Die Walküre: Stories twice told

I fear writing this much about the Met’s still-unfolding Ring cycle may be having a bad effect on my brain, but I went to Die Walküre on Saturday and here’s what happened. The production is still simple-minded, Bryn Terfel is still the best, Fabio Luisi is still Fabio Luisi, Jonas Kaufmann canceled, and I continue to learn what makes Wagner special by seeing what has been drained out of this production.

Wagner, Die Walküre. Metropolitan Opera Ring Cycle 2, 4/28/2012. Production by Robert Lepage, conducted by Fabio Luisi with Bryn Terfel (Wotan), Katarina Dalayman (Brünnhilde), Frank van Aken (Siegmund), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Sieglinde), Stephanie Blythe (Fricka), Hans-Peter König (Hunding).

At MIT last week, Peter Gelb said that Robert Lepage intended to “tell the story that Wagner wrote” in his Ring. But what story is that? Lepage seemed to describe it as Icelandic myth, but the sources are actually much more diverse than that. Das Rheingold is largely Icelandic, but much of Die Walküre is based on the Völsungsaga, which is Nordic or Central European, and is a source for the Nibelungenlied, the Germanic source for Götterdämmerung. And that’s a vast simplification.

You might say that doesn’t matter: what matters is what Wagner put together. But this collage of myths, and the instability and “live-ness” of oral transmission is imprinted upon the Ring. Again and again, characters tell us, and themselves, and each other, stories–Loge and Wotan in Rheingold, Wotan in Walküre, and Siegfried in Götterdämmerung are a few of the most prominent examples. These long scenes are often considered dramatic dead zones, but they’re very very important. We learn important new information in each one, the listening characters make decisions, and the characters learn things themselves as they narrate (Wotan realizes why he has to let Siegmund die or Siegfried gradually regaining his memory, for example). The Ring’s story is not linear or even a grid but a shifting, perilous web (the Norns).

That’s why I found Lepage’s conception of the machine as a shifting ground of Iceland symbolically intriguing–but seemingly in a very different way than did Lepage himself. For Lepage, the myths are a return to childlike simplicity, “fantasy,” and picturesque images. Inserting film to illustrate a long and potentially dull narrative passage is a “mixture of media,” but the problem is that it flattens the act of narration itself The video doesn’t “echo” or “magnify” the performer as Lepage suggested, it transforms them from being a subjective, live presence to a neutral voiceover narrator illustrating a story given authority by its visualization.

I think this is one reason why the staging feels so spiritually empty. No one has their own story to tell, nor the imperative to speak it. They are just pawns in the service of a mechanical Machine that will very insistently help them relay their material in a homogenous way–here the most egregious incidents being a film during Siegmund’s biography and a giant eye with shifting images helping us get through Wotan’s Act 2 monologue. Lepage’s Ring seeks to be mythic while operating on terms antithetical to myth.

I’m sorry if my review hooks are getting abstract (abstraction being, in Gelb’s mind, a mortal sin), but it’s becoming pretty difficult to come up with new stuff to say about this thing, and since I now have seen the whole cycle I can consider the big picture a bit.

But I guess we should talk about this Walküre. I have to say that this was the first time the prelude reminded me of this. OK, that was a gratuitous comparison but I think there is some truth to it. The orchestra sounded much refreshed after a messy Makropulos the previous night (probably a different crew). Somewhat to my surprise I liked Luisi’s flowing, lyrical approach to the farewell and Magic Fire, which had a welcome luminosity. But along with the quiet first act came an intelligently-paced but lightweight Todesverkündigung.

Lepage doesn’t have too many ideas of how to use the Machine here–it is essentially a glorified projection screen, though it does flip Brünnhilde (a double who was unconvincing even from the Family Circle) upside down onto her mountain at the end. The rest I think I’ve already covered in my previous piece on this staging, when I saw the HD broadcast.

Out of the disappointment of a Jonas Kaufmann cancellation as Siegmund, the Met pulled off a publicity coup by hiring Frank van Aken as a replacement. Van Aken, you see, is soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek (singing Sieglinde)’s husband. He is perfectly qualified, but evidently had very little rehearsal time and had never sung at the Met before. He showed some signs of being a fine artist with good phrasing and diction and a sensitive characterization (and good rapport with his wife), but it soon became apparent that his voice wasn’t backing him up and he was up against more than he could handle. Luisi kept the orchestra down, but he was still difficult to hear, and sounded congested and wobbly when audible, and a few entrances were early. The Todesverkündigung contained a number of near cracks, one, with tragic irony, on “Helden.”

His death fall–I don’t blame him for this, but I have to describe it because it was kind of hilarious–missed the spotlight by a good four feet and he managed to kick his way stage left before croaking. Good instincts, though I missed that heartbreaking father-son recognition moment that was my favorite bit of the HD last season. The only other major blooper was Wotan’s spear, which made a beeline for the pit at one point but stopped rolling just short. While I’m at this I would also like to suggest to Sieglinde that clutching a large fragment of Nothung around the edges of the blade is not the most convincing thing ever.

I remain a great fan of Bryn Terfel’s Wotan. He can sometimes turn blustery–more Bayreuth Bark than bel canto–but he really sings it when required, and has such dramatic concentration and intensity, and such clarity with the words that the narrative sections are unusually transfixing. He seemed quite on the energetic side of things at this performance, and as far as I’m concerned walked off with the show.

Katarina Dalayman replaced Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde in this cycle (no photos were available, these show Voigt). She is not quite commanding onstage, and her high notes are screechy and unreliable. But I found much to appreciate in her performance. Her middle voice is substantial and attractive, and while her German diction isn’t the best she still conveys the meaning of the text. And she has a clear dramatic conception of the role, and filled in the pause button moments of the staging with engaging acting. Brünnhilde’s entrance in the Todesverkündigung (yes I will mention this scene a few more times, it’s my favorite) is one of the worst flubs of the cycle: to incredibly ominous and dramatic music, she walks up some escape stairs stage right. But once she arrived, Dalayman made much of Brünnhilde’s conflicted feelings, eventually composing herself into valkyrie mode. She also really listened to Wotan in the monologues.

Eva-Maria Westbroek is a wonderful Sieglinde, with a sincere, natural and passionate stage presence. She can really fill the theater with her voice, which has a beautiful glow to it (though the highest notes can spread). Hans-Peter König luckily has a role in most of these operas, and his imposing bass is perfect for Hunding, though his rather avuncular presence is not. Stephanie Blythe was again a very loud and not very specific Fricka.

The other surprise highlight of the performance was a fantastic bunch of Valkyries, without a single wobble among them, giving the clearest rendition of the Ride that I’ve heard live. I suspect several of them could be great Brünnhildes. The staging of them sliding down the planks of the Machine, however, verges on the embarrassing. As does, to be honest, this entire cycle in a house that aspires to be a home for art.

I’m coming to terms with the fact that should Kaufmann show up for the final performance I’m going to be seeing this again. As for the rest of Cycle 2, I’m skipping Siegfried (almost the same cast as when I saw it in the fall), but I’ll be at Götterdämmerung on Thursday.

PREVIOUSLY in order of appearance:
HD broadcast, Die Walküre
Siegfried prima
Götterdämmerung prima
Cycle 2 Das Rheingold 

All photos © Ken Howard/Met.

You may also like


  1. It does not help that Stephanie Blythe is stuck in that Ram's Horn Go-Kart. The MET needs some coach to get the US cast members really to dig into the subtleties of the text. Some of the German is poor, I'm thinking particilarly of Eric Owens however well sung. Compare with Terfel though he did study eith Hans Hotter.
    The Power Illustrations to the monologies were very irritating.

  2. Vecchio John, I agree–the Euros (Germanic or not) consistently outclass the Americans in the text department.

    Anon–you might not guess but I have a life besides blogging. Since the Siegfried cast has only one change from the fall and there's something elsewhere I really should be at, I'm skipping it.

  3. I listened to the broadcast. The husband/wife pair were shaky in Act 1. Dalayman doesn't like the high Bs and Cs. Stability wasn't heard until Terfel and Stephanie Blythe who arrived with a voice that was full from top to bottom.

  4. … Völsungsaga, which is Nordic or Central European, and is a source for the Nibelungenlied.

    The Volsungasaga is later than the Nibelungenlied and therefore cannot be a source. This according to my Penguin edition of the latter, with detailed notes by A.T. Hatto. The Nibelungenlied was completed probably no later than 1204, according to Hatto, whereas the Volungasaga dates from about the mid-13th century. This surprised me: Volsungsaga seems older, because it is more pagan. As for the Ring, it is a 19th-century opera cycle, a fully modern work of art, and should not be confused with its sources. To get the legend onstage, Wagner adapted, cut and combined incidents and characters – rather radically, in some cases.

    BTW, I saw the Gotterdammerung in the live HD broadcast, and liked it a lot, despite the silliness of the horse. You bloggers seem to be hellbent on ruining my enjoyment.

  5. You're wrong on the first point, Joe–the *sources* for Völsungs are from considerably earlier than the 13th century, that's just the approximate dating of what we consider the fixed version. It's an orally transmitted mythic text and wasn't written all at once. OK, it's Wikipedia, but read this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V%C3%B6lsunga_saga

    My argument is that the process of concatenation that formed Wagner's text is inextricable from the end result. Argue against this if you want but "should not be confused with its sources" is a directive, not an argument.

  6. I stand by my original statement. The sources of the Nibelungendlied and Volsungasaga are quite old, certainly, but that isn't what you said. You said the Volungasaga is a source of the Nibelungenlied, which is not the case. Even the wiki entry you cite describes the Volsungasaga as "a late 13th century prose rendition," which puts it out of reach of the author of the Nibelungenlied. Hatto summarizes the Thidrekssaga as a source for the Nibelungenlied, but he practically ignores the Volsungasaga.

    As for Wagner, I also stand by my "directive." My point is he was a dramatist adapting many sources. Some incidents (esp in Walkure and Siegfried) are taken directly from Volusungasaga, but some are markedly different. (In the Volsungasaga, for example, Siegmund is not Wotan's son, and Sieglinde is not Siegfried's mother.) I don't see that Wagner is telling many different stories. He's telling one: It's called The Ring of the Nibelung.

  7. Joe, the problem is that you are conflating the whole host of Volsung stories from the Elder Edda and oral sources (which is what I was referring to) to a single later written rendition (which is not what I meant). See Theodore Andersson's "A Preface to the Nibelungenlied" for a description on how it works.

    As for the latter point, I don't think that a blog comments section is the place for me to convince you of the validity of hermeneutics.