Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Die Walküre: Wes Herd dies auch sei

Final scene: Voigt, Terfel; (c) Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
In brief, I thought the best thing about the Met's Walküre was its phenomenal orchestra, and the worst its Picket Fence of Symbolism, as I am calling the set.  Update: the Met has posted pictures; tellingly, most of them focus on the singers. The singing was thoroughly committed, and held many pleasant surprises.  In the program was printed a "conversation with the director."  Lepage was asked how he planned to engage the new dimensions of Walküre, after Rheingold.  "Suddenly," said Lepage, "we deal with love and nature. Walküre is a piece where there are snowstorms, where there is lightning..." I had a sinking feeling. Lepage has often spoken of his fascination with the landscapes of Iceland, whence, of course, much of Wagner's source material hails.  And so we got a Walküre obsessed with landscapes, rather than ideas.  I grant, the forest for pursuer and pursued to weave through was effective, and yes, having the gods' conversations of Act II on top of a volcano can be an (unsubtle) metaphor for potentially explosive undercurrents.  But I was not seeing a Walküre with landscape-as-metaphor.  Lepage belabors the point of desired fidelity to the work. Failing to explore its layers and its ambiguities is, I would argue, a serious failing in this respect.

The good news: with the Met orchestra under Levine, and some very fine singing, the intimate emotional tensions and the enormous ideological stakes of Die Walküre were there.  I didn't think they were getting much help from the choreography, but they were there.  I loved the details of color and dynamics in the orchestra.  I thought Act I was less driven than I remembered Levine's '09 account of the score as being, although that could be just me. In any case, things seemed tauter in the second two acts, and it was gorgeously played throughout.  All the Valkyries, I think, should get a very special mention indeed for sounding great (no shrieking!) and seeming totally in control of, rather than controlled by, the stage business they were given with the set.  Veteran bass Hans-Peter König brought marvelously full sound to the role of Hunding.  He did not bark, nor did he snarl excessively; his brutality was the more effective for not being caricatured.  Offhandedly cruel to Sieglinde, he oozed contempt for the unkempt, exhausted stranger he found in his house.  Stephanie Blythe's Fricka can harangue me any time.  How often does one come away from a Walküre wishing that Wotan and Fricka's argument lasted longer?  Blythe's huge, gleaming, rounded sound has wowed me every time I've heard her; with this and good diction, her Fricka emerged as emotionally complex: sympathetic, as well as seething. And she was rocking a regal blue dress and a Widdergespann.  Outstanding.

Act I: Westbroek, Kaufmann; (c) Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
The Beloved Flatmate tells me that not everyone is as enraptured by the story of Siegmund and Sieglinde as I am.  So in my rhapsodizing, bear this tendency in mind, Gentle Readers.  I think I now understand better both why Jonas Kaufmann is adamant about not moving further into the Wagnerian repertory at this point, and why there is such eagerness for him to do so. The role of Siegmund sounds as though it sits low in his range, but it was a gripping performance, with dynamic nuance, breathtakingly wonderful attention to text, and ringing, prolonged high notes by which I was frankly thrilled. One expects the tenor to hold the "Wälse" cries.  These were an integrated part of Siegmund's anguish, here. The unexpected luxury of a held crescendo on "So blühe denn Wälsungenblut!" created an almost palpable moment of audience disbelief, which gave way to frenzy after the curtain.  Also, we got an answer to the question of why Siegmund does not notice the sword when it is gleaming and sticking out of the tree and there is a leitmotif: he is besotted with tenderness, too fascinated with Sieglinde to take his eyes off her for more than a moment.  This was a Siegmund with a dark, dangerous edginess, but also one who credibly embodied the exhaustion not only of the night's combat and flight, but of the long wandering as an outcast.

Eva-Maria Westbroek was phenomenal.  Many people--chief among them Gentle Reader Rob V., who shared with the enthusiasm of a devotee--had told me this, but I was still amazed by the quality of her full-bodied sound.  Her Sieglinde was radiant; even in her first movements to approach and help the stranger who has collapsed on her hearth, you see this downtrodden woman's instinctive tenderness, her enormous capacity for love.  Westbroek charted Sieglinde's tempestuous emotional journey with richly expressive singing and gesture, and I was deeply moved.  Her "Der Männer Sippe" was heartbreaking, hushed with shame rather than sparking with anger.  The emotional release of the duet was a joy (go here and here for excerpts from the dress rehearsal.) Westbroek handled the turmoil of Act II credibly and affectingly.  In this production, Siegmund, dying, reaches out to Sieglinde, who holds him until Brünnhilde tears her away; I cried.  "Fern von Siegmund!" was a sob, and "O hehrstes Wunder!" was, well, wondrous, filling the house.  I know this is a panegyric; I think it's deserved.

Bryn Terfel was a Wotan of immense energy, fearful in his rage and terrifying in his resignation and grief.  Also, he was a Wotan unafraid of piano singing!  To have the first "Das Ende!" an anguished cry and the second an anguished whisper is chilling. There were isolated moments where he didn't make it over the orchestra, but these were few.  Ideally, there would be none; but this was a Wotan with far more beautiful singing than I usually associate with the role, and I appreciated it.  Also--thank goodness!--Terfel brought to Wotan layers of tortured emotional complexity.  With his exemplary German, the sometimes self-contradictory journey of the god kept me on the edge of my seat (metaphorically speaking; I was in standing room.)  He shouted at his entrance in Act III, but intentionally; this was a Wotan whose rage was terrifying.  And I'm tearing up just thinking about the farewell scene.  I invariably find this devastating, but I was not prepared for weeping into my handkerchief, which Terfel's painfully vulnerable god had me doing. Deborah Voigt gave a game and committed performance as Brünnhilde, but also, to my ears, a somewhat uneven one (there's an interesting interview with her on the role here.)  Her detractors will, I suspect, be more disappointed than her fans.  There were a lot of moments which I thought were great: non-shrieked Hojotohorufe are delightful.  And, what is no small thing for me in a Walküre-Brünnhilde, she was dramatically credible as an exuberant adolescent dealing with several steep learning curves at once.  She was sometimes covered by the orchestra, and there were moments where I feared things were going to veer out of control.  Notwithstanding, I liked Voigt's portrayal of Brünnhilde a lot, and I honestly thought she acquitted herself well. I'm glad she did as well as she did, and I'll continue to keep my fingers crossed for her.  Despite the Picket Fence of Symbolism, I'm eager to go again.


  1. Wow - great review. Thanks so much. I caught the broadcast last week and was blown away by Terfel's Wotan - especially after what I considered to be a pretty weak Rheingold. Frankly, I wasn't convinced he could transform the role from the somewhat aloof, glib portrayal he started out with. While his entrance in Act II sounded a little weak at first, the emotional depth was - as you said "fearful". I'll have to listen again to get a thorough appreciation of Deborah Voigt's Brunnhilde - I was overcome with the feeling (listening to the premier) that she was thoroughly _loving_ it, and that was good enough for me. Can't wait to see here a little more seasoned in it.

    From an out-of-towner, thanks for this and all your great posts.

  2. Thanks for the very reasonable review!!!

    While Picket Fence of Symbolism is catchy, the staging seems to demand a renaming. It doesn't symbolize anything, it just represents.

    I'm on your side regarding S and S. The gods are long-winded and vacillating in comparison. Glad the end of Act 1 worked. The Siegmund I heard a few weeks ago was not that bad but cracked HORRIBLY on the A, an ignoble end.

  3. Well... blushes all over... you're welcome, of course. Wish I could have been there. I listened to the live audio stream on friday night and I could tell Eva was not doing well. But it looks like she came back 'with a vengeance'. Kaufmann, as beautiful as his voice can be, especially in the lyrical parts, still has some work to do to convince me of his Siegmund, I'm afraid. But, as long as the majority of people seem to adore the way he's singing Siegmund, I don't think he'll do me that favor. I was impressed with Bryn Terfel and Stephanie Blythe. Impressive diction and storytelling, beautiful singing most of the time. It sounded like a courageous performance by Deborah Voigt. I think she surprised a lot of people. Being restricted to audio only, I could hear the sets moving from time to time. From reading your account, I can very well imagine your reservations about the staging. It dominates the production, in a (sometimes undesired) way. Maybe it works better for the HD broadcast then in the theatre, depending on camera angles. I hope I'll get a chance to see it, the 14th of May. Very nice review.

  4. @Jeff Gonzalez Thanks for the comment! I was intrigued by Terfel's Rheingold Wotan, but I agree, this was on another level. I've always admired him as an artist, and was very glad to see he was vocally comfortable enough with the role to give such a powerful performance. I'm also glad I'm not the only one to really enjoy Voigt's enjoyment of Brünnhilde.

    @Zerbinetta Yeah, the PFS got its nickname in the production photo stage. Maybe now it can just be the Picket Fence... with an Ellipsis of Disappointment. I'm glad to know you're also an S and S enthusiast! The end of Act I did indeed work... luxuriating in tenderness but also not without eroticism, to put it mildly.

    @Rob V. Well, thanks again. :) Yes, Eva-Maria was great; I was sorry to hear of her struggles on Friday night but I could hear no trace of them here. Possibly good news for you: I get the impression that Kaufmann is unlikely to be influenced by a "majority of people." These are his only Siegmunds for some time, I believe. Alas, we could hear the sets moving in the house too! Honestly, this is a production hard for me to imagine in HD, since the set seems to rely so much on big pictures. Still, I'm sure the vocal and dramatic goods would make it more than worth it.

  5. By the way, if you're interested, I had a very nice chat with a german aspiring opera singer (also singing Sieglinde) who could tell, by hearing Eva's voice, what was wrong with her on friday night. She's called 'daughter of Wotan'. Nice blog. Here's a link: http://purpur.blogspot.com/2011/04/stand-up-straight-eva-maria-westbroek.html

  6. It is an excellent review and what's more I agree with all of it with one (albeit rather significant) exception. While most people are displeased with the production (even if they are more or less impressed with the technical component) opinions of the various musical components are all over the place. SO and I disagreed last night. We also disagreed with people from her office on some things and they disagreed with each other and with friends of theirs who saw the premiere. And so forth.

    I've seen Eva-Maria as Siggy once before and she was stupendous both times and is my second favorite in the role. I thought Jonas vocal colour would make him an ideal Sigmund. In the event he did not, as you say, seem perfectly comfortable with the tessitura but was excellent nonetheless.

    The one thing I disagree with you about, and I think I'm in the minority here but not completely alone, is the orchestra. I actually thought it was more driven in many places than I have ever heard from Levine and most disturbingly so from "War es so schmahlisch" (I know I'm missing an umlat) to the end. The orchestral part here is, for me at least, one of the most beautiful and moving in all opera. Last night I though there was a lack of suppleness, flexibility, tenderness compared not only with many Levine performances but a number of others as well.

    My perception here, one apparently not shared by you and any number of other people whose views I really respect, might well have been influenced by the staging. For all the technical wizardry there was a certain coldness and hardness that seemed to reflect onto the orchestra (though not on the singers). And yes, the machine makes an very pronounced and obnoxious noise which I found especially disturbing toward the end.

    In any case, I going to try again next week.

  7. All of the reviews I've read so far complain about the set: it's going to be interesting to see how it looks in HD.

    Having only seen the dress rehearsal videos, I can't say anything really on the production. But I am both looking forward to and absolutely dreading Siegmund's Tod. I love Siegmund as a character (going off of the legends), and with the way Kaufmann acts...well, he destroyed me in "Werther", so I imagine this is going to be on par with that.

  8. have you already seen (or do you plan to see) this April´s Met Il trovatore????

  9. I'm thrilled to hear Eva-Maria did well in this performance. I was so rooting for her and sad when she was indisposed on Friday. Wish there were a snippet of recording somewhere of this one. She's probably the best Sieglinde out there right now with that mother earth type of Power-Frau appeal.

  10. @Rob V. Thanks for the link!

    @marcillac Fascinating to have the record of disparate opinions... seeing this among critics as well, I'm wondering whether this might be an effect of different weight given to different aspects of production and performances. I absolutely agree with you about the orchestral beauty of that passage in the final scene, and about the unfortunate stiffness in the choreography. I didn't hear the stiffness in the orchestra. I was getting choked up by that point, though, so...!

    @Christie Have fun with the HD broadcast! And take handkerchiefs. I thought Siegmunds Tod was the best-handled dramatic moment in the production. I expected to get choked up, of course, but I wasn't prepared. I wasn't prepared.

    @asperias I doubt it's going to fit into my schedule, sorry.

    @Daughter of Wotan Thanks for your comment! I will keep eyes and ears out for snippets. I was thrilled to get to hear her live, and I think you encapsulate her appeal in the role very eloquently. There was a moment in the final scene of Act I (I think during "Du bist der Lenz," though I couldn't swear to it,) where Kaufmann's Siegmund gradually relaxed into her embrace in a way that was clearly healing for both of them, and I thought it was beautiful. :)

  11. If those guys from the NY Times don't replace that Tommasini by you quickly, they'll be losing a great deal of readers for the Internet... Amazing review, very nice writing! Congratulations, Lucy.

  12. Indeed, I think it probably was a bit of 'a panegyric' about Eva-Maria. Very nice of you to do so, of course. But I think she's not doing well at the moment. She already cancelled all her performances in the next few months due to health issues. I think it's related to her voice. But, she'll be back in the Met, I'm sure. :)

  13. @Placido Zacarias Haha! Nice of you to say so.

    @Rob V. Well, Rob, heaven knows I'm an inexpert listener, but I did love her in both performances I heard (April 25 and 28.) If that's Eva-Maria Westbroek at less than 100%, I can't wait to hear her in top form. Her website (http://www.eva-maria-westbroek.de/de/html/aktuelle_termine_.html) does still list her for an Ariane et Barbe-bleue opening in June. Whatever the coming months hold, though, I wish her well, and of course hope she'll come back to the Met soon and often.

  14. I assure you there are no forests in Iceland.


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