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.