Review: Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Met 2010-2011: Die Walkure

The Metropolitan opera has a hit on its hands with the new HD Live broadcast of their latest instalment of Robert Lepage’s take on Wagner’s Der Ring.  In what must be one of the best sung Die Walkure’s I have heard, the creative team of Lepage and James Levine have assembled a cast with no weak vocal link, which hopefully signals a resurgence in great Wagnerian voices, which have been seriously lacking since the early 90’s.

Right from the opening bars of the prelude we were transported to a dark and volatile world as we accompanied Siegmund flight from his enemies through a beautifully projected forest.  
Jonas Kaufmann was a wonderfully crafted Siegmund, completely believable and exquisitely sung.  His dark, almost baritonal timbre suits this music beautifully and he projected a nobility of character Jon Vickers would have been proud of.  We are lucky to have in our midst a voice of incredible beauty and strength, and coupled with the hotness factor, Kaufmann is the complete package.  He can even act, and the energetic, growing attraction between him and co-star Eva-Marie Westbroek as Sieglinde in act 1 was palpable.  Ein Schwert verhiess mir der vater was delivered with a gorgeous, even tone and Wintersturme was everything one could possible hope for, a true breathe of fresh spring air into the wintry gloom of Act 1.

Eva-Marie Westbroek gave a solid performance as Sieglinde, convincing in her growth from timid wife frightened of her violent husband, to heroine and the mother to the as yet unborn hero, Siegfried.  In Act 3, her farewell was powerful and gorgeous, her voice rising effortlessly over the orchestra.  This is musically one of my favourite parts of the opera, I am hard pressed to think of anyone who sings this any better.

As Hunding, Hans-Peter Konig has a weighty bass which he used expertly to portray the underlying violence which is inherent in this character.  He cuts an imposing figure onstage, and given the minimal direction he and his Act 1 co-stars seem to have received, made quite an impression in what must be a thankless role.

Act 2 transports us a rocky wild height, and brought with it the first appearance of Bryn Terfel as Wotan, Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde and Stephanie Blythe as Fricka.   

In Das Rheingold I was under the impression that Terfel may have been over-parted as Wotan, due to his somewhat lieder-like performance, however he rose to the vocal challenges of Die Walkure and delivered a strong, highly nuanced interpretation.  Finding a darker voice for this Wotan, he evoked the pain this character endures in his solitude as All-Father and the consequences of his own selfish actions.  The monologue was indeed one of the vocal highlights of his performance and he imbued the music with a vibrance that is all too infrequently heard in this music which, even though an incredibly important scene in regards to narrative, can often be dull and lifeless.  Terfel’s understanding of the language and all it’s light and shade was the driving force.  His Farewell was extraordinarily touching, his sadness at seeing his favourite daughter for the last time, beautifully portayed.

Deborah Voigt makes much out of her first Brunnhilde.  Her voice has a beautiful weight and colour, on the lighter, more feminine side in the tradition of Behrens, but steadier and more effortless.  Bringing out the humour in her first appearance with Wotan, her Hojotoho’s rang out with joy.  It was wonderful to hear and great to see the interaction between Voigt and Terfel, they worked wonderfully together in Act 3 and her contribution to the Todesverkundigung with Kaufmann in Act 2 was thrilling.  

Voigt has an engaging stage presence and I think that personally she will be able to make more vocally of the human Brunnhilde in the later operas than the immortal of Die Walkure.  It is refreshing to hear this music sung by such a strong and even voice that isn’t plagued by the seemingly pitchless top notes that many sopranos singing in this Fach have shown since the early 90’s, almost like a depressing trend.

After hearing Stephanie Blythe as the unbending Fricka, one can be forgiven for wishing that this role was longer, such was her impact.  Her entrance was memorable, rising out of the gloom on a double ram headed throne which she seemed incapable of leaving.  Blythe is a convincing actress with a rock solid voice, it was easy to understand why Wotan yields to her demand that Siegmund must die.

I do not think I have had the pleasure of hearing such a strong, warlike assembly of Valkyries in all my years of listening to this music.  Vocally they were a tough ensemble, their voices blending effortlessly in the harmonies given them, visually they were very believable as well.  Indeed the famous Ride of the Valkyrie was exactly the musical highlight it should be.

Direction and design wise it is quite an infuriating production on some levels, some scenes appearing almost perfect in their realisation, other looking unfinished, the whole not living up to the sum of its parts.  Admittedly in Die Walkure there is not as much opportunity for a cinematic approach to design as there is in the other operas, Carl Fillion’s ‘machine’ serving as an expensive backdrop for a lot of the scenes.

Costume design was by Francois St-Aubin.  Combining an homage to the costumes of the first performances with a modern twist was mostly effective, though somewhat lacking in the detail department.  I thought some of it looked, to use that word again, unfinished.  They strive to be grand and gorgeous but don’t quite get there.  Just look at Siegmund’s trousers in stark and boring contrast to the rest of his beautifully detailed costume to know what I mean.

In Act 1 the forest was convincing and quite formidable, and the change to the house of Hunding was effective, if a little stark.  Props seemed rather generic, especially around the dinner table and one had little sense that Hunding was a leader of men, it was just the three principals onstage for the entire act, none of his household in evidence until the fight Act 2, apart from their pursuit of Siegmund in the prelude.  

I was left pondering why the cast spent most of the entire act knee deep in the machine, their legs from mid-calve down were invisible, and only well into the twins’ sexual awakening did Siegmund actually step up onto the stage.  In some ways it felt like the singers were left to fend for themselves dramatically, during the more intimate and personal scenes, but fortunately the ensemble are gifted actors and their rapport was evident.

The machine was effectively used to project the story of Siegmund’s flight in silhouette, providing us with rich textures and shades of winter, but then when Wintersturme arrive we were immediately shocked by the beginning of spring heralded by an almost sickening sunrise of stark green which in my mind didn’t seem to blend well with the rest of the vision of Act 1.  More could have been done with the display of Nothung, the sword embedded in the mighty tree that Hundings house is built around.  Having said that however, the scene of Siegmund’s discovery of the sword was captured beautifully on camera, but because of the angle of the sword, in the theatre I imagine it would be difficult to see.

It was moments like Wintersturme and the finale of Act 1, although exquisitely sung, as well as the appearance of Wotan in Act 3 that I thought went for nothing.  The libretto is telling us, in this particular scene, that there is a vicious storm approaching from the north and we have Valkyries gesticulating wildly in the general direction, but instead we got a bland orange sky with no indication of impending doom save for the occasion flash of unconvincing lightening.  Given the detail in the projection work elsewhere, I was left scratching my head about scenes like these, it almost seemed as if the concept had not been entirely thought through, or they ran out of time and money.

Wotan’s Act 2 monologue brought the appearance of the ‘eye’, another piece of design which I found puzzling, until I realised that it could well have been a clever realisation of the raven’s Hugin and Munin, Wotan’s eyes and ears on earth.  Having the narrative symbolically projected on the eye onstage, in part to educate Brunnhilde as to previous events, but also for the benefit of the audience is in retrospect quite effective.

The Todesverkundigung was well staged and beautifully acted.  It is a powerful scene and worked brilliantly in close-up.  The ensuing horns that heralded the fight were chilling and the fight reasonably well staged, though there seemed to be a lot of awkward extras with nothing to do.  The death of Siegmund was gorgeously staged, his touching of Wotan’s cheek as he lay dying in his arms was a master stroke.

Applause greeted the appearance of the Valkyrie in Act 3 and rightly so.  The Ride was executed in style, with plenty of interaction from the Valkyries, looking like the most believable bunch of Warrior Goddesses one could hope for, though the gathering of the heroes bones was somewhat comical.

There has been quite a lot of comment on the use of a body-double for Brunnhilde in the conclusion of Act 3, mostly because of the fact that Wotan leads Brunnhilde offstage, only to reappear upstage on the rock with said body- double.  To my mind it actually made physical sense this way wasn’t an intrusion on the action or emotion.  The way he kissed her to sleep and then lead her offstage on their spears was beautiful.

Wotan’s farewell was as touching as one could hope for, not to mention spectacular.  Here the machine truly came into its own, showing us an aerial view of the sleeping Brunnhilde, upside down, surrounded by a wall of flame.  The magic of design and modern stage technology at is very best.

Levine once again showed us why he has been at the helm of the Met’s Musical Direction for the past 40 years.  His reading was impassioned and broad.  Knowing his tendency to linger at slow speeds, it was wonderful to see his masterly pace and his ability to maintain the tension that is so vital to keep this music moving in the way Wagner intended.  He has built this orchestra into one of the worlds finest and they lived up to their reputation, in particular the brass section.

This production has the potential to be a classic.  Shortcomings aside, Lepage and Levine have created an incredible vision that will only improve over time.  With a cast as strong as this, it will be hard to top and I look forward to Siegfried, for which we will have to wait until December for the broadcast.