Die Walküre Rides Again at the Met

Saturday, April 23, 2011 - 09:38 AM

There’s a healthy dose of irony in the Ring Cycle, from love-at-first-sight between two long-lost siblings to finding out it’s your father who called for your death—and that’s just in Siegmund’s storyline. Perhaps then classical music’s most famous anti-Semite, Richard Wagner, would have appreciated the Metropolitan Opera opening its new production of Die Walküre during Passover.

The timing felt somewhat ominous. Helmed by Robert Lepage, the first installment of the Met’s shiny new (and purportedly $17 million) Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold, opened to lackluster reviews last September thanks to a malfunctioning set and an uneven cast. Admittedly, I was a fan of Lepage’s Rheingold. It was certainly not without reproach: It had more than a few moments of tedium and there’s no shaking that sense of audience betrayal when the video and scenic technology fails in a Lepage production—as it did in Rheingold as well as his first work for the Met, La Damnation de Faust. Still, to my eyes, the opening of Wagner’s epic unfolded as a pretty convincing gesamtkunstwerk.

But the idea of sitting with the Machine—that behemoth series of planks—for five hours of Walküre seemed daunting to many, a mood that was felt inside the house prior to the curtain going up last night. Thankfully, for the numerous static moments in Das Rheingold, Die Walküre made greater use of the 45-ton set and its capacities, unfolding and refolding into 22 different configurations. The manipulations of the Machine are said to expand further in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, which seems to be more than anything else a ploy to get audiences to commit to a full cycle. Here in the Ring’s second installment, the set still didn’t feel fully-utilized—a point underscored when, during the fight between Siegmund and Hunding, two sole supernumerary actors scale the tops of the 24 planks and you realize how much of the vast space remains untouched.

Key moments, however, get their overblown due with moments that range from the ridiculous to the sublime. As Bryn Terfel admirably growled through Wotan’s Act II monologue (greatly improved from Das Rheingold but still sounding slightly raw), a giant eye—representative of the god’s missing and all-seeing oculus—rises from beneath the set and illustrates his recap of Rheingold with a bizarre set of images that look like a PowerPoint crafted by Gandalf the Grey. On the other hand, Siegmund’s monologue in Act I was accompanied by a poetically understated shadow pantomime reminiscent of Lepage’s recent work for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Nightingale and Other Short Fables.

Moreover, Act III was a knockout from beginning to end. In their famous ride, the eight Valkyries entered on bucking and braying planks to a delighted applause from the audience. As Wotan surrounds Brünnhilde in a ring of fire, the Valkyrie defies gravity, moving from a 45-degree angle and eventually lying dormant at 180-degrees, perpendicular to the stage—head down. On opening night of Rheingold, Valhalla’s rainbow bridge may have led to nowhere, but (in spite of a predictable round of boos for Lepage at his curtain call), it was hard not to be utterly transported by this final image, worth every penny included in the Machine’s price tag.  

What Lepage’s hi-tech production lacks, however, is an impassioned human touch. This Die Walküre doesn’t lag because of a failure to get the technology up. Rather, it’s a lack of urgency, immediacy and intimacy that causes it to stumble just as Deborah Voigt did when, upon her first entrance, she couldn’t quite clamber onto the set (she laughed it off in character as Wotan’s energetic, tomboyish daughter and leashed into a delirious “Hojotoho”).

There are flickers of chemistry, most notably between Voigt and Bryn Terfel’s Wotan, both comically charming and utterly heartbreaking. Numerous doubts following Voigt’s role debut as one of the most challenging soprano roles seemed overblown—though occasionally shrill in the upper register, she vocally blossomed as the night wore on. Vocally and dramatically Voigt’s Brünnhilde matures in front of our eyes, making her fate all the more affecting. While Eva-Maria Westbroek (recently seen in London as Anna Nicole Smith) begged out of the performance after Act I due to illness, she offered a radiant and rhapsodic Spring Duet with Jonas Kaufmann’s Siegmund. Incest never sounded so good. Though at times his voice seemed too small for the house, Kaufmann claimed Wagner’s music as his birthright, pairing equally well with Westbroek’s replacement, Margaret Jane Wray.

Mezzo Stephanie Blythe may have looked like a Wagnerian stranded on the Starship Enterprise, but she brought a powerful and hefty gravitas to Fricka, and the eight Valkyries offered some of the best singing of the night. Strange, then, that what was expected to be the evening’s surest bet—James Levine at the podium—was one of the biggest disappointments. The aging maestro crafted an uneven and muted score. For a conductor who has led every complete Ring cycle at the Met in the last 22 years and sacrificed other work this season to accommodate Wagner’s Olympian workout, it seemed to fall flat.

Ultimately the power of the Ring is that the myriad immortal characters we encounter over the four operas are driven by very human emotions rather than deific rationality. This may be where Lepage fails hardest, which explains the outcry against this work. To content ourselves with saying that it’s at least not the worst work produced under the Gelb era does a disservice to the audience, the artists and the art. But it’s hard to judge a new Ring halfway through. And while this is surely not a hit, it at least has a considerable kick.

Check out the scenes below from the Met's Die Walküre and leave your thoughts below.


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Comments [11]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

CAVANAUGH, YOU ARE CORRECT IN SAYING THAT SCHORR did not resort to sprechstimme, parlando, breathy voice production. OR SLURRING. If you remember, I am saying this because you undoubtedly do, that the Siegmund today sang bwith a breathy tone, ahd wobbles and even wrong words. HE did improve considerably in the second act, had no wobble and the voice quality became more in line with what one expects at the Met. The biggerst problem I see/hear in today's singers is a lack of body in their voices, and NO DISTINCTIVE BEAUTIFUL TIMBRE.
yES, beautiful but not memorable like a Bjorling, a Melchior, a Gigli, a Tauber, a Lanza, needless to say the "god"
himself Caruso. The vocal techniques common today do not fully express the possibilities of so many otherwise exceptional basically talented singers. Thanks, CAVANAUGH pointing out the obvious.
Sorry Mr. Lane but Terfel over used piano/parlando too much. It would have had more of an effect if he used it less. Your teacher, the great Frierich Schorr, never stopped to such gimmicks. His voice was even & almost perfect legato. Terfel aspirated before high notes - a bad habit.

Apr. 28 2012 06:16 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

One always should encourage major endeavors to motivate to take on demanding tasks. The Met Opera's undertaking with regard to the RING is commendable. In today's performance, Saturday April 28th, the singers improved as they continued in their respective roles. What was/is most NOT in evidence is the singular beauty of timbre as well as the power that we associate with Wagnerian singers at their best. Most improvement was in the singing of today's Siegmund Frank van Aken replacing the indisposed Jonas Kaufmann. The orchestra under maestro Fabio Luisi was glowing and thew melos of each scene developed with the sense of inevitability. Stephanie Blythe is a treasure vocally with the fullness and amplitude of her magnificent voice, but also her convincing enunciating of the text with the urgency of Fricka's pronouncements. My background of studying the Wagner heldentenor roles with the Met Opera's Wagnerian legends Friedrich Schorr, Margarete Matzenauer, Alexander Kipnis, Karin Branzell, and Nartial Singher and in the cases of Schorr Singher and Kipnis viewing them at the Met in performances reinforces my absolute confidence that Wagner performance will eventually also find new Melchiors and Flagstads to properly represent the majesty, the epic and the consuming passion for delineating the panoramic emotions, actions and aspirations that both WAGNER and SHAKESPEARE penned so immortally Now that we are hearing the third act with its most thrilling and familiar "chestnuts" we can rightfully assess the vision of Wagner in his appropriate sequencing, both leitmotive-wise and musically so that everything holds so well together. Each melodic representation of a thing, a person, or an idea had a definitive melodic synonym, known as leitmotives, the building blocs, the cornerstones of Wagner's linked chain. As an opera composer myself, "Shakespeare" and 'The Politcal Shakespeare," I can appreciate the stream of consciousness that enthused WAGNER so passionately over each of his music dramas. Each of Wagner's operas has its own harmonic texture and "feel." Bryn Terfel has in this act nuanced his text ''reading" and consequently his tonal flow is not choppy but well controlled and the forward thrust of his vocal delivery is well measured and controlled. Wotan's Abschied (Farewell) perhaps, as much as any music tone poem like pictures a fiery scene in the orchestrra and pr4ovides theaters with a pictorial splendor of flames and mountain top and jutting rocks ands the Wotan as beautiful and declamatory music as to be in the operatic literature. The opwra is ending now. It is 4:18 PM.

Apr. 28 2012 06:02 PM
Robert Grandt from NYC

After listening to Die Walkure on the radio I can't help but wonder why we need Ira Schiff on the broadcasts? Can't Margaraet Juntwait narrate the opera without any help? His voice is irritating, obnioxious and unpleasant to listen to.
We can also live without his uninteresting, pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, banal and just plain boring commentary on the operas.
I've been listening to the broadcasts since 1960, when the great Milton Cross was the commentator. Ira is undoubtedly the worst announcer I have heard in the past fifty-one years.
There is plenty of great operatic experise out there waiting to be tapped.
We operaphiles deserve better tha Ira Schiff.

May. 19 2011 01:58 PM
Chaase from New York, NY

Thurs 4.28--I just got back from Die Walkure at the Met tonight. This performance was musically sublime. I don't know what happened on opening night, I wasn't there, but tonight Maestro Levine led the orchestra into areas of such tender beauty that it was heartbreaking, never before has he brought such dramatic nuance to this score. I hope he has many more years as musical director at the Met. I was sitting in Family Circle and Jonas Kaufman's voice was not only big enough, but filled me with excitement and anticipation of his years to come in the Wagner repertoire. All the of singers were thrilling tonight!
I must say that the set started to bore me by Act III. I didn't care for this production's Ride of Valkyries; one of them fell into the abyss causing the audience to gasp in horror. It ruined the rest of their famous music for me, I was so worried about the one who had fallen and the rest who still had to slide down,( the two who still had to slide down got a big round of applause when they did, for courage!). I like a lot of things about this production, but hate worrying about the safety of the singers. It takes away from my intimate relationship with the music. Besides, I don't go to the opera to see cheap stage tricks.

Apr. 29 2011 01:18 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from BOONTON, NU

Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund, Bryn Terfel as Wotan and Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde with James Levine's masterful, deeply committed long-experienced conducting of Wagner, this MUST be a MUST-ATTEND production, whatever the set design. Die Walkuere has gods and humans contesting throughout and empathy expressed on both sides. Friedrich Schorr, the legendary "unico" definitive Hans Sachs and Wotan and Alexander Kipnis, the richest voice and most thrilling BORIS, with competition only from Chaliapin, singular as he was. Kipnis was also a major Mozart and Wagner and lieder singer. Hear what he did with the Erlkonig !!! It helps one to comprehend the talent necessary to perform opera and lieder singing if one has had a career singing opera and concertized with Lieder as the principal ingredient of the solo concert, nowadays not that prevalent.

Apr. 27 2011 05:23 PM
Tim Brown from Washington, DC

I was thrilled by the HD broadcast of Das Rheingold last October and can 't wait to see Die Walkure on May 14. The clips look and sound fabulous to me.

Apr. 25 2011 03:51 PM
Mark from Mendham, NJ

I too do not know which Die Walkure you attended. From the ominous opening strains, I was captivated by the orchestra AND the set design. True, Voight's slip added some extra drama, especially when Blythe's throne rolled out and I sensed everyone holding their breath in fear that she would have to navigate the same jagged planks. Thank goodness she stayed put on her throne and dazzled with her voice and presence. The opening of the 3rd act was one of the most phenomenal experiences I have ever had at the Met - or any theater. This is a must see. I heard absolutely no boos at Lepage's curtain call - just sustained applause. I am determined now to get tickets for the full cycle next year.

Apr. 25 2011 10:29 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from BOONTON, NJ

Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund, Bryn Terfel as Wotan, Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde and Stephanie Blythe as Fricka with James Levine's known masterful, deeply committed, long-experienced conducting of Wagner, this MUST be a MUST-ATTEND production, whatever the set design, and its inherent difficulty in appropriate operation to further the story line. Each generation has its own talent resources.
Even the super super singers and conductors no matter who they may be, can only perform for so long. Training, alone is not the answer, the talent and the opportunities must exist. The MET is one of very few companies that can acquire and develop the talents. We must support it and encourage others to do the same.

Apr. 24 2011 10:36 PM
Michael Meltzer

Blog topics such as those provided by Mr. Plotkin have been educational, giving some history, introducing some personalities and generally broadening one's understanding of opera. I believe that the educational role of a public classical radio station is just about as important as its role as a presenter.
I believe that getting involved in criticism of individual performances is beneath you, and "does a disservice to the audience, the artists and the art," more so than the performance itself. WQXR and the Met are
public musical institutions and deserve each others support for the sake of survival, without qualification. Leave criticism to those with an axe to grind, and be as open-minded as you would like your listeners to be.

Apr. 24 2011 01:23 PM

I can't comment on any of the visual aspects of the production as I listened to the audio stream from the Mets website, score in hand.

All I'd like to say is that I can't imagine where your judgement of Levine's conducting comes from. Though it wasn't perfect (that would be impossible with a score of such incredible depth) it was so full of energy and passion it knocked me out. The colors he evoked and the power of the orchestra were undeniable. Incredible playing.

Apr. 23 2011 08:24 PM
Rachel Preston from NYC

I don't know which Die Walkure you attended last night, but it certainly wasn't the one at the Met. Your review is so off base and filled with inaccuracies, it's not worth the Typepad it's posted on. Perhaps you should wait until you've gained enough knowledge about opera (versus just a project involving hearing each one in order), and not only studied the artform... and maybe, just maybe, even attempted training for a role... or conducting... or hell, even possessing any semblance of vocal instrumentation until you take on reviewing such a performance, in such a house, with such a cast, and such an orchestra led by such an amazing Maestro. This ain't TimeOutNewYork.

Apr. 23 2011 07:10 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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