Metropolitan Opera 2018-19 Review: Die Walküre
Philippe Jordan Leads A Luxurious Cast In Exquisite Performance Of Wagner MasterpieceBy David Salazar
Wagner’s “Die Walküre” took center-stage at the Metropolitan Opera on Monday, March 25, 2019 to what is likely to have been the most enthusiastic audience of the season.
After every act, the artists were showered with tremendous ovations, each more effusive than the last. It was emblematic of an evening that just seemed to grow in stature as the night wore on.
You could argue that almost everything about this evening went as well as it could. Even the “Machine (which we recently learned was even given a name by the cast members) behaved in a manner that was dignified of an opera company of the Met’s stature. That is to say that it didn’t make any noise, no Valkyrie or lead singer fell off the planks, and there was no reboot or Windows XP logo flashing inadvertently.
A Directorial Mess
So before we dish out fervent praise on those that made the night compelling, a few comments on the production itself, which remains an awkward contraption. Act one tends to look overly bare as the planks elevate themselves to become the roof of Hunding’s hut. They project some visuals as Siegmund narrates his story to his hosts and then open up further as Winterstürme commences. It’s simply, a bit overbearing for the singers, but you could argue that it kind of works. In Act two we get a big rock followed by some trees to portray Wotan’s hideout and the forest where Siegmund is to die. Act three gets a bit more creative with the Ride of the Valkyries giving each one her own plank/horse before transforming into Brünnhilde’s horse as she enters the fray. Eventually, it becomes a mountain looming over Wotan and Brünnhilde’s final encounter and then also transforms into the opera’s final image.
All of it “works” in terms of presenting the story’s setting, but with minimal props and some uninspired costumes, it create tremendous cognitive dissonance. As I stated with my “Rheingold” review, it’s style over substance, akin to a Hollywood film spending tens of millions on special effects to cover for a bad script and direction. In this case, you have one of the greatest librettos in history, but the direction is clearly more invested in playing with toys than interacting with people. To that end, the costuming for the Valkyries would have been an opportunity to give them each individual personalities, despite some common visual look that unites them. Instead, they all virtually look the same; even Brünnhilde, the heroine of the opera and entire saga, is relegated to the same uniform as her sisters. They’ve been to war together; each one has to have her own identifiable trait. These details just add to the level of immersion of the viewer. Ditto for Siegmund’s outfit, which looks so similar to Alberich from afar that you could confuse the two if you were experiencing these operas on back-to-back nights without much knowledge about their stories. Fricka’s throne-chariot is somehow more elaborate than anything else on the set, and because of that, it sticks out in the wrong manner simply because it doesn’t feel like it’s part of the style of anything else on stage.
We could also talk about the poor staging (or lack thereof), especially in the first Act. When Siegmund finds the sword and utters “Was gleisst dor Hell im Glimmerschein,” tenor Stuart Skelton turned to the audience, then swiveled his head back to the sword rapidly before uttering his ensuing line. While understandable given the singer’s need to sing to the audience, the movement looked clumsy and cartoonish, eliciting some laughs from audience members. That he repeated the gesture again, only added to the awkwardness of Siegmund’s big moment.
Other decisions, such as the delayed hug between Brünnhilde and Wotan at the opera’s emotional climax, also seemed a bit forced. As staged, Brünnhilde leaps into Wotan’s arms on the B major chord at the climax of the passage, but the entire build doesn’t showcase either character really making any attempt to comfort the other. There’s an attempt to build tension, but the character-building blocks toward that catharsis are misaligned. Brünnhilde shows off some angst, but it feels misplaced in the moment, especially given that she is the one who desperately wants to hug her father but seems to be the one rejecting him. Wotan doesn’t really do much in these moments except turn around, but his inaction doesn’t add to the tension of the scene either. Ditto for the decision to have Brünnhilde and Wotan pick up their respective spears and shield moments later so that they can walk offstage; it seems rather unnecessary and strange that in their tearful goodbye, these characters would think it crucial to pick up spears and shields that will now be useless (especially for Brünnhilde). The importance of this blocking choice is again, in the interest of the machine, but hinders the emotional connection of father and daughter saying goodbye.
Then there’s the monologue in Act two, which New York Times critic Anthony Tomassini did a solid job of relating. We could go on (something was very off about the timing of Hunding and Siegmund’s respective deaths compared to previous iterations of this version), but in sum, this production is what you would call a mess from a conceptual and aesthetic perspective.
The Heart of the Story
Believe it or not, there were some dramatic moments that really worked and it really came down to the conviction with which they were expressed by the performers.
While the title of the opera would suggest that the second installment in the tetralogy belongs to Brünnhilde, it is undeniably Wotan’s opera. This is the one where he makes a gamble and it blows up in his face in a number of ways. This is the opera where he is torn apart and ultimately left with little hope of a future (the next time we see him, he is but a wanderer). It’s the one where he gets one of the best opera “arias” of all time.
Greer Grimsley was tasked with interpreting the role on Monday, and despite some issues that I personally have with his voice, he embodied the tragic figure quite potently. So let’s get the vocal questions out of the way first. Given the more extended passages in this opera, many of the things noted in the “Das Rheingold” review were only amplified here. His highs tend to sound pushed all the way through, with the vibrato sounding worn and the resulting pitch unstable. It happens all the time, with notable examples including the high E and D’s on “Leb wohl, du kühnes” and ensuing high E on “Du meines Herzens;” other such instances include the high tessitura of Wotan’s very first entrance in “Act two, “Nun zäumedein Ross” with a high F and the end of the Act two monologue, “In meinem Busenberg.” Alternatively, Grimsley’s lows sound like growls with minimal resonance in passages with heavier orchestration; his mixing of registers in certain phrases was also a bit muddled and crude in many instances.
But there is no denying that he imbued Wotan with complexity throughout. His Act two monologue was sung softly throughout, bitterness growing and growing throughout until he exploded with nervous energy in the aforementioned passage. That passage builds over 20 minutes but given the fact that it is pure exposition, it can feel eternal if the Wotan interpreter doesn’t allow the audience to get a sense of how this narrative affects the character. We need to hear the story and feel it’s impact and reaction to it all at once. What made Grimsley’s interpretation compelling was that you felt the emotional build throughout, emphasizing the brilliance of Wagner’s dramatic and musical architecture.
“Leb wohl” was intense, with Grimsley throwing all of his vocal resources into the opening stanzas; there was pain in every note, and slowly but surely his sounded trailed off as he put Brünnhilde to sleep in such phrases as “Denn so kehrt der Gott sich dir, ab…”
Then there was the scene with Fricka, where together with Jamie Barton, Grimsley delivered one of the tensest scenes witnessed at the Met Opera all season.
Barton displayed elegant legato throughout; her lush vocal resources contrasted with Grimsley’s gruffer sound, adding to the tension in the scene. But hers was not a needy wife, but a demanding one. She was there to put him in his place, not beg him for mercy. Right from the off, Barton’s phrasing was articulate and precise, the consonants particularly pronounced, giving an air of aggression to her singing. Even when Grimsley tried to evade her with his own smoother vocalization, she rebuffed him, glaring at him incessantly throughout the exchange. You could sense that this was going nowhere for some time, the two seemingly equals in an extended conflict.
But then came the big turn and you could feel it quite potently as Barton’s Fricka demanded “Lass von dem Wälsung.” With his back turned to his wife and seemingly on his way off the stage, Grimsley’s Wotan stopped in his midst. He immediately fired back his “Er gehseines Weg.” Her ensuing retorts, equally resonant, that his looks at her, were met with an aggressive walk toward her for his ensuing “Ich schüt ze ihn nicht.” When she leveled the ensuing desire that he leave Brünnhilde out of it also, Grimsley was at his wits end and barked out “Die Walküre walte frei” and looked to storm off. Despite his aggressive response, you could feel Wotan imploding and the power shifted forever to Fricka. As she saw her husband come undone, Barton’s Fricka looked more and more poised on her throne.
As the scene drew to a close, she pulled out her final trump card with melting legato on “Deiner ew’gen Gattin heilige” in what became a mournful plea to save the Gods. And when it was all said and done, she got one final knockout blow with an imposing “Empfah’ich von Wotan den Eid.” At this point, Grimsley walked toward her, bent over and angrily uttered “Nimm den Eid.” He then fell to his knees, broken and defeated. Barton’s Fricka, instead of smiling or enjoying her victory, looked toward her pained husband and reached over to touch him. Despite the lengthy outpouring of resentment for his infidelities, she loved him and it also hurt her to see her husband in pain. And as she went to touch him, he pushed his entire body away from her in a quick thrust that hurt all the more, adding to the insult.
As her throne pulled away, Barton’s Fricka won her battle, but continued to lose the war of her marriage. Grimsley’s Wotan, meanwhile, would grow weaker as the opera progressed. It was the most gripping and immersive moment of the night.
Heroes All Over
As she arrived onstage to begin Act two, soprano Christine Goerke was showered with applause. She’s had major success in this role around the U.S. and this Met homecoming was years in the making. And despite not necessarily, dominating the evening, she put on a strong performance overall. Her middle voice is where her singing really shines, with the high notes losing brightness and sounding somewhat softer and more limited; this was present in her opening “Hojotoho” proclamations. She glided rather well into the first eighth-note High B’s and C’s, punctuated by a solid sustained high B. But the repeat a few measures later came off a bit more unsteadily, the clarity of the initial phrasing a bit muddier this time around.
But afterward, she was solid throughout, particularly in the confrontation with Siegmund at the close of Act two. Standing poised throughout, there was a coolness to Goerke’s singing as she looked away from Siegmund. And while she claims that she can’t look at him lest she condemn him to death, there was a sense in her increasingly gentle singing that she was conflicted over this behavior. This allowed her eventual decision to save him all the more credible emotionally. After singing at a tamer volume, her “Halt ein Wälsung” was delivered with resounding dynamics that added to the energy of the moment.
We saw a similar emotional build throughout the final scene with Wotan, Goerke luxuriating in her legato line throughout, but with accented euphoria in her final phrases; the final high A on “dem freislichen Felsen zu nahn” a perfect way to cap a solid performance. It should be interesting to see how Goerke’s performance develops with the upcoming “Siegfried” and especially with “Götterdämmerung” which is undeniably Brünnhilde’s opera.
As the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde were the impeccable Stuart Skelton and Eva-Maria Westbroek. Skelton sang with polish and finesse throughout the night. In fact, throughout Act one, it almost sounded like he was incapable of singing a harsh phrase or note. Everything soared with warmth and delicacy. Even the famed, fortissimo, fermata cries of “Wälse” a high G flat and high G, respectively, drew no attack on the onset; they just flowed out of his mouth. The latter high G was sustained for quite some time, the tenor’s risky choice seemingly creating some distortion on the latter end of the sustain, but it was thrilling and glorious to behold. He churned out phrase after phrase with bright, glowing legato, best exemplified in “Winterstürme” and the final coda “Siegmund, heiss ich.”
Earlier this year, I witnessed a sick Skelton struggle with his high notes in “Otello,” but on this night they were on point every single time; the high A on “Wälsungen Blut!” was one such perfect demonstration of this.
But aggression did materialize in Skelton’s voice in the showdown with Brünnhilde in a vocal masterclass of emotional development. The honeyed singing permeated the opening phrases of that dialogue before slowly growing darker and more accented. As he denied Brünnhilde repeatedly, looking angrily at the sleeping body of Sieglinde, you could feel the anger building. At one point, he threw aside Brünnhilde’s spear and declaimed his intent to murder Sieglinde and his child. His voice had a coarse, piercing quality that emphasized the frustrated nature of the character.
Westbroek also exposed her vocal qualities slowly over the evening, also giving Sieglinde an emotional arc from a vocal perspective. Submissive and gentle in the opening moments, her singing was equally subdued and quiet. If you hadn’t heard the soprano in “La Fanciulla del West” earlier this season, you wouldn’t know how massive her instrument could be. This approach, however, emphasized her perceived weakness and fear, and also made the perfect foil for Gঢ়nther Groissbock’s vicious and loud interpretation as Hunding (his repetitions of “Wölfing” were deliciously condescending). While the German bass-baritone perfectly embraced the monstrous macho nature of his character with tremendous arrogance and ego (he grabbed Sieglinde and kissed her against her will and pushed her aside to serve him his meal, his singing aggressive and accented throughout), she was withdrawn and even hunched over in her gait.
But her scene with Siegmund “freed” her vocally and her sound blossomed as the interaction developed. Her eruptions into high notes unleashed the full power of her sound, which despite some inconsistent pitch, was cathartic each time. Her multiple cries of “Siegmund” at the close of Act one and in the late stages of Act two were all delivered with similar frenzied energy that made them recall one another. But of course her big moment comes at “Oh herstes Wunder” and Westbroek delivered. Despite rushing ahead of the orchestra a bit and her high A’s sounding a bit pitchy, the soprano’s ample resonance made the moment shine as it should.
The ensemble of Valkyries, which included Kelly Cae Hogan, Jessica Faselt, Renée Tatum, Darily Freedman (in her Met debut), Wendy Bryn Harmer, Eve Gigliotti, Maya Lahyano, and Mary Phillips, were all fun and enjoyable to watch in their opening number of Act three.
Master to the Pit
I was rather critical of maestro Philippe Jordan in my review of “Das Rheingold” and a subsequent viewing of that same opera did little to calm my previous qualms with his musical direction for that opera. But this was another story altogether.
It’s been rare to see such exquisite conducting at the Met as that exhibited in “Die Walküre.” There was polish and sheen the entire evening with the rich orchestral colors all coming through quite beautifully. The triplet and sextuplet figures in the violin section that launch “Leb wohl” have never sounded clearer, the resulting effect adding urgency to the passage. The same can be said to the magic fire sequence, particularly with the busy string passages.
The brass had an incredible night, integrated wonderfully into passages that included massive ensemble work, but also poised and vibrant in their own solo moments. The quarter notes a measure before Fricka’s “Empfah’ich von Wotan den Eid” were milked for all they were worth, adding tremendous tension to the moment and ensuing declamation from Barton.
Jordan displayed incredible elasticity with the Met Orchestra and the singers throughout the evening, moving from propulsive tempi (“Siegmund heiss ich”) to being as flexible as needed; the success of Grimsley’s emotional build in the Act two monologue is undeniably the result of Jordan’s allowing the singer to lead the way. The same goes for Skelton’s proclamations of “Wälse;” you almost sensed like Jordan was cheering him on to hold the notes as long as he wished.
Jordan’s leadership was but one factor for this incredible performance of “Die Walküre.” Here’s hoping that “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung” match and better this level of immersive music-making.