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Better Late Than Never

May 15, 2011

Act III of Die Walküre Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2011

This Saturday's matinee of Die Walküre at The Metropolitan Opera was thrilling in the way opera always is. There are so many elements all unfolding simultaneously that disaster seems to lurk around every corner and moments of greatness stand right alongside those of mediocrity. How it all breaks down is part of the fun. The in house audience, held in the lobby, saw the noon start time come and go with little more than an announcement pointing out that the show was in fact delayed and that we'd all get in when they were ready for us. As it turns out, we got into our seats just before that, as stage crew were still working on Robert Lepage's giant mechanical rotating set trying to coax it back to life as we entered the auditorium. A few minutes later the curtain came down providing the stage surgeons some privacy. And some forty minutes after start time, things got underway as the machine lurched into motion even if the paper thin dramatic vision behind it would never materialize. But more on that "much ado about nothing" later.

The delay was soon put aside for most in the audience when it became clear this would be an afternoon where naysayers would get their comeuppance on a number of fronts. First and foremost of those achieving deserved props was Deborah Voigt. Bitching and moaning about her casting in this role has dogged her in many corners for over a year. Her recent appearances as Minnie did little to cool the flames among the chattering classes that this was not going to be pretty. But her Brünnhilde was nothing but a success. Powerful and steely, she never turned shrill and managed a youthful and very engaging performance. Granted it didn't have the clarity or beauty of say a Nina Stemme, but trust me, if Linda Watson gets invited back to Bayreuth year after year to sing this role, Voigt delivered world-class singing by standard contemporary measures.

Then there was the matter of Music Director James Levine. As I mentioned yesterday, he's been the focus of intense speculation regarding his health and his future in his current job at the Met. There's even been a bit of a counter-offensive going on in recent weeks as well with Levine sitting down with Terry Gross and on SiriusXM to clear the air about his health and other topics. I'm not terribly drawn to this hand-wringing over Levine in any direction. But I can tell you this - he and the orchestra were on fire Saturday. Rich and warm, then forceful and dug in, the orchestra gave twice as much as I remember in the last Die Walküre I heard here. Maybe it was the ongoing HD broadcast that created such urgency, who knows? But it sure sounded like one for the record books from where I sat. Levine stayed in the pit for the curtain calls. But you know what, it's time to give the man a break on this health business. As far as any public information goes, the man has back problems, people. Millions of people do, often missing days to months of work and sometimes with physical limitations that can take a long time to resolve. Get over it. If the U.S. can have a president in a wheelchair for decades, the Met can find a way to get James Levine in the pit to give performances like this one as long as he still cares to do so, I imagine.

If there was an artist who didn't receive any retribution Saturday, it was Robert Lepage. His Ring production and its massive technical wizardry has improved since Das Rheingold earlier this season. There is more creative use of the apparatus and a powerful final image of Brünnhilde hanging suspended from above surrounded by fiery projections on the moving set as if the audience is staring down from the sky. But these moments are still too few and far between in a show where the scene changes are typically the most attractive moments. There remains a major problem with the matter of actually guiding the bodies of human beings on stage. Lepage is a master of the spit-take equivalent. Throughout there are ham-handed gestures that border on the farcical as when Sieglinde drops her bundle of wood on first seeing Siegmund or Fricka's histrionic chair-clutching tears during her argument with Wotan. At times the whole production looks like little more than a Hollywood superhero movie knock off. The show desperately needs some adult feeling injected into it to break up the variation between the boring and the adolescent.

But Thor is not the only show in town with some big hot stars doing what they do best. The Met's Die Walküre boasts some of the finest vocal performances I've seen this year. Stephanie Blythe's Fricka and Jonas Kaufmann's Siegmund were unassailable. Both sang with such power, control and sheer muscularity that they eclipsed whatever nonsense was, or more often wasn't, going on around them. Eva-Maria Westbroek reportedly had a rough go at the start of this run, but she shone on Saturday with all the fear and anguish you could want. Even Bryn Terfel's Wotan came to life. After a rather detached turn in Das Rheingold he seemed more invested this time around. He could still get croony at times and the fabric exploding out of the backside of his costume did him no favors, although he was relieved of the Pete Burns comb over from the fall. But he had me believing what he had to sing more often than not, which is really what matters. And it was really the success of these performances paired with a superb musical performance from the pit that really made this show exciting throughout despite its many shortcomings. It certainly sounded that way in the audience by the time those curtain calls came around. And even if the least interesting element of the show was the one most responsible for the lengthy delay in the afternoon's start time, it still ended up being very much worth the wait.



Given that all you said about James Levine's back condition — including that he's not the only person in the world to have this affliction — the problem is that when I buy a very expensive ticket to see Mr. Levine conduct, I expect him to do so, whether it's at the Met or the Boston Symphony. Fabrio Luisi is, undoubtedly, a fine conductor but it's unfair to the public to make ticket purchases a crap shoot, certainly at the prices the Met charges. Of course, illness can derail any performer occasionally but with Mr. Levine, we're no longer talking about "occasionally."
Thanks for the comment Bob. However, this is another old trope that I find completely unconvincing. Yes tickets are expensive and no one likes to be disappointed. (Trust me. You name the star including Levine and I can tell you where they bagged on me, sometimes half way around the world.)

But the whole point of opera, if not all performance based art, is essentially the struggle to overcome human fallibility - be that performing unthinkable acts of virtuosity or rising above seemingly insurmountable odds. Opera is exciting precisely because it almost always goes wrong in some way making the times it doesn't all the more precious.

If someones view of the value of a ticket to a large scale group artistic endeavor like an opera or concert performance is based so largely on the appearance of a particular individual performer I would suggest that it might be time to think about investing in a new hobby. Levine, like all artists, is first and foremost a human. Buyer beware - you get exactly what you pay for.
"Opera is exciting precisely because it almost always goes wrong in some way" is a lovely maxim. I have had the uncontrollable giggles at a number of opera performances over the years, a few times while I was supering onstage, and they were as memorable moments as those rare performances when everything went right.
I couldn't agree more. I attended the LA Ring last summer, and was left decidedly underwhelmed by Ms. Watson. I've followed Ms. Voight's career for many years, and while she may be no Birgit Nilsson, she makes a fine Brunhilde. She's ready.

>>if Linda Watson gets invited back to Bayreuth year after year to sing this role, Voigt delivered world-class singing by standard contemporary measures.
The bloody machine broke down during climax on the 9th, though I don't think many people noticed. Still, the orchestra was superb. And, indeed, Voigt really brought it. Who knew!

Looking forward to SF's Walküre next month.
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