Stage against the Machine: Strong cast triumphs over problematic set in Met’s “Walküre”

April 29, 2011
By George Loomis

Eva-Maria Westbroek and Jonas Kaufmann in Wagner's "Die Walkure" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard.

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.

8 Responses to “Stage against the Machine: Strong cast triumphs over problematic set in Met’s “Walküre””

  1. Posted Apr 29, 2011 at 1:50 pm by gingerbaker

    i enjoyed this production. The Ride was indeed a bit of an anti-climax. In addition to Gigliotti’s fall, the Machine moved much too cumbersomely, much like Levine’s conducting at times. Yet the sets were otherwise beautiful and, in their cold exterior, very fitting. More importantly, they weren’t distracting and enabled for greater attention to be given to the performers and to the words they spoke. The singing was not stellar but Westbroek’s performance was especially good.

  2. Posted Apr 30, 2011 at 8:59 am by The Unrepentant Pelleastrian


    “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…”


    It’s infuriating.

    What I find very odd is that the audience didn’t make a sound at the end of ‘Pelleas et Melisande’ back in December and January. And I attended 3 performances!

    Why they remained completely silent for Debussy and not for Wagner and others is beyond my comprehension.

  3. Posted Apr 30, 2011 at 10:49 am by Mort Young

    This was a rodeo more than an opera: poor staging, chintzy, glittering armor, with rare exceptions (for the twin lovers) second-rate costumes and, most awful of all, the scenery that drained the effectiveness of the magnificent score. Lepage’s machinery, which seemed about to crush the Valkyrie who fell between the top and bottom slats, was more akin to Spiderman’s messes than to the Ring. Ordinarily, I leave a Ring performance with the music refusing to leave my mind. Not this time, after being diverted by the above-mentioned operatic mockery. The singing: mostly fine. But much overwhelmed the Wagnerian effect. I imagine Wagner rotating in his grave, and Lepage kissing his own image in the mirror.

  4. Posted May 02, 2011 at 10:33 am by Eric

    “What I find very odd is that the audience didn’t make a sound at the end of ‘Pelleas et Melisande’ back in December and January. And I attended 3 performances!”

    I think it may be that the audience was much more enthusiastic about Die Walkure than Pelleas, and had trouble containing their enthusiasm. That’s just a guess.

    But I agree 110% with the comment. It’s infuriating to have the music interrupted by applause.

  5. Posted May 02, 2011 at 4:49 pm by Frank Clover

    Why do American audiences feel the need to applaud at every opportunity? After every aria and before the end of the opera?
    Why can’t they be more like European and Asian audiences and respect the composer and the artists?

  6. Posted May 03, 2011 at 2:15 pm by Susan Hochberg

    I just have to say that I totally agree with Mort Young’s posting. The gestalt of the opera was gone for me – bring back Schenk!

  7. Posted May 10, 2011 at 8:38 am by bryan lewis

    I agree mostly with the review. As to the first two acts someone needs to tell Jimmy that life is too short and Wagner too long. I thought the third act was much better paced. The Met orchestra was tremendous. I thought the singing was excellent–Terfel sounded much better and seemed much more engaged than in Rheingold when his gravel voice aside, he seemed to be in a snit. Indeed, the director had much more interaction among the singers here than in Rheingold which was practically like watching a concert in this regard. Voigt’s voice right now is what it is (and she had to do something about her weight if she was going to live past 50). I thought she looked great, threw herself into the role and that her signing was often quite moving. I think parts of Siegmund are a bit low for Kaufmann but often his singing was thrilling (would love to hear him as Lohegrin at the Met). I thought Westbroek sang and looked great. Blythe is a powerhouse singer and thundered out her music but I found the staging off putting and strange. Quite frankly, while I think Gelb has done many good things at the Met, he should be fired for this 16 million dollar high tech white elephant. It is not like the Bundy Tosca (where I got the feeling the director just couln”t be bothered with the opera) which will be replaced when Netrebeko starts signing the role–or the much worse Attila which will (hopefully) never see the light of day again. This is the Ring–the Met is stuck with this turd for 20 years. I was no fan of the Otto Schmuck production but I have to say it didn’t get in the way of a good performance. I find this production a constant distraction with no pay-off in terms of some overriding idea other than we have this cool set and we project images on it that distract from what is one of the great achievments of western art and culrure.

  8. Posted May 16, 2011 at 6:22 am by Georges Clermont

    Reading these reviews and comments brings me back to the fall and winter of `76 when it was fashionable to decry the Chereau production. Anything new and non-American has to be bad!
    Yet, the grotesquely obese Blythe draws praise: can anyone believe that Chereau would have enlisted her in his Ring?
    Of course 50% of US citizens are obese so it goes unoticed.