Sunday, March 31, 2019

Die Walküre at the MET

Spring is the traditional time to present the works of Richard Wagner at the Metropolitan Opera. For many years, for instance, the option of Good Friday was to go to St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue to hear its incredible choir, or go uptown to the Met and enjoy the five hours plus of Wagner's Parsifal. This practice is not being honored with such rigidity any more these days, but the opera company is currently presenting its three Ring Cycles this Spring, and I ventured out yesterday morning for a noontime start to a matinee performance of Die Walküre, the second installment of the composer's famed tetralogy. This performance was also telecast to the entire world. It also meant the return of the widely debated and much maligned Robert Lepage production, which consists of a giant machine made up of planks, which move in all sorts of ways as beautiful projections are shined upon it. Its a staging that replaced the beloved 1986 Otto Schenk staging. When the Lepage staging premiered in the 2010-2011 season, it had a tendency to malfunction. I remember quite well opening night when the Rainbow Bridge in the last scene of Das Rheingold failed to work, and the gods had to walk offstage, finding a detour route to Valhalla.

The staging of Die Walküre back in its premiere season was also problematic. Bryn Terfel as Wotan seemed uneasy walking along the steep planks, and Deborah Voigt took a tumble on her "Hojotoho" entrance. Tenor Jonas Kaufmann fared better than his colleagues. In his entire performance as Siegmund he never had to step on the darn thing. The machine was a mess, but when it did work it showed scenes of great beauty and wonderful imagination. The descent to Nibelheim in Rheingold is one of the greatest effects I have seen on any stage.  It outdoes artist M.C. Escher in its preposterous and impossible construction.

The engineers and computer programmers at Ex Machina, Lepage's company responsible for the construction of this gigantic gizmo definitely heard the complaints of opera fans. Yesterday afternoon the production went off without a hitch. The machine is now much quieter than it was back when it made its first appearance. As it moved, I only heard mechanical sounds twice, and they were very subtle. The only alien sound one heard in Act II was that of Wotan's spear rolling down one of the planks, and landing with a thud.

When this production opened it featured the best Wagnerians 2011 could offer. Now in 2019, one can say that the MET has resorted to the road show cast. However, yesterday's performance was as solid and as good as anything that being offered in other major opera houses, including the Bayreuth Festival. Christine Goerke sang a beautiful Brünhilde, a major addition to her repertory. Eva-Marie Westbroek was a fine, powerful Sieglinde, Stuart Skelton proved that he can sing a better Siegmund than his awful Otello earlier on in the season, and Günther Groissböck was marvelous in the short role of Hunding. As Wotan, Greer Grimsley's voice is cavernous and comes from the back of his throat, and tends to stay there. As a result his legato phrasing and diction suffers. However, his last act farewell to his daughter brought a tear to my eye. The two artists sang it and acted it beautifully. Conductor Philippe Jordan led a clean, detailed reading of the score, never overwhelming his singers.

This is a very good performance of this opera, and if you like this work, you'd be crazy to miss it. It is not perfect, but it is excellent.

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