Lepage’s Met Die Walküre Revival Boasts a Sextet of Vocal Successes and Characterful Conducting

01/04/2019

Wagner, Die Walküre: Soloists, Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York / Philippe Jordan (conductor). Broadcast Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera to Everyman Cinema, Chelmsford, Essex, 30.3.2019. (JPr)

Christine Goerke (Brünnhilde) & Eva-Maria Westbroek (Sieglinde)
(c) Richard Termine/The Met

Production:

Production – Robert Lepage.
Associate director – Neilson Vignola
Set designer – Carl Fillion
Costume designer – François St-Aubin
Lighting designer – Etienne Boucher
Video Image artist – Boris Firquet

Cast included:

Siegmund – Stuart Skelton
Sieglinde –  Eva-Maria Westbroek
Hunding – Günther Groissböck
Wotan – Greer Grimsley
Brünnhilde – Christine Goerke
Fricka – Jamie Barton

Live in HD director – Gary Halvorson
Live in HD host – Deborah Voigt

Robert Lepage’s multidisciplinary production company, Ex Machina, is as much associated with their work for Cirque du Soleil as for this Ring cycle he created for the Met from 2010 to 2012. As part of its current revival Die Walküre was broadcast Live in HD to cinemas across the globe.

Die Walküre is more of an intimate kitchen-sink drama in comparison to the preceding Das Rheingold (that I saw transmitted in 2010). Then the story involves water nymphs, dwarves, giants, gods and a rainbow bridge and saw Lepage’s Cirque du Soleil-inspired approach at its best. All we have to concentrate on in this opera is the reuniting of long-lost twins Sieglinde and Siegmund and their falling into incestuous love; the marriage difficulties of the gods Wotan and Fricka; as well as, a father (Wotan) punishing his young errant daughter, Brünnhilde. Yes, all human life is here just like any soap opera.

With his considerable theatrical gifts – as well as some solid singing and good acting from his performers – Ringmaster Lepage delivers an engrossing ‘show’. Seeing this Die Walküre again I standby my earlier opinion that it succeeds possibly because it is concept-free and appeals to the little boy in me that wants to see the fairy-tale aspect of the Ring given its due from time to time. Our current world is dark and cynical enough already and perhaps we do not need to be reminded of this every time we sit down in the opera house. (Though I accept a generational reinvention is precisely what Wagner wanted when he said ‘Kinder! macht neues!’) Truth be told if you did not know the singers and/or the production and took sepia photographs of François St-Aubin’s costumes these could have been from any Met Die Walküre during the early twentieth century: Brünnhilde retains her winged helmet, shield and spear throughout the entire evening. Carl Fillion’s basic high-tech mechanical set consists of 24 long planks that can tilt one way or the other and can be arranged to provide the stage pictures. It looks like a huge piano keyboard but is often referred to as ‘the Machine’.

The Met audience – with at least one spotted wearing a horned helmet! – applauded the set in Act III when the eight excellent Valkyries ‘rode’ up and down astride their individual planks which gave their ‘horses’ a rather phallic appearance. Indeed it is a thing of wonder how ‘the Machine’ can elsewhere turn from trees, to Hunding’s hut (with the sword as a convenient coat hook), the side of a volcano with lava flows and a mountaintop with avalanches. Boris Firquet’s video projections are an essential part of this and often during some of the expository monologues we have images and shadow play from the characters’ back stories. Only once was I disappointed by what I was seeing and that was at the very end of the opera; Brünnhilde (undoubtedly now a stuntwoman) is suspended from above surrounded by flickering, fiery projections on the moving set. I can appreciate that it is as if the audience is looking down on her, but a little smoke and some real flame would create more atmosphere.

That is most of the good – though there will be more – but what about the bad? Well I suspect however good Lepage is as a director of sets he was probably less good with people. Even when it was first put on everyone appeared as if they had been left to their own devices and in the current revival I suspect they just gave a stock performance they would routinely give anywhere. We have had much that is good, some bad – so what about the ugly? Well that is the rams’-headed contraption for the enthroned Fricka that slides forward at the start of Act II looking like a large mobility vehicle.

This is my third Die Walküre this season and each has seen Stuart Skelton as Siegmund. I must pose the question is there no one else? However, I am happy to report that – as heard through cinema loudspeakers – this was by a long way the best of these performances. Once again he did not move with ease over the set and held on to some undoubtedly thrilling top notes for a little longer than necessary. But the good news is that there was more lyricism and nuance to longer stretches of the role than I previously heard from Skelton’s burly tenor voice. Eva-Maria Westbroek was an ideal Sieglinde once again and clearly convincingly portrayed the abused victim of a loveless, enforced union to the brutish Hunding (a growling Günther Groissböck, Bayreuth’s next Wotan). Ms Westbroek was one of the sextet of vocal successes, singing with a – seemingly refreshed – radiant and impassioned sound.

Wotan in this production also looks exactly as you would expect him too: he has a patch across his left eye, as well as, a breastplate and spear. This give Wotan – as personified by Greet Grimsley – an imposing, statuesque presence. There was a hint of gravel to Grimsley’s assured voice that gave his portrayal gravitas and authority and he clearly expressed all Wotan’s turmoil whether it was regret, anger, or paternal love. His wife, Fricka, was sung by Jamie Barton and she probably had the best voice of this cast. There are a wide range of vocal colours at her disposal and her top notes sound that of a future Brünnhilde. Barton – in her brief time onstage – gave full vent to her character’s ire and made it abundantly clear who was in charge in her marriage with Wotan.

I am somewhat conflicted by Christine Goerke’s Brünnhilde. Her Twitter handle is @HeldenMommy and when giving a shout out to her daughters during a backstage interview (with former Met Brünnhilde Deborah Voigt) she engagingly hinted they should pay particular attention to Act III and ‘watch what happens when you don’t listen to your father’. Acting-wise her Valkyrie was girlish, vulnerable, sweet and prone to tears. However I missed any sense she was supposed to be a warrior maiden. It is difficult to judge a vocal performance unless it is heard live but, for me, her bright ‘Hojotohos’ sounded as if she was not there to take any risks with her voice and the role for the most part sounded as if it had more dark colours in it than even Wagner possibly intended.

Philippe Jordan has considerable Wagner pedigree and bought immense character, great sense of overall direction, and attention to detail to his Die Walküre that had all the required passion, tenderness and excitement it needed. Jordan’s brisk tempi ensured there was nothing routine about this very strong performance. The Met Orchestra sounded as if they responded well to him and were their usual accomplished musical selves.

Jim Pritchard

For details of The Met: Live in HD click here.

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