Oy-yo-to-ho: Die Walkure at the Met

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(c) Susan Brodie

Du bist der Lenz?

Every perplexing updated opera production offers an "ah-ha" moment which gives a clue to the director's original inspiration. For the Met's new Die Walküre (seen on April 28 and May 2) it's at the beginning of the third act, when the eight eponymous warrior maidens ride the undulating girders of Robert Lepage's infamous Machine, bucking like a chorus line of mechanical bulls. For the rest of the evening, the $45 million contraption leads a rambunctious and noisy life of its own, creating oversized settings that overwhelm the intimate scenes played out onstage at the expense of character direction and anything else that would support the narrative.

The much-ballyhooed hgh tech contraption bucks, rotates, rises, and hovers over or looms behind the singers, dwarfing them and distracting the audience from the dramatic moment, which most often consists of human confrontation rather than external action. It made me think of a Broadway musical called Big River that played for several months back in the 80s, thanks primarily to a novel set element, an articulated treadmill with wooden slats, like a moving boardwalk, representing the Mississippi. As the music swelled the river started to roll and clatter, with Huck Finn and company singing and dancing or navigating a barge atop its boards. This was a few years before Miss Saigon's extravagant onstage helicopter landing and well before the current Spiderman, which has been selling out previews to audiences hoping to witness the latest tech disaster. Unfortunately, given the mishaps at most performances so far, this Ring Cycle may be remembered for similar reasons.

 

A French blogger who attended the premiere amused himself with the observation that company management certainly knew its audience when it commissioned the machine, since American audiences are so conditioned to spectacles like Star Wars. While arguably offbase in a number of ways, the comment does raise the disquieting question of what this says about Peter Gelb's vision of his desired audience. Few of the acquaintances I polled had much good to say about the machine; the announcement of Lepage's involvement in the Ring raised apprehension in the wake of his gimmicky Damnation of Faust (more effective than this, I thought). Why dumb down one of the most complex masterpieces of the repertoire?

 

Oh, the music making? In spite of it all, it's really quite fine. Jonas Kaufmann's voice is a bit undersized for Siegmund but he sounds wonderful and delivers a detailed and believable portrayal of the rash and passionate Walsung. He shared great chemistry with Eva-Maria Westbroeck, a good if not yet definitive Sieglinde. Hans-Peter König's resonant Hunding gained menace between April 28 and May 2, and Bryn Terfel's already persuasive Wotan is becoming vocally stronger and dramatically deeper. Despite rumblings of Deborah Voigt's unsuitability as Brünnhilde, she overcame some opening night shakiness (as heard via internet) and sounded very strong by May 2, though she still needs some direction. Stephanie Blythe as Fricka sang with enough power to raise the notion that as the gods' dominance wanes, one woman (Fricka) seizes control and eventually hands it over to another (Brünnhilde). The Walküre sisterhood sang robustly without shrieking and handled their physical challenges with admirable aplomb. Saving the best for last, James Levine has found the strength to lead the excellent Met orchestra in a fresh and revelatory reading of the score, though the May 2 performance flagged a bit in energy.

 

The main frustration is that the machine seems to have gotten all the budget and directorial attention. François St-Aubin's costumes look cheap and unimaginative–why not hire, say, a Belgian designer to do something both modern and historically evocative, instead of the dumpy, vaguely medieval garb executed in faux chain mail and polyester draping? The lighting alternates between excessive–why the shadow puppets during Siegmund's monologue?–or squintably dark. To be fair, some of the projections, like the opening storm that morphs into a forest and the final tableau of the mountain aflame, are striking. But the most nagging deficit is direction. Characters too often flail around like singers thrown into a third-generation revival with nearly no rehearsal and little idea of how to fill the space. We get singers fearful of falling (if they don't actually fall, like Brünnhilde did opening night, and Siegrune in the third performance). We get park-and-bark. Why is this acceptable in 2001? How can the most expensive Walkure ever produced possibly be so…dull?

 

For this they mortgaged the Chagalls