New York, Magazine, April 29, 2011
By Justin Davidson
Wagner: Die Walküre, Metropolitan Opera, 22. April 2011
The Stars Who Don’t Sing
Opera conductors can seem like vaguely superfluous figures, lurking below the lip of the stage, desperately trying to coax a pit band, wayward divas, and creaky sets into a semblance of synchronicity. Yet the maestro is the divinity of these artificial worlds, armed with a bolt-throwing baton and marking a life-giving beat. Riccardo Muti and James Levine each returned to the podium recently after struggles with infirmity, and both demonstrated that no matter how dazzlingly detailed or lackluster or even absent the production, it is the conductor who unfolds each saga in sound. Muti, who collapsed from a heart arrhythmia in February, has lately been expressing doubts about his strange, wizardly profession. “What is it, really, I do?” he wondered in a recent speech. “I’ve wasted my entire life doing … And he waved an imaginary twig. Levine has voiced no such qualms, but persistent back pain and other health problems have forced him to cancel performances by the fistful, and each time the Met soldiers on, simultaneously declaring its loyalty to Levine and its faith that the company can get by just fine without him. But Muti’s concert performance of Verdi’s Otello with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall and Levine’s performance of Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera made it clear that a conductor’s personality is not a fungible commodity. It matters who’s waving the stick.

[Otello, left out]

In Die Walküre, Levine has to battle Robert Lepage’s grimly industrial staging of the “Ring,” which began last fall with Das Rheingold and will grind through the rest of the cycle next season. In the current episode, Carl Fillion’s computer-­controlled behemoth of steel beams is back, providing the wrong sort of dramatic tension. Whenever it moves, or when Wotan—the beefy Bryn Terfel—steps onto a slat, the set groans and bobbles like a Cuban Chrysler. On opening night, Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde tried to sprint up a slope, tripped, and slid back down on her stomach, causing her to grin sheepishly through her “Hojotoho!” battle cries. In this production, engineering has merged with interpretive idea, and the inadequacy of one exposes the shallowness of the other. The singers exist to populate the scaffolding, and Lepage leaves them to muddle through with their awkward poses and thrift-store breastplates.

Fortunately, the cast mostly ignores Lepage and focuses on Wagner and Levine. Jonas Kaufmann sings the impetuous, incestuous Siegmund with bracing urgency and warmth. Voigt gives Brünnhilde a steely joy, Stephanie Blythe sings Fricka with ferocious splendor, and Eva Maria Westbroek, who pleaded illness and bowed out midcourse on opening night, hinted at a richly developed Sieglinde. Terfel’s Wotan finds the doubt and terror lurking in his character’s might, especially when he can stop bellowing over the roaring orchestra and savor the intimacy of a Wagner pianissimo.


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