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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Opera Review: Machines (Back to Humans)

The new Die Walküre bows at the Met
Father knows best: Bryn Terfel and
Deborah Voigt  in Die Walküre.
Photo by Ken Howard,
© 2011 The Metropolitan Opera

The best thing about Robert Lepage's new staging of Die Walküre (which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday night) is that the performances are so absorbing that you simply forget about the hype and the problematic multi-million dollar set, and get pulled into the great drama of the Wälsungs, Wotan, and Brünnhilde.

The Met has assembled a strong cast. Deborah Voigt's voice has widened and developed a steely edge, both of which helped her Brünnhilde. She sings the role rather than screams through it, tossing off ringing battle-cries and achieving real tenderness in her lengthy scenes with Bryn Terfel's Wotan.

The Annunciation of Death (taken at a very slow tempo by James Levine) was her best scene of the evening. She entered slowly, like a reluctant little girl who did not want to do her father's dirty work. In her dialogue with Siegmund, (Jonas Kaufmann) she was torn between loyalty and emotion as Brünnhilde discovered her budding humanity. The low point: a stumble-and-tumble at the bottom of the set, just minutes into Act II. Ms. Voigt recovered adroitly, and it did not affect the rest of her performance.

Mr. Terfel is a dark and stormy Wotan. The voice is just a shade under-sized for this part, never opening out into the smooth, ardent richness that is heard in the best interpretations of the role, However, he is a strong actor, and is willing to drop all the way down to a hissed pianissimo in the most anguished moments. His monologue (helped by some interesting visuals) was a riveting experience, even though his anguished shouts at the end had trouble getting over the raging orchestra.


This was Mr. Kaufmann's first Wagner performance in New York, and he was by far the best part of this cast. He was desperate from the rise of the curtain, cautious during his long narrative scene, and then he opened out his big voice with a clarion "Wälse!" as he looked frantically for a weapon. Mr. Kaufmann's sturdy stage presence and perfect German diction make him the best Siegmund to sing at this house in many years. As he seized both the sword and his sister Sieglinde, his final cry of "so blühe denn, Wälsungen-Blut!" rose to an ecstatic, swelling high note. Then, he held it, riding over the crashing wave of the orchestra and drawing a storm of applause.

There were two Sieglindes on the stage last night. Eva-Maria Westbroek was suffering from illness, although it did not appear to affect the strength of her performance in Act I. Her cover, Margaret Jane Wray, was excellent in the second and third acts. Hunding, accompanied by a posse of hunters, was sung with power and menace by Hansr-Peter König. Mr. Lepage's decision to make the Neiding warlord an older, almost grandfatherly figure made the villain even more chilling.


Stephanie Blythe was a regal Fricka, appearing on a red leather throne surrounded by supplicating rams. Ms. Blythe's scene with Wotan brought out the complexities of power dynamics within their marriage, especially when the King of the Gods knelt at her feet. Her final address to Brünnhilde was a melodic feast, as her sturdy mezzo dripped scorn upon Wotan's bastard daughter.

Much has been made of Mr. Lepage's set, the multi-million dollar device dubbed "The Machine". These two dozen spinning, moving, computer-controlled grey planks that serve as a canvas for digital imagery of the natural world, and as a stormy backdrop for a spectacular Ride of the Valkyries. While Rheingold was dominated by abstract rocks, Walküre featured the birch forests and rocky landscapes of Mr. Lepage's native land.

The opening image of the forests outside Hunding's hut recalled the paintings of Tommy Thompson and the Group of Seven. The hut itself looks like a winter cottage in the Laurentians, with wooden beams and a realistic ash-tree. The first scene of Act II evoked the rocky Canadian Shield. The Valkyrie Rock recalled the high Rockies of Alberta and the photography of Ansel Adams, with the addition of a slow-falling avalanche. The Magic Fire is ignited digitally, on a lava waste. The effects are impressive, and a vast improvement on Das Rheingold.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.