Die Walküre

James Levine
New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
22 April 2011
Metropolitan Opera House New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegmundJonas Kaufmann
HundingHans-Peter König
WotanBryn Terfel
SieglindeEva-Maria Westbroek [act 1]
Margaret Jane Wray [act 2/3]
BrünnhildeDeborah Voigt
FrickaStephanie Blythe
HelmwigeMolly Fillmore
GerhildeKelly Cae Hogan
OrtlindeWendy Bryn Harmer
WaltrauteMarjorie Elinor Dix
SiegruneEve Gigliotti
GrimgerdeMary Ann McCormick
SchwertleiteMary Phillips
RoßweißeLindsay Ammann
The New York Times

Brünnhilde’s Trials Beyond Wagner’s Dreams

Two scenes in the Metropolitan Opera’s highly anticipated new production of Wagner’s “Walküre,” which opened on Friday night, showcased what is both captivating and exasperating about Robert Lepage’s production, the second installment in his staging of the complete “Ring” cycle.

During the opening storm scene, the 24 movable planks of the imposing set by Carl Fillion that dominates the production (which the cast and crew call the machine) rose upright (with, as always, some audible creaking) to become a wall for video images of gusting, snow-flecked winds. Then the images and beams morphed into a forest of ominous gray trees through which you could see young Siegmund (the tenor Jonas Kaufmann), exhausted and injured, fleeing an avenging band of sword-wielding clansman as they searched for him with lanterns. It was an arresting realization of action depicted in the opera only in fitful orchestral music.

But a problematic staging touch came at the opening of Act II. Here the planks jutted out to evoke the “wild rocky place” that Wagner calls for. Wotan, the bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, came bounding onto the beams, now horizontal, which were alive with images of rocky terrain. Then his rambunctious daughter Brünnhilde, the soprano Deborah Voigt, appeared. As Ms. Voigt started to climb the planks that evoke the hillside, she lost her footing and slid to the floor.

Fortunately Mr. Lepage and the cast had correctly decided to play this scene for its humor. Brünnhilde, a warrior maiden who wants nothing to do with marital ties, has come to tease her father and alert him that his bossy wife, Fricka, is fast approaching. So Ms. Voigt rescued the moment by laughing at herself. She stayed put on the row of flat, fixed beams at the front of the stage and tossed off Brünnhilde’s “Hojotoho” cries.

The problem here was not just that in this crucial dramatic moment, with Ms. Voigt about to sing the first line of her first Brünnhilde, Mr. Lepage saddled her with a precarious stage maneuver. The problem was that for the rest of the scene, whenever Wotan or Brünnhilde walked atop the set, the beams wobbled and creaked. At times Mr. Terfel, a big, strong man, had to extend his arms to balance himself. No imagery is worth having to endure the sounds of creaking gears and looks of nervousness on the faces of singers.

What moved me about this “Walküre” and made the five-hour-plus evening seem to whisk by was the exciting, wondrously natural playing that James Levine drew from the great Met orchestra and the involving singing of the impressive cast. Mr. Levine has had a rough time recuperating from back surgery. His conducting on Friday, if not as commanding as his work in Berg’s “Wozzeck” this month, was inspired and beautiful. Certain passages were perhaps not as together as in Levine “Walküre” performances past. But this one had fresh urgency and sweep. Taking bows onstage at the end, with the supporting arms of Mr. Terfel and Ms. Voigt, he looked frail. Still, he did superb work and was greeted with a huge ovation.

Among the cast Ms. Voigt had the most at stake. A decade ago, when she owned the role of Sieglinde at the Met, she seemed destined to be a major Brünnhilde. Her voice has lost some warmth and richness in recent years. But the bright colorings and even the sometimes hard-edged sound of her voice today suits Brünnhilde’s music. I have seldom heard the role sung with such rhythmic accuracy and verbal clarity. From the start, with those go-for-broke cries of “Hojotoho,” she sang every note honestly. She invested energy, feeling and character in every phrase.

There were certainly some vocally patchy passages. Now that she is past this first performance, she may better realize her conception of the character, who evolves from a feisty tomboy to a baffled goddess deeply moved by Siegmund’s love for Sieglinde. All in all, this was a compelling and creditable Brünnhilde.

More than in the production of “Das Rheingold” that opened the season, Mr. Terfel’s stated intentions with Wotan came through here. He may not have the noble, sonorous voice of Wotans in the Hans Hotter lineage. But his muscular singing crackled with intensity, incisive diction and gravelly power. During Wotan’s long narrative in Act II, in which he explains the whole sorry story of his life to Brünnhilde, many singers emphasize the despair of this broken god. Mr. Terfel ranted and raged as he relived the events.

The audience fell in love with the new Met Siegmund, Mr. Kaufmann, who proved his Wagnerian prowess last summer as Lohengrin at Bayreuth. Handsome and brooding, he captured all the valor and torment of this uprooted demigod. His dark, textured and virile voice has ideal Germanic colorings for the music. He is a true tenor, and the role may sit a little low for him. He could not wait, it seemed, to sing the big high A in Siegmund’s last phrase of Act I, which he held onto thrillingly. He had a great night.

Not so, unfortunately, the Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, in her Met debut, as Sieglinde. Fresh from her triumph in the title role of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new opera “Anna Nicole” at Covent Garden, Ms. Westbroek was eager to introduce herself to Met audiences in a Wagner role for which her big, gleaming voice is well suited. In Act I she looked lovely and sounded good if a little steely. Before Act II Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, announced from the stage that even though Ms. Westbroek was ill, she would sing anyway. But once the act got going, she decided not to appear, and Margaret Jane Wray, an experienced and dusky-voiced Wagnerian, sang that act and the next.

As Fricka, the mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe was in typically astonishing voice. This aggrieved goddess has just one crucial scene in the opera, a marital confrontation with Wotan in which she demands that Siegmund, having violated the covenants of marriage and engaged in incestuous love, must be allowed to die in his battle with Hunding (the stentorian bass Hans-Peter König). Mr. Lepage has Fricka play almost the entire scene sitting on an exotic throne that is rolled out a little shakily. But Ms. Blythe is such a compelling presence and formidable singer that she did not seem confined. Stephanie Blythe rules.

The stage effects in this production are sometimes amazing, sometimes clunky and intrusive. (And what was the persistent white-noise whirring that seemed to be coming from the ventilation fans in the boxes that house the video projection equipment?)

The long Act I encounter in which Siegmund arrives as a stranger at Hunding’s dwelling was played behind the extended apron of the set, back in a sunken portion of the stage. Why place this most intimate action so far back, where the voices were sometimes swallowed up? For most of the act the legs of the three singers were cut off from view — from the knees down. Left alone at night, Mr. Kaufmann’s Siegmund briefly leaped atop the extended apron, and here, suddenly, was the character in full, and much closer to us; Mr. Kaufmann looked liberated and sounded terrific.

During the “Ride of the Valkyries” Mr. Lepage had fun. The eight sisters straddled individual beams as if riding horses, holding reins and staying in place as the planks rose and fell to evoke the galloping steeds.

Still I do not understand Mr. Lepage’s devotion to using body doubles. In the final scene, some of the most sublime music ever written, Wotan places Brünnhilde in a sleeping state and leaves her atop a mountain surrounded with fire. But here Mr. Terfel led Ms. Voigt, in a trance, off the stage. The machine went into action, and soon we saw a body double as Brünnhilde hanging upside down on raked planks with images of rocky cliffs and spewing fire. We had, in effect, an aerial view of the mountain top.

But having bonded with Ms. Voigt’s Brünnhilde, I wanted to see the living, singing goddess meet her fate, with a much simpler staging. Mr. Lepage cannot help showing off his 45-ton toy, even when it means sending his Brünnhilde to the wings at what should be her most transcendent moment.


Huffington Post

Fright Night at the Opera: Met’s “Die Walküre” Enthralls, Despite Mishaps

In some ways, the Metropolitan Opera’s first performance Friday night of the new Robert Lepage production of Richard Wagner’s “Die Walküre,” valiantly conducted by a pain-constrained James Levine, was exciting for the wrong reasons. Topping the list was a gasp-provoking slide off the steeply raked set suffered by the evening’s Brünnhilde, the riveting Deborah Voigt. For a moment, “Die Walküre” threatened to become “Spider-Man the Opera.” There was also an unexpected (and, at first, unannounced) substitution, mid-opera, for an indisposed Eva-Maria Westbroek, making her ill-fated Met debut as Sieglinde.

But the main cause for concern, throughout the evening, was the painfully obvious pain of the conductor. Let me first acknowledge that the orchestra played magnificently, as it has never failed to do under Levine’s baton in all the many years that I’ve been attending. But at numerous times on Friday, it appeared that this lustrous performance may have owed more to careful preparation in rehearsals to what was emanating from the podium that night. (More on this later.)

Most of the singers ably met the challenges of Wagnerian strength and stamina. Vocally, soprano Voigt didn’t quite live up to the great Birgit Nilsson, whose lung power had knocked me out of my chair when I heard her many years ago at the Met in the same role. But our reigning contemporary Brünnhilde came close enough to the historic standard. Dramatically, there was no comparison: Whereas Birgit was a stand-and-deliver singer, executing every role with dignified, steely grandeur, you could never take your eyes off Deborah, even when she was silently listening, because of the emotional intensity of her portrayal.

I found Voigt’s interpretation of Brünnhilde, as a playful, willful and ultimately disobedient and disowned daughter, to be so moving and convincing that tears streamed down my face when Wotan regretfully took his leave of her in the last act, saying that she would never see him again.

Before conquering the vocal demands, Voigt was almost vanquished by the set at the moment of her first entrance. But she somehow managed to stay completely in character and with the music, after completely losing her footing while attempting to ascend the set’s monstrous, segmented contraption that kept morphing into different shapes and colors throughout the evening.

Instead of greeting Daddy Wotan with a big hug, the impetuous Brünnhilde slid haplessly down the “mountain,” landing stage front, flat on her derrière (good bone-density test!). She energetically sprung to her feet, wearing Brünnhilde’s plucky grin, and didn’t miss a beat as she unleashed the opera’s signature “Hojotoho!” from the spot where she landed (waiting for stranded bass-baritone Bryn Terfel to join her on terra firma).

As it happened, the Met had already posted on YouTube a video of this very scene (recorded during rehearsals), so I now know what I was supposed to have seen — Voigt at the top of the mountain, Terfel (in fine voice throughout the evening) admiring her from below. Look closely in the rather dark lower right corner, and you’ll see the leader of the Valkyries ascending to embrace the Norse god. (On Friday night, she never got that far.)

For the rest of Act II, my attention to the opera was distracted by my concern for the physical welfare of the singers (particularly Voigt). Later on, Brünnhilde screwed up her courage and approached the treacherous contraption again, treading very carefully. Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, hefty of girth and radiant of voice, was having none of it: She was trundled on and off the set in the relatively small but pivotal role of Fricka, Wotan’s wife, securely ensconced in a rather ungainly mechanized throne, with armrests fashioned from enormous rams’ heads.

Aside from its perils, I had mixed feelings about the set: Sometimes it seemed ingeniously (and wittily) versatile, as in the famous “Ride of the Valkyries”:

Other times, Lepage’s 90,000-pound gorilla (designed by Carl Fillion, also responsible, with Lepage, for the “Damnation of Faust’s” damnable set) seemed ponderous and obtrusive, upstaging the music. It consists of 24 planks, constructed between two towers, running on a hydraulic system. It was also used in Lepage’s new production of “Das Rheingold” and will be in operation throughout his re-imaginings of final two operas in the “Ring” cycle.

The only other major glitch in Friday’s performance was the mid-opera substitution for the role of Sieglinde. The first act’s vocal performances were disappointingly under-powered: Neither the indisposed Westbroek, nor the evening’s hunky young Siegmund, Jonas Kaufmann (perhaps reined in by his partner’s difficulty), soared in the sublimely rapturous moments of their love music. Siegmund’s emphatic solo cries of “Nothung!” (the name of his enchanted sword), normally a high point of the tenor’s role, were oddly subdued.

Before the second act, Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, took the stage to announce that Westbroek was ill but would nevertheless continue singing. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, that the soprano’s voice (and also Kaufmann’s) had unaccountably risen to Wagnerian proportions in the second act. Then, before the third act, another onstage announcer informed us that an understudy, Margaret Jane Wray (who has previously sung the role at the Met), had, in fact, taken over as Sieglinde in the second act.

Each time an announcer took the stage, I braced myself for what I thought might be a substitution of conductor. I assume that most reviewers, sitting in prime orchestra seats, didn’t have the clear view of James Levine in the pit that I did, perched in my usual non-press Dress Circle Box seats.

Because of continuing back problems and other health issues, Levine had recently given up his music directorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and had withdrawn from a number of Met performances. From my vantage point in the theater, Levine, throughout the five-hour evening, looked to be in considerable discomfort, constantly adjusting his seated position and sometimes limiting his exertions. He began and ended the performance energetically enough, but his movements were seriously constrained for much of the evening: He wasn’t cueing and exhorting the players with his usual verve.

Most alarmingly, Levine’s left arm appeared to be only semi-functional. He would repeatedly use it and lose it: After a broad raised-arm gesture, he would recover by resting his left hand in his lap. For much of the night, he awkwardly extended the left arm behind him, to lean on (or, more likely, push against) the railing separating him from the audience. As an intermittent back-pain sufferer, I have a pretty good idea of what was happening: Jimmy was trying to take the strain off his bad back by bracing himself against the rail.

You can’t conduct in discomfort for such a long stretch and not suffer any consequences. Levine’s energy is causing him injury. For the curtain calls, the conductor did manage to to arrive at the end of the stage with the aid of a cane on one side and a helper on the other. To haltingly reach center stage, he needed to be propped up on both sides, with the sturdy Voigt and Terfel doing the honors.

Levine has repeatedly asserted that his “body’s still getting stronger,” as he told Daniel Wakin for a New York Times profile on Sunday of Fabio Luisi, the Met’s principal guest conductor. Wakin calls Luisi “clearly the heir apparent” to Levine. On the other hand, veteran music critic Norman Lebrecht writes in the Wall Street Journal that “Luisi, who is taking over Levine’s present cancellations, looks like a stop-gap, not an heir.”

I don”t like talk of Levine’s retiring; the results he achieves are still too brilliant for us to lose him. But I don’t think he can continue indefinitely without a fuller recovery.

Speaking of which, after the new production’s premiere, Levine still had six more performances of “Die Walküre” to get through. I hope he makes it. After that, rather than subjecting himself to the wear and tear of the company’s planned summer trip to Japan, I hope the Met’s much beloved maestro considers giving his body a fighting chance to heal.

Lee Rosenbaum | 04/24/2011

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 544 MByte (MP3)
A production by Robert Lepage (premiere)
Before act 2 general manager Peter Gelb announced that Eva-Maria Westbroek is ill but would continue to sing. But instead of Westbroek Margaret Jane Wray appeared and sung the role of Sieglinde.