Stage against the Machine: Strong cast triumphs over problematic set in Met’s “Walküre”
The stage equipment of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Die Walküre claimed another victim Thursday night at the opera’s third performance. (Deborah Voigt, the Brünnhilde, tripped and fell at her initial entrance on opening night.)
The mishap Thursday night, which occurred during the Ride of the Valkyries, looked at first more serious when Eve Gigliotti as Siegrune took a slide down one of the 24 movable planks (collectively known as “the Machine”) that are the heart of Lepage’s production and made an obviously uncomfortable landing. She immediately left the stage, but returned after a minute of two, winning a round of applause. Singing heartily, she performed as though nothing were wrong.
That’s one way to earn recognition as one of the valkyries, whom even serious Wagnerians have a hard time keeping straight. But if I were a singer, I would think twice about going near the Machine, which cost millions, weighs so much that the Met stage had to be specially reinforced to accommodate it and almost seems to have a life of its own, as it goes into all sorts of different configurations. One false cue and a mere mortal could easily be flattened between converging planks.
Ms. Gigliotti’s mishap didn’t make it any easier to watch the final scene, in which Wotan puts the disobedient Brünnhilde asleep on the Valkyries’ rock. Here, after Voigt had sung her final, impassioned passage, but with much music still remaining, Bryn Terfel, as Wotan, led Voigt offstage. He soon returned at the top of the Machine with a body double for Brünnhilde, who was placed head down a plank sloping down toward the audience. Then the Machine tilted still further, so that the double’s body was totally upside down. It’s silly enough to use a double in the first place. But the ploy distracted terribly from this moving scene. I kept thinking that if something went wrong—as things do with the Machine—the double could have been killed.
Maybe OHSA should get involved and ban the Machine as a hazard in the workplace, so that when the final two operas of the Ring cycle, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, appear next season, the Machine will be history. Aside from being dangerous, it is irrelevant. When it starts creaking (audibly) to assume a new configuration, you could only wonder what its next gyration would be. Occasionally, the Machine is helpful in suggesting something meaningful, as at the outset when it represented a storm and a forest.
But normally, one just wanted it to stay put. This it did for much of the start of Act 2, when it took on the glow of a charcoal fire. But here a mysterious spherical thing emerged and proceeded, unhelpfully, to represent images like the ring or a shield, as a kind of gloss on Wotan’s long narration. Similarly, in Act 1, shadowy figures acted out events described by Siegmund as he relates to Sieglinde and Hunding his life of hardship.
As far as the direction of the singers goes, this was an extremely traditional Walküre. Often the interaction of the characters was very effective, especially the scenes for Siegmund and Sieglinde in Act 1. But other scenes were rather clumsily staged, such as the exchange for Wotan and Fricka, which found the latter sitting in her chariot most of the time. And Lepage really camped up the Ride of the Valkyries by having the girls ride the planks as if they were seesaws. Like other directors, Lepage builds on the work of his predecessors by having, for example, Hunding appear with his clansmen. (They actually assist Hunding in his fight with Siegmund, which made the battle rather unbalanced.) But I didn’t spot even one novel idea that future directors might want to borrow from Lepage.
Still, this was an improvement over Das Rheingold in the fall, and the strong cast is a decisive factor. To no one’s surprise, Jonas Kaufmann offers an outstanding Siegmund sung with burnished tone and phrasing of great sensitivity. Scarcely less good is Eva-Maria Westbroek, in her Met debut assignment as Sieglinde. Sometimes the voice sounds a touch thick at climactic moments but her O hehrstes Wunder is intense and exciting. Both she and Kaufmann look perfect in their roles.
I was not especially looking forward to Voigt’s role debut as Brünnhilde, but she acquits herself quite well. The voice sounds edgy and has lost much of its former bloom, but she sings with confidence, has the requisite power when needed and she acts the part convincingly.
Terfel’s Wotan is engrossing and handsomely sung. He strongly conveys Wotan’s conflicting emotions in dealing with Brünnhilde, but what is lacking is a stronger sense of the chief god’s dignity. In delivering his final words, Wer meines Speeres Spitze fürchtet, durchschreite das Feuer nie! (“He who fears the point of my spear will never pass through this fire), Terfel belt out the word “fürchtet” so strongly that he not only spoiled the musical line but suggested Wotan was angling for a fight rather than accepting with resignation what the future will bring.
Perhaps in part the staging is to blame, but I found Stephanie Blythe’s Fricka way over the top. Terfel’s Wotan tries repeatedly to gently cajole Fricka, only to find himself the object of another broadside of vocal artillery. Hans-Peter König is an excellent Hunding whose menacing side only gradually comes into focus.
Back problems or not, James Levine’s conducting is fully involved with the music and gives more attention to detail than in the past. Tempos, especially in Act 3, are more energetic, but there are still places where slow tempos cause the pacing to drag and prevent a stronger sense of the work’s architecture from emerging.
And finally a word about audience behavior. It is appalling that the audience began to applaud during the final quiet chord of the opera instead of waiting for it to die away. It’s as if a thousand cell phones went off simultaneously.
Die Walküre runs through May 14. http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/season/production.aspx?id=11120