Sick on a see-saw, sick on a see-saw, sick on a see-saw, sick on a slide? Thus runs the frivolous wording of the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ – Americans of course call these playground staples teeter-totters, and my, was there plenty of teetering and tottering in this live broadcast of Saturday’s performance of the second instalment of the Met’s new Ring cycle. It began 40 minutes late owing to the computerized machinery’s lack of co-operation, but I suppose that was better than the mishaps of other nights, which have included Brunnhilde slipping on the steeply raked set before uttering a single ‘Ho’ and a Valkyre taking a tumble as she dismounted from her stallion.
In the occasionally daft, often endearing intermission interviews, the best moment came when Plácido Domingo asked Jonas Kaufmann – both tenors clearly fluent English speakers – what it was like to be in this Robert Lepage production, and the younger man replied “Oh, the acoustic is wonderful”. Way to go, Mr Kaufmann – the audiences favourite, and tactful with it.
I however am not ‘pi docile’ – so I can say that this much-hyped production was not worth the vast amounts it cost for the machine which does for forest / horses / mountain / Valhalla and all. Who is this Robert Lepage, anyway? His operatic credentials appear extremely thin for someone entrusted with so prestigious a project, and he clearly does not do much with singers in terms of personenregie, given that for the most part both the Wälsung twins and Wotan and his daughter were pretty much left to fend for themselves onstage, the former pair to emote attractively and the latter to chew the scenery.
The Met audience applauded when those expensive see-saws emerged as the Valkyries rides, but they might have done better to nip across town to see the puppet mounts in War Horse which really do deserve gasps of wonder. Anyone who gives singers such obstacles to get around, has no understanding of the requirements of opera; Hunding’s hut was wrong in every respect, with Nothung used as a coat hook and placed so prominently that when Siegmund called out for a sword in his hour of need, I half expected one of the many children sitting in this New York matinee audience to yell out “It’s behind you!” Nearly all of the wondrous moments of this opera went for nothing, the worst loss being the scene between Brünnhilde and Siegmund which was so emotionally dead that it resembled an interview for a shelf-filling post rather than a pivotal rejection of eternal bliss in favour of true love.
None of that was the fault of the singers, of course, who for the most part coped heroically with both music and staging. Jonas Kaufmann had both the live audience and the sweltering denizens of the Barbican cinema in the palm of his hand: here is the Siegmund I’ve been hoping for since Kenneth Woollam hung up his spear. Kaufmann presents a poetic, introspective loner, the voice as virile as it is sweet, ‘Winterstürme’ ideally lyrical and the outburst of ‘Walse!’ thrillingly attacked and held. Whenever one praises a current singer in this way, one is always told “You know nothing! You should hear King / Melchior / Windgassen and so on” – well, I have, thanks to recordings and YouTube, and all I can say is that compared to Kaufmann, most of them shout, and what’s worse, they tend to have a vibrato so wide you could lob a medicine ball though it. Kaufmann’s singing, in contrast, is wonderfully clean and virtually wobble-free, and if the downside is that he is not (yet?) a heldentenor, then so be it.
Eva-Maria Westbroek was a sympathetic Sieglinde, singing with lovely, eloquent phrasing and forceful projection in the first act, although her ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’ in the second was rather effortful. It must have been a real challenge for the director and make up artists to render this absolutely gorgeous woman frumpy, but somehow they succeeded. Hans-Peter König was a Hunding of the old school, sonorous of tone and brutal of manner. His champion, Fricka, was sung with blistering commitment by Stephanie Blythe, a commanding presence despite being confined to a stupid throne seemingly made out of sheep’s heads. All the Valkyries sang superbly, and did what they could with what stage business they were given; how I felt for them as they slid down those perilous slabs, their shiny dresses hiked up around them.
Deborah Voigt’s Brünnhilde should represent the peak of her career, but on this showing I would not list her assumption as one of the greats. Her tone sounded thin at times, and although she showed impressive stamina there were moments which should have been glorious but were instead rather insipid. She was the least well served by the production, often reduced to a kind of petulance which does not suit her. I understand that she had to lose all that weight, and she deserves great admiration for doing so, but such loss often leads to ageing of both face and voice, and she sometimes looked more like Wotan’s mother than his daughter. I know that appearance should not matter, and it often does not – after all, Rita Hunter looked more like Wotan’s armchair, but her voice still rings clarion in my ear – but Voigt needed much more from the director than she was given.
Bryn Terfel’s Wotan was the equal of Kaufmann’s Siegmund, father and son united in the achievement of those essential goals of even emission of beautiful tone, mastery of character, command of the stage and ability to shape phrases with eloquence. I’m puzzled by those who say that Terfel is lacking in some of the attributes required in a Wotan, since he seems to me to have it all. The production forced him to bluster about like King Kong, but no matter, since he still managed to create a sympathetic, subtle character.
James Levine was clearly in no fit state to get what he wanted out of the orchestra, and it was both sad and heartening to witness Terfel and Voigt more or less carrying him onto the stage at curtain call time. Nevertheless, the playing was often sublime, especially in the quieter passages, at least when the musicians did not have to compete with the creaks and groans of the set. The Barbican cinema screen is not huge, but the images are crisp enough, and although the surround sound lacks a little in the bass, it does create the sense of being there. An efficient air-conditioning system, which would give a temperature lower than that suited only to the prematurely newborn and the terminally fragile, would have helped, as of course would a half-way thought-through production oh, and some popcorn.