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S & H International Opera Review

Wagner: Die Walküre, Soloists, James Levine, conductor, Metropolitan Opera, New York, March 29, 2004 (HS)



Deborah Voigt, fresh from a brouhaha in London over whether a soprano's inability to fit into a little black cocktail dress should disqualify her from singing her signature Strauss role at Covent Garden, may have had a little extra incentive to make the best possible impression in New York. Singing her greatest Wagner role, she lit up the stage in what was nothing short of a thrilling performance in Wagner's Die Walküre, musically and dramatically, not just for her but up and down a star-studded cast. Maybe it was that, maybe it was performing opposite a seemingly ageless Placido Domingo, or perhaps it was the electric jolt coming out of the orchestra pit where James Levine whipped up fleet, energetic and powerful music, but whatever it was, it worked.

Covent Garden audiences won't hear her Prima Donna and Ariadne in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos this summer because the director there insisted upon a slimmer singer and got his way. But as Sieglinde in New York, Voigt demonstrated just what great vocal acting is all about, and it has little to do with girth. With sensitive support from Levine, she managed to convey everything you need to know about the character -- the sense of an outsider trapped in a marriage, who knows she has a different destiny and finds it in the impetuous Siegmund. Of course, he turns out to be her long-lost brother, but she's in love and who cares when Wagner's increasingly erotic music takes over the last part of Act I?

Without losing an ounce of vocal power, Voigt invested Sieglinde with an undercurrent of nobility despite her wretched circumstances, panic when she realizes she is losing Siegmund, and glory when Brünnhilde informs her in Act 3 that she is carrying Siegmund's son, who will be a great hero. In one of the many brilliant moments in this, the most emotional score in Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungen, Brünnhilde sings us the leitimotif that will always be associated with Siegfried, the hero, and Sieglinde responds with the ecstatic leitmotif that won't be heard again until the final pages of Götterdämmerung, associated with redemption through love. It's doubtful anyone could sing it with such suppleness and power as did Voigt.

In advance, I wondered if the Siegmund of Domingo, at 63 the graybeard of the cast, or the Wotan of James Morris, now 57, might be showing some wear. Not only were these veterans in splendid voice, they roamed the stage like men half their age. And then there was Jane Eaglen as the title character. She's been sensational in some Wagner roles recently, off the mark in others, but here she nailed every phrase, seeming to spin them off effortlessly in a huge voice way too creamy to be typically Wagnerian. She is also a large woman, larger than Voigt, and while she has lost some considerable weight recently and moves with less effort than she once did, she is not exactly an athletic valkyrie. Good thing this is the Met, where general director Joseph Volpe recently said he would fire the director before losing a singer of Voigt's caliber if it came to that. The music was definitely worth it.

Domingo is a marvel, still sounding as fresh and vital as he did 20 years ago. His is not the classic heldentenor sound, and maybe it's not quite as plush as it once was, but it sliced through the full orchestra with ease. He can shape a phrase like the veteran of so many Verdi and Puccini roles he is, and his work as a conductor in recent years gives him a depth of musical understanding that few other tenors possess. But the wonder is the youthfulness he conveys on stage, bounding around Hunding's hut and the craggy rocks of the Met's naturalistic sets.

Much credit must go to Levine, whose rapport with this orchestra and with these singers paid dividends again and again. Levine stayed right with Morris, for example, when the baritone took the extraordinary risk of singing true pianissimo in the touching central portion of the final scene. Wotan is about to punish his daughter Brünnhilde by (among other things) taking away her godhood. Holding her close, his voice got quieter and quieter. At one point, he seemed to be trying to overcome a catch in his throat, which only added to the drama of the moment. With Levine's hushed support, he not only made it through that portion of the scene, but the final pages, sung over the orchestra in full roar, found Morris cutting through it like the virile god Wotan is supposed to be.

Sergei Koptchak's dark, craggy bass and rangy physiology was fine for Hunding. Yvonne Naef, making her Met debut, revealed a rich, seamless mezzo-soprano as Fricka, even if her acting struck pretty much the one note of high dudgeon over Wotan's behavior. The whole crowd of valkyries was terrific, and the whole gaggle in full cry at the beginning of Act III made a thrilling sound.

In the big orchestral moments, Levine created a seamless sweep of gorgeous sound. Fast sections galloped as they should, such as the opening measures depicting a storm and Siegmund's flight, or the famous Ride of the Valkyries. Quiet sections had exquisite delicacy. The best compliment I can throw at a conductor is this: It didn't sound like Levine's Die Walküre, it sounded like Wagner's.

This is the Met's first full set of Ring operas in four years, and it would be hard to assemble a better cast. Audible evidence should be available in the worldwide live broadcast coming up Saturday.

Harvey Steiman




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