Met Live Die Walküre has Problems with an Ambitious Set

16/05/2011

Wagner, Die Walküre, Metropolitan Opera’s latest HD transmission: (directed for TV by Gary Halfvorson) live to the Barbican Cinema, London. 14.5.2011. (JPr)

Production:

Directed by Robert Lepage.
Conductor: James Levine.

Cast:

Siegmund: Jonas Kaufmann
Sieglinde: Eva-Maria Westbroek
Hunding: Hans-Peter König
Wotan: Bryn Terfel
Brünnhilde: Deborah Voigt
Fricka: Stephanie Blythe

As a ‘glass half empty’ person I expect things to go wrong with everything around me and this is especially the case with events that I have been most looking forward to. This Saturday matinee of Die Walküre broadcast to cinemas live from The Metropolitan Opera sums this up perfectly as never have I anticipated one of these performance more than on this occasion only to see the following notice ‘Today’s peformance has been delayed and will begin shortly’. Yes peformance – and it is not my typo! Apparently it was all to do with a rogue ‘encoder’ that controlled the movement of one of the 24 planks on Carl Fillion’s stage wide piano keyboard high-tech mechanical set that tilts and turns to provide the stage pictures. It is known (affectionately or otherwise) backstage as ‘The Machine’ – and on this occasion the machine was broken and the complicated computer-controlled movements weren’t happening:so the start of the show was delayed for some forty minutes.

A lot more happens in Das Rheingold and perhaps Lepage’s Cirque du Soleil-inspired approach was at its best then and this and remaining Ring operas – will see diminishing returns. Die Walküre is more of an intimate kitchen-sink drama by comparison with the earlier story involving water nymphs, dwarves, giants, gods and a rainbow bridge. All we have to concentrate on here is the reuniting of the 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 (other) soap opera.

With some skill – as well as fine singing and a bit of good acting from his performers – the Ringmaster Lepage delivers a great show. As much as I enjoyed this Die Walküre – and I consider it one of the best I have seen in recent years – it is possibly because it is concept-free and that appeals to the innocent part of me that wants to see the fairytale aspect of the Ring given its due from time to time. We live in enough of a cynical world not to have this rammed down our throats every time we go in the opera house … though I accept this generational reinvention is precisely what Wagner wanted when he said ‘Kinder! macht neues!’. Truth be told that if you did not know the singers and the production and took some sepia photographs François St-Aubin’s costumes could have been from a Met Ring performance anytime in the early twentieth century. Brünnhilde retains her winged helmet, shield and spear throughout the entire evening.

The Met audience – a few spotted wearing horned helmets with pigtails – even applaud the set when the Valkyries are ‘riding’ up and down on rather phallic ‘horses’ at start of Act III, and indeed it is a thing of wonder how it 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 (clearly 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 some real flame or a little smoke – or something – should have been conjured up to create more atmosphere.

That is most of the good – though there will be more – but what about the bad? Well perhaps Lepage is a good director of sets but less good with people who are mostly left to their own devices it seems; and acting styles go from Jonas Kaufmann’s vacuous Siegmund often seen with folded arms, to Bryn Terfel’s eye-rolling, scenery-chewing Wotan and to the real dramatic subtleties of Westbroek’s Sieglinde and Voigt’s Brünnhilde. We’ve had some good, some bad – so what about the ugly? Well that was the contraption for the enthroned Fricka that was complete with rams’ heads and slid forward on the set at the start of her scene looking like a large mobility vehicle.

I know I am possibly alone in this but I have problems with Jonas Kaufmann’s Wagner as it seems such a manufactured sound. There are thrilling top notes and some wonderful moments but there are clearly times when he sings below the note seeking baritonal effect and seemingly striving to imitate Domingo (who did a good job as a co-host for this broadcast). Eva-Maria Westbroek was an ideal Sieglinde clearly an abused victim of a loveless, enforced union to the brutish Hunding (the very stentorian Hans-Peter König). Ms Westbroek was one of the evening’s vocal successes, singing with a suitably radiant and impassioned sound. Wotan has clearly had a make-over since Rheingold and gone is the face-concealing stringy hair; he now has an eye-patch across his left eye, with breastplate and spear still in place making this Wotan a very statuesque, imposing, presence. Terfel’s voice is perhaps a little too mellifluous for the role but I felt throughout he knew what he was singing about and understood Wotan’s turmoil whether it is anger, remorse or fatherly love – and he made me believe it too.

His wife, Fricka, was the comfortably proportioned Stephanie Blythe whose size must limit her chances of European engagements, and talking backstage with Joyce DiDonato she put her character’s firmness in this opera down to body-shaping ‘Spanx’! Actually Ms Blythe summed up opera singing quite pithily as a matter of just ‘taking a breath, supporting it, singing the words and getting to the end of a phrase’. Her resplendent chest voice gave full vent to her character’s ire and made it clear who was in charge in her marriage with Wotan.

Finally for me the revelation of this broadcast was Deborah Voigt’s vulnerable, girlish and very affecting performance as Brünnhilde. Her ‘Hojotohos’ were laser bright with at least one ‘Heiaha’ brought on by a playful nudge from Wotan’s spear. Her powerful voice never seemed to be under any strain and it was a youthful and engaging performance throughout the evening. Bigger challenges lie ahead for her next season with her debuts in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung but this was an auspicious start. I understand she has studied Brünnhilde for a short time in Cardiff with Anthony Negus and could have no better coach for Wagner.

There is much concern over James Levine’s current health as he recovers from ‘back problems’ and indeed from what we saw of him his ability to walk does appear to have been compromised. He clearly struggled to his seat in the pit and took his curtain call there without coming up on stage. Having many years ago witnessed an infirm Reginald Goodall being carried by a nurse from the pit at an interval during Tristan we are clearly not yet at that stage yet, as Maestro Levine smiled broadly and was not seemingly in distress at the end of a very long evening. Both he and his orchestra seemed inspired by the occasion and – as is to be expected – he bought a great sense of overall direction and immense character – with all the required passion, tenderness or excitement needed – to a very strong performance. Levine’s tempos were sometimes broad and sometimes brisk but most importantly it sounded very fresh and was by no means routine. It was the 2,248th performance he has led at the Met … and fingers crossed this will not be his last.

Jim Pritchard

For details of the Barbican Met Opera Live 2011/12 series visit www.barbican.org.uk/film or for showings in your area please check the listings of the local cinemas.

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