Die Walküre

Richard Wagner - Die Walkuere
Bryn Terfel, Deborah Voigt, Jonas Kaufmann, Eva Marie Westbroek, Stephanie Blythe, Hans-Peter Konig, James Levine cond.
Metropolitan Opera
May 14, 2011

As you might have remembered, I had a ticket for last Thursday's Walkuere, and couldn't make it. So this morning I got up at 10:00 and called for a standing room ticket. I got it, and I don't think I've ever been so excited to go to Lincoln Center. After all, final chance to see Die Walkuere this season.

When I got to the theatre, there was a stupefying number of people still standing outside, and it was curtain time. I asked around, and the guy in the Met gift shop said, "The performance is delayed." "How long?" "I don't know." "Why?" "The Machine is broken," he said flatly.

The Machine eventually got fixed, and the performance went on after a 45 minute delay, but somehow this terse little exchange exemplified all that was right, and all that was wrong, about Robert LePage's Ring production. The Machine is capable of some grand effects, and the production overall is an improvement over the Disneyfied Otto Schenk production. It's also an improvement over LePage's Das Rheingold. But The Machine also is noisy, creaky, at times clunky, and the "magic" of some of the effects aren't as magical when you can see stagehands frantically running under the Machine during the whole performance. LePage is way too fond of the "lineup of army tanks" plank configuration. It was overused in Rheingold and continued in Walkure. LePage mixes the beautiful and grand with a kind of over-literalism that would have embarrassed Cosima Wagner.

Valkyries with their little body bags

I notice that LePage's best ideas were always at the beginning of an act, depressingly like the way his Rheingold never really topped the simple beauty of the three Rheinmaidens perched over the blue water. The performance got off to a promising start. The upper movable planks turned themselves into a nice, eery forest, with the help of projections. There was a pretty snowstorm. Later, the planks formed the roof of Hunding's hut. Then ... the major miscalculation happened. For some reason. LePage decided to have most of Act One take place behind the first, apron-lining immovable planks (what I call the boardwalk). Not only did it recess most of the singers from the most attractive sound spots in the stage, it made many of their movements and interactions cut off at the knee. During Siegmund's monologue there was a shadowplay of his life projected onto the planks. But with Met Titles, such literalism isn't necessary. When Jonas Kaufmann finally climbed onto the planks to sing "Walse! Walse!" I realized how much placing the singers behind the boardwalk garbled the acoustical sound of the singers. Thankfully, the final love scene was played mostly on the apron. But why did it only happen in the last 15 minutes of the act?

Act Two was again started off promisingly. The Machine twisted itself into a nice representation of a mountain top, and Fricka was drawn onstage in a huge ram-driven chariot, just as Wagner's original stagings dictate. Her thrillingly tense scene with Wotan was symbolized by the way Wotan literally ended up cowering before the chariot.

But then ... for the central Brunnhilde/Wotan scene, for some reason there was a huge eyeball that popped up between the boardwalks. The eyeball looked like a birthday balloon. The eyeball had different projections on it, but the whole entire time I never knew what purpose it served, other than to look slightly creepy. Was it supposed to represent Wotan's missing eye? Wotan had his crucial monologue while I was distracted looking at the changes in the eyeball. When the eye finally disappeared, LePage thankfully let the drama for the rest of the act play out without much noise from the Machine. I thought Wotan striking Hunding was played just right -- Hunding fell dead after one gesture across the stage from Wotan.
The big eyeball

Act Three again started well. The different planks were "ridden" by the Valkyries as they mimicked harnessing horses. One by one, each slid off the plank. It was a nice clever touch that drew applause. But again, Lepage couldn't sustain the good ideas. The Valkyries descended and Lepage had them picking up toy bones and packing them up in "bodybags." It was a mindbogglingly over-literal translation of the libretto. Yes the Valkyries bring the corpses of warriors to Valhalla, but do we need to see them tying up little toy bodybags? The planks again twisted into a mountaintop, and Wotan and Brunnhilde were left to stand and sing for their duet. But the final scene between Wotan and Brunnhilde, one of the most tender and moving scenes in all of opera, ends lamely with Wotan leading Brunnhilde offstage. Some moments later, they reappear at the top of the mountain, and a body double of Brunnhilde is hung upside down as the planks move into the "fire" tableau. The planks creaked noisily into the final tableau (over the Magic Fire Music), and I saw stagehands running beneath the Machine. The fact that Brunnhilde was obviously a body double gave a level of artificiality to the performance that stuck in my mind, and detracted from the fact that I thought the fire tableau was very striking indeed. But surely it was a bad idea to break the flow of the emotional scene by Wotan taking Brunnhilde offstage in the first place? It softens the relentless blow of Wotan abandoning his beloved daughter.

The Ride of the Valkyries

The costumes by Francois St. Aubin were generally less cartoonish than they had been in Das Rheingold, but again, I think there's been too much of an attempt to recreate the original Bayreuth costumes, to mixed results. The ratty wigs (although Brunnhilde gets a nice red wavy wig), Viking helmets, shiny breastplates, long skirts were never attractive, and surely for a Ring that's supposed to be innovative, there could have been more thinking outside the box?

Original production Brunnhilde
Thankfully, the music-making was generally on a very high level today. The ailing James Levine seemed to summon all his strength for one last hurrah, and I always marvel at the way he's able to draw out such beautiful sounds from the Met orchestra. His reading was sensitive and tense at the same time, and ended with the haunting sounds of the Magic Fire Scene. The Met orchestra really deserve a huge hand of applause for turning in such beautiful performances, night-in, night-out, every time I've seen them this season.

The Walsung twins were phenomenal. No other word for Jonas Kaufmann and Eva-Marie Westbroek. Some might carp that their voices are too lyrical for these roles, that Kaufmann's baritonal timbre doesn't mean he's a real heldentenor, that Westbroek sometimes sounded underpowered. But who cares, when they can make the music sound so beautiful? These twins are well-matched both physically and vocally. For once, Hunding's observation, "You look alike" is accurate. Both Kaufmann and Westbroek have medium-sized voices that are unusually dark and round in timbre. Their voices are not really large, but their color blends perfectly with the cello-heavy orchestration Wagner uses for the twins. In fact, "cello-like" is a good way to describe how both Westbroek and Kaufmann sound. But their voices can also surprise with the way they ring, trumpet-like, when asked to take the vocal line higher and to soar over the orchestra. For the first time, I heard how Wagner "twinned" the music of Siegmund and Sieglinde. He has them sing in a very similar style, and their vocal lines often mirror each other. It's a beautiful musical observation of the way twins will sound remarkably alike in their vocal cadence. I've never heard it before Kaufmann and Westbroek made me hear it. Kaufmann's "Walse" cries might not have shaken the rafters, but when was the last time the "Winterstume" was sung so ravishingly? When was the last time Siegmund really seemed like a frightened, ardent young man? Westbroek's soprano is really one of the most beautiful I've heard in a long time -- really rich and warm. "Du bist der Lenz" was a vocal highlight. The twins made a believable romantic couple, and overall were so overpowering that when Kaufmann was struck dead by Wotan's spear, a little of the energy of the performance died as well. And when Westbroek sang Sieglinde's farewell, a lot of the energy of the performance went with her.  

Stephanie Blythe's Fricka was also wonderfully imperious vocally. She uses the icy edge to her voice very effectively, to underline Fricka's nonstop moralizing. But I had a problem with her "acting." She (or LePage) decided to make this Fricka somewhat of a emotional mess, at times breaking down in sobs and at other times reaching for Wotan's hand. On another singer, it might have worked, but Blythe's stage presence is so magisterial, her voice so cold in sound, that I wanted this Fricka to be relentless in her insistence on what she feels is her due, and I wanted Fricka and Wotan's conversation to be a real "checkmate" moment. I would have preferred had Blythe gone with a more one-dimensional approach, strangely. The Hunding was also very strong. Hans-Peter Konig had the menace and black bass sound of Hunding, and his burly, rough frame made a nice dramatic foil for the matinee-idol handsome Kaufmann. One effective touch of the production is to have Hunding throw a plate and cup at Sieglinde during the tense conversation with Siegmund. Hunding is a brutal man, and all of a sudden Sieglinde's situation is hair-raisingly real.

I thought Bryn Terfel deserves an A for effort with Wotan, but only a B+ for actual execution. In Das Rheingold I thought he sounded too lyrical for Wotan. But this afternoon, he thundered as mightily as he could in Walkuere. He has the right idea of Wotan as well as a character -- this was a proud, conflicted god, and Terfel also showed the essential weakness and pettiness of this character. His contemptuous gesture as he struck Hunding dead was just right, as was the way he often ended up crouching on the stage, a huge bear reduced to nothingness when confronted with his own hypocrisy. But this cold view of Wotan was lacking in the tenderness that made me not really empathize with him in any way. It was as if Terfel's worked out an interpretation of Wotan that's so tilted towards one side of the character (the arrogance and pride), that there was no room left for us to feel Wotan's pain.  Unfortunately, I thought that in the most crucial moment of the opera, Wotan's farewell to Brunnhilde ("Leb wohl") was sorely lacking in real emotion. Terfel was more convincing when he cradled a dead Siegmund. The way he did it, had a real "I have failed you as a father" tinge of regret. But Terfel seemed uncomfortable with the sentimental farewell to Brunnhilde, and he also ran out of gas vocally at just that moment. The opera's emotional peak was strangely flat and unconvincing. I just have to remember that the last time I saw James Morris, who really knew how to work the spear, but the actual music? Not so much.

Terfel had a distinct lack of chemistry with his beloved daughter, sung by Deborah Voigt. At this point, the Voigt voice is what it is -- shrunken in volume, drained of color and warmth, occasionally still trumpet-like on top,  inaudible on the bottom. That she got through the run without cancelling was already a surprise. "Ho jo to ho" showed that she still has those top B's and C's, but they sound curdled and shrieky now. I couldn't really get into the Brunnhilde storyline when the Brunnhilde sounded (literally) like a rather whiny teenager -- the colorless, flat voice worked against Wagner's music, particularly the rich orchestra sounds he always lavished on Brunnhilde. Voigt looks good but her conception of the character is also shallow. Too many times, when Brunnhilde should be the beating heart of the opera, Voigt stared vacantly, and smiled at the most inappropriate times. One such moment was the Todesverkundung "Siegmund! Sieh auf mich!" Brunnhilde within one scene goes from formal and godly to human and compassionate. But Voigt simply could not color her voice or shape the phrases of the music to underline this transformation. The scene was completely overshadowed by Kaufmann's ardent Siegmund. Brunnhilde's farewell to Wotan, a scene that usually has me wiping away tears (and I'm a firm believer that people who cry at the opera constantly are as annoying as the coughers), left me cold. I suppose I could reconcile myself with the thought that the other two Brunnhilde's I've seen are Jane Eaglen and Irene Theorin, and Voigt was better than Eaglen and not really that much below Theorin, but that's not saying much.

Maybe one could also say that the Machine made the Brunnhilde/Wotan scenes rather sterile and unaffecting, but Westbroek and Kaufmann were able to generate tons of heat while recessed behind the boardwalk, with half their bodies cut off from view. Ultimately, it was Voigt's failure to portray Die Walkure, the moral center of the whole Ring.

The audience was deliriously appreciative and happy at the end of the performance. I could understand why -- the emotional impact of Wagner's music is so overpowering that Die Walkuere experience feels cathartic, longeurs aside. It's probably, all things considered, Wagner's most touching, accessible opera. Even in the context of the Ring Cycle, Die Walkuere works as a standalone.  I might be reading too much into it, but I always thought of this opera as a rare moment of self-awareness from Wagner. In the greedy, conflicted, but ultimately heartless god, Wagner painted a self-portrait more candid than all those copious diary entries and letters.

LePage's vision is frustrating -- he can create a striking tableau one minute and the next fill the stage with plastic toys and shockingly banal directions. One minute the Machine can seem like a strikingly effective unit set, the next it literally creaks into yet another army tank shape. Maybe over time the misfires can be taken out, and the production can become more abstract, more focused on the symbolism and representations. After all, there's still two operas to go.


  1. I find myself weeping at the opera frequently. It's odd, I don't cry otherwise, but when I watch certain operas (the usual suspects, including many moments in Die Walkure)the tears flow. It's about the music and about my expression of emotion triggered by the music and the situation unfolding in the opera that I'm watching. I don't wail, sob audibly or moan when I cry at the opera.

    It's never "annoying" to quietly demonstrate emotion.

  2. I have a good cry at the opera too. Die Walkuere and Madama Butterfly are my two tearjerkers. But I get really annoyed at the people who are constantly talking about how much they cried at the opera. "First chord of Tristan and I was already a mess." Really?

  3. I'm an easy and quiet crier at opera, theatre and concerts, and feel healthier for it, but suspect that some people who don't let themselves cry in RL use their time at the opera to get some of that therapeutic crying done.

    I admit that I do get the dry heaves whenever I read about someone "typing through tears" on a certain opera message board - that is needlessly melodramatic and just makes me cringe.

  4. Blue, like this poster. I wrote this on opera-l but I'll reprint it here:

    But really, just for some holiday fun, take a hard look at what you've written
    and tell me that maybe you need some perspective on opera:

    On December 11, 2003:

    "I have just read Donald Arthur's eloquent letter about Hans Hotter. I am
    devastated by his death and cannot stop crying .... Presently, it is impossible
    for me to think of him in the past tense and I can no longer see what I am
    typing for I cannot stop the tears. "

    On August 17, 2004:

    "I am devastated by the news today of Gerard Souzay's death and
    cannot stop crying .... Presently, it is impossible for me to think of him in the
    past tense and I can no longer see what I am typing for I cannot stop the

    On June 16, 2005:

    "I am devastated by just reading that the magnificent conductor, Carlo
    Maria Giulini has died just over a month after his 91st birthday, and
    am streaming tears, hardly able to type .... Presently, it is impossible for me
    to think of him in the past tense and I can no longer see what I am
    typing, for I cannot stop the tears."

    On July 4, 2006:

    "I am devastated to learn this afternoon from a friend in administrative
    musical circles that the magnificent, transcendent operatic artist,
    Lorraine Hunt Lieberson died from cancer yesterday just four months
    after her 52nd birthday, and am streaming tears, hardly able to type ....
    Presently, it is impossible for me to think of her in the past tense and I can
    no longer see what I am typing for I cannot stop the tears."

    On November 6, 2010:

    "I have very sad news. I just learned this evening that we lost a truly great
    operatic artist, Shirley Verrett, who just turned 79 earlier this year. I was
    especially privileged to not only have my life enriched by her great and
    profound artistry, but also blessed to have my life graced by her beautiful
    presence and special friendship and her profound artistry since I was a child.
    I cannot write anything else at this time, because I cannot see through my
    tears, but I thought that I should let the list know."

  5. I'm not sure what you mean about my "needing some perspective on opera" ?

    I try to get to a lot of performances, not just opera, and am always moved/thrilled/exhilarated when someone gets it right. It's so rare when every element comes together, but when it does, it's a time for celebration.

    I know EXACTLY what you are referring to on that website. I've read those posts (they seem in style to be from one person) and also remember exchanges between you and whoever it was. Who are we to criticize anyone's reactions, especially to a death, but some details are a little cringe inducing and may be better left private.

  6. Fantastic review, Poisonivy. You echoed a lot of my own thoughts and opinions, although, of course, you said them much more eloquently.

    I particularly agree with the Act I staging-- the singers were so far back that there was no ping to any of the voices until they climbed up front.

    Glad that you finally got to see it.

  7. I'm more than a little confused by your statement that the baritonal quality of Kaufmann's voice might mean he's really not a heldentenor. Wagner created the original heldentenor by working to extending a baritone's upper range into total security and Melchior, still considered by many the greatest heldentenor ever, was a reworked baritone as well.

    The baritonal solidity with a solid, secure top is the whole point of a German heldentenor, as opposed to the French heroic tenor where penetrating but clear tone and a brilliant upper extension is the desired quality. In instrumental terms, I think of heldentenors as trombones and French heroics as trumpets.


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