Die Walküre Casts Its Magical Fire Spell

Grimsley and Goerke, photo @ Richard Termine
A few weeks ago Christine Goerke posted this on her Instagram: "I just finished a piano rehearsal of Walküre. This cast is so ridiculously great. This conductor is off the hook. If y'all don't come see this you're really missing out. I am the luckiest woman alive."

I'd normally be skeptical of such a gushfest when said singer posting the gushfest is the Brünnhilde of the production. Of course she's going to tell people to come see her sing! But after tonight's  performance of Die Walküre I felt the same sense of awe that Goerke expressed. Because the cast was amazing, the conductor led a gripping, thrilling performance that made the five hours fly by. And get thee to a movie theater on Saturday March 30 for the HD because if you don't, you're really missing out.

The biggest star of the night was the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, led by Philippe Jordan. Jordan's interpretation of the score is what I'd call cinematic -- if you're looking for beautiful Karajan-like soundscapes this is not the Walküre for you. A few times the orchestra sounded a bit raw. But if you' like Wagner to be conducted like a battle episode of Game of Thrones, then Jordan's vivid, exciting account was a revelation. Even when nothing onstage was happening Jordan was constantly highlighting the stories Wagner was telling in his orchestration. As I said, the five hours flew by. I hope they bring back Jordan to conduct more -- he was interesting and never boring.

Goerke, photo @ Richard Termine
The evening was also anchored by the incredible Brünnhilde of Christine Goerke. I'm aging myself a bit by saying that I first saw Christine Goerke sing Alcina at NYCO 16 years ago. I've followed her unusual career with interest ever since. Brünnhilde is an almost perfect fit between singer and role. In Die Walküre Brünnhilde has few forays into the upper register, high C's in Ho-jo-to-ho aside. This role allows Goerke to really live in the best part of her voice -- her warm, powerful middle register that sometimes has the organ-like richness of a contralto. It was so great to hear the Todesverkündigung sung by a real dramatic soprano. A few wayward high notes aside Goerke was vocally impressive from start to finish.

It wasn't just Goerke's voice that was a great fit for the Valkyrie. Anyone who follows Goerke on social media knows that she has a lively sense of humor. There was a similar joie de vivre to her Brünnhilde. I'd rarely call any Wagnerian portrayal "bubbly" but Goerke was exactly that. She stepped onstage, and we loved her. You could see why she was Wotan's favorite, and why her Valkyrie sisters protect her. Brünnhilde's warmth made her journey compelling and tragic -- indeed, for the rest of the Ring Cycle Brünnhilde never shows the joy and compassion she displays in Die Walküre.

Grimsley and Goerke @Richard Termine
Sixty two year old Greer Grimsley's Wotan was not effortless -- his voice occasionally sounded dry, and there was a loose vibrato that bordered on a wobble. He also ran out of steam towards the finale of the opera. Dramatically however Grimsley was incredible. This Wotan had none of the usual swagger. Sure he carried his speer and thundered angrily when crossed. But Grimsley played Wotan as a weak, defeated man. He started the opera knowing that he was a failure, and this self-awareness made him less despicable. The way Grimsley cowered in front of a Fricka who barely bothered to stand up from her ram-drawn chariot was pathetic and not God-like at all. In the long Act Two monologue Grimsley spit out two words with vehemence: "Das ende!" It sounded like a desperate plea. Götterdämerung can't happen soon enough for this Wotan.

The farewell between Grimsley and Goerke was not played for overt sentimentality. In past performances I've seen Brünnhildes throw themselves in Wotan's arms. Goerke and Grimsley did not do that. They let their crestfallen body language speak for itself. There were loud audible sobs all around where I was sitting in the final moments of the opera.

Westbroek and Skelton, photo @ Richard Termine
There was not a weak link in the cast. The twincestous lovers were both very strong. Stuart Skelton's Siegmund hit it out of the ballpark. I was impressed with his Tristan but nothing could have prepared me for the powerful, ringing heldentenor voice I heard tonight. Maybe Siegmund's a shorter role and so he held nothing back? Skelton held the "Wälse!" cries for what seemed like an eternity and just had endless reserves of sound. It was great to finally hear a heldentenor with that trumpet-like, heroic voice.

Eva Marie Westbroek was an affecting Sieglinde. This role does not tax her weak upper register. Her voice when she doesn't apply pressure to it remains a warm, feminine sound and she's always a committed, sympathetic actress. When she does push for volume unfortunately her pitch can stray and she has a wobble, but overall she is a wonderful artist and this is a good role for her.

Here is Skelton singing "Wälse":

And Eva Marie Westbroek singing "Du bist der lenz":

Hunding, Sieglinde, and Siegmund, photo @ Richard Termine
Günther Groissböck was an excellent Hunding. Besides having a smooth, mellifluous bass that doesn't exactly scream "evil" Groissböck happens to be, well, hot. His Hunding was not the typical menacing caveman. More a hunky, intimidating warrior who displayed his marital rights over Sieglinde by pawing at her in front of Siegmund. Jamie Barton was the only disappointment -- her voice just didn't have enough power for Fricka's long scena. Maybe her projection was hurt by the the fact that she was recessed high and far away from the audience in a wheelchair served as the 'ram-drawn chariot' of Wagner's libretto. She also didn't have enough vitriol -- I remember Stephanie Blythe spitting fire in this role. Jamie Barton never looked or sounded anything more than mildly annoyed. The eight Valkyries sounded great.

Lepage's Machine worked for the most part
Robert LePage's production has worked out some kinks -- the machine ran smoothly all night, with only occasional creaking. They've altered some of the scenes -- Hunding's hut no longer takes place in an underground crawlspace below the front platform, so there was no repeat of the "I can only see the top of Jonas' head" in Act One. (Watch him finally step onto the front platform to sing "Wintersturme" here). There are still moments of total silliness -- in the Ride of the Valkyries the Valkyries still ride the planks and wave to the audience like showgirls during a curtain call. I saw a few audience members waved back. (And don't get me started on the plastic toy skeletons that are the "corpses" they have to carry back to Valhalla.)

 Brünnhide's double hanging off the machine, photo @ Richard Termine
But the singers seemed more than content to make this a concert opera and ignore the machine for the most part -- most of them found a nice place on the platform and stayed there. This made for some awkward dramaturgy -- when Brünnhilde appears as a vision to Siegmund to tell him of his impending death Goerke was planted downstage center and staring straight at the audience, and Skelton was upstage right, and the two of them never made eye contact while discussing these, uh, life and death matters. But considering that a wrong move could mean being knocked on the head or falling off the deeply raked planks I couldn't blame the singers for parking and barking. The final tableau is a problem -- it's so obviously a body double handing off the planks, and it takes away from the emotional impact of the ending to see Wotan bidding farewell to a body double.

So in other words the production is still weak. But if you can overlook the problematic production, snatch up tickets to the remaining performances. because all things being considered this was by far the most memorable performance I've experienced at the Met all season.


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