lietofinelondon

Die Walküre – The Misintentioned Mechanics of Lepage’s Production

In Classical Music, Opera on May 6, 2011 at 7:21 am

Listening to – Violin Concerto, Faust/Brahms

Having attended the opening night and second performance of Robert Lepage’s production of Die Walküre at the Met, there was something distinctly ‘baroque’ about the whole evening.

It seemed to me that rather than the stage machinery and technology providing a foundation to enhance the drama, in fact the whole production seemed to rely almost excessively on the mechanics and, in a sense, forsaking Wagner’s own concept of Gesamtkunst. That is not to say that the music, and the performances were not, on the whole, incredibly strong, but throughout both the evenings that I attended there was a real sense that mechanical intervention had been permitted – or instructed deliberately – to take precedence. Indeed it was interesting to hear the interval and post-performance chatter. It wasn’t about the performances, or Levine’s conducting, but it had a distinctly ‘How the devil did he do that’ quality.

In a sense Lepage’s production sought – as they did in baroque and early 18th century opera – to overwhelm the audience with feats of mechanical engineering. Of course, this may have worked well in operas of earlier generations when gods, flying chariots, and flying scenery changes offered a distraction from the recitative that alternated with the arias for which the audience even stopped talking. But in Wagner where the music is – to coin a distinctly 18th century term – through-composed, then it almost served as a distraction.

The use of a single, if impressive, mechanical plateau of moving planks also leant itself to restrictions. While the opening, driven forward by Levine’s knowledgeable conducting and love of the score, looked visually arresting as the projections morphed from a snow storm, via a forest to the wooden piles of Hunding’s hut, it offered little, if any, sense of atmosphere or real location. There was no sense of the singers interacting with their environment. Surprising and not a little disappointing considering that Hamburg’s recent production demonstrated that even a ‘big white empty space’ could invoke a sense of reality and emotional projection. For most of the evening, it felt like singing from the school of ‘stand and deliver’, with isolated moments when what would have seemed like perfectly acceptable actions simply felt wildly over-acted and almost inappropriate. I call to mind in particular Kaufman’s rushing about the stage swinging Northung.

Similarly the Second Act – where Deborah Voigt came a cropper on her first entry on the first night and which clearly unnerved her for the rest of the performance – felt similarly devoid of a sense of place. The use of an eye as Wotan recounted the events at led him to his current predicament to Brunnhilde had a definite Tolkiensian feeling and similarly, the previous scenes involving Fricka, literally glued to her rams’ chariot, would have had an almost comical feel had it not been for Stephanie Blythe’s mesmerising performance. I wondered if Fricka had been condemned to her chariot for fear of her own safety.

The Final Act began and ended ‘on Broadway’. The Valkyries arrived riding the automated, moving planks which elicited much applause from the New York audience, and until the final denouément, it felt like Lepage only threw in a few animations of falling snow (or was it clouds?) for fear that the concentration of the collective audience would wander. Clearly Lepage doesn’t know his Wagner audience. The snow, or clouds, were a distraction.

The final scene, seeing Brunnhilde – well an actress, not Voigt – upended on a cliff face was visually arresting but provided none of the sense of scale of the previous production by Schenk. This was not helped by the fact that Terfel and Voigt had to exit ‘stage left’ so that Wotan could rise in the lift backstage to hoist pseudo-Brunnhilde aloft. By that point it didn’t surprise and seemed a real sense of anti-climax as the picture was already in the public domain and therefore the reveal was spoiled.

And maybe because of the restrictions imposed by the stages, the lighting was incredibly simple, with an over-reliance on spotlighting the singers and, I admit, in one stunning moment, Northung plunged into the oak. Yet bar this specific instances, lighting seemed to be limited to two settings – on and off.

What was equally surprising were the costumes of the characters. From the chain mail of Siegfried and the breast-plated armour of Wotan and the Valkyrie to the distinctly pseudo-Celtic robes of Sieglinde, Fricka and Hunding, the costumes would not have looked out of place in Schenk’s production which this replaced.

In the same way, any direction of the characters was simply lacking. Again I put this down to a reliance on the mechanics to convey the narrative and sense of action. For the most part, and as I have mentioned above, the mantra seemed to be ‘stand and deliver’ but there were moments of genuine acting and it is worth noting which singers seemed keen to extend beyond the restrictions imposed on them. At the end of the first act, Kaufman and Westbroek engaged in some ‘real acting’ as they declared their love for one another, and Stephanie Blythe, despite being condemned to her horned throne, managed to convey a real sense of anger, frustration and – dare I say it – lost love for Wotan.

Yet despite the distractions provided by Lepage’s set, the singing and playing was of an incredibly high, if not consistent, standard. The main cast were: Jonas Kaufman (Siegmund); Eva-Maria Westbroek and Margaret-Jane Wray (Sieglinde); Peter Koenig (Hunding); Bryn Terfel (Wotan); Deborah Voigt (Brunnhilde) and Stephanie Blythe (Fricka). On the First Night Westbroek was replaced by Wray for the second and third acts.

This was, I believe, Kaufman’s debut at the Met, and considering his repertory roles in Germany, his first Siegmund. He was, on the whole, impressive. Having already sung principal roles in Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Rienzi, Kaufmann has a real sense of Wagner’s vocal line, and a brilliant and bell-like upper register. However Siegmund pushes the vocal range for tenors at both ends of the scale, and there were occasional moments when Kaufmann’s delivery of lower notes grumbled. However this was a small rice to pay for a vigorous and beautifully sung Siegmund.

Eva-Maria Westbroek was also making her debut at the Met, yet Sieglinde is fast becoming a signature role for her. Despite her incapacity on the first night, she demonstrated hat she is one of the leading Sieglinde’s of today, comparable with the likes of Angela Denoke who performed the role in Hamburg. Incapacitated on opening night, on her second night, Westbroek revelled in the vocal lines, effortlessly rising against the orchestra when she needed to but also capable of dropping to a deathly whisper as required in the second act. Her final scene before departing to the woods was vocally secure, beautifully phrased and rang out over the orchestra. Without doubt she will on day move from an impressive Sieglinde to an equally defining Brunnhilde.

Margaret-Jane Wray stepped in at short notice on the first night and delivered a finely rendered character. She is a fine Wagnerian soprano, with the heft for the role although – perhaps because of the last minute nature of her appearance – she occasionally over-sang. Regardless, it was a brave and heart-felt performance.

Clearly Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde was the Met’s main focus. In costume she dominated the marketing for the production, and overall she did not disappoint. Despite her first night slip, she delivered a worthy Brunnhilde. Her musicality, and understanding of the role were never in doubt and she has gleaming top notes with an almost even tone through her range. However, and perhaps even on the second night she was still wary of the set, on occasion her voice would possess an almost metallic, harsh tone, particular in the upper register. Brunnhilde may be a role that Voigt wants to sing, but perhaps it isn’t ultimately a role that suits her. There were occasions when her voice felt too small for the role and she physically seemed to struggle. She is not – and perhaps never will be – a Brunnhilde in the manner of Stemme or Dalayman.

Stephanie Blythe demonstrated that despite the limitations imposed upon her, she is one of the leading acting singers in the stage today. She delivered a three-dimensional Fricka who – unlike the equally engaging Fricka of Lilli Paasikivi – was still in love with her husband and demonstrated a frailty that is certainly not the norm for Fricka. However, considering my distinct feeling of Lepage’s deliberate disassociation from actually directing the singers, I credit Blythe with this interpretation. And as for her singing? Simply wonderful. Hers is a rich and resonant mezzo, even throughout with a luxuriant, warm tone. It was probably the single moment in the whole production when all eyes and ears were focused on the singing and acting. The staging had melted away. Superb.

So to Terfel and his Wotan. It was a convincingly rendered role and Terfel is a fine singer. But he left me wanting more. He was in good voice and his characterisation was finely tuned – indeed his scene with Fricka was a highlight for me – but there was a sense that he was not engaged with the production.

And finally, what of Levine? He is an incredible conductor. His love of Wagner and his understanding of the scale and architectural expanses of score enabled him not only to draw fine playing from the orchestra and in particular the brass, but he also provided that real sense of the seamlessness so critical in this opera. His was richly deserved cheer and ovation at the beginning, middle and end of both evenings.

Yet, despite the excellent conducting and fine – and occasionally brilliant singing – I left the Lincoln Center feeling – like the singers – disengaged from the evening’s performance. Individually the performances were good, but with the exception of Blythe and Westbroek, they were not magnificent. And Lepage seemed to forsake any real sense of direction or narrative, relying instead on the mechanics of his staging for effect. Sadly, Lepage had tried – and in my view – failed in his self-professed goal – to marry twenty-first century technology with Wagner’s Gesamtkunst – the unity of music, text and scenic setting.

Perhaps they should have just given Schenk’s traditional sets a new coat of paint.

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  1. Nice Work…

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