Die Walküre is the most frequently performed of Wagner’s Ring tetralogy. Yesterday’s staging at the Met showed why. Under James Levine’s thrilling direction the company realized one of those rare occasions when everything comes together and sweeps the audience away. This was clearly the best show that the Met has delivered since the inception of these HD telecasts. It was good enough to make one forget that it started 40 minutes late. The delay was caused by a computer (they always blame the computer) malfunction in director Robert Lepage’s “machine” – that’s what the cast and crew call the Brobdingnagian contraption that serves as the core for all four Ring operas. It’s heavier than Mars, moves like Frankenstein’s monster, and malfunctions frequently – it reminds me of HAL; but the performance was so good that it could be ignored once the thing finally got moving.
The opera’s first acted is dominated by Siegmund. Jonas Kaufmann made his first appearance in a Ring opera at the start of this run of Die Walküre. The tenor has a dark voice that has a slight buzz in its middle. I can’t tell how he sounded in the house, but on the broadcast the impression was that of a spinto, or larger, voice that was perfect for Wagner and would be similarly ideal for the big Verdi roles. His phrasing was generous and brought out all of Siegmund’s longing and strength. It was a wonderful portrayal that strongly suggests that Kaufmann should move in a different direction away from the lyric parts he has concentrated on hitherto. The huge ovations he received during his curtain calls indicates that there was no problem hearing him on the part of the live audience.
Sieglinde was Dutch singer Eva-Maria Westbroek; she made her Met debut (in the same role) less than a month ago. She has a pleasant soprano that is not large. She acted her part convincingly. Hans-Peter König was a gruff voiced Hunding.
Deborah Voigt sang her first ever Brünnhilde in this run of Walküre. Though her voice is better suited for Sieglinde than Brünnhilde, she sounded much less strained than she did as Minnie in Puccini’s La Fanciulla Del West. The current role lies lower and is is better placed for her voice than the Puccini. While she was convincing in this part she did not bring to it the vocal freedom and abandon that characterized the late Birgit Nilsson’s portrayal. But to say that Voigt is not Nilsson is not really a serious criticism; nobody is like Nilsson. Voigt added intensity and verisimilitude to the performance.
Wotan is a part that asks the world of the bass who sings it – a crumbling world to be sure. Bryn Terfel was in resplendent voice. His part goes on and on – after all this is Wagner; but he went from vocal strength to strength. His beautiful voice has power and stamina – a tour de force. His acting, however remains wooden. He was not as disconnected as he was in Das Rheingold, but he needs to show more involvement with the action.
Stephanie Blythe appears in only one scene, but she put everything into it during her brief tine onstage. A luscious voice under full control. She’s a great artist. She was in a chariot pulled by two rams as specified in the libretto. Fricka gets Wotan so confused that it takes two more five hour operas to sort things out. She said in the intermission interview that she’ll soon do her first Amneris. She should be great in this part. Her only problem is her weight which is getting close to the point where her health will be in jeopardy.
This leaves James Levine and his orchestra. To say they played well is to be two orders of magnitude below their level of playing. Levine is so frail that he could not take his final curtain call from the stage. He looks like a dying man; but he’s not going out with a whimper. His conducting was fiery, passionate, sensitive – throw in every adjective you can think of. His body may be frail but his leadership indomitable. The orchestra’s playing was revelatory. The brass played like they were in Olympus – oops Valhalla. The string was lush and agile. The sound from the pit was inspired. Every nuance of Wagner’s complicated score was fully realized. Taken together, the singing onstage and the playing in the pit made for an unforgeable afternoon. That the performance was recorded and will be available until the end of Western civilization is a boon to art.
As I was standing outside the theater amide a horde of Wagnerians who had materialized in the cool West Texas air like tumbleweeds waiting for the box office to open I was taken for one of their number by the most eruditie of the group. I had to show my passport to convince them that I was only a tourist. But after this magnificent performance I might apply for a visa.
Gary Halvoson’s video direction was OK, but we don’t need to see singers drooling. Finally, the set designed by Carl Fillion is a wretched excess. To spend so much money on a Las Vegas type extravagance at a time when the Met is begging and whining for money was a mistake. The Ring can be staged effectively without having to rebuild the opera house to fit a machine that repeatedly breaks down.
Richard Wagner-Richard Wagner
Gerhilde…………….Kelly Cae Hogan
Grimgerde……………Mary Ann McCormick
Ortlinde…………….Wendy Bryn Harmer
Waltraute……………Marjorie Elinor Dix
Associate Director……Neilson Vignola
Set Designer…………Carl Fillion
Costume Designer……..François St-Aubin
Lighting Designer…….Etienne Boucher
Video Image Artist……Boris Firquet
TV Director………….Gary Halvorson