Met’s mixed cast makes for a vocally varied “Walküre”

April 14, 2013
By Marion Lignana Rosenberg

Martina Serafin as Sieglinde and Simon O’Neill as Siegmund in Wagner’s “Die Walküre” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

The operatic equivalent to Shakespeare’s Scottish play is supposed to be Verdi’s La forza del destino, both of which are believed to bring snafus, injuries and worse. Robert Lepage’s staging of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Metropolitan Opera seems fated to join that ill-starred company.

At Saturday’s season premiere of Die Walküre, the machine that repositions Carl Fillion’s set for once seemed to be working well. In fact, the audience greeted the Ride of the Valkyries with loud, richly deserved bursts of applause. Lepage’s staging of the scene matches the show-business pizzazz of Wagner’s music, revealing Wotan’s handmaidens against a stormy sky astride rising and falling planks, from which they make spectacular, sliding descents to the downstage area.

Instead, the problems with Saturday’s Die Walküre related to the music and the personnel. The performance was exasperatingly uneven, and one ailing principal had to be replaced mid-scene.

Before the curtain, Met general manager Peter Gelb announced that Simon O’Neill, due to portray Siegmund, was suffering from a heavy allergy attack but had agreed to go on. Though his voice projected well and he gave his stouthearted all, O’Neill had the troubles one would expect under the circumstances, including a phlegmy sound and difficulty sustaining phrases. He wandered upstage after Hunding thundered his threats to Siegmund and out bounded Andrew Sritheran, making his company debut.

That Sritheran performed so valiantly under such trying conditions (and before a global radio audience) speaks well of him. Tall, with an expressive face, he cuts a dashing figure on stage and moves with confidence—indeed, the wild abandon with which he cradled Sieglinde in Act II bested most every regularly scheduled Siegmund I have seen. Sritheran’s voice is on the small side for Wagner, at least in a house the size of the Met, and his best singing came during the Todesverkündigung scene, when he addressed Brünnhilde in tones both awestruck and defiant.

Vocal honors in Saturday’s Die Walküre, as in last week’s Das Rheingold, went to Hans-Peter König and Stephanie Blythe. Fogies young and old love to whine that the so-called “golden age” of singing is irretrievably lost. They need to see and hear König as Hunding. His inky, rock-solid tones set listeners’ bones rattling, and he backs up that magnificent sound with intelligence and sterling artistry, steeping his every word and tilt of the head in smug hatefulness.

On Saturday, Blythe impressed less with her tone, lush and commanding as always, than with her dramatic know-how. Her Fricka unpacked Wotan’s half-truths with venomous whispers and scornful smarts, and her demand that he abandon Siegmund for the sake of her honor cut through the air like a blade. Even enthroned on her chariot, she made small gestures tell: we saw the pull that her wayward spouse still exerts on her when he kissed her hand at the close of their exchange; and we saw, too, her hurt when he failed to respond to her desire and crumbled in self-loathing.

Though he sounded fatigued by the time he bid Brünnhilde “Leb wohl,” Mark Delavan gave an electrifying account of Wotan’s Act II monologue—brooding, mercurial, and vocally solid. He, too, lavished meaning on details: the scorn with which he spat out “Knecht” (slave) at Hunding at the end of Act II would have finished off the brute with or without a godly zap; and his furtive, withdrawn caresses as he thundered at Brünnhilde in the opera’s final scene made his bluster desperately sad.

If the Met’s Brünnhilde and Sieglinde had matched their colleagues’ mettle, and if Lepage’s staging were about Wagner’s characters and drama and not that rust-bucket of a machine, this Walküre could have been a rousing success. Martina Serafin won warm applause for her company debut as Sieglinde. She moves gracefully on stage and is a great beauty; and, sadly, unless she simply had an off day on Saturday, she sounds like a lyric soprano ravaged by the Wagner, Puccini, and Strauss roles in which she specializes.

Serafin enunciates beautifully, and the middle and lower parts of her voice are velvety and warm. When she sings softly and below the staff—in her first shy exchanges with Siegmund, or at the beginning of Die Männer Sippe—you find yourself wishing that she would never stop. Her upper register, though, is in tatters, and O hehrstes Wunder! Herrlichste Weib! veered painfully sharp. Worse, her eyes rarely strayed from the pit, even during the rapture of Du bist der Lenz.

As Brünnhilde, Deborah Voigt sang with a dire American accent and scant ease. Hildegard Behrens and Dame Gwyneth Jones, two much-loved Met Brünnhildes of the past, had their vocal ups and downs, but with their great, radiant souls they always made you believe that they could redeem the world. Voigt is a tidier singer, but on Saturday she seemed more concerned with getting through the next phrase than with more momentous matters.

Molly Fillmore and Jennifer Jason Cano were standouts among the Met’s lusty-voiced scrum of Valkyries, which also included Deborah Mayer, Mary Phillips, Wendy Bryn Harmer, Eve Gigliotti, Mary Ann McCormick, and Rebecca Ringle.

The Met’s wondrous brass section was not at its best on Saturday, and Fabio Luisi’s leadership was uneven. There were sloppy attacks and synchronization problems (not only involving Sritheran) between stage and pit. But the Todesverkündigung as led by Luisi was a thing of shadows and fraught silences that seemed to seep directly from Siegmund’s dreams, and the Ride of the Valkyries was all sparkle and kinetic glee.

The Metropolitan Opera’s Ring Cycle I continues with Siegfried on April 20. Ring Cycle II begins on April 25, and the season’s third and final Ring Cycle gets underway on May 4.; 212.362.6000.

2 Responses to “Met’s mixed cast makes for a vocally varied “Walküre””

  1. Posted Apr 15, 2013 at 9:03 am by agnes

    I thought the Walkur last Sat was a magnificent performance. Heard it on radio only.

  2. Posted Apr 18, 2013 at 3:54 am by Mike Capper

    I have just heard an interview with Mr Sritheran following his sudden Met debut. What a wonderful, unpretentious approach to his talent. I look forward to hearing much more of him.