Tosca jumps again

The Met and the Bayerische Staatsoper might not have much in common but one thing they do is a certain Luc Bondy production of Tosca, hated just as much by the Müncheners as the New Yorkers. I was going to skip it but upon further reflection decided that missing a Bryn Terfel Scarpia would be a crime. So I got a ticket but being tardy it was one that afforded almost no view of the stage. While I love seeing Terfel ham it up, considering the imbecility of this production I do not consider this as great a loss as usual. I cannot offer you any assessment as to how the set looks on the smaller stage of the Nationaltheater, whether Scarpia groped the Madonna or simply flipped her off, or what attitude Tosca assumed while fanning herself at the close of Act 2 (um, for a production we all think is awful, this one has developed quite a few iconic moments, hasn’t it? just saying…). Here’s what I wrote about this production when I last saw it at the Met. In relation to tonight, let’s talk about the singing!

Marco Armiliato conducts Tosca with the verve of a lukewarm glass of beer. He keeps things together and this was a fairly clean reading, except for almost losing the chorus just before Scarpia’s Act 1 entrance. It unfolds nicely in lyrical sections but in the exciting bits it never rises to the occasion, lacking intensity, drama, and weight. The brass played with laser-bright tone that wasn’t my favorite color, but the strings had a nice depth to their tone in the introduction to “E lucevan le stelle.” But how can one of the most perfectly paced of all operas feel so slack and matter of fact?

Luckily the cast had two excellent singers. Catherine Naglestad is a fine Tosca. Her sound is big and just on this side of being blowsy, with a wide vibrato that sometimes turns dry. While she doesn’t have a lot of variations of color, her duskiness feels just right for this role and her top notes are easy and reliable. (Her chest voice, however, is a little funky, not the best thing for a Tosca.) Most importantly, she sings with refined and yet natural musicality, making a grand and impressive, yet still expressive Tosca. Her “Vissi d’arte” had a lovely swell on the final note and an expertly tapered quiet ending. As Scarpia, Bryn Terfel was his usual self, this portrayal is by this point well known. His voice can turn rough and barky at patches, hurting him most in the opening of Act 2, which sounded ragged. But in the declamatory passages his voice is imposing and firm, and he relishes the evil with audible (as I could not, for the most part, see him) glee.

Workmanlike lyric tenor Massimo Giordano sounded overextended as Cavaradossi, and despite generally singing on pitch with acceptable sound his too-small voice and relentlessly flat-footed, unnuanced phrasing kept his Mario from ever developing into an audible character. He has a habit of approaching high notes from a running start of a third or so below, sliding up to the actual pitch (even on Vittoria!), which I assume is supposed to be stylistic, probably also is a technical aid, and definitely is irritating. The smaller roles found the Staatsoper’s usual solid Slavic-tending crew, notably Goran Juric a well-projected Angelotti.

I can offer a few random notes on the staging. The jump at the end was timed better that I have seen it at the Met, but that blackout has to be much blacker for it to be convincing. When the victory cantata’s Starbesetzung is announced in Act 1, the Munich children yelp “BRAVO!” while the New York ones go “OOOOO!” Also, Mario’s painting, in classic Bay Staats fashion, appears to be a blotchy impressionistic rendering of the same image that appeared in New York in far more realistic form. Can’t keep a creative scenic artist down.

Absent some star casting, I’m hoping not to see this particular Tosca again anytime soon.

Puccini, Tosca. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/24/2012.
Musikalische Leitung Marco Armiliato

Inszenierung Luc Bondy
Bühne Richard Peduzzi
Kostüme Milena Canonero
Licht Michael Bauer
Chor Stellario Fagone

Floria Tosca Catherine Naglestad
Mario Cavaradossi Massimo Giordano
Baron Scarpia Bryn Terfel
Cesare Angelotti Goran Jurić 
Der Mesner Christoph Stephinger
Spoletta Francesco Petrozzi
Sciarrone Christian Rieger
Stimme eines Hirten Tölzer Knabenchor
Ein Gefängniswärter Tim Kuypers

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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.

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Das Rheingold at the Met: Verflucht sei dieser Ring

It was the best of Lepage, it was the worst of Lepage. Last night’s Das Rheingold, opening the Met’s second Ring cycle, featured a good deal of impressive singing, intermittently exciting conducting, and a production that is the least consistent and yet in some ways also most impressive of his Ring.

Wagner, Das Rheingold. Metropolitan Opera Ring Cycle 2, 4/26/12. Production by Robert Lepage, conducted by Fabio Luisi with Eric Owens (Alberich), Bryn Terfel (Wotan), Adam Klein (Loge), Stephanie Blythe (Fricka), Franz-Josef Selig (Fasolt), Hans-Peter König (Fafner), Gerhard Siegel (Mime), Patricia Bardon (Erda).

Das Rheingold largely consists of lengthy spans of chatty exposition broken up by major set pieces. Dramatic action and character development are sparser than in the rest of the Ring. Robert Lepage’s theatrical language in this cycle mostly rests on the power of striking, static images, so perhaps it is the installment most suited to him. In addition, this was the first of the operas to be staged, and one gets the feeling that the Machine was built with many of these moments in mind. The big tricks in Rheingold--the descent to Nibelheim, the Rainbow Bridge, the giant snake, the arrival of the giants–feature much more creative use of the set than any of the glorified projection screen of later installments. Some of the effects seem like a lot of effort for relatively little payoff, such as the giant hammock Freia is dumped into to be covered with gold. But I can understand why the Met has been constantly promoting the cycle with the image of the machine forming a descending staircase down to Nibelheim, because it’s the most exciting image of the cycle so far.

But Lepage has real trouble getting in and out of these effects. He starts with the Rhinemaidens up vertically against the wall of the set, swimming like mermaids. So far so good, but to get this he has confined them to mermaid tails, and for the rest of the performance they struggle to move around the set at the speed the music seems to demand, their arms or rather legs literally tied. Elsewhere the work is clumsy: when the Tarnhelm reacquired its laundry basket mid-scene, my first thought was, oh, the toad is going to go in there. And so it did. It’s lazy stagecraft. And the staging of the talkier parts is hopelessly static. In extended solo passages, a spotlight tends to warm up and the other characters are cast into darkness, never listening or reacting (we don’t see Alberich as the Rhinemaidens salute the gold, nor do we see Wotan while Loge goes on). This performance was seemingly free of technical glitches, though the groans and wheezes of the Machine still disturbed throughout.

Lepage has had the nerve to blame the audience for his cycle’s lack of success–apparently we care too much about the music. But he should be reading the score so we don’t have to, and there’s little evidence he has. When the words stop and the orchestra begins to prattle for a bit, as often happens in Wagner, the staging seems to hit a pause button, and no one does anything until they start singing words again. Why not look at a score, then, you aren’t going to be missing anything.

Singing-wise this was an impressive evening. My favorite thing about these performances so far has been Bryn Terfel’s Wotan. He has both the vocal weight and the dramatic understanding to tell the story with his voice alone–which is what he needs to do because the visuals aren’t helping any. (His costume, along with those of all the other gods and to be honest everybody, is heinous plastic-looking armor and 1980’s hair band coiffure. This production recalls the Parton rule: it takes a lot of money to look this cheap.)

Just to note, subtleties may have escaped me because I was standing in the Family Circle.

Stephanie Blythe made mighty sounds as Fricka, but I wish she did more with the words. Eric Owens’s Alberich was somewhere in between Terfel and Blythe in terms of textual specificity, and his powerful bass-baritone makes one of the biggest impressions as Alberich. Hyphen-Ated Namig duo Hans-Peter König and Franz-Josef Selig as Fafner and Fasolt were also monumental, this performance more or less belonged to those on the lower sector of the vocal ranges. Cover Adam Klein went on as Loge (the originally-scheduled and really great Stefan Margita was ill). I’m not sure if Klein’s thick tenor is ideally suited to this role, and he lacked an element of humor, but it was an accurate, confident, and consistent performance.

The Rhinemaidens were fine, particularly Tamara Mumford’s Flosshilde, and Wendy Bryn Harmer did her usual duty as Freia. Like her previous turns as Gutrune, and as Emma in Khovanshchina, it mostly requires crying “Help! Help!” on bright Fs and Gs, and that she can do. When she’s ready to leave the Help Help Fach she’ll be a good Sieglinde someday. I’m not sure if Erda is quite right for Patricia Bardon, whose tangy mezzo (didn’t sound contralto-ish, at least) was a little lightweight.

Fabio Luisi’s conducting, I don’t know. Like the staging, sometimes he would get things cooking, the Wotan-Alberich stuff at the beginning of Scene 4 in particular was great. But for me he’s short on perspective and depth. I never felt like some things are closer while others are further away, nor that the music is a kaleidoscope whose images shift suddenly as it is turned. Luisi is sleek, elegant, and very linear. And ultimately kind of boring and lacking in personality. The orchestra played cleanly (only a few minor bobbles in the Vorspiel), and the brass had a welcome edge, though the strings seemed hesitant to do anything too enthusiastic.

In this production you can see glimmers of what Lepage’s Ring was promised to be: a spectacular literalist staging on an elaborate unit set. But outside a few spectacles the storytelling is so lazily and badly executed that it fails to make us care what those images portray. Does Lepage even care?

Cycle 2’s Die Walküre is on Saturday.
Photos © Ken Howard/Met.

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Richard Tucker Gala: The stars are loud

Some of the stars came out for the Richard Tucker Foundation’s annual gala at Avery Fisher Hall on Sunday night. With a program dominated by 19th-century Italian meatballs (despite a complete absence of actual Italians onstage), there was much drinking, cursing, praying, pleading to Mama, and other traditional operatic activities as sung by loud voices such as Dolora Zajick, Stephanie Blythe, Bryn Terfel and Jonas Kaufmann. The recipient of this year’s award was Angela Meade, who also sang, but in my following write-up, everyone gets a prize.

Marcello Giordani and Marina Poplavskaya canceled; René Pape disappeared off the program sometime last week. (This is all normal operating procedure for this gala.) Angela Gheorghiu was rumored to be materializing to sing Carmen mit dem Jonas, but her name was not mentioned once and La Scala Carmen Anita Rachvelishvili turned up to do it instead–meaning that instead of Don José-ing his Adriana of Tuesday’s Adriana Lecouvreur, Kaufmann Don José-ed his Principessa instead. Also the chorus was not the Met chorus but rather the New York Choral Society and they sounded excellent.

Saint-Saens, Bacchanale from Samson et Delila
Emmanuel Villaume was conducting and did a fine, unobtrusive job (well, there were some strange tempos later on but I don’t know if that was him or the singers). The orchestra was “members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.” This was a sassy and zippy choice for an opener, I approve. I quickly realized that from my third-tier seat I could hear the strings barely at all, but considering the notoriously awful acoustics of Avery Fisher I’m not going to blame Villaume for this. Luckily the voices later on came through loud and clear. It helped that this was one loud bunch of singers.
Verdict: Most Brassy

Angela Meade:
Verdi, “Santo di patria” from Attila
I heard Angela Meade’s Met debut in Ernani back in 2008 and I was astonished at how much she’s grown (back then I was tipped off by a friend who went to high school with her, but she’s a secret no longer). She still has a big, clear, easy tone and agile coloratura but now sings with thrust and incisiveness, and a sense of pace that I didn’t remember at all from her before. Only a final high note came out a little shrill. This was exciting, gutsy stuff. Brava.
Verdict: Most Thrilling

Zeljko Lucic:
Verdi, “Eri tu” from Un ballo in maschera
Lucic has a lovely warm tone but not a lot of power at the top. The first half of this aria came out as barked, but the second half showed he can sing a good legato when he puts his mind to it. The bit with the cello at the start was shaky in the orchestra.
Verdict: Most Blah (sorry Zeljko)

Bryn Terfel:
Donizetti, “Udite, udite, o rustici” from L’elisir d’amore
The evening’s comedy act came from our current Wotan. To serve as his elixir, Terfel kept pulling bottles of beer from his jacket, including a Guinness, a Brooklyn Lager, and what I believe was a Sam Adams. That plus a lot of other gags made this more about the entertainment than the singing, but who cares to hear an amazingly sung Dulcamara anyway? Also, he seemed to chug the whole Brooklyn Lager at the end, showing fine taste in beer if not in consumption habits.
Verdict: Most Fun

Jonas Kaufmann:
Mascagni, “Mamma, quel vino è generoso” from Cavalleria rusticana
The programming sequence was unfortunate here; this was Very Serious Stuff after we’d just had lots of hijinks. But there was a real emotional intensity and trajectory to this that drew me in quickly enough. At times the phrasing was micromanaged but done so cannily that I almost didn’t notice. Also his fortes are really formidable and there were excellent pianos too. Powerful!
Verdict: Most Serious, possibly also Most Demented (Good Division)

Stephanie Blythe:
Thomas, “Connais-tu le pays” from Mignon
Everyone knows Stephanie Blythe can sing loudly but I at least forget that she can sing really prettily too. This had a gorgeous simplicity and floated quality that opened up naturally on the high notes. Very very nice!
Verdict: Most Enchanting

Dolora Zajick:
Chaikovsky, “Tsar vishnikh sil” from The Maid of Orleans
I was coming at this with a disadvantage because I don’t know the opera so I might have missed a lot, but I found it sung with conviction but rather unvariably. She’s monumental, but she’s kind of monochromatic.
Verdict: Most Resembling a Tank

Yonghoon Lee:
Massenet, “O Souverain, ô juge, ô père” from Le Cid
Lee has such a beautiful instrument but he shows even less musical variety than Zajick. Pretty much his only mode is a squillo-infused bellow, which is exciting but I never got the feeling he was taking me on a journey, and I DO know this aria. The tempo was on the (very) slow side.
Verdict: Most Squillo

Meade, Zajick, and Frank Porretta:
Bellini, Finale of Act I of Norma
Meade was again exciting, Zajick contributed some great chest voice (which is not quite what one listens to Bellini for but no mind) and I didn’t notice Porretta too much.
Verdict: Best Parterre Comment Thread Bait

(The squillo in this concert seemed unhappily apportioned. If Lee could give a little of his to Frank Porretta, they’d both be better off.)

Kaufmann and Terfel:
Verdi, “Dio che nell’alma infondere” from Don Carlo
Has Terfel ever sung this role onstage? I don’t think he has. Kaufmann looked more comfortable with it, to no surprise (or maybe it was the beer). But they blend surprisingly well and both have such hefty, heroic sounds that it sounded most unusually Wagnerian.
Verdict: Most Beneficial to Flanders

Maria Guleghina:
Puccini, Vissi d’arte from Tosca
Like everyone else said when they saw her in Nabucco (sorry, the early Verdi, I can’t do it), very loud vocal train wreck Maria Guleghina sounds surprisingly good right now! Her vibrato is still far wider than Broadway but she sounded amazingly in control, and sang a legit piano at the end. But she must have been miffed at only getting to sing one aria, because she sang it at a tempo where it could have been two.
Verdict: Slowest, also Most Demented (Probably Bad? Division)

Zajick and Lee:
Mascagni, “Tu qui, Santuzza?” from Cavalleria rusticana
Lee’s Turiddu is seemingly less conflicted than Kaufmann’s. Nevertheless, Zajick went for it with an enthusiasm to make up for the lack of staging, and Lee sounded quite impassioned before kind of running out of steam at the end. To be fair, if I had gotten cursed like that I’d probably crumple too.
Verdict: Loudest

Anita Rachvelishvili and Kaufmann:
Bizet, Act IV Duet from Carmen
This was my first time hearing Anita R., whose difficult last name was horribly mangled by Barry Tucker in his introduction. She’s got an even, sexy mezzo soprano that was very effective, though it seemed this time like Don José gets the more interesting singing in this scene. Or maybe that was just because Kaufmann was kind of totally fabulous in this, which he was. They tried to semi-stage it and, well, points for effort. I couldn’t see all of it from my seat location so I won’t comment further.
Verdict: Program Choice Most Unsuited to Concert Presentation

Terfel, Meade, and Blythe with additional help, Verdi, Fugue and Finale from Falstaff
This is a good way to end such a concert! It was quite well-balanced for a minimally rehearsed effort. but that’s partly because it’s composed so cleverly.
Verdict: Most Contrapuntal (sorry, I know that’s weak)

See you from Adriana on Tuesday. Hopefully our favorite current Romanian diva will show, if she doesn’t we’ll probably get Guleghina, which I’m dreading only slightly less now than I was earlier.

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Siegfried at the Met: Old swords in new forges

 The third installment of Robert Lepage’s new Ring cycle planted itself on the Met stage last night. This was the first of the three that I have seen live (I saw Walküre in a movie theater), and I am a little confused as to how so many computer screensavers projected onto a spinning picket fence help tell the story. And Lepage doesn’t really seem to have any idea of how to stage Wagner’s music as opposed to the words. But musical values were very good. That’s life at the Met.

Wagner, Siegfried. Metropolitan Opera, 10/27/2011. New production premiere directed by Robert Lepage with sets by Carl Fillion, costumes by François St-Aubin, lighting by Etienne Boucher, video by Pedro Pires. Conducted by Fabio Luisi with Jay Hunter Morris (Siegfried), Bryn Terfel (Wanderer), Gerhard Siegel (Mime), Eric Owens (Alberich), Hans-Peter König (Fafner), Deborah Voigt (Brünnhilde), Mojca Erdmann (Forest Bird), Patricia Bardon (Erda).

As you probably have read elsewhere, the entire cycle works on a unit set known as the Machine. A narrow raked apron downstage is backed by a trench, where much of the action happens with really wonky sight lines. Above the trench hover a line of gigantic slats that spin on a horizontal axis into various configurations. The apron and slats are smooth light gray metal and serve as a surface for various video projections, the trench is black. Supposedly some of the video projections used 3-D technology this time around, but from my seat in the Family Circle and lack of previous shows to compare to I didn’t notice anything. The design has a central dissonance. The costumes, projected images (trees, a mountain landscape, a waterfall) and set pieces placed in the trench area are all raggedly naturalistic, with rough surfaces and earth tones. It’s a look similar to the old Otto Schenk production that this one replaces. But the Schenk was at least uniform: the set covered the whole stage and was similarly craggy. Here, the Machine and its surroundings are all smooth and clean futurism, cool black and gray and sharp edges. It’s a weird melange that for lack of any unifying idea makes everything look unfinished and oddly antiseptic. There’s no aura.

The undercooked visuals are symptomatic of the project’s larger lack of a plan. The Machine can’t move at many speeds, and the projections are often busily flitting away with waterfalls and fire and such, and both seem oblivious to the motion of the music–as does Lepage’s work with singers, as when Siegfried bounded onstage to Mime’s motive at the beginning of Act 2. Overall, there is no real suggestion of what the Ring could possibly be about, just a bunch of grunge band types standing still and singing. (According to this story in Opera News, the non-static parts of Act 1 of Walküre came only thanks to direct intervention by Jonas Kaufmann and James Levine. I don’t even know what to say to that.)

We see some intervening time pass during the prelude, including a rather unpleasant implication for Mime that I’ve already considered. Mime’s workshop in Act 1 is placed in the Machine’s trench, and it’s mighty cramped down there, with little blocking to speak of (and Lepage’s penchant for realism doesn’t extend to giving Siegfried tongs to hold his sword–which still produces steam when thrust into a projected pool of water–apparently heroes can handle very hot objects). Act 2 finds the Machine doing a forest act, and, yes, the bird is a projection. Fafner is a snake-like dragon who is not very mobile. Act 3 was plagued with groans from the Machine during some very delicate music, as well as some crashes and yelling from backstage. We switch from the Nature Images screensaver to the vague outer-spacey one my MacBook calls Flurry. Erda emerges as a cool mirrored fin de siècle type dress, which kind of doesn’t go with anything except the Machine, and Wotan inexplicably gets a giant yoga mat with runes on it. The final scene I found the most effective from a staging perspective, as the machine works best when it turns a bit less realistic, showing fire on the sides and mountain in the middle.

Fabio Luisi’s conducting (deputizing for again-injured Levine) owed more to the aesthetic of the Machine than the costumes. Luisi is great at bringing clarity and order to these monster scores, fishing out out details and keeping everything totally together while remaining very singer-friendly. But in this performance I found his work too brisk and controlled and efficient at first, and not exciting enough. (His tempos are significantly faster than Levine’s.) The orchestra’s sound was impeccable, but lacked weight and intensity. Luckily they seemed to gain momentum over the course of the evening. The Forest Murmurs were lovely, and the horn solos excellent.

The production suffered an even later replacement in Jay Hunter Morris’s Siegfried, who only joined the production last week. He sang a lyrical Siegfried unusually, amazingly beautifully, with strong and pleasant tone and consistent musicality, not really running out of steam until the final scene. Thanks to Luisi’s sensitive conducting, he was rarely drowned out (except for his entrance), but unfortunately the voice is ultimately too small to have enough presence and heft to really score in the heroic moments of the role. The first half of the Forging Song (the melting portion) was taken at an
unusually slow tempo, and he did not have the necessary exuberance. This was perhaps a necessary trade-off for his sensitivity elsewhere, and in all not a bad compromise. He’s a very energetic stage presence, though his characterization was unsurprisingly generalized (and I was watching this from the very distant Family Circle, remember).

Bryn Terfel’s Wanderer was less resonant and plummy than his Wotan in Walküre, sometimes sounding shouty, but his command of the text and music was tremendous and moving, despite being burdened with the costume from hell. Gerhard Siegel was a more sweetly sung Mime than most, lacking the hard nasal edge that you usually hear in this role. It sounded much nicer than usual, but in a production that didn’t give the role a clear profile ended up a little bland. Eric Owens was a cavernous marvel as Alberich, though he and Terfel sounded awfully similar in their short scene. Hans-Peter König was also very loud and deep as Fafner. Patricia Bardon sang with feeling as Erda, but the role seems a strain for her. Mojca Erdmann sang the Woodbird with a very wide vibrato and mushy German.

Deborah Voigt went in and out as Brünnhilde, getting off to a strong start with “Heil dir, Sonne!” Unfortunately after that her voice sounded extremely uneven, with wobbles in the lower and shrieks in the extreme upper areas. A few notes around the top of the staff are still very strong, and she’s loud, but this was not good. I am a little worried about her Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde.

But as for the whole cycle, well, I don’t think there’s much hope at this point. I must say that I’m really looking forward to Andreas Kriegenburg and Kent Nagano’s cycle in Munich, though, which I will hopefully be seeing next summer.

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met Opera.

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Die Walküre from the Met: Die Maschine ohne Ghost

I went to the Live from HD broadcast of Die Walküre on Saturday! For writing about this I recruited the help of NYC correspondent “Pélleas,” who saw it live. We chatted for a little while on Sunday. Or, a lot while. The Machine! James Levine, actually conducting! Valkyries falling on their asses! All right ahead!

Zerbinetta: Just to be really clear, I went to the broadcast on May 14 in Vienna in the romantic surroundings of the Donauzentrum shopping mall and you saw it live at the opera house in New York on…
Pélleas: April 28th. So, how did it come across in the film version? I saw the Rheingold movie broadcast and I must say that the whole effect of the planks worked much better in person.
Zerbinetta: Yeah, I hope so. (I didn’t see Rheingold at all.) Because it was really weak on the broadcast. It was all shot in closeup so you could only see the whole machine occasionally (when it did shit) and the rest of the time it basically looked like a really expensive projection screen.
Pélleas: The planks basically are an expensive projection screen, but during the couple of set piece moments that they have they can be very spectacular. I found their transformation from a snowy wasteland to a forrest of trees in the beginning very cool. And the bit with Brünnhilde being left on the mountain in her ring of fire was also really cool. That is, when you weren’t worried for the safety of the stunt double given the injury that happened because of The Machine earlier in the night (more about that later).

Zerbinetta: OH you were at THAT one. Anyway, I was very disappointed in the design work. It looked strangely unfinished, like there was the machine and nothing else. Projections always look bad close up but it seemed like they forgot to add any kind of texture or life to any of the stage pictures. Hunding’s table looked like it came from Ikea. Too many smooth flat surfaces. It was just all SO DAMN LITERAL and unimaginative. And not just the design.
Pélleas: Yep. I totally agree with you there. The only time they tried to give some sort of originality to anything it came off as really tacky. And there was basically no original psychological insight into any of the characters or the staging.
Zerbinetta: It was also very very static. Like the Ring I saw in Vienna in April didn’t have much insight either but at least everything kept moving pretty well.
Pélleas: About the accident, though. One of the valkyries took a hard landing sliding off of her horse. I didn’t see it, so I’m not sure how she landed, but I heard it. She either caught her leg in the stage at the end, or landed really hard on her butt. She exited the stage immediately, returned a couple of minutes later (to applause), and sang her part. But she didn’t appear at the curtain call. (Ed. note: she was OK.)
Zerbinetta: I thought the end really lost the emotional thread when Brünnhilde left the stage to be replaced by a double. You need that farewell ritual to be about the character.
Pélleas: A lot of people complained about that, but I didn’t really mind it. I was still emotionally invested in the scene, because the music was simply so beautiful, and the stunt double did a good job of imitating the way her body was slouched into Wotan.
Zerbinetta: The problem with the ending in the HD was they didn’t want to show the double close up to show that it was a double so the entire opera is in closeups and then HELLO wide angle!
Pélleas: Well, it’d be hard to get the majesty of the entire set if you did closeups. And that is the one moment where the set as a whole really shines.
Zerbinetta: The switch was disconcertingly abrupt. Didn’t go with the music. Especially when Levine’s magic fire was burning soooo slowly. So about the conducting. ????
Pélleas: Everyone was of course totally enthused that Levine was alive enough to conduct. I was generally extremely pleased with his conducting.
Zerbinetta: I liked bits of it but overall it felt kind of too slack, especially the really slow Act 2. Act 3 was majestic, though. Orchestra sounded good, though I suspect I am spoiled by Vienna. How was the balance between singers and orchestra?
Pélleas: It was generally very good. I didn’t have any trouble hearing any of the singers, and vocally it seemed to be a much better evening than the opening night performance that got reviewed. Westbroek was able to sing through the entire evening, and she was marvelous. Her final notes simply soared above the orchestra with such great volume and power, for such a long time. A.— and I looked to each other with grins on our faces. I think it was the vocal highlight of the evening.

Zerbinetta: I thought Westbroek sounded glorious, she has this shining and effortless tone that is just amazing and visceral. But she looked nervous and hesitant. Anna Nicole wasn’t a good use of her vocal talents, but it did show she can be a much better actress than she was as Sieglinde here. My biggest surprise was Terfel, I think. I’ve always thought of him as a bit of a fun ham, but this was really subtle and powerful and beautiful. Also his German and use of the text were just gorgeous. Usually I think Wotan is a big bore and I didn’t this time.
Pélleas: He was really great. He kept me emotionally engaged during his Act 2 monologue, which is one of my favorite parts of the opera, but one that is really easy to make boring. And the absolute disdain that he packed into his command to Hunding to die was chilling.
Zerbinetta: Yeah, but the staging of the fight was pathetic. Lots of people standing around.
Pélleas: Believe it or not, it actually came off as exciting live. But that’s because so much else was boring…. And let’s be honest, none of the singers were really required to act in this production. The emotional engagement they produced through their acting was really in spite of the production, not because of it.
Zerbinetta: I think the idea is that there’s a spectacular background for the singers to do their thing in front of, but really, you need more directorial interpretation get the Ring to hold together and get the singers to act together instead of independently. I think it’s lifted out of Chéreau but I loved when Siegmund recognized Wotan and then died in his arms at the very end of Act 2. Probably the only theatrical moment between two characters I thought was really emotionally genuine and touching.

Pélleas: If only we could bring in Freyer to explain the emotional/mythological resonances of these characters BETWEEN each other! A good example is Fricka’s scene with Wotan. She does a great job of projecting wounded power while asserting that her pride will never be completely killed (and Blythe was amazing as always) and Terfel did a great job of expressing his descent into madness and grief at that moment – seeing all of his plans unravel because of his own hubris and his need to obey his wife’s command. Both acted convincingly enough in that scene, but they were pretty much doing it independently of each other.
Zerbinetta: The lack of detailed direction really showed in the closeups. Everyone spent a lot more time looking towards Levine that they did at each other. Also, that awkward dinner scene in Act 1 with everyone sitting around the table giving each other side-eye including very avuncular Hunding and you couldn’t see them below the knees? Looked like a TV show to me. This TV show is super-dramatic, it puts the opera back in soap opera, and it is called “One Tree Sword.” Ratings, um, gold! Even against Eurovision. (I am still sad I missed Eurovision.)
Pélleas: Yeah, hated that staging. A.— tried to say that it made it more emotional when they declared their love for each other and they came out so you could see them below the knees, but I don’t buy it. At least Kaufmann seemed to not always be looking at Levine. And he was the one person to be constantly moving about, as if he actually was young and spry. And the hottness factor and great voice doesn’t hurt.
Zerbinetta: You are obviously aware that Jonas Kaufmann is the Bestest is one of the guiding principles of this blog. I liked him a lot, the Wälses weren’t actually that great but the lyrical parts were, dramatic but also subtle. And the Todesverkündigung was so beautiful. From him. Not so much from Voigt.
Pélleas: I found Voigt’s voice beautiful enough (and Jonas’s absolutely heartbreaking and thrilling). But it didn’t help that the WORST STAGING EVER happened during the annunciation of death.
Zerbinetta: It made me want to run home and watch shirtless Peter Hofmann and Gwyneth Jones on YouTube in the Chéreau. The horns at the beginning of that scene always give me chills. It is in fact my favorite scene in all of Wagner.
Pélleas: You can’t have a moment of such gravity be announced with Brunhilde simply WALKING onto the stage looking exactly as she had before. Even the drab and literal Schenk staging had her wear a cool warrior’s mask to give that scene some amount of gravitas.
Zerbinetta: I agree! Also, why didn’t Sieglinde wake up at some point considering how Siegmund was shaking her? This is a production that leads you towards silly literalism, because its terms are so literal. And yet its look is so unfinished plus the giant traditional costumes that if I were seeing it in Germany I would suspect some weak-ass Verfremdung was going on. But about Voigt: she was miles better than the Brünnhilde I saw in Vienna in April and I liked her sassiness, but I didn’t like her tonal color much, often sour below the top notes. And after the OK hojotoho her German was pretty bad and she didn’t put across the meaning of the text like Terfel and Kaufmann did (Blythe was also interpretively bland, I thought, but THAT SOUND). And there were a few moments wherein she grinned inappropriately when I thought she really needed a director to get her to put together the emotional beats more clearly.

Pélleas: A lot of the more intimate moments could have been much more emotional if thought had been given to him. I think Lepage recognized this and tried to do something interesting during the long monologues (Sigmund’s in Act I and Wotan’s in Act II), but his solution was to do more of his techno wizardry. For the record I disliked the shadow fight in Act I because it was so damn literal and liked the Eye of Color in Act II simply because it was less literal. Except when it mentioned the Ring and an image that was probably licensed from New Line popped up. As if we didn’t already know that Lord of the Rings and Wagner are the same thing.
Zerbinetta: But you had A.— with you, she could probably read the Elvish on the Ring (she is going to kill me if she reads this).
Pélleas: haha
Zerbinetta: Bechtolf did the shadow thing in much less elaborate fashion in Vienna’s Ring, in some of the same places even, and I thought the same thing. Doesn’t add anything, and distracts from the fact that the act of narration itself and the viewpoint of the narrator is a loaded concept in Wagner. Siegmund and Wotan’s stories aren’t neutral exposition. Neither director seemed to appreciate this (though there was the eye, implying some kind of viewpoint, oh damn, I’m just going to go back to Herheim while I still can), but Lepage has so many bells and whistles that it is less obvious that he has nothing to say and an equally simplistic view of the piece. My concern is that this staging has no soul. The Machine lacks a Ghost (yes I thought of that line partway through the show last night).
Pélleas: The only emotional investment is what each individual singer brings to the table. Which can sometimes be sufficient for individual scenes, but doesn’t lead to a sense of continuity across the opera(s). To be clear though, I left the opera house extremely happy and excited, as did A.—. Because the singing was almost uniformly excellent (or above par) the orchestra exciting, and the staging had some really exciting moments that can overshadow the drabness. But it’s like a contact high, when you think about it afterwards you realize there wasn’t really much there. Whereas with Freyer I was thinking for days or weeks afterwards and kept having fun doing so. I’m jealous of you for seeing the whole Freyer Ring btw. In case you didn’t already know that 😉
Zerbinetta: Freyer yes! As for Lepage I kind of had a similar reaction but more moderate (I guess because I didn’t get the big effects very well). The singing really was very good and the performers involving by sheer force of will. But all flash and little depth. More broadly, I guess that’s what bothers me most about the Met’s current artistic direction. It’s so anti-intellectual. I mean not everything has to be hard but they seem so unwilling to challenge audiences at all. (I’m saying this from the happy position of publicly funded Europe.)
Pélleas: I don’t think we’re going to be getting any Regie anytime soon unfortunately
Zerbinetta: Tchnerniakov is on Met Futures for Prince Igor! That’s hard-core Regie right there. Decker’s Traviata seemed to go well and that’s legit Regie. So I have some hope but mostly for imported productions.
Pélleas: But there’s also the option of genuinely beautiful. The Met’s staging of Tristan for example isn’t particularly difficult, but the austere set and props has a beautiful aesthetic that Lepage lacks, precisely because it doesn’t try to be literal.
Zerbinetta: There definitely is a place for genuinely beautiful austere productions. I just wish we could have a place for all sorts of productions that could co-exist happily like a little operatic We Are the World.
Pélleas: Just looking at Met Futures right now. They’re having LePage direct The Tempest??? mrrr
Zerbinetta: Apparently? I’m not a big Adès fan so I don’t really care too much to be honest. I’m mostly worried about the prominence of Bartlett Sher. I can’t stand Bartlett Sher
Pélleas: I LOVE Thomas Adès
Zerbinetta: I should listen to more Adès. I’ll try. Anna Nicole actually got me into Turnage. But I have to go and eat something before the Sellars show tonight. Is there anything we must say about Walküre that we have not said?
Pélleas: I don’t believe so. Enjoy Sellars & co!
Zerbinetta: Have a great afternoon over there.
Pélleas: I shall. talk to you soon!
Zerbinetta: ciao! (as they say, improbably, in German.)
Pélleas: wtf? silly Germans.

It occurred to me later that we left out an important factor: how will this staging age? In 10 years will the Met still be stuck with a Ring that looks like how Space Invaders looks to us now, only not so cutely retro? In my opinion, storytelling ages better than gadgets, but we’ll see.

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met Opera.

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