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Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Last Ring, Part I: Das Rheingold and Die Walküre

James Morris as Wotan.

The Metropolitan Opera opened its final performance of its famous Otto Schenk/Gunther Schneider-Siemsen Ring cycle on Monday night with a definitive Das Rheingold. Too often, the Met Rheingold has felt like a perfunctory exercise in stagecraft. But from the mysterious opening notes of the Prelude to the majestic final "Entrance into Valhalla", this was a Rheingold that stood on its own merits. James Levine conducted with drawn-out tempos that exposed fresh textures in the score.

The cast was excellent. Most notable was the marvelous, nasty Alberich of Richard Paul Fink, complete with an old-style bone-chilling laugh after he stole the gold. James Morris, in what may have been his last Wotan at the Met, gave a resonant, finely acted performance. Face it folks, this is role that this capable American bass-baritone could sing with patches over both eyes. Two once-and-future Wotans--Rene Pape (Fasolt) and John Tomlinson (Fafner)--made a magnificent pair of giants. Kim Begley was a high-energy Loge, bounding about the stage and singing with a pleasing, lyrical character tenor--somehting that does not always happen with this part.

James Levine set a very slow tempo that brought fresh orchestral textures to the ear. His orchestra played like gods, from the lush carpet of strings to the firm, ringing brass. Even the odd sound effects (the anvils, the thunder-strike) that can make or break a Rheingold worked on Monday night.

The major hitch on Tuesday came when the stage manager announced that Placido Domingo was not feeling well, and asked our indulgence. Halfway through the first act of Walküre, the singer stepped off stage right, had a coughing fit and was quickly replaced by tenor Gary Lehman, who was in costume and ready to take over. This was the only hitch in a thrilling performance that stood as companion piece to the Rheingold of the previous evening.

Linda Watson was a thrilling Brunnhilde, with soaring high "Hojotoho's" and an emotionally sensitive portrayal of Wotan's favorite daughter. James Morris was in top form, injecting real pathos as he sang Wotan's Farewell, more so because this Ring may be his own farewell to Valhalla. As Sieglinde, Adrienne Pieczonka was free of mannerism and affect. Despite the first-act hitch, she had good chemistry in the second with Gary Lehman. Yvonne Naef was a stern, compelling Fricka. Finally, Rene Pape was a marvelous, slimy Hunding--his two fine performances this week make one regret his two onstage deaths.

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