Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Wagner: Die Walküre (Metropolitan Opera, March 14, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Over the last two nights Charles and I watched the May 14, 2011 Metropolitan Opera performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre, originally presented live in movie theatres as part of the Met’s “Live in HD” program and now available on PBS as part of a complete Ring cycle in the four-part mini-series format that Wagner intended (well, in San Diego, sort of; PBS’s national schedule provided for telecasting the opening documentary Wagner’s Dream, about the Met’s new Ring production by Quebec-born director/designer Robert Lepage, on Monday and the actual operas Tuesday through Friday — but KPBS insisted on presenting the documentary a week ago Friday night and the operas themselves once weekly in their usual ghetto for cultural programming, Sundays at noon, with the result that I missed the first episode, Das Rheingold, though the clips of it in Wagner’s Dream hinted that it was probably the most interesting opera in Lepage’s production, at least visually). It turned out to be an absolutely thrilling theatrical experience, not so much from Lepage’s production — though for the most part Lepage’s staging worked, serving the music and the libretto without calling attention to itself the way (judging from the stills I saw in the Los Angeles Times) Achille Freyer’s ridiculous-looking Los Angeles Ring did — as from the excellence of the singing, the playing and Lepage’s direction of the singers.

It certainly helped that costume designer François St. Aubin kept the performers clothed in medieval garb — George Bernard Shaw may have made the comment that the Ring’s contemporary message could only be brought home if the singers wore “top hats instead of Tarnhelms” and otherwise dressed in 19th century clothes, but the productions that have actually tried that (starting with Patrice Chéreau’s controversial centennial Ring in Bayreuth in 1976) have only managed to look ridiculous, and in any event the sensational success of the Lord of the Rings movies (based on the cycle of novels by J. R. R. Tolkien that clearly was influenced by Wagner and even used a similar structure — a shorter introductory piece and three large-scale epic sequelae) showed that a modern audience could easily relate to a fantasy in which the actors were costumed with the clothes of a legendary time. Though there were a few points in this production where I thought James Levine, the Met’s long-time musical director (celebrating his 40th anniversary with the company with this production before ill health forced his retirement and Fabio Luisi took over with the remaining installments of this Ring, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, when they were staged later), was a bit too slow and poky (a common failing with him), for the most part he conducted with energy, drive and a peculiar almost chamber-music transparency that challenges the stereotype of Wagner as a composer who wrote big, undifferentiated orchestral parts and essentially pioneered the “wall of sound.” (Phil Spector actually said in his “wall of sound” days that he was trying to reproduce Wagner’s sound in rock ’n’ roll.)

The cast was absolutely stellar and virtually everyone in it I’d heard before outsang themselves. I’d previously heard and seen tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Radamès in a Met telecast of Aïda and had found the voice perfectly professional but not especially impressive; this time, far more attractively costumed (he’s a real hunk and if he ever does Siegfried he’ll be one tenor in the role that won’t look like Ed Asner in a loincloth and blond wig) and singing a part with real emotional depth instead of a typically idiotic Italian tenor role, his appearance and his voice commanded the stage. His Sieglinde was Eva-Maria Westbroek, who had just returned from Covent Garden where she’d created the title role in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera Anna Nicole (an incredible tour de force for her and a marvelous opera based on the life of trailer-trash girl turned heiress and tabloid queen Anna Nicole Smith) and showed up with her voice so worn down that when this production first opened on April 22, 2011 she had to withdraw after the first act (Margaret Jane Wray, ordinarily a mezzo, filled in for her in the rest of the opera — recalling the bad old days under Rudolf Bing where in one particularly notorious 1961 matinee of Tristan und Isolde Birgit Nilsson was the Isolde throughout but three separate tenors sang Tristan, one in each act). By May 14 she was still a bit shaky, singing with a wide vibrato that came dangerously close to wobble-dom, but she was clearly into her role (and it’s ironic that she went from singing Anna Nicole Smith to Sieglinde — as depraved as her life might have been in other respect, at least there’s no evidence Anna Nicole ever committed incest, despite some rather wild tabloid speculations that her grown son was the father of the baby girl she gave birth to a year or two before she died) even though it was odd to hear a version of the Brünnhilde-Sieglinde confrontations in which the Brünnhilde was outsinging the Sieglinde.

The Brünnhilde was Deborah Voigt, making her debut in the role — as the Wagner’s Dream documentary noted, the first time she performed in the production she bobbled her entrance, sliding down Lepage’s steeply raked set and losing her balance, but this time she managed it fine. After all the shaky Brünnhildes we’ve had to suffer since Birgit Nilsson retired, Voigt was a treat: absolutely secure in the role, rock-solid technically and vivid and impassioned emotionally. So was her Wotan, Bryn Terfel, a singer I’ve previously found overrated — probably because I’ve heard him in too many PBS “crossover” specials, including his ghastly performance on Andrea Bocelli’s Central Park concert on September 15, 2011 in which he appeared as one of the guest stars and sang a dreadful version of “Home on the Range” (as I noted when I watched this concert on a PBS pledge-break special, compared to Bing Crosby’s magnificent 1933 recording of the song “not only does Bing outpoint Terfel on emotion and soul, he outsings him technically as well”) — but who really tore into the part of Wotan, king of the Norse gods and father of 11 other on-stage characters in this opera (Siegmund, Sieglinde, Brünnhilde and the other eight Valkyries — when Charles complained that in the first three parts of Wagner’s Ring “there seem to be only 12 people in the entire universe” maybe he had a point!). Unlike most of the Wotans of the past — even the ones generally considered the greatest on record, Friedrich Schorr and Hans Hotter — Terfel played the second act more in anger than in sorrow, using his great Act II monologue to lash out at the others against him rather than lamenting the impossible situation his own prior actions have put him in: using trickery and deceit to steal the ring from Alberich, giving it to the giants who built Valhalla instead of returning it to the Rhinemaidens, then breeding Siegmund as the “independent” hero who would win it back for him — not only siring him but staying on earth long enough to train him in the ways of a warrior — then having to turn against Siegmund not only because he met, fell in love with, had sex with and sired an as-yet unborn son with but, as Wotan’s wife Fricka points out, Siegmund is Wotan’s agent and not “independent” at all. It’s some of the deepest and most impassioned singing I’ve heard from someone who usually seems more in love with the beauty of his own voice than interested in using it to communicate drama.

The Fricka, Stephanie Blythe, also had the right look and sound: implacable, determined, and powerful enough to overcome the silliness of Carl Fillion’s set design for her (Wagner stipulated that she make her entrance in a chariot drawn by rams, and rather than try that literally Fillion gave her a throne whose arm-rests were life-size representations of rams), and she and the Hunding, Hans-Peter König — who was given a costume strikingly similar to the one Ferruccio Furlanetto wore as Silva in the Met’s recent Ernani that highlighted the similarities of the characters (particularly the extent to which they were both ruled by twisted codes of “honor”) — were clearly worthy of their cast-mates and not just people thrown into a cast at the last minute after the opera company had already blown their budget for singers’ salaries hiring big names for the leads. Lepage’s direction, fascinatingly, is better in the more intimate, confrontational moments than in the Big Scenes for which his basic visual concept — staging much of the action and projecting the backgrounds on 24 giant steel slats that move up and down (he said in the Wagner’s Dream documentary he got the idea from visiting Iceland, which because it’s on the intersection of two of the earth’s tectonic plates is unusually active volcanically and seismically — when Charles saw the image of a new volcano bursting forth from the Icelandic soil all of a sudden the concept of a “ring of fire” with which Walküre ends didn’t seem so alien to him) — verged on silliness and sometimes (as with the Valkyries “riding” the slats as if they were the flying horses specified in Wagner’s libretto and sliding down them when the text called for them to dismount) went over. As backgrounds with filmed projections on them, the slats were surprisingly effective, and the final scene is a coup de thêatre in which the magic fire that’s supposed to surround Brünnhilde on her rock and that only a hero without fear (who of course, in episode three, turns out to be her nephew Siegfried, still an embryo at the end of Walküre) can pass through and claim her as his bride is represented by a deep orange glow projected on the slats surrounding an effigy of Brünnhilde hung in a way that makes it look like she’s being crucified upside-down.

While it rather explodes the conceit Lepage expressed during the Wagner’s Dream documentary that he was producing the Ring as Wagner would have done it if modern-day technological resources were available to him (actually the late 19th-century stage was far less primitive than it’s often portrayed and swimming Rhinemaidens and flying horses were not beyond the capabilities of a state-of-the-art theatre of the day — the obstacle wasn’t technological but financial, which is why a stage version of Ben-Hur was one of the biggest draws of the 1890’s but it could only be performed in major cities with theatres sufficiently well equipped to have the treadmill equipment on which the chariot race was staged), Wagner’s ideas of stagecraft were conservative enough that he would probably have wanted either real fire (I’m sure he would have loved the effect at the end of the 1943 movie Reveille with Beverly in which Ann Miller sets miniature flames off on stage in a “V” for victory shape as she tap-dances in the final number) or at the very least a simulacrum of flickering flames for the final scene. I’m also sure he wouldn’t have wanted Wotan and Brünnhilde to have as much physical contact as they do in Lepage’s production — at one point he gives her a hug that momentarily suggests the Siegmund and Sieglinde relationship isn’t going to be the only incestuous one in this opera, and in the final scene he’s hugging her when I had always envisioned he would have already lain her down in her magic sleep and would merely chastely touch her forehead and kiss her cheeks to take away her godhood and the immortality it conferred. There’s also one other aspect of this production that bothers me, though it’s been shared by all too many recent Wagner productions: lighting designer Étienne Boucher keeps the stage too damned dark and resolutely ignores the instructions in Wagner’s text as to when it’s supposed to get lighter and when it’s supposed to get darker. (Unfortunately, this is a trend that really started with Wagner’s grandson Wieland in his Bayreuth productions in the 1950’s and stage directors and lighting designers, apparently following the authority of Wagner’s grandson rather than Wagner himself, have continued to stage the Ring and Wagner’s other operas in this preposterously murky gloom.)

As for the work itself, Walküre remains eternally fascinating, and actively watching it (with English subtitles to give you a minute-by-minute account of what is going on and what is being sung — though I would fault the Met’s subtitlers for not translating names like Siegmund’s alias “Wehwalt” — “woeful” — and the name of his sword, “Nothung” — “needful”) instead of just listening to it can really change your perspective on the work. (For one thing, Jonas Kaufmann’s performance came off a lot more strongly when I could see him than he did when I only heard the radio broadcast.) John Culshaw wrote in his book Ring Resounding that “the first act of Walküre is one great lyrical outpouring, as if Wagner, having rightly held back the flood of passion during Rheingold, could not restrain it any longer” — indeed, it’s the most passionate love music Wagner had written to that time (the duets in Dutchman, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin sound awfully stiff by comparison) and quite possibly the most passionate love music anyone had written to that time. (For all his skill at writing father-daughter and male-to-male duets, Verdi’s romantic duets are the weakest portions of many of his operas, even as late as Otello.) Culshaw also wrote in another book, Putting the Record Straight (he was writing about Tristan but it applies as much to Walküre), that Wagner may have blurred the distinction between recitative and aria more than any other opera composer before him but he didn’t wipe it out completely: “When narrative has to be expounded Wagner immediately thins his orchestration and writes a vocal line that will have no difficulty in getting through; but where the literal meaning of the words is of less importance than the overall musical effect, he is quite willing to let the voices sink into the texture, and to magnify them would be false.”

In some ways it’s surprising that Walküre became the most popular of the Ring operas, the one most frequently performed as a stand-alone piece — one would have thought either Siegfried (despite the absence of women’s voices through much of it) or Götterdämmerung (originally planned as a self-contained work until Wagner decided he needed to set the backstory, and he eventually ended up spinning out the backstory into three other operas, writing their texts in reverse-chronological order) would make more sense on its own — but the passion of the first act, the cut-and-thrust of the duels between the gods and demigods in act two, the big-hit status of the “Ride of the Valkyries” (ironically better known in the cut-and-paste instrumental version Wagner concocted to play at the fundraising concerts he conducted in the early 1870’s to get the money to open Bayreuth and give the Ring its premiere) and the utter heartbreak of the final scene (in which Wagner, Verdi’s master at duets between lovers, proved his equal in a father-daughter duet as well), made Walküre the best-known episode of the Ring and the only Wagner opera available (more or less) complete on 78’s, though in order to compile a complete Walküre on 78’s one would have had to buy three expensive albums (back when an “album” meant just that — a batch of records sold together in a packaged that looked like a photo album) from two labels recorded over a ten-year period (1935, 1938 and 1945) with three separate orchestras, conductors and casts. Certainly the Met’s new Walküre does justice to the work — and it makes me look forward to the upcoming PBS telecasts of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.