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The Grandeur of Grand Opera

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
01/07/2008 -  and January 14, 29, February 2, 6, 9. (Note: Deborah Voigt is Sieglinde in the last four performances).
Richard Wagner: Die Walküre
Lisa Gasteen (Brünnhilde), Adrianne Pieczonka (Sieglinde), Stephanie Blythe (Fricka) Clifton Forbis (Siegmund), James Morris (Wotan), Mikhail Petrenko (Hunding), Kelly Cae Hogan (Gerhilde), Cladia Waite (Helmwige), Laura Wlasak Nolen (Waltraute), Jane Bunnell (Schwertleite), Wendy Bryn Harmer (Ortlinde), Leann Sandel-Pantaleo (Siegrune), Edyta Kulczak Grimgerde), Mary Phillips (Rossweisse)
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Lorin Maazel (conductor)
Otto Schenk (Production), Günther Schneider-Siemssen (Set and projection Designer), Rolf Langenfass (Costume designer), Gil Wechsler (Lighting Designer), Phebe Berkowitz (Stage Director)

Like Sherlock’s dog who didn’t bark, Lorin Maazel’s 45-year absence from the Metropolitan Opera generated as much hubbub as the first measures of his opera, Die Walküre. These were years well spent in Europe and America, sometimes with opera, more often with his beloved symphony orchestras. But as the very first American to conduct the Ring Cycle in Bayreuth itself, and as the man who created a rather brilliant hour-long Ring without words, Maazel has been sorely missed.

No, Peter Gelb did not design a new production of the Wagner for Maazel’s Prodigal Son return. But the youngish cast, the 40-year-old production by Otto Schenk and the incredible design by Günther Schneider-Siemssen reason enough to revel in the opera.

Since the entire Ring was not scheduled, Die Walküre was a wise choice. For of all four operas, this is the most human, the only opera whose story can be valued without the baggage of magic rings, dwarves, giants, frogs, bears, and the whole Aryan-Norse-Wagnerian Talmudic epic which climaxes, notch, with the end of the world.

In fact, Die Walküre is as much soap- as Wagner-opera, the personas virtually stock characters... Here is the hard-working father losing control of his favorite daughter; the daughter who loves her father but chooses emotion over duty; her own siblings who rant and rave but are total cowards in the face of their father; the wife of a sexless marriage who henpecks her ex-husband into submission; the cuckold husband who seeks revenge. And of course, the ill-fated boy and girl who fall madly, irrationally, passionately (and incestuously) in love.

Like an extended family, divinities and mortals are all related. But this, the first day of the Ring (though the penultimate opera to be composed) is all too human.

Human until the music, which takes these all-too-mortal deities and elevates their emotions to a heavenly pantheon. So any production of Die Walküre must face two challenges. One is to soar with the basically symphonic vocalizations, and one must give them the personalities which justify the towering music itself.

I must confess going to opening night with dread, having seen the entire Gergiev Ring last year. Whatever one has to say about the music, the whole design seemed to have been assembled out of a 99-cent store on Manhattan’s 14th Street. It would have looked cheap in a Darfur opera house.

One had no fear with Günther Schneider-Siemssen’ sets. Outside of the very subtle special effects, this could have been a stylized Bayreuth production. It was overwhelming in scope, sometimes gorgeous, always foreboding. The first act house of Hunding was a massive dark structure of rocks, timbers, a fiery hearth and the imposing baronial doors. Act Three was a replica of what Wagner specified: the summit of a rocky mountain, with a cave and great rocks, looking much like a Peruvian Inca fortress site. (And for your information, while the Valkyries spoke of horses, not a steed was to be found).

But it was the Second Act, the “wild craggy place” which had a dream-like (and sometimes nightmarish) effect. Giant Van Gogh-like cypresses on either side, with an interior encompassed by a sky which could have been designed by Dürer. The clouds and portents of thunder moved imperceptibly, but echoed were meteorological omens of the human-god storms of the story.

Otto Schenk’s direction does as much as possible for acts which are basically static. One becomes so accustomed to the slow moves that when the Valkyries themselves are frolicking around, they resemble little puppies. One longs for the long monologues, where the music stands out.

While most of the singers were young, James Morris as Wotan is probably the most experienced Wotan in the world today. Tall, stately, sad and ferocious, his is the most complex dramatic role, and Morris makes every move correctly. The third act ending is one of those impossible Wagnerian things where he exercises grief, anger, torment and love, at different measures. He made it work. His voice is today not overwhelming but in his great section over the Curse Motif, he was expressive, restrained and noble.

The most impressive voice, though, belonged to Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka. If Wagner could have a bel canto soprano, she was it, with a voice of an almost unearthly purity. Perhaps the passion of the First Act was too much for such a voice, but her farewell to Brünnhilde (much of it lying down) was as thrilling as anything I have ever heard in Wagner. Her replacement for the last performances will be the great Deborah Voight, but I don’t see how she could be improved upon.
Australian soprano Lisa Gasteen was an impressive Brünnhilde though there seemed little change of color through all her emotional traumas. Clinton Forbis’ Siegmund never sweet (though one automatically compares it with Domingo, with whom there is no comparison.)

Of the other two, Stephanie Blythe has the rather thankless role of the virago Fricka, which sounded beautiful when forceful. Mikhail Petrenko’s Hunding looked fearful on stage, but his bass was perhaps understated.

And now we come to Maazel himself. When he last conducted the Met orchestra, it was hardly in the great ranks. Today, it is certainly amongst the finest orchestras for any occasion, thanks to Levine’s nurturing. At the beginning, Maazel was slow, careful, a bit stilted. He warmed up considerably, but, musician as he was, never ever took the orchestra over the top: the singers were the thing.
And by the time of the Magic Fire, Maazel had singers and orchestra at such an intense pitch that those final notes before the curtain became—literally—a blazing peroration.

Harry Rolnick



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