|La Scena Musicale, 25 May, 2011
|by Paul E. Robinson
Wagner: Die Walküre, Metropolitan Opera, 14 May 2011 (cinema)
"Die Walküre" Battles "The Machine"!
While opera fans are notoriously old-fashioned when it comes to stage
directors bringing overarching new ideas to their favourite works, it is
clear that if opera is going to have any future, it must be open to creative
Wieland Wagner successfully updated his grandfather’s
Ring cycle at Bayreuth in the 1950s, and Karajan and Schneider-Siemssen used
cutting edge projection technology to add a new dimension to the Ring cycle
at Salzburg in the 1960s. In 1976, Patrice Chereau gave us something to
think about with his radical new Ring at Bayreuth. In 2011, we have Robert
LePage plumbing the depths of his prodigious imagination to produce an early
21st century Ring at the Met.
Watching LePage’s Die Walküre, live in
HD from the Met, I was often enraptured by the words and the music and moved
to tears on several occasions. It was a magnificent production - no doubt
about it - with some of the finest Wagnerian singing and conducting one
could ever hope to hear. LePage, the stage director, deserves much credit
for the power of the experience.
That said, LePage’s overall vision
can only be described as “underwhelming” at best and, under the
circumstances, obscenely expensive.
The Machine With a Mind
of its Own!
Peter Gelb must have lost his mind the day he
agreed to fund a new Ring cycle based on a 45-ton machine (photo:above) that
required the Met to reinforce its own stage. “The Machine”, as it is called
at the Met, is a giant seesaw with 24 aluminum planks. It can be manipulated
to make all manner of architectural and/or symbolic configurations. Standing
more or less vertical, it acts as a screen for projections.
theory, this set piece was promising; in practice, it proved hard to handle.
On the opening night of Das Rheingold, the ‘rainbow bridge’ conversion
failed to materialize and the gods were left to make a mortal exit - stage
Such difficulties persisted. The “Met Live in HD” performance
of Die Walküre I attended started 35 minutes late while technicians
scrambled to figure out why their computers were not able to communicate
with the encoding sensors in the planks.
than Facilitator of Directorial Creativity?
Worse than these
technical difficulties, in my opinion, was the realization that director
Lepage's "Machine” gave us little of artistic merit to justify the enormous
amounts of time and money spent on it, and led, it seemed, to some rather
inappropriate directorial choices; for example, did we really need “The
Machine” to show us Valkyries pretending to ride horses – some said it
looked more like surfing - in Act III? Or the planks jacked up vertically to
form a wall – as they were for Siegmund and Hunding’s battle – thereby
reducing the vast Met stage to a long, narrow downstage playing area, giving
this critical scene a cheap and claustrophobic look, when it should have
been apocalyptic! Or Brünnhilde, in the final scene of the opera, lying, not
on a rock but upside down at the top of a wall. What was that about?
In this scene, Wotan – with Loge’s invisible help – lit the “magic fire”
that surrounds and protects Brünnhilde. Projections on “The Machine” showed
what passed for “fire” in this production. But surely Wagner intended
something awe-inspiring here – a fire massive and threatening enough to fend
off all comers with the exception of the hero (Siegfried) who alone will be
capable of braving the conflagration to wake Brünnhilde.
LePage’s fire was puny and wouldn’t have frightened a child.
During the scene in Hunding’s hut, while Siegmund is telling Sieglinde
his life’s story, the audience viewed projections on “The Machine” of moving
figures in black suggesting warriors and dogs in combat. It was all rather
primitive and unnecessary; one easily got the sense of the story from the
words and the music.
In short, “The Machine” is not nearly as
versatile as its inventor imagined it would be. My overall impression is
that LePage simply ran out of creative ways to use it.
Upstage “The Machine” in Movie House
Fortunately, at least
in the HD version, audiences could spend less time being disappointed in the
set and more being fascinated by the characters in close-up. The
Metropolitan Opera House is a huge barn of a place with most customers
seated too far away to see facial expressions without opera glasses. The
“Met Live in HD” changes this relationship and the technology pays enormous
Wagner’s Ring has its big moments, but more often it is a
sort of recitative with characters telling stories in intricate verse. In
this particular production, the words really meant something and were sung
with deeply convincing expression. And we, the “Met Live in HD” audience,
had the added benefit of ‘seeing’ the physical expression of that emotion.
Most expressive, perhaps, was Bryn Terfel. Even with only one eye, he
communicated volumes, and made every syllable count. His vocalizing was
glorious, especially in the final scene, as he sings goodbye to his beloved
Deborah Voigt was an ideal Brünnhilde. She looked young
enough to be Wotan’s daughter – a rare occurrence in Ring cycles – had
plenty of voice for this demanding role and presumably with LePage’s
encouragement, brought out the strength, the vulnerability and the
playfulness of this character.
As Siegmund, Jonas Kaufmann was
uncommonly handsome and his singing got better as the performance unfolded.
He tended to go sharp in his upper register in Act I but was pretty much
dead-on in Act II. He doesn’t have the stentorian tones of a classic
Heldentenor, but at his best he projects both strength and beauty of sound.
As his sister Sieglinde, Eva-Maria Westbroek also sang with strength and
beauty and produced a special richness in the lower register. When these two
lovers kissed, we believed it was the real thing.
It is no longer
news that Stephanie Blythe is one of the Met’s greatest assets. In the role
of Fricka in this production, she matched Terfel in both inspired
histrionics and subtlety of phrasing. Making her entrance on top of ‘The
Machine” in what appeared to be a mechanized wheelchair – albeit without
wheels – she never left it. Was this device meant to suggest she was
disabled? Was it a throne? Or was it was just another way to justify “The
Maestro James Levine on the Podium Despite Health
The extraordinary performances in this Ring could
only be fully realized with the support of a fine orchestra and an
authoritative conductor. We had both in this performance. The Met Orchestra,
a virtuoso ensemble, played with heart-rending expressiveness from beginning
to end. The intermission feature with players from the brass section
introducing their instruments – especially the Wagner tubas – demonstrating
their sounds, and explaining what the ‘leitmotifs’ do, was excellent.
This performance also had the air of an historic occasion, thanks to
James Levine’s presence on the podium. Levine has suffered mightily in the
past few years as his health has deteriorated. His pain and physical
incapacity have gotten so bad that he has had to give up the music
directorship of the Boston Symphony and to cancel dozens of performances at
the Met. There was a great deal of uncertainty as to whether he would be
able to conduct this performance of Die Walküre. Happily, he not only showed
up, but was in total control of the performance from the opening bars. At
the end of the opera, he remained seated at the podium in the pit instead of
joining the cast on stage for bows; but even the healthiest of conductors
have been known to exhaust themselves conducting operas as long and as
complex as Die Walküre.
The music was in excellent hands but what
appeared on stage was less satisfactory. For all the hype about LePage’s
remarkable new equipment, invented to give us an imaginative re-telling of
the Ring, we waited in vain for ‘The Machine” to burst forth with a genuine
‘coup de theâtre’ Even more significant, perhaps, was its failure to serve
the arch of the drama.
By all means, let’s have a unit set that
morphs from one scene to another, but as it morphs let it complement the
storyline – let it, in the case of the Ring, enable us to visualize the
worlds of both gods and men, and let it illuminate the arenas in which they
intersect as each is affected by uncontrolled pride, greed and passion.
LePage’s machine may have been conceived as a ‘means to an end,’ but
halfway through this Ring cycle, it has become a deeply flawed end in