Monday, May 16, 2011

Die Walküre from the Met: Die Maschine ohne Ghost

I went to the Live from HD broadcast of Die Walküre on Saturday! For writing about this I recruited the help of NYC correspondent “Pélleas,” who saw it live. We chatted for a little while on Sunday. Or, a lot while. The Machine! James Levine, actually conducting! Valkyries falling on their asses! All right ahead!

Zerbinetta: Just to be really clear, I went to the broadcast on May 14 in Vienna in the romantic surroundings of the Donauzentrum shopping mall and you saw it live at the opera house in New York on...
Pélleas: April 28th. So, how did it come across in the film version? I saw the Rheingold movie broadcast and I must say that the whole effect of the planks worked much better in person.
Zerbinetta: Yeah, I hope so. (I didn't see Rheingold at all.) Because it was really weak on the broadcast. It was all shot in closeup so you could only see the whole machine occasionally (when it did shit) and the rest of the time it basically looked like a really expensive projection screen.
Pélleas: The planks basically are an expensive projection screen, but during the couple of set piece moments that they have they can be very spectacular. I found their transformation from a snowy wasteland to a forrest of trees in the beginning very cool. And the bit with Brünnhilde being left on the mountain in her ring of fire was also really cool. That is, when you weren't worried for the safety of the stunt double given the injury that happened because of The Machine earlier in the night (more about that later).
Zerbinetta: OH you were at THAT one. Anyway, I was very disappointed in the design work. It looked strangely unfinished, like there was the machine and nothing else. Projections always look bad close up but it seemed like they forgot to add any kind of texture or life to any of the stage pictures. Hunding's table looked like it came from Ikea. Too many smooth flat surfaces. It was just all SO DAMN LITERAL and unimaginative. And not just the design.
Pélleas: Yep. I totally agree with you there. The only time they tried to give some sort of originality to anything it came off as really tacky. And there was basically no original psychological insight into any of the characters or the staging.
Zerbinetta: It was also very very static. Like the Ring I saw in Vienna in April didn't have much insight either but at least everything kept moving pretty well.
Pélleas: About the accident, though. One of the valkyries took a hard landing sliding off of her horse. I didn't see it, so I'm not sure how she landed, but I heard it. She either caught her leg in the stage at the end, or landed really hard on her butt. She exited the stage immediately, returned a couple of minutes later (to applause), and sang her part. But she didn't appear at the curtain call. (Ed. note: she was OK.)
Zerbinetta: I thought the end really lost the emotional thread when Brünnhilde left the stage to be replaced by a double. You need that farewell ritual to be about the character.
Pélleas: A lot of people complained about that, but I didn't really mind it. I was still emotionally invested in the scene, because the music was simply so beautiful, and the stunt double did a good job of imitating the way her body was slouched into Wotan.
Zerbinetta: The problem with the ending in the HD was they didn't want to show the double close up to show that it was a double so the entire opera is in closeups and then HELLO wide angle!
Pélleas: Well, it'd be hard to get the majesty of the entire set if you did closeups. And that is the one moment where the set as a whole really shines.
Zerbinetta: The switch was disconcertingly abrupt. Didn't go with the music. Especially when Levine's magic fire was burning soooo slowly. So about the conducting. ????
Pélleas: Everyone was of course totally enthused that Levine was alive enough to conduct. I was generally extremely pleased with his conducting.
Zerbinetta: I liked bits of it but overall it felt kind of too slack, especially the really slow Act 2. Act 3 was majestic, though. Orchestra sounded good, though I suspect I am spoiled by Vienna. How was the balance between singers and orchestra?
Pélleas: It was generally very good. I didn't have any trouble hearing any of the singers, and vocally it seemed to be a much better evening than the opening night performance that got reviewed. Westbroek was able to sing through the entire evening, and she was marvelous. Her final notes simply soared above the orchestra with such great volume and power, for such a long time. A.--- and I looked to each other with grins on our faces. I think it was the vocal highlight of the evening.
Zerbinetta: I thought Westbroek sounded glorious, she has this shining and effortless tone that is just amazing and visceral. But she looked nervous and hesitant. Anna Nicole wasn't a good use of her vocal talents, but it did show she can be a much better actress than she was as Sieglinde here. My biggest surprise was Terfel, I think. I've always thought of him as a bit of a fun ham, but this was really subtle and powerful and beautiful. Also his German and use of the text were just gorgeous. Usually I think Wotan is a big bore and I didn't this time.
Pélleas: He was really great. He kept me emotionally engaged during his Act 2 monologue, which is one of my favorite parts of the opera, but one that is really easy to make boring. And the absolute disdain that he packed into his command to Hunding to die was chilling.
Zerbinetta: Yeah, but the staging of the fight was pathetic. Lots of people standing around.
Pélleas: Believe it or not, it actually came off as exciting live. But that's because so much else was boring.... And let’s be honest, none of the singers were really required to act in this production. The emotional engagement they produced through their acting was really in spite of the production, not because of it.
Zerbinetta: I think the idea is that there's a spectacular background for the singers to do their thing in front of, but really, you need more directorial interpretation get the Ring to hold together and get the singers to act together instead of independently. I think it’s lifted out of Chéreau but I loved when Siegmund recognized Wotan and then died in his arms at the very end of Act 2. Probably the only theatrical moment between two characters I thought was really emotionally genuine and touching.
Pélleas: If only we could bring in Freyer to explain the emotional/mythological resonances of these characters BETWEEN each other! A good example is Fricka's scene with Wotan. She does a great job of projecting wounded power while asserting that her pride will never be completely killed (and Blythe was amazing as always) and Terfel did a great job of expressing his descent into madness and grief at that moment - seeing all of his plans unravel because of his own hubris and his need to obey his wife's command. Both acted convincingly enough in that scene, but they were pretty much doing it independently of each other.
Zerbinetta: The lack of detailed direction really showed in the closeups. Everyone spent a lot more time looking towards Levine that they did at each other. Also, that awkward dinner scene in Act 1 with everyone sitting around the table giving each other side-eye including very avuncular Hunding and you couldn't see them below the knees? Looked like a TV show to me. This TV show is super-dramatic, it puts the opera back in soap opera, and it is called "One Tree Sword." Ratings, um, gold! Even against Eurovision. (I am still sad I missed Eurovision.)
Pélleas: Yeah, hated that staging. A.--- tried to say that it made it more emotional when they declared their love for each other and they came out so you could see them below the knees, but I don't buy it. At least Kaufmann seemed to not always be looking at Levine. And he was the one person to be constantly moving about, as if he actually was young and spry. And the hottness factor and great voice doesn't hurt.
Zerbinetta: You are obviously aware that Jonas Kaufmann is the Bestest is one of the guiding principles of this blog. I liked him a lot, the Wälses weren’t actually that great but the lyrical parts were, dramatic but also subtle. And the Todesverkündigung was so beautiful. From him. Not so much from Voigt.
Pélleas: I found Voigt's voice beautiful enough (and Jonas’s absolutely heartbreaking and thrilling). But it didn't help that the WORST STAGING EVER happened during the annunciation of death.
Zerbinetta: It made me want to run home and watch shirtless Peter Hofmann and Gwyneth Jones on YouTube in the Chéreau. The horns at the beginning of that scene always give me chills. It is in fact my favorite scene in all of Wagner.
Pélleas: You can't have a moment of such gravity be announced with Brunhilde simply WALKING onto the stage looking exactly as she had before. Even the drab and literal Schenk staging had her wear a cool warrior's mask to give that scene some amount of gravitas.
Zerbinetta: I agree! Also, why didn’t Sieglinde wake up at some point considering how Siegmund was shaking her? This is a production that leads you towards silly literalism, because its terms are so literal. And yet its look is so unfinished plus the giant traditional costumes that if I were seeing it in Germany I would suspect some weak-ass Verfremdung was going on. But about Voigt: she was miles better than the Brünnhilde I saw in Vienna in April and I liked her sassiness, but I didn't like her tonal color much, often sour below the top notes. And after the OK hojotoho her German was pretty bad and she didn't put across the meaning of the text like Terfel and Kaufmann did (Blythe was also interpretively bland, I thought, but THAT SOUND). And there were a few moments wherein she grinned inappropriately when I thought she really needed a director to get her to put together the emotional beats more clearly.
Pélleas: A lot of the more intimate moments could have been much more emotional if thought had been given to him. I think Lepage recognized this and tried to do something interesting during the long monologues (Sigmund's in Act I and Wotan's in Act II), but his solution was to do more of his techno wizardry. For the record I disliked the shadow fight in Act I because it was so damn literal and liked the Eye of Color in Act II simply because it was less literal. Except when it mentioned the Ring and an image that was probably licensed from New Line popped up. As if we didn't already know that Lord of the Rings and Wagner are the same thing.
Zerbinetta: But you had A.--- with you, she could probably read the Elvish on the Ring (she is going to kill me if she reads this).
Pélleas: haha
Zerbinetta: Bechtolf did the shadow thing in much less elaborate fashion in Vienna's Ring, in some of the same places even, and I thought the same thing. Doesn’t add anything, and distracts from the fact that the act of narration itself and the viewpoint of the narrator is a loaded concept in Wagner. Siegmund and Wotan’s stories aren’t neutral exposition. Neither director seemed to appreciate this (though there was the eye, implying some kind of viewpoint, oh damn, I'm just going to go back to Herheim while I still can), but Lepage has so many bells and whistles that it is less obvious that he has nothing to say and an equally simplistic view of the piece. My concern is that this staging has no soul. The Machine lacks a Ghost (yes I thought of that line partway through the show last night).
Pélleas: The only emotional investment is what each individual singer brings to the table. Which can sometimes be sufficient for individual scenes, but doesn't lead to a sense of continuity across the opera(s). To be clear though, I left the opera house extremely happy and excited, as did A.---. Because the singing was almost uniformly excellent (or above par) the orchestra exciting, and the staging had some really exciting moments that can overshadow the drabness. But it's like a contact high, when you think about it afterwards you realize there wasn't really much there. Whereas with Freyer I was thinking for days or weeks afterwards and kept having fun doing so. I'm jealous of you for seeing the whole Freyer Ring btw. In case you didn't already know that ;)
Zerbinetta: Freyer yes! As for Lepage I kind of had a similar reaction but more moderate (I guess because I didn't get the big effects very well). The singing really was very good and the performers involving by sheer force of will. But all flash and little depth. More broadly, I guess that's what bothers me most about the Met's current artistic direction. It's so anti-intellectual. I mean not everything has to be hard but they seem so unwilling to challenge audiences at all. (I'm saying this from the happy position of publicly funded Europe.)
Pélleas: I don’t think we're going to be getting any Regie anytime soon unfortunately
Zerbinetta: Tchnerniakov is on Met Futures for Prince Igor! That's hard-core Regie right there. Decker's Traviata seemed to go well and that's legit Regie. So I have some hope but mostly for imported productions.
Pélleas: But there's also the option of genuinely beautiful. The Met's staging of Tristan for example isn't particularly difficult, but the austere set and props has a beautiful aesthetic that Lepage lacks, precisely because it doesn't try to be literal.
Zerbinetta: There definitely is a place for genuinely beautiful austere productions. I just wish we could have a place for all sorts of productions that could co-exist happily like a little operatic We Are the World.
Pélleas: Just looking at Met Futures right now. They're having LePage direct The Tempest??? mrrr
Zerbinetta: Apparently? I'm not a big Adès fan so I don't really care too much to be honest. I'm mostly worried about the prominence of Bartlett Sher. I can't stand Bartlett Sher
Pélleas: I LOVE Thomas Adès
Zerbinetta: I should listen to more Adès. I'll try. Anna Nicole actually got me into Turnage. But I have to go and eat something before the Sellars show tonight. Is there anything we must say about Walküre that we have not said?
Pélleas: I don’t believe so. Enjoy Sellars & co!
Zerbinetta: Have a great afternoon over there.
Pélleas: I shall. talk to you soon!
Zerbinetta: ciao! (as they say, improbably, in German.)
Pélleas: wtf? silly Germans.

It occurred to me later that we left out an important factor: how will this staging age? In 10 years will the Met still be stuck with a Ring that looks like how Space Invaders looks to us now, only not so cutely retro? In my opinion, storytelling ages better than gadgets, but we’ll see.

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met Opera.

14 comments:

Capriccio said...

This is a sweet post, and I basically agree with everything that was said (almost eerily so). I thought it was interesting how none of the cast were willing to talk about whether they liked the production in the (awful) intermission interviews, despite most of them being prodded that way. And wasn't Joyce DiDonato cringeworthy in every conceivable way...

(As a side note, I think Ades is the mutt's nuts, but his two operas are both low points in his oeuvre - Powder her Face because its just so cruel and nasty, and The Tempest because it's just bad music for the most part. Anything he composed in the 90s basically though is fudging fantastic.)

The Unrepentant Pelleastrian said...

Zerbinetta,

You left out what is to me the most exciting feature of these opera cinecasts:

Volume.

I love cinema volume but some complained that this Walkure felt like an 'assault' and should have been lowered a notch... How was it?

Poison Ivy said...

Great dialogue! A delight to read, and I agreed with both of you.

Zerbinetta said...

Ivy and Capriccio, thanks! Did you also notice how they didn't interview Lepage at all? This seemed odd considering the amount of interval time they had to fill. I think the intermission features have improved a little over the years, but they're still awkward. You forgot to mention Joyce DiDonato's lovely taste in snake-skin-looking gold shirts.

Pelleastrian, the overall volume in my European theater was significantly lower than I have experienced in American theaters. I appreciated that. It didn't seem so extremely unnatural, though it was still somewhat louder than in an opera house. All the singers were the same volume, though, which I know isn't the case live, which is why I asked about balance above.

Capriccio said...

The snake Anzug was one of the cringeworthy things. eurgh.

Unrepentent Pelleastrian (I bet you found this on a Pelleas + Melisande googling mission!) - I've fond the volume varies considerably by cinema - I went to a small cinema for Capriccio and it was barely audible. The Barbican cinema got it just right (as you'd expect)

Donna Anna said...

Zerb and Pelleas,
Good conversation. I saw the HD but we had to leave before Wotan's Leb Wohl. I was happy to hear and see this performance, since NYC, Seattle, SF, and Chicago are expensive and not the easiest locales for me to get to. Terfel was an unexpected pleasure, Blythe, Kaufmann and Westbroek were terrific. Voigt ok. I thought Das Machine was unrealized potential and that Le Page didn't fill in the gaps with enough human drama. I wanted a more passionate Siegmund and Sieglinde...a la Chereau. I kept hearing about the chemistry between Kaufmann and Westbroek but I wasn't convinced. And while we're on the subject, couldn't the Met's prop department have created a better Notung? I've seen better at Toys R Us.
Zerb, I'm with you. I can't stand Sher and hated what he did with Hoffmann. The man doesn't trust music. At all.

marcillac said...

Great format, and just about as informative and interesting an analysis of production and dramatic goings on as one could hope for. Agree with pretty much all of it in respect of Lapage. Glorified (and VERY EXPENSIVE) opera in concert.

Musically also pretty much agree. Saw it twice in the theater (April 25, May 2) and heard on interwebs last Saturday. Second Act always very slooooooooow. First night Act III was loud, inflexibly, badly lacking in nuance. * Second night and on Satuday beautifully played, I think and characterized by replete with all the characteristics missing on first night. WMW and JK always excellent, but better on last 2 nights. Terfel good all 3 times but I though he paced himself best of all and had the best Leb Wohl on Satuday. Voigt had her best outing Satuday as well (even allowing for the benefit of the microphones), may fewer sour moments (so don't complain Zerb) and also MUCH more involved than on either of the 1st 2 nights. Not surprising as she had more time to get comfortable with the role.

Overall sorry I'll have to miss this next year.

*Many disagreed on that night - my SI, someone from her office, Lucy at OO, general buzz of conversation. I was in the minority but a fairly substantial one. Reports from other nights generally more positive.

Toying with idea of going to Walkure in Vienna next month but really doesn't look that great. Dong Huguenots in Brussels and Freischutz in Stuttgart instead.

Zerbinetta said...

Donna Anna, I kind of agree about S and S. JK was a very mopey Siegmund, and while it was a better characterization than most tenors he never seemed that excited to see Sieglinde, and EMW just looked nervous the whole time. A totally non-threatening Hunding didn't help. Not very romantic, particularly compared to what I've seen JK do in Werther with Sophie Koch and Westbroek in Anna Nicole with... uh, maybe I shouldn't finish that.

Marcillac, I'm actually looking forward to seeing it, believe it or not, but mostly for hearing it. The cast really is good, and I suppose there's a good chance next season it won't be led by Levine. I considered going to Les Huguenots as well, BTW, because I'm going to be in Amsterdam for the Jansons/Herheim Onegin, but it's Meyerbeer and I decided not to. Also, did you hear that Magee canceled Kat'a? (It's the second time this season the person on the cover of the monthly schedule has canceled all her performances before the month started.)

(BTW Pélleas is busy with family and can't comment right now.)

Zerbinetta said...

Also, I was asked to explain "One Tree Sword." I was thinking not of the U2 song but rather an execrable TV show, where this happens: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDwv1m6UeL4
(I'm pretty sure they stole that idea from this Hans Neuenfels production I saw a while back.)

Brainpack said...

Liebe Zerb,

Could you please make a public request for D Voigt to improve her German diction? It was indeed very very painful to hear her "Fricka" with the typical American/English "r"!!! I cringed at every single "r" of hers!!! The HD doesn't do D Voigt any favours either as one can see how her "r" is going to come out Amerikanisch before the sound confrms it...Grrrr...

She should take some lessons with B Terfel!! Now that's one Meistersinger and "enunciator" One can hear and understand every single word!!! His German is clearer than that of many other German singers!

BTW, why did JK have to fuss over this ribbon in his hair?! In HD close up it was rather pathetic, distracting, and somehow tickled my funny bone...I had to suppress laughing out!

Still, JK, EMW and BT were so fantastic that I HAD to return for Met Encore on Suday as well!!!

marcillac said...

Sorry Zerb, OT, but I hadn't heard that she cancelled. Its early so I'm guessing not krankheitsbedingt? There's no shows on the weekend so I couldn't go but otherwise was interested.

As to the Onegin...damn, damn, damn damn, damn!!! I didn't know. Jansons, Concergebouw, Stoyanova and Herheim!!!. AND it could have been done on the same weekend as the Huguenots (I'm actually curious about Meyerbeer and Py did a good Mathis in Paris earlier this season - interesting production, great performance but crappy opera). They are also doing same production with almost same cast in Strausburg next year. Oh well.

Zerbinetta said...

Brainpack, as someone who is working hard to eradicate her own American R when speaking German, I was acutely aware of Voigt's pronunciation problems. We also had the benefit of German subtitles so I could tell when they screwed up the text. I did hear ONE mistake from Terfel--a "zuruck" instead of "zurück." But yeah, his German is really wonderful.

I think JK was supposed to, in one dramatic motion, unleash the hair to look more twinlike with Sieglinde, but it didn't work right on the first try so he had to keep at it. His hair does have a way of upstaging him occasionally.

Marcillac, the official story was that she was sick earlier and therefore didn't have enough time to learn the role. The change (to Janice Watson) happened a few days after rehearsals started, so I'm not sure whether it was a mutual decision or not. And sorry you didn't hear about Onegin... I'll write about it, at least....

Rob V. said...

Zerbinetta, I think it's a very good observation on your part that Eva-Maria looked nervous. And she had every reason to be so, I guess. She isn't doing well (physically) since the beginning of this Walkure. In fact, she won't sing for a few months because of 'health issues' affecting her singing. Cancelled everything. It also affected her acting, very clearly. There are some rumours she might be pregnant. Not with Siegfried, I guess... It's a shame she couldn't give the best she has to offer. But, given the circumstances, she didn't do too bad.

The Unrepentant Pelleastrian said...

Capriccio:

I bet you found this on a Pelleas + Melisande googling mission!)

Lol.... Not quite.

:-)

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