So why is his “Ring,” which continued Friday night with the premiere of the second of the four operas, “Die Walkure,” so far such a disappointment?
Like “Das Rheingold,” which opened the Met’s season in September, “Die Walkure” is centered on a set (by Carl Fillion) that’s supposed to be a miracle of technical wizardry. It’s a stage-filling unit made up of 24 bar elements, like giant piano keys, mounted on a central axis that enables them to rise and fall and rotate, transformed by projections now into a forest of silvery tree trunks (where Siegmund flees his pursuers), now into a rocky crag veined with molten lava (where the god Wotan and his wife, Fricka, argue about the laws of matrimony). At the start of the third act, eight of the bars stand in for the horses of the Valkyries, thrusting and bucking under the singers’ legs with downright phallic abandon.
But the set feels monolithic and limiting. As Lepage uses it in “Walkure,” it imposes a relentless symmetry on the stage picture that isn’t that interesting to watch. It’s also not very singer-friendly. At her entrance Friday, soprano Deborah Voigt, singing her first Met Brunnhilde, slipped and fell. After that, every time a singer ascended the curving construction, there was a certain nervousness about whether someone else might slide off.
Another problem is that, because the set represents the most creative part of Lepage’s concept, we have a work of kinetic sculpture rather than a piece of theater. As much as some opera-goers may think of “concept” as a dirty word, the absence of one in this “Walkure” leaves the singers unsure about what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s one thing to put on a concert performance of a Wagner opera with singers who have spent years with their roles — as Washington National Opera demonstrated in November 2009 with its fantastic “Gotterdammerung,” starring Alan Held, Gidon Saks and Gordon Hawkins. It’s quite another to create dramatic effect with singers who are newer to their parts — Voigt as Brunnhilde or Bryn Terfel as Wotan — without strong direction.
This team had the raw material to do better. When Jonas Kaufmann, the heartthrob German tenor, and Eva-Maria Westbroek, the Dutch soprano making her company debut, made their entrances, it felt as if it would be a terrific evening. Kaufmann has a shining lyrical voice and the aura of a hero; Westbroek (who last sang the role of Anna Nicole Smith at Covent Garden) made some big, full, warm sounds that augured well.