I despair. I really do. Yesterday’s MetHD broadcast of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera had so much going for it. The singing was brilliant and David Alden’s production seemed to have plenty of interesting ideas. I say “seemed” because we only got the briefest of brief glimpses of it in between the succession of close ups served up by video director Matthew Diamond. On the odd occasions we got to see more than a head or a body it was usually from a weird angle. It’s particularly irritating because the two elements of the production that seemed to be most important were the ones most ruthlessly undermined. Alden’s movement of chorus, supers and dancers and the contrast between what they do and what the principals do seems to be important but who knows? Similarly his use of contrasting spaces, especially in Act 3, is obviously important but when the viewer gets only a couple of seconds to establish the context before the camera moves in and loses it the effect is fatally weakened.
Once in a while an opera performance really blows you away and it becomes quite hard to write about, especially when the work is as long and dense as Die Walküre because even with a great performance one is in overload by the end. Yesterday’s broadcast from the Met was one of those experiences. Here’s what I think I saw!
The show started forty minutes late, which is not good news for a show scheduled to run five and a half hours anyway. There was no explanation of the delay until the first interval prompting speculation about Maestro Levine dropping out again or a stagehand being crushed by The Machine. It turned out to be a relatively prosaic component fault on The Machine(1).
The first act was terrific. Jonas Kauffman was a completely convincing Siegmund who combined power with beauty of tone. Eva Maria Westbroek was a Sieglinde with a genuine touch of vulnerability and Hans-Peter Kõnig was perfectly solid as Hunding. The chemistry was there though I may have seen more ecstatic conclusions to the act. The Machine was mostly used to represent a forest with characters passing in and out of the trees in quite a convincing manner. It was a very strong act.
Act 2 was also pretty strong. The confrontation between Stephanie Blythe’s Fricka and Bryn Terfel’s Wotan was epic. The chemistry between Wotan and Deb Voigt’s Brünnhilde was amazing. At the bottom of this is perhaps the most controversial aspect of the production (The Machine aside), Deb’s interpretation of Wotan’s warrior daughter. Hers is a very young, tomboyish Valkyrie. It’s far from the majesty of, say, Birgitt Nilsson but it gives room for the character to develop through the next two operas to that most devastating of all operatic climaxes. Her singing matched the take on the character being somewhat lighter than perhaps the norm. Is that deliberate for now or a limitation in the voice? Ultimately we’ll see in Götterdämmerung. The final scene of the act with Siegmund and Sieglinde was excellent. Deb steeled up into the implacable warrior goddess before melting again in the face of Siegmund’s love. Really well done. In this act, The Machine functioned alternately as a rocky landscape for the first two scenes and a forest for the last. Spare but reasonably effective and nobody lost their footing.
Act 3 starts with the “Ride of the Valkyries” and now The Machine came into it’s own. Eaxh Valkyrie rode a “plank” as if a horse with the planks bucking wildly until each in turn dipped to the stage allowing the singer to slide down the plank and onto the stage. It worked. I have to be honest I was getting tired by this point and I think my critical faculties were waning but the singing and acting seemed to be sustained at a high level through Wotan’s confrontation with Brünnhilde. Again here, the youngness/immaturity of Deb’s Brünnhilde added to the drama. The final fire scene was another triumph for The Machine with Brünnhilde ending up suspended upside down, high above the stage with the flames flickering around her as a distraught Wotan watches from stage level and the curtain comes down.
The conducting and orchestral playing was quite wonderful. Watching Jimmy Levine hauling himself awkwardly and painfully into his chair in the pit one wondered what was going to happen. Then from first chord to last the orchestra produced a gorgeous and thrilling flood of sound and there is nothing on earth like Wagner played this well.
Small, local bonus; Leonardo Vordoni, who conducted La Cenerentola that we saw last night was in the cinema (again) and I was able to ask him about Levine and how he does it. He waved his hand about and said “it’s less about this, than (pointing to his heart) this”. Long may Maestro Levine’s heart keep going.
(1) The Machine is the 45 tonne multi-million dollar contraption around which Robert LePage’s vision of The Ring (literally) revolves. Some critics regard it as a soulless (and boring) infatuation with technology and a way of avoiding thinking about “meaning” in the work. Some think it’s a valid attempt to present the cycle as Wagner might have done if he had access to the technology. My own view is that I think Wagner would have loved it but that’s no excuse for ignoring the psychological aspects of the tetrology. After Das Rheingold I was worried that we were going to get technology and just technology. Now I’m more optimistic. And honestly, with singing and playing as good as yesterday I could shut my eyes and still get my money’s worth.
I am concerned though about the reliability of the thing. Two performances out of about twenty have now been affected by major issues with the machine. The odds of a major failure are about on a par with an Angela Gheorghiu no show and that’s not good enough.