Editor: Marc Bridle
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Seen and Heard International Opera Review
Richard Wagner: Die Walküre, Soloists, The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, Metropolitan Opera House, New York City, October 5, 2004 (BH)
Siegmund: Plácido Domingo
Sieglinde: Adrianne Pieczonka
Hunding: Stephen Milling
Helmwige: Claudia Waite
Waltraute: Victoria Livengood
Schwertleite: Ellen Rabiner
Ortlinde: Janet Hopkins
Siegrune: Jane Bunnell
Grimgerde: Jane Gilbert
Rossweisse: Malin Fritz
Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Production: Otto Schenk
Set and Projection Designer: Günther Schneider-Siemssen
Costume Designer: Rolf Langenfass
Lighting Designer: Gil Wechsler
Stage Director: Stephen Pickover
In addition to some arresting singing, this much-discussed Met production uses huge expanses of light – or sometimes lack of same – in ways that are often quite compelling. Headed by Otto Schenk, the production team here has created a sky that seems to metaphorically mirror the characters’ inner emotions, with broad but detailed panoramas that slowly evolve from cloud-dotted blues to streaks of silvery grays. The Met does "sky" better than many, and here the fading, otherworldly twilight is almost a character in itself, as it morphs into dozens of colors, including a dramatic red glow for Wotan’s arrival late in the evening. Gil Wechsler’s dark conception has been praised for its moodiness and shadow, but also reviled for those very characteristics, which tend to smother and camouflage the singers. Although I was fairly close to the stage, I wonder how someone in the balcony would be able to perceive Siegmund and Sieglinde – just to physically locate them in the landscape. Yes, it could be argued that the characters, the rocks and the atmosphere are inextricably intertwined with each other – but at the same time, when a great voice is filling the house, your natural inclination is to want to see the artist in action. But that said, it was hard to ignore the ruggedly beautiful, natural-looking charcoal torrents above the gnarled, sinewy trees, with sunrise, sunset and other colors slowing changing to match the pace of the score.
The three sets are simple but effective. In the first act, Hunding’s hut has a crushingly thick ceiling, as if it were hewn into a mountainside and able to withstand a bomb blast. (But not able to withstand the effects of moonlight, when the doors magically open at the end of the act.) The second act set ("A wild, rocky pass") is dominated by huge rock formations on either side of the stage. The left one has striations that seem to point to the sky, while the right wall almost resembles a giant bush, seemingly unfurling with frozen violence, as if great winds had shaped it over time. The final act takes place on a mountaintop, and here the sky is fully two-thirds of the stage picture, with flat rocks in front and peaks in the distance, as Wotan and Brünnhilde play out the last fiery scene.
It was heartening to see the ovations for Adrianne Pieczonka, whose Sieglinde was a triumph. Her singing in the first act was one of the highlights of the entire evening, with "Du bist der Lenz" especially fresh and moving, and further, as a friend said at intermission, her work seemed completely effortless, and "effortless" is not exactly the first word that would come to mind for the punishing vocal demands here. Ms. Pieczonka, who made news in her Met debut last spring as Lisa in Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame, has a gorgeous instrument with the ability to soar, such as in the thrilling scene in Act II when she is given the shards of Siegmund’s sword, and pleads for death. But she can also shape and mould the tiniest pianissimos, and has the ability to project a haunting vulnerability. If you have not experienced her singing, try to catch her at your earliest opportunity. (Highly recommended: her Alice Ford in Verdi’s Falstaff, with Bryn Terfel heading an outstanding cast, with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Claudio Abbado.)
Plácido Domingo, now in his early sixties, made for a substantially older Siegmund, but perhaps this brought even more pathos to his union with Sieglinde. Vocally, he remains a wonder, and frankly (no patronizing intended in the least) it’s amazing he can sing anything at all, much less a demanding Wagnerian role. No, the sheer power isn’t there – the first phrase from Stephen Miller as Hunding made this clear – but the expressiveness and tone quality remain, and his softer, intimate moments had the presence that only bona fide stars bestow.
As Brünnhilde, Olga Sergeeva also made a strong impression, combining vigorous singing and an almost palpable sense of dismay when Wotan gives her the fateful news in Act III. Every time she took the stage she seemed to make a larger-than-life presence, with outstandingly precise vocal control. The Valkyries were filled with personality, if not horses; my only serious complaint about the staging is that the women sang very well but looked a bit silly, tromping around the stage and waving their spears, with nary an equine presence in sight. I mean, come on, folks – this is the Met!
Other cast members were excellent. As hinted earlier, Stephen Milling made a striking presence as Hunding, using a towering frame combined with a powerful voice. As Wotan, Vladimir Vaneev certainly looked the part, and his final scene with Brünnhilde, with its touchingly conflicting emotions, surely had everyone in the house riveted. And ditto for his earlier scenes with Yvonne Naef’s Fricka, whose unforgettable and strongly sung arguments in Act II arguably form the axis on which the entire plot turns.
The tireless Gergiev seemed to work real magic, judging from the almost absolute stillness in the audience. (Not to over-generalize, but some opera patrons can be demonstratively restless during long productions.) It would be hard not to be hypnotized by the maestro’s butterfly-like movements that in this case produced a shimmering result. Levine’s conception is documented on the Met’s complete Ring cycle, and is definitely more on the majestic side. Gergiev, on the other hand, seemed to have a more fleet vision, and however he managed it, the orchestra summoned up far too many superlative moments to count; one friend who has heard the opera many times said Gergiev brought out additional details in the score that he had never heard before. Just the opening was pretty magical, with the cellos and basses boiling up sensuously, and their glowing tone in the gorgeous final "magic fire music" was wonderful, too – if sadly drowned out by the curtain descending, which inevitably signals to some impatient members of the audience that it’s time to applaud, which effectively killed the final delectable chords that Gergiev spun so delicately. There is nothing more spellbinding than hearing a diaphanous ending like this one come gently to rest, and then experiencing that divine silence as the final resonance trails off in the air, and only then, then having all hell break loose.
A friend who saw Gergiev’s complete Ring recently in Baden-Baden still raves about it, and it’s clear the conductor has great affinity for the music, the drama, the pace and for Wagner’s unique vision. This is the first time since the production’s 1986 inception that Levine has acceded the reigns to anyone else, and Gergiev launched into the score almost immediately as the lights darkened, sending a clear message that this would not be his colleague’s Walküre. Listed as ending at 11:35 p.m., the evening actually brought us out onto Lincoln Center’s plaza at 11:15. Given the magic on display, I imagine that some in the audience may have been slightly, bemusedly disappointed at somehow being cheated out of that extra twenty minutes.