At the turn of the last century the witty French writer Colette was taken to the Paris Opera to see Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. In the great love duet Tristan was at one end of the proscenium, Isolde at the other, both staring intently not at each other but at the conductor in the pit (understandable, given the difficulty of the score.)
"So this is what the Germans think is love," Colette remarked.
I was reminded of her comment watching the Metropolitan Opera's inert new production of the second part of Wagner's Ring Cycle, Die Walkure. Directed by the avant-garde Canadian Robert LePage and designed by his associate Carl Fillion, the new production is not as intrusive as I expected -- given his catastrophic Damnation of Faust a few seasons ago -- but nor does it serve the opera as well as the production the Met discarded, a perfect conception by Otto Schenk.
The single unit set consists of gigantic, stage-high Lincoln Logs, arranged in tandem as a backdrop. In the first part of the first act, when Siegmund is being pursued through the forest the logs shimmy a little and open up to let him through, which is promising. They also bend and tilt -- when flat, they take on interesting contours. Poor Deborah Voigt, as Brunnhilde, tripped on her first entrance, perhaps because of the angle. By and large, they form a cold backdrop, adding little to the music.
Their best moment comes at the beginning of the third act, when they tilt forward and the warrior maidens, after rocking at the top for a while, slide down them as a clever simulation of flight
Schenk's designs, sensitively based on 19th century illustration styles for fairy tales and myth, reinforced the music. The use of light, for example, in the explosive love scene at the end of the first act -- what could be hotter than incest, between twins yet! -- added to the thrill. Here the music, though ardently sung, does not match that rapture, partly because of the chilly backdrop.
Similarly, at the very end of the opera, when Wotan surrounds his disobedient daughter Brunnhilde with fire to protect her from all but the most valiant suitors, the Schenk production achieved genuinely magical fire effects. Here, nisht.
Musically, of course, the evening was powerful. There is something touching about the deep affection of the sometimes unruly Met audience for its music director, the medically troubled James Levine. His initial entrance brought an unusually warm ovation, as did his subsequent arrivals in the pit and his appearance onstage during the curtain calls. In his 40 years at the Met Levine has turned a humdrum orchestra into a spectacular world class one, and the results were evident Friday night, especially in the work's abundant instrumental solos.
For this new production the Met assembled an unusually strong cast, especially the Siegmund, tenor Jonas Kauffman. He sustains the long sinuous lines with apparent ease and holds the high notes thrillingly. One always worries with a young singer that he may be risking a golden voice, but there appears to be no strain in his impassioned singing.
His Sieglinde on opening night was a Dutch soprano, Eva-Maria Westbroek , making her Met debut. It was announced at the beginning that she would sing despite ill health. That was not apparent in her work -- though at times her voice sounded rough, she certainly matched Kauffman in ardor. Midway through the second act, however, she felt she could not continue (she is offstage at that point), and she was replaced by the splendid American soprano Margaret Jane Wray, who was in great voice and sang as if she had been supposed to do so all along.
Deborah Voigt sang the title role. Her voice had less heft than I had expected but, but I have never heard the battle cry, "Hoyataho" sung more fervently or musically. Both she and Bryn Terfel, as Wotan, made their mythical characters intensely dramatic, intensely human. Terfel, in fact, often sang with a softness and gentleness you don't hear in a role that is generally sung in tones gruff and stentorian.
This was particularly so in his prolonged scene with Wotan's understandably vexed wife Fricka, sung magnificently by Stephanie Blythe. I have generally seen this scene staged with the two as equals. In a nice bit of direction LePage gives Fricka the upper hand. She enters on an elegantly designed chariot (which might work equally well some time for the Queen of the Night) and remains at the crest of a hill, which gives Wotan the air of a penitent, coloring the whole scene interestingly.
As Sieglinde's justly aggrieved husband Hunding, Hans-Peter Konig sang with great strength and understanding.
I was not in strong enough physical condition to attend the premiere of Rheingold, the first installment of the new Ring, last fall. But a friend of infinite judgment was so outraged by it she could not contain herself and called me to vent as soon as she got home. This perhaps created certain expectations -- I expected to be similarly angry, but I really couldn't be. LePage's production, though it does not reflect the work as profoundly as the Schenk production it replaced, does not intrude on it. It isn't even controversial, merely dull.