Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Sometimes It Doesn't Get Better

April 30, 2012

Stephanie Blythe and Bryn Terfel Photo by Ken Howard/Met Opera 2012
It was nearly a year ago this weekend. I had come to New York and was attending a Saturday Matinee performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre at The Metropolitan Opera, part of the company’s new production of the entire Ring Cycle directed by Robert Lepage. The production was a disaster, and still is, but on that afternoon, I couldn’t have been more thrilled. An opera took place, and a great one at that, seemingly against all odds. After a delay of over half an hour, the audience was finally seated as ongoing technical problems with the set were again corrected. On top of this, the Met’s Music Director, James Levine, whose health had been spotty for months raising questions about what if anything he’d be able to conduct, climbed into the podium for a whizz-bang performance as if to say “take that haters”. Another artist who’d been suffering slings and arrows, Deborah Voigt, delivered a solid, high-quality performance as Brünnhilde proving that she could in fact sing the role and do so notably well thank you very much. It was an afternoon that reinforced that fragile human quality of opera: despite the multitude of forces involved in any single performance, everything can go one of several ways on the turn of just an issue or two.

As exciting as that performance was, a year later I sat through the same show on a Saturday matinee as part of the Met’s second performance of the complete cycle. (I had seen Das Rheingold just two nights before.) And just like that, everything turned the other way. The production is still a dud and I have little more to say on that topic than I have previously or above what everyone else has said to the same extent. This time around there was no unexpected delay to create false drama. The mammoth set creaked to life and churned through its paces with a noisy certitude and a complete absence of excitement like a well-maintained Honda. The company and director Robert Lepage have been involved in a damage control campaign in recent weeks as voices big and small of a variety of different artistic leanings have banded together in their expressed disdain for the staging. We’re reminded the show is revolutionary, which I suppose I agree with to the extent that the set does in fact rotate at times around a central horizontal axis.

And then there was the insult to injury of the many replacements due to illness that have been plaguing the company in recent days. Some of these are longer term issues as in the presence of Levine’s ongoing stand in, Fabio Luisi, who conducted the performance as he has all of Levine’s previous assignments since the maestro’s last appearance in the Met pit for that same Die Walküre matinee a year ago. Luisi’s is a fine conductor, but this didn’t have the kind of fire that would make it stick out in your memory. Vocalists were dropping like flies including some of the cycle’s best. Stefan Margita called in sick for Rheingold on Thursday with an exuberant Adam Klein stepping in. On Saturday, it was superstar heartthrob tenor Jonas Kaufmann taking the hit. In an interesting twist, the house recruited Frank van Aken to sing Siegmund opposite his own real-life wife, Eva-Maria Westbroek, who was already cast as Sieglinde. While it made for a great story, it didn’t make for a great performance with van Allen being chronically underpowered and cracking along the way.

Granted it wasn’t all disappointment. Bryn Terfel finally came alive for Act III with more spirit, energy, and delicacy than I’ve heard him deliver at any point during his involvement in this cycle. Perhaps it was his pairing with Katarina Dalayman, the Brünnhilde for this cycle that made the difference. She’s alluring in the role with a clear, steely tone that contrasted nicely with Terfel’s natural warmth. Of course so far in this cycle the most exciting players continue to be Eric Owens as Alberich, Stephanie Blythe who again captivated as Fricka, and Hans-Peter König who sings the role of Hunding. But there’s so much more that’s missing. And even when one arrives at the beautiful image that ends Die Walküre with one of Lepage’s acrobats dressed as a Brünnhilde double suspended from above on the mountain top the overwhelming feeling continues to be, is this all there is? We’ll find out later this week when Siegfried and Götterdämmerung fill out the rest of cycle 2.


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