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Friday, May 6, 2011

The Lepage Die Walküre at the Met

Brünnhilde: Deborah Voigt; Sieglinde: Eva-Maria Westbroek; Fricka: Stephanie Blythe; Siegmund: Jonas Kaufmann; Wotan: Bryn Terfel; Hunding: Hans-Peter König. Production by Robert Lepage. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra conducted by James Levine. Performance of April 28.

There’s a lot to be said for lowered expectations. After last fall’s cramped, over-busy staging of Das Rheingold, I was prepared for a rough night at Die Walküre—and enjoyed the occasion very much, the staging, the direction, most of the singing, even the costumes. If I’d attended the opening, I might have been less pleased. A friend whom I met at this, the third, performance clued me in on all sorts of changes, not least in the improving command of his music on the part of Bryn Terfel. On the third night, there was only one major machinery mishap: Siegrune (Eva Gigliotti), broke the straps that held her to her bucking “horse,” and landed with a thump in the trough behind the forestage. She leaped (nothing broken!) into the wings, and when (after, no doubt, cursing and moaning mercifully inaudible to us) she bounded back onstage for a war-cry or two, there was applause. At the Met, audiences take the singer’s side against malicious, high-concept scenery. This may not be true at other performing venues.

Die Walküre has always been the most popular drama of Wagner’s Ring, performed far more frequently than the others. The doomed romance of Siegmund and Sieglinde is the most moving human relationship in the entire cycle, their undeserved doom winning our deepest sympathy, and Wotan’s tragedy is nowhere made more manifest than in his renunciation of Brünnhilde, the daughter who has been his second self. Parents, children, lovers, loners, schemers who fail—everyone who falls into any of those categories, or sympathizes with one of them, will feel the terrific pang in Wagner’s matchless musical setting of these situations.

The questions I always ask before the curtain rises on Die Walküre are, first, can these singers sing it properly? That is, beautifully, with enough breath and power for the theater in which they find themselves, and can they act, so that the lengthy debates of Acts II and III hold our attention? Then, what pitfalls will the director fall into? Will Siegmund start fondling Sieglinde the moment he sets eyes on her (which always makes me feel sympathetic to Hunding) or will their physical communication be only by eyes and exchanged drinks until their climactic embrace at the end of the act? They are two people who have never been able to touch anyone all their lives, and this first contact should mean something, should come only after we know their stories, anticipate their destinies. Then, how will Brünnhilde’s transformation from unfeeling goddess to sympathetic woman during the “Todesverkündigung” duet be manifested? And will the director and the singers be able to make sense of the end of Act II, where Wagner has given them far too cluttered a set of events to perform? And, last act, lacking real flying horses and real magic fire, how will they indicate flying horses and magic fire?

A great deal of the answer in the Met’s new production, by Robert Lepage, depends on special mechanical effects created by lights, projections and twenty-four “planks” that perform as athletically as anybody. You may remember them from Das Rheingold, as the roof of Alberich’s cavern and the staircase down to it from Valhalla, the bridge towards that castle and its monumental walls as well. This time around, the planks portray the rustic insides and (later) the slate roof of Hunding’s hut, a snowcapped mountain (getting all the icier with Wotan’s chilly mood), eight cavorting steeds in the Valkyrie Theme Park™, a tulgy wood or two, heaving in the wind, and a stage-wide winged bird-beast of prey. They are also the plasma-screen projection TV of Siegmund’s bardic imagination, and that’s going entirely too far—savages racing about like animated cave paintings are mere kitsch and as unnecessary as subtitles. Just listen to the leitmotifs and Wagner will tell you exactly what’s going on. Lepage also provides a gigantic plastic eyeball (programmed for light show!) to illustrate Wotan’s narration, and a spectacular ram’s head-armed High Victorian settee for Fricka, but rarely did I feel in Act II (as I had with the cave paintings) that he had gone too far, illustrating what simply did not call for illustration. Many of the meditative sections of Wagner’s great drama were indeed meditative: The music, the singing, needed no specific illustration because the music, the singing, were the drama, and what it was about. I wasn’t sure Lepage had got that important Wagnerian memo; perhaps he has.

Was Lepage or some less exalted figure responsible for the moving around of the humans in this staging? Someone has paid attention to the psychological underpinnings of the drama, which is an excellent thing. Though there are certain things I itch to tweak, in many ways it is an improvement on earlier stagings, even the sacrosanct Schenk production. Siegmund’s rush through the forest (those planks again!) was quite alarming, and can’t be easy to render safe. It will also exhaust the average tenor, but then, he has a time to catch his breath before singing again, and he spends it lying across the Hundings’ hearth. Sieglinde, who has been out gathering wood, finds him there and touches him, gingerly, to see if he’s still alive. At this, Siegmund seizes her hand—plainly the reflex of a hunted man and no flirtation. Later, Hans-Peter König—not merely a bass of golden age vocal stature, who only has to open his mouth to remind us how fallen, in other categories, is the modern Wagnerian estate, but also the funniest Hunding ever—ambles brutally home, tosses his bearskins on the sword-hilt conveniently sticking out of a tree, and, without looking at him, sticks his spear across the stranger’s chest as if to say, “What the hell is he doing here?” The focus on the scene that follows is, correctly, not on Siegmund so much as on the portrait of an unhappy marriage that Siegmund has interrupted.

I’ve always hated the salacious impulse of modern directors to have Siegmund and Sieglinde flop down and do it on the kitchen floor as the curtain falls on Act I. Surely she loathes her unhappy home, Hunding might wake at any moment, and Siegmund’s whole message has been: There’s a great big world full of springtime and love out there! Let’s go and enjoy it! Wagner says they rush out into the night, and I’m with him. So, happily, is Lepage, for as we watch, the planks that have been the inner wall of Hunding’s hut turn into the slate roof, and we’re out in the woods. Excellent.

In Act II, the planks became a sort of mountain platform with a cavern beneath, and on this floated Stephanie Blythe, our Fricka. Though sizable, Blythe has never had the slightest difficulty racing about the stage and up and down reasonable obstacles, but Lepage has not been willing to risk this. He gives her a motorized wheelchair with rams’ heads on the arms (in Norse mythology and in Wagner’s text, Fricka drives a chariot drawn by rams), and here she must sit and discourse with Wotan. Being Blythe, she has no problem acting in this contraption: seething goddess, neglected wife, yearning erstwhile lover, implacable lawyer (G.B. Shaw said Fricka represented the Law to Wotan’s Church). I found rather touching her extension of a hopeful hand to defeated Wotan, and his sarcastic kissing of it. The next “effect” was the popping up from the cavern under the rocks (the planks again) of a circular plastic “eye,” a screen on which Brünnhilde watches suggestive videos while Wotan tells her his tale. Cute but kitsch, and unnecessary.

For the Todesverkündigung, we were back in plank forest, but nothing much should happen during Siegmund and Brünnhilde’s stichomythia, at least until its conclusion, when he takes up the sword to slay Sieglinde and Brünnhilde, in stopping him, unknowingly becomes human herself. Here Deborah Voigt abruptly deflected his blade with her shield, and disarmed him with her spear. It was startling, as the moment should be.

I’ve rarely seen the scene that ends Act II staged with all its elements clear and visible, gods “hovering” protectively over mortals, a lot of weapons-play, witnesses to things incomprehensible if not invisible. And how many Brünnhildes can pick up all the pieces of broken Nothung and get Sieglinde offstage in the allotted time? Lepage managed most of it to a thrilling degree. Hunding and his men simply did not “see” Wotan or Brünnhilde; nor, so far as we could tell, did Sieglinde, motionless until the moment Brünnhilde (whom she has never seen before, remember) addressed her. Wotan strode forward with his spear to break the useless sword in Siegmund’s hand, then stood back to allow Hunding to strike the death blow. Siegmund died cradled in Wotan’s arms, reaching, touchingly, to the face of the invisible father he has barely known. Then—a little too hurriedly, methinks; he should have godlike dignity even in his wrath—Wotan chugged off stage in pursuit of his errant daughters. It seemed to me that there were far too many men around, Hunding’s confederates but, in fact, Lepage’s crew. There is nothing for them to do, no reason for them to move, and they neither moved nor sang. Two or three would fill the bill.

And so to the scene that is usually a snap: Wotan kisses Brünnhilde, her godhead falls away, she sinks sleeping into his arms, and he lays her out on the mountaintop before summoning the fire to surround her. Here, Lepage let his ambitions for a startling tableau run away with him, adding many an unnecessary complication in order to produce an image that, while impressive, even chilling, hardly seemed worth the bother. We should focus on Wotan and his feelings (lovingly described by the orchestra); instead we are distracted by the sight of the snow-covered mountain sinking into the earth, the spear-cradled Valkyrie (a body double) carried to the top of it and hung upside down as we, presumably, witness from above, in dolly shot. It’s quite a coup de théâtre, but aren’t we attending an opera? Shouldn’t the emotional focus of the story be Wotan’s feelings, and not: How the hell does she stay up there?

The singing ranged from good to spectacular—alas, the best of it came from the two least loved of the figures onstage, Fricka (Stephanie Blythe), rock solid but warm and womanly, and Hunding (Hans-Peter König), who opens his mouth only to caress the ear, reminding one of Kurt Moll, Matti Salminen and the other Wagnerian basses of more golden ages. The weakest link was Sieglinde, Eva-Maria Westbroek, a handsome woman and a fine actress with a large, womanly instrument, who sang “Du bist der Lenz” consistently flat and her final triumphant outburst in Act III all over the place, never consistently anything or anywhere. She’d been suffering from a cold a week before, at the opening; perhaps it lingered, unannounced. In any case this was not an enjoyable Sieglinde.

At my first Die Walküre (Nilsson, Jones, Vickers), forty years ago, a veteran of many Rings beside me turned to her friend and said, “Such a pleasure to see a Siegmund and Sieglinde who actually resemble each other.” I think Vickers wore a blond wig, actually. At this latest one, Westbroek and Jonas Kaufmann seemed to be wearing curly chestnut wigs—in any case, the resemblance of these tall, slim persons in dark garb (especially when they first warily looked each other over, profile echoing profile) was striking enough to seem uncanny, as Wagner desired—score for the Met’s wig and makeup department! Kaufmann, currently one of the world’s most admired tenors but one whose voice had seemed a little small for the Met even against a Traviata orchestra, gave us a darkly baritonal, cautious Siegmund, meeting nearly all the role’s challenges with full weight. The “Wãl-” in his Act I-concluding “Wälsungen Blut” was flat, as if his strength had given out by that time, but the invocations of “Wälse” earlier in the act were stirringly done. He seemed to have the measure of the Met’s acoustics and to know just how far he did not need to push to be heard in a suave “Winterstürme” and the ominous phrases of the Todesverkündigung. His ability to race through quite a dangerous little maze of log palisade/thick forest, to fight almost credibly with a broad sword and to die with an anguished gaze on the father-god who has betrayed him won him a deserved ovation.

I’d been dreading Deborah Voigt’s assumption of the role of Brünnhilde, and I still wish they’d find someone else for it, but she managed a decent, B-level Valkyrie, devotedly acted, and she looked terrific in a costume carefully modeled on the Victorian armor and silken flounces of Amalie Materna’s creation of the role at Bayreuth in 1876. She brought the proper emotions to her singing, the exultation to the war-cry (no trills of course), a sense of inexorable doom to the all-important Todesverkündigung. But Voigt’s voice these days suggests little in the way of color, of metal, of shine; half the time she scrapes it over gravel. It is the ruins of a voice and therefore, though she gives an enthusiastic performance, it does not sound heroic. This is less painful in the long, narrative stretches of a Wagnerian part than it was in lyric Puccini last December, when she was simply a gray, blank space on a colorful canvas; in Wagner she is able but uninspiring.

Bryn Terfel seemed inadequate to Wagnerian power in Das Rheingold last fall, but either his health has improved or he has devoted more attention and energy to the far longer and emotionally deeper Wotan of Die Walküre. There were moments (such as the beginning of his Act II narration) where his bad habit of acting, spitting, thrusting lines rather than singing them proved briefly tiresome, but by and large this was an honest, forceful, intriguing performance, one that holds proper weight in the opera, with real lyricism when he dwelt on the springlike love of the twins or his youthful ambitions, and in the long last exchange with the desperate Brünnhilde. His diction was excellent, he never fell back to crooning as he has been known to do when singing Mozart. His acting was full of intriguing touches, like the unloving kiss he forces himself to place on Fricka’s outstretched hand, nor did the wobbling planks beneath his feet give him the slightest insecurity. He played an imposing if unlucky king of the gods with conviction and authority.

James Levine was too weary to climb up to the stage at the end of the festivities; the singers applauded him from the stage apron. Other indications that he has changed were apparent. For one thing, he kept the surge of Wagnerian power at a low simmer: His singers never had to fight to be heard. This is new. Perhaps it was a concession to the less than godlike power of Kaufmann and Voigt, but Levine has never made such concessions before; he has usually been a conductor you had to fight for stage attention. Many a glorious note has risen clear and singing over the years to the front regions of the top balconies of the Met’s horseshoe, inaudible in the orchestra seats. If this was a new control, a new generosity, it was very pleasing in Row M. If there was less of an emotional swell to the final parting of Wotan and Brünnhilde than one likes to feel, let’s be generous and credit the awkward new staging. But I’m strongly tempted to go to another performance, somewhere high in the Family Circle, to check my perceptions of the Wagnerian temperature, usually at white heat in those polar regions.

If the new Rheingold made one wonder about the Met’s priorities and the advisability of the entire endeavor, the new Walküre makes me look forward with interest to the remainder of the cycle.

John Yohalem


Paul Pelkonen said...

"Tulgy." Nice.

John A said...

John, I largely agree with your assessment of the singing, but as for the rest, we are almost diametrically at odds. At the fourth performance, I found the production loathsome (yep, that's how much I disliked it), with the appalling lack of basic stagecraft--that mess at the end of Act II!--just the beginning of my causes for complaint. In my estimation, this production team is completely clueless.

Rob V. said...

This is one of those reviews where I seem to disagree with almost everything, especially as far as the singing is concerned. The worst rated, I found to be the best and I wasn't impressed at all with Kaufmann's Siegmund. But that's the nice thing about reviews. One, you can totally relate with. Another one seems to be from a different planet. :)

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