NEW YORK — Stage directors and opera lovers often coexist in a state of enmity. The director wants to reinterpret; the audience wants to see the piece as the composer intended it.
Robert Lepage, the Canadian stage director, offers a compromise with his production of Wagner’s “Ring” that the Metropolitan Opera is unfolding piece by piece, at tremendous expense and with much fanfare, through next season. He focuses his high-tech concept on the staging and leaves the singers lots of room to do what they want.
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.
But Kaufmann’s voice seems light for this repertoire; the effort involved in filling out the role and being heard led to a disappointing, interpretive sameness, emotionally and musically. And Westbroek became unsteady and patchy — due, it turned out, to illness. In Act 2, Margaret Jane Wray stepped in to pinch-hit, respectably, as a Sieglinde with considerably more mettle in her voice.
Voigt simply sounded miscast. I’ve never been convinced that hers is a dramatic soprano, and she did nothing Friday night to change my mind. She hit the notes but offered none of the stature, vocal resonance or interpretation to make a distinctive Brunnhilde. Indeed, when she sang with the other eight Valkyries in Act 3 — decked out in shiny, Halloween-silver lame costumes courtesy of Francois St-
Aubin — she blended in all too well with the crowd. (To their credit, the other Valkyries, starting with Kelly Cae Hogan’s Gerhilde, were very well sung.)
As for Terfel, he showed that he has the goods to be a fine Wotan. Unfortunately, he didn’t really show this until the very end of the opera, when he decreed in a voice that emanated from the heavens that only a hero without fear could win his daughter Brunnhilde. But for too much of the evening, he relied on stock gestures and stock sounds, often leaning on his spear as if relying on a crutch. Perhaps more than any of the singers, he might have benefited from a director’s help in interpreting the complex role of a flawed god.
One of the most moving episodes in “Die Walkure” comes when Wotan, obliged to witness Siegmund’s death, reveals himself to his dying son. You couldn’t miss it here because Wotan grabbed Siegmund and cradled him in his arms. The god then looks up at Hunding, Sieglinde’s husband who dealt the deathblow (played by the stentorian Hans-Peter Konig as a doughty villain from central casting), and dismisses him with the word “Geh!” (go), at which Hunding drops dead. Terfel veritably telegraphed the moment by holding out the word in a kind of strangled yodel.
It was one of many illustrations of how the requisite elements of an opera’s plot can be represented accurately, yet without much dramatic insight or distinction. It isn’t enough just to sing the notes and put on a spectacle; it takes more to bring a piece to life. Stephanie Blythe’s powerful Fricka, clearly sung and emoted and felt, showed how it should be done. Much of the rest of Friday’s performance showed what was missing.
“We’re dealing with space,” Lepage said in an interview in the program. “Maestro Levine deals with time.” In short, it was up to James Levine to fill in the gaps that Lepage’s concept left. But even Levine couldn’t quite do it. Despite his recent health difficulties, including back surgery that left him downright tottery when he took the stage for his curtain call, his conducting sounded articulate, energetic and communicative. But it was also sealed off in its own world, as if he were taking refuge in the pit from the production’s lack of heart.
The heart is, of course, in the music, and Levine kept finding it and bringing it out. But without singers who were able to bring it across, or a production that really represented the fruits of the kind of collaboration Levine excelled at in his heyday, his high points only added a sense of poignancy to a well-intentioned but ultimately hollow evening.