Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The New Walkure

So…about that Walkure premiere last Friday. Not a home run, music wise, but a lot going for it:

Voigt confidently meets the role’s basic demands (this premiere should really silence the shrillest doubters) and, for sheer vocal appeal, is clearly in a superior class than your Gasteens and your Watsons. But if her top notes can still capture that steely purity, further down the staff things grows hollow and pinched. More problematic was the fact that her reading Friday was fairly pedestrian; passages meant to bloom with careful dynamics came off as secure but blunt. Hopefully this is attributable to needing some time to grow in the part (and the run) and not a sign that the level of security she achieves comes at the price of the finesse that really makes the part exciting. Her Brunnhilde wasn’t quite as superficial as fall’s dramatically flat Salome’s in DC, but the overall impression just isn’t terribly authoritative as of yet.

As expected, Terfel is much better served by the Walkure Wotan than the Rheingold one. While that coveted “deity timbre” is clearly not on the table, and the spectre of barkiness can never quite be dispelled, his interpretation offers some undeniable pleasures, like a bitter, haunted Act II monologue and a melting “Der Augen Leuchtendes Paar” that reminded everyone why his casting seemed like a good idea in the first place.

Kaufmann and Blythe are the principles that really deliver without reservation. My small quibble with Kaufmann is that his Siegmund has lots of potential for a great portrayal but would benefit from a bit more freedom and lacked something in the seduction department (Jimmy wasn’t doing him any favors in the pit, mind you). That said, if you see him don’t say anything because with that remarkable voice he should clearly be owning Met Siegmunds for the next decade or so. Blythe is a total pro in this music and offers the complete Wagnerian package—her booming Fricka combined spine-tingling sound with jumbo-sized doses of spite and indignation (I was up against the wall in Fam Circ and could hear her rattling the paneling). Westbroek’s Sieglinde sounded excellent in the first Act but was apparently ill—her fancy cover was Margaret Jane Wray who drove things home with little missed.

Hearing the Met Orchestra play this music with all their exceptional precision and warmth is always a privilege, though Levine turned in a somewhat subpar performance on the heels of his riveting Wozzecks. The problems, as others have noted, were most pronounced in the first Act, which never really managed to catch fire as it should. One can take slower tempos in Act I, of course, provided the payoff is a richer experience of the score, but Levine’s heel-dragging was carried out in rigid four-four time, largely smothering any opportunities for the sensuality and abandon called for. Acts II and III picked up substantially, but I still could have used a little more feeling and sweep in the big Act III moments.

* * *

As far as the production goes: sorry, but I’m out. I wanted to be a good sport about this new Ring, and last night’s Walkure made a much bigger effort than the fall’s Rheingold, but it also proved just what a mess the thing is.

To go back to basics: an opera production follows a certain aesthetic or conceptual frame in order to highlight and enhance intellectual and emotional aspects of the piece in question. In some productions, your Chereau Bayreuth Ring for instance, the visual language helps to articulate a fairly specific interpretation (the industrial revolution setting driving the audience to consider the political and historical currents in the Ring). In something like the New Bayreuth productions of the 50s, severe aesthetic parameters encourage a dialogue with the Ring's past productions and challenge the audience to appreciate it anew without all the baggage.

Even the hyper naturalistic Schenk Ring is far from “neutral” in its production values—it delivers emotional impact by heightening the romantic use of nature that permeates the piece (e.g. Wotan is like an awesome mountain, Siegfried’s puberty is like a sunrise, etc). Its claims to authenticity are as much a konzept as anything, engaging the audience in questions about whether an “authentic” representation brings us closer to or narrows our experience of the piece. And, of course, whether “authentic” is even a worthwhile or possible goal.

The aesthetic of this LePage ring is: “making the big set machine look like whatever we can manage, hopefully pretty”. It is an anti-production, a production without an idea in its head, and unified only by the constant desperation to pull off pleasing looking things within the meaningless parameters of its physical materials. Its most ambitious claim is simply that it can be done—that it will live up to vague promises to astonish. The experience of watching it, waiting Gollum-like for the meager thrill of a spinning plank or fleeting sparkly graphic, is intellectually deadening—an astonishing conclusion to reach while watching a piece so rich with dramatic and intellectual possibility.

Yes, on the surface it seems to be going for some of the same territory as the Schenk production, and there are some nice looking bits to be sure, particularly the trees/snow setup for Siegmund’s opening run through the forest. But any gestures in this direction are just a convenient way to provide some cover for its empty soul. No one really aiming to present beauty and nature onstage—implying an experience that is seamless, elegant, and inspiring to look at—could justify mounting a production which routinely asks the audience to watch the unadorned planks in all their horrible nakedness.

With the needs of the machine reigning supreme, it is perhaps not surprising the extent to which the normal considerations of stagecraft are sacrificed or neglected in this production. The machine generally constricts the singers’ playing space to 10-15 feet between the raised apron and the whirling planks of death, and within this narrow band they are choreographed with a shoddiness embarrassing for such a major stage. Key blocking moments (i.e. the final Brunnhilde/Wotan moment) are played clumsily and have little emotional impact; elegant solutions of routine staging challenges (i.e. how to make Brunnhilde’s getaway at the end of Act II mildly plausible) are simply not attempted (she stares at Wotan’s back for 90 seconds from two feet away before slowly gathering her things and walking off).

Also, the lighting is bad—for long stretches the singers look like they are being illuminated by the Met’s work lights. Even when things are a tad more deliberate, the lighting design does little to evoke the dramatic locale or moment. Consider the Valkyrie horse gimmick: so, yes, the Valkyries each “ride” a plank that bobs up and down kinda like a big horse head. But that’s it. They are bobbing up and down on a uniform brightly lit set that does nothing to evoke a night sky or horses or whatever. The point of this “coup-de-theatre” is not to bring to life this improbable moment onstage—it is to “inspire” the audience to clinically examine the bobbing motion, determine it is like horses, and applaud. Theatrical illusions are supposed to awe by persuading the audience that extraordinary things (helicopters landing, cats flying tires, etc) are happening onstage—LePage’s Ring defines illusion down.

Another complaint: even more so than Rheingold, this Walkure features a number of moments in which one fears for the safety of singers or extras. That’s not to say they are sacrificing singers’ safety for the production—I’m sure everything is on the up and up—but it points to how the design team’s concerns lie with creating apparent thrills rather than real visceral excitement. Audience members may be impressed that you hung someone upside down 30 feet in the air, but if done poorly they don’t actually enjoy it. Take the final scene on the rock: stunt double Brunnhilde is shuffled to the top of the machine, gingerly laid down (attached to some kind of invisible harness) and then very slowly lifted to be upside down and vertical, to get the effect of the audience looking down on top of the mountain, with the whirring planks doing a poor imitation of fire on all sides. By the end of the whole clumsy set up, shown in excruciating detail with little sense of surprise, the audience is simply glad that not-Voigt hasn’t fallen to her death.

But I’ll stop there. I have no problem with a “traditional” Ring, and certainly not a “traditional” Ring that tries to get where it is going with novel means instead of papier-mâché boulders. But there needs to be a destination—some vision for the 17 plus hours of the Ring that gives it a life or meaning that could never be achieved on a concert stage. The disturbing thing about LePage’s Ring is that it isn’t derived from any vision for the Ring, but a narrow vision for a spectacle which isn’t even very spectacular.

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