubert singer. He was the physical embodiment of the youthful hero. His baritonal tenor lacked the clarion impact of a classic heldentenor, but he made a beautiful sound nonetheless. Even though the two sustained cries of "Wälse!" didn't set the auditorium ringing, the notes were marked by extraordinary breadth of phrasing, drawing us further into the musical argument. So it was through the whole role: Kaufmann seemed incapable of rendering an unmusical phrase, or one that didn't command our rapt attention.

Eva-Maria Westbroek's Met debut as Sieglinde was undoubtedly as disappointing for the singer herself as for the audience. In Act I, despite momentary suggestions of the big, warm sound that has helped her forge a major European career, her voice often sounded dull and unfocused. One was relieved to find out we weren't hearing Westbroek at her best: pleading illness, she withdrew from Acts II and III, ceding them to her cover, Margaret Jane Wray — a familiar, valuable Sieglinde whose tone had the requisite glint. Hans-Peter König made an ominous Hunding, his bass getting inkier the farther it descended. The performance fielded a strong group of Valkyries who sang as a unit rather than as competing forces. Kelly Cae Hogan's opening salvo as Gerhilde made me curious about her potential as Brünnhilde.

The evening's guiding force was James Levine. The opera unfolded at a pace that seemed inevitable, each moment weighted to take its place in the drama's development. Levine led his first Met Walküre twenty-seven years ago; his reading reflected that deep, long involvement. If there was one reason Lepage's uneven production succeeded as drama, it was because the conductor knew the score.


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