The Met Live in HD: Die Walküre

This wasn’t a cinema; it was a ‘screening lounge’.  The Everyman Cinema, Hampstead (well, Belsize Park anyway) is a rather luxurious affair.  Hugely wide lounge chairs, acres of legroom, and drinks service in intervals.  In some ways perfect for 5 hours of Wagner, except I can’t quite adjust to lying back and having the opera brought up close to me.  Somehow I miss leaning on a balcony ledge peering down at it.  That may be to do with the rather artificial soundstage of the Met transmission, of which more anon.

This was a fantastic performance of the second instalment of the Ring Cycle.  Always the most engaging, immediately emotional of the four parts, it certainly packed its punch.  The cast were superb without exception, and truly exceptional in two particular instances.  Bryn Terfel’s Wotan, familiar from the London staging of a couple of years’ back, acted everyone else off the stage, all the conflicted rage and anguish of the character projected finely.  In strong voice, he brought myriad shades of vocal colour to bear.  Jonas Kaufmann scaled similar heights, his baritonal tenor plumbing rich… ummm… depths of emotion and bringing a real thrill to his cries of “Wälse!”  He even managed to look heroic despite the most god-awful silver chainmail vest.

Starting off a little subdued, by Act 3 Eva-Maria Westbroek was hitting similar strides.  It’s difficult not to compare her (or anyone!) to Waltraud Meier in this role (last seen by me in the HD transmission of the La Scala opening night), and I just wanted that last bit of abandon in the ecstatic passages that comes from Meier’s more expressive acting and brighter tone (O hehrstes Wunder!, being an example).  But Westbroek can command the stage, and brings a wealth of detail to her interpretation, underpinned by an assured and unfailingly attractive voice.  Stephanie Blythe’s Fricka was a goddess not to be trifled with, but conveyed some real heartbreak at how her role as moral compass came at the expense of her role as loving wife.  Hans-Peter König’s Hunding brought out irascible grumpiness where incipient violence should have been: more Hans Sachs on a bad Monday morning than a warrior hero from the wrong side of the tracks, but he did imbue his dark mutterings with the requisite vocal heft.

And which brings us to Deborah Voigt’s Brünnhilde… Vocally, she delivered with a remarkable authority, a rich middle voice carrying much of the thrust of the role, and with a bright top that cut through effectively.  Her characterisation was committed, and she was clearly always alert to her own and others’ text.  Something didn’t quite work for me, though, and I guess it’s a matter of personal taste.  From the start, something about her girlish Valkyrie brought to mind a modern, sassy woman, rather than something more ‘archetypal’, and I can’t manage to put it better than that!  At the end of her opening Hojotoho!, there was a little giggle, sounding somehow more appropriate to Offenbach than Wagner.  There was a hip- and shoulder-swing that, coupled with her bright, round eyes, made me think of Bette Davis playing Brünnhilde…  But she did rise to a fine finale with Terfel, convincing in her flashing anger and creeping desperation, and had preceded it with a remarkable scene with Kaufmann where she makes her fatal decision to change the battle outcome.

The set is called, by the company, the ‘machine’; and a machine it is.  It looks a terrifying moving set of slopes, hydraulically powered great big piano keys, either slowly twisting into stepped landscapes or (for the Ride of the Valkyries), see-sawing violently, with poor old Valkyries, hanging on to the top vainly trying to ride them with reins, looking like they’re on an unsafe fairground ride.  Some of the projections onto the set were fabulous, from the molten lava trickling down the rocky slopes in the Act 2 opening, to the final scene, where the planks raised up to form a huge mountain with white-topped slopes.  Little additions, like a silent avalanche rolling down the hill as Wotan and Brünnhilde’s confrontation reached the heights, were very moving.  Act 1 was a bit more disappointing, the planks going nearly-vertical and having wood-effect projected on to them: the result of this was that Siegmund and Sieglinde kept getting in front of the projection and became wood-coloured… I left the performance unconvinced that all of this technical gubbins, the risks inherent, the frankly absurd money spent on it, the work to underpin the stage, had really delivered anything that a more conventional production technique couldn’t have done.  To get on and off, people were raised up on lifts at the back in a very ordinary sort of way.  Most of the action ended up on a space at the front of the stage – particularly unconvincing in Act 1 – so the ‘machine’ spent a lot of its time as a fancy sort of backdrop.  Well, if that’s what you want to spend your money on, fine.  But I think the projections were far more interesting than what they were projected on to.  Oh, and I couldn’t shake this sense of an accident about to happen: it’s the wrong type of tension, particularly as the performance started half an hour late because of a technical glitch with the onboard computer of one of the planks.  Ooof, you wouldn’t get me on it!

Much has been made recently of Levine’s withdrawal from Met and Boston Symphony performances for a period of recuperation, this telecast excepted.  Looking frail as he carefully mounted the podium into his tall chair, he can still certainly whip up the drama when it hits a stormy period, but he is a very expansive interpreter in some of the intimate moments. And, for me, too expansive.  I do like it that sometimes a performance can almost come to a stop, held in suspense by the intense dramatic and musical tension.  However, on a few too many occasions in this performance, those periods of stillness slightly outstayed their welcome for me and simply became slow.  A particular disappoint was Fricka’s Prayer at the end of her big scene, which stayed very slow and subdued, not reaching the sort of overwhelming power that Pappano drove it to.  All of that said, the score’s details were lively, and even if I would have liked a different interpretation, it displayed Levine’s customary mastery and coherence.  The Met Orchestra played with their usual sheen and gloss.

Whether it was the Everyman’s sound system, or the sound-picture of the transmission, the orchestra seemed a bit two-dimensional compared to some very up-front and ‘present’ vocal projection.  Given that the voices didn’t come and go depending on where they were placed on the stage or the direction they were singing, I can only guess that they had personal mics catching each of their voices: certainly, Sieglinde resting her head against a post changed the resonance, as did two of them singing in close proximity, which suggested something of that order going on.  This meant incredibly bright projection of voice, over a rather more backward orchestra.  It was like being shouted at, I have to say, and I would have liked a little more space and bloom around the voices, a richer and more expansive orchestra, and a more natural balance.  The same goes for the camerawork which was so damned clever, but was restless and unstinting in its roving, angle-changing pursuit of every bit of spittle and sweat.  It became quite tiring to watch by half way through.  And I’ve never wanted those Valkyries off the stage so much in Act 3 – it was inducing a headache, all that über-loud Hojotoho‘ing… Anna Russell’s description of them as Siegfried’s ‘noisy aunts’ has never seemed so apposite.

So, high-points: Wotan’s Farewell; the contributions that the projections made to the stage picture; Kaufmann’s heroic Act 1 and intense Act 2.  Not sure the machine lifts it much above Keith Warner’s Covent Garden effort, though, problematic as that is…

(And I still haven’t decided whether we should applaud at the cinema at the end…!)

7 comments

  1. Hi! I enjoyed your insightful review. Agree with many parts. Interesting what you said about the mics. I noticed that too on several occasions. I didn’t know what to make of it, since I guess they were just miked and not amped… Thanks

    1. Thanks for the comment; glad you liked reading it. I don’t imagine they were mic’d for the theatre (i.e. amplified, although that seems to be a point of debate for some about the Met that simply refuses to go away!), but for the recording/transmission it was definitely how it appeared to our little posse in the cinema.

  2. I think, for someone leaving the opera scene now for some months due to vocal health issues, Eva performed admirably. At the moment she can’t do anything more. It happens. And, on a personal note, I think Meier should be glad to be compared with Eva. If you look at the YouTube performance of Eva with Clifton Forbis and her sensational Sieglinde in the Aix en Provence blu-ray I wonder if there’s much left to be desired. And Meier has this nasal singing, of course.

    1. Interesting – didn’t know that about Eva-Maria Westbroek, and I didn’t hear anything untoward or that sounded unhealthy, but I very much hope she bounces back in due course. It’s just a different sound and style, the one more extrovert, the other more contained, and is about personal preference, how we hear different performances differently (especially with that curious Met broadcast sound). Westbroek was utterly stunning in Tannhauser at the ROH… The performances that Meier did of Sieglinde with Domingo in the Covent Garden Ring and, of course, at the Proms, are particular personal highlights that live on vividly… so hence, using them as a sort of yardstick. But if it comes across in the write-up as if there was an major flaw in Westbroek’s Sieglinde, it wasn’t intended, because there certainly wasn’t…

  3. Thanks for the helpful review. I didn’t see the performance, but am taking my high-school-graduating son to the rebroadcast on June 1. His first opera! I know Wagner is a tall order, but what could be a more exciting initial experience than Die Walkure? Plus I’ve explained to him that Wagner’s epic cycle was the Star Wars and Lord of the Ring of its day, so he’s intrigued to check it out.

    I did listen to the radio broadcast and enjoyed it thoroughly. Terfel was indeed a very intense and committed Wotan. I love Kaufmann’s sound, which apparently was one of the chief beneficiaries of the broadcast miking. Maybe it’s just me, but with Terfel’s light baritone and Kaufmann’s baritonal tenor, I’ve never heard a Walkure where the Wotan and Siegmund had that much of a vocal resemblance.

    Westbroek sounded slightly maternal to me but still effective. Voight was clearly the weak vocal link, but I’m told her committed acting performance helps makes up for it–whether or not her choices meet every interpretive taste.

    Again, it could just be my personal fetish, but I’m kind of into the retro armor-and-chain-mail costuming. It will be interesting to finally see La Machine in action, though I’m prepared to ignore it during its static moments and just immerse myself in Wagner’s thrilling music drama. At any rate, I’m greatly looking forward to the performance, all the more so thanks to your insightful review.

    1. Thanks for comments. Hope the trip to the rebroadcast delivers – it was a good show! I think some of what are usually thought of as the more ‘challenging operas’ can actually make more sense to first-timers – Wagner, Strauss, Janacek, that sort of thing. There’s more of a focus on the drama than you can get at operas that are more ‘traditionally’ constructed like Figaro or Barbiere, which can make it more immediately engaging. There are those long chunks of Wagnerian debate in Acts 2 and 3, though… Enjoy!

      1. You make a good point about the accessibility of operas with more musical and dramatic continuity, as opposed to the stop-and-sing rhythms of earlier “number operas.” I know I first fell in love with opera through Wagner, and only later developed an appreciation for earlier, more classically ordered styles.

        I can’t say what my son will think, but I’m one of those who have never had a problem with Wotan’s lengthy Act II monologue. For me (as apparently for Wagner himself), it’s the crux of the entire Ring cycle: a portrait of the all-powerful god caught in his own wiles–desperately trying to create a hero who will be free of his influence, yet do exactly what he wants–and only now realizing the folly of his plan. But even as he bemoans his inability inspire freedom in others, he can’t foresee that the blindly subservient “daughter of his will” listening to him will soon take that first step toward disobedience, in a way that will carry events far beyond what he could imagine, so that he will ultimately will his own downfall for the sake of the next generation. All in all, an amazing conception that I don’t think Wagner ever managed to dovetail with complete success back into Siegfried and Gotterdammerung (which of course were drafted before Die Walkure).

        At any rate, I’m looking forward to Bryn Terfel giving his all to impress upon the audience the crucial importance of this dramatic moment.

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