Before I begin this review, I want to give a quick shout out to my pal Robert.
“Salut Robert. Oui je sais que je suis “easy”, ou, comme on dit “You had me at “Wes Herd dies auch sei/ hier muss ich rasten.” (ou l’opera commence). Bravo. N’écoutes pas aux idiots. You rock!“
And so, after having seen the four Ring Cycle operas in High Definition broadcasts (including the encores of Rheingold & Walküre) I had a chance to see the Lepage – Metropolitan Opera Die Walküre tonight in person. I had a decent if not outrageously good seat –which is to say in the middle of Grand Tier—that allowed me to see how the spectacular design effects of this production look and feel inside the theatre.
I repeat the assertion I made earlier, that “the machine” (as the elaborate set for Lepage’s Ring is often called) is miraculous. We see mountains complete with avalanches, trees, snow, flying horses… yet at the same time we’re watching a high-tech robot creation that moves and responds to the music-drama unfolding before us. When Siegmund pulls the sword out of the tree, not only does the music give us an eargasm, the set moves into a kind of parallel sword shape, a harmonious moment of exquisite beauty. We’re watching something real enough to easily signify the various moments of this magical tale, even though we get the contrary signals reminding us that this is entirely artificial. When the vertical shapes of the machine somehow become trees in a forest, through which Siegmund runs to escape the pursuit, the illusion is spectacular even as it is patently arbitrary. The machine is a protean shape-shifter, able to signify anything. I believe we’re seeing the world in microcosm, a world whose most fundamental characteristic is change. Things change, the old order passes away.
This world of Wagner’s requires several astonishingly difficult feats from the set designer, such as lightning, flying horses, nymphs swimming in a river, magic fire… It’s so difficult that we usually go to see Wagner’s Ring operas with low expectations.
In the HD broadcasts, where one sees mostly close-ups of the singers, one can’t always tell how the effect works in the house. As I alluded above, I may not be the right person to judge. I love Wagner’s operas, and simply wanted someone to give me a way to enjoy them. I don’t think I am picky. Just don’t give me too much stupidity, and I’m there, eagerly gobbling it up.
So let me be honest. I love the Ring and first came to Wagner via Die Walküre. The very first opera I saw at the Met was a Walküre starring Rita Hunter as Brunnhilde when I was in my teens. While I was star-struck, and a complete Wagner nerd (you know the way kids know every single line of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings? I was that way with the Ring Cycle… still am by the way) this is the way I once used to listen to this opera:
- Eat up every second of Act I, especially scene iii
- In Act II? different story. I’d devour the opening scene between Wotan & Brunnhilde as a display piece of the soprano’s voice, nothing more… then reluctantly dig in for Fricka’s abuse of Wotan in scene ii, and Wotan’s slow introspection with Brunnhilde in scene iii, because those were usually static discussions, before we get to the really good stuff, namely the scenes when Siegmund appears.
- For Act III roll my eyes while the Ride of the Valkyries plays famous tunes over an impossible scene to stage, followed by the wonderful scene with Sieglinde, and the scene between Wotan & Brunnhilde.
Okay, now I’m older. I’ve seen several approaches to Walküre over the years. Lepage scrambles my expectations, by making some parts of the opera work better than I’ve ever seen before, in effect re-writing the way I listen to the work.
- (as I mentioned in my review of the HD broadcast)The Ride of the Valkyries: it’s something of a set-piece, really a bit of comic relief between two ultra-serious scenes. How do you show valkyries riding horses to gather the dead? Usually they don’t, because it’s a strangely silly scene (Wagner wrote it that way) calling for effects that are beyond most designers. Lepage gave us something quite believable, considering. It serves as a wonderful setup for the arrival of Brunnhilde & Sieglinde, a shift in tone that –for once—means something.
- The opening of Act II, where Wotan and Brunnhilde have a brief exchange before Fricka’s arrival is usually a moment where the soprano shows off her high notes and not much more. Bryn Terfel as Wotan & Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde begin to show us the astonishing chemistry between them. It was already beginning to be there last season, but now has grown. Tonight Terfel’s playful teasing of Voigt actually caused her to miss a line –because she was laughing—in a way that I believe Wagner would have forgiven. Their relationship seems so genuinely loving that it makes their later schism –when Brunnhilde underestimates the seriousness of Wotan’s command that she abandon Siegmund and blithely proposes that she will disobey her father—not just credible, but nearly inevitable. We’ve always heard that Brunnhilde is Wotan’s favourite, but with this opening scene, we see it and believe it.
- The two best scenes in Walküre? Surely not the scenes one would expect. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight from having seen the rest of Lepage’s Ring, I believe I can say these scenes need to be this good, because they’re the emotional centre of The Cycle, namely the second and third scenes of Act II. While I always understood that from the libretto, I had never seen anyone who could make it work: until now (let me elaborate).
Having begun Act II with that wonderful little scene between Wotan & Brunnhilde, Lepage raises the stakes in each of the next two scenes.
Stephanie Blythe arrives as Fricka exactly as stipulated, namely in a chariot drawn by rams. But more importantly, she sits as if on a throne in the middle of the stage. Wotan attempts to avoid her powerful critique, which means he dances around the entire stage, while she remains stationary in the middle of everything as if on a throne. Lepage gives us a simple eloquent image that is the most important thing we will see all night. As Shakespeare showed us in Richard II in the deposition scene, the one with the real power (whether it’s Bolingbroke or Fricka) stands still, while the one who is insecure (Richard or Wotan) moves. Power confers the right to be still, even if Fricka seems to regret her power, seeing the estrangement from Wotan that ensues. That Blythe is also stunningly good in her vocal portrayal, capturing the nuances of insult & thwarted love is icing on the cake.
The next scene can be tough sledding. Lepage knew that, creating a wonderful visual image. We know that Wotan gave up one of his eyes in a bargain for insight, wisdom & power. In this scene we’re looking at images of the world Wotan is describing in his conversation with Brunnhilde, projected onto the eyeball.
In the HD broafcast I could see the centre of the eyeball & some of the projections; but from my seat tonight I could se so much more, including the lovely curvature of the scarlet tinged cave enclosing that eyeball, as if to suggest an eye in its socket. At the beginning of this scene Terfel sang the lowest notes very softly. As the part changes from bass-baritone to baritone, in the growing agitation, Terfel seized those moments. When Voigt as Brunnhilde innocently decides to honour the rapport she felt from her father, Terfel’s sense of pain makes wonderful sense. The character’s arc is fabulously detailed in the last act as we see him begin to soften in the presence of the Valkyries, and finally relent in his one-on-one conversation with Brunnhilde.
I was very moved by Voigt & Terfel tonight, particularly in combination with Fabio Luisi, the conductor on this occasion. When it was still James Levine –and the tempi were much slower—the roles required an entirely different approach. Luisi’s pace makes many of the scenes astonishingly direct. The opening of Act II had me bouncing in my seat with the raw energy of the Met orchestra’s playing. In the last act, because of Luisi, the pace isn’t just energizing, but transforms the way the singers have to work. At one point Wotan has a series of lines summarizing the change in his relationship to Brunnhilde due to her betrayal. When conducted at Levine’s pace it’s perhaps a bit easier to enunciate; at this pace, Terfel had to really work to get all the syllables enunciated. But wow, he was so electric at this moment, the lines flying out of his mouth, his body bouncing around the stage:
Wunschmaid /warst du mir:
gegen mich doch hast du gewünscht;
Schildmaid / warst du mir:
gegen mich doch hobst du den Schild;
Loskieserin / warst du mir:
gegen mich doch kiestest du Lose;
Heldenreizerin / warst du mir:
gegen mich doch reiztest du Helden.
Debbie Voigt added something new that I didn’t see in the HD broadcasts: several times she cried out –in joy, later fear, and anguish –animating her scenes.
Stuart Skelton was new to me as Siegmund, with a voice reminding me vaguely of James King (which is to say, a complimentary comparison). Eva-Marie Westbroek benefitted from the presence of Luisi & his quick tempi. I’d found her approach –targeting a note somewhere between a tone or two south of the correct pitch and then pole-vaulting up via that lower note—totally irritating. But with Luisi’s fast tempi she didn’t have time and so was forced to sing the notes as written. When she had time –as for instance on the paused climactic high A when she names her brother—then she reverted to form, and sang first a G then clicked up to the A, a moment later. But for most of the evening I believe the tempi helped her to sing better.
I am usually a sucker for this opera, but for me this production is a better experience than ever before. The visuals are powerful, stirring, and completely relevant. The performance was more thrilling in person than I expected. Where I shouted myself almost hoarse at the first two intermissions, at the end I was so moved (tears etc) I couldn’t find my voice to bravo until just before the applause ended.