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20 Jan 2008

Die Walküre at the Met

The Metropolitan Opera audience loves its Wagner, and the management for the last several decades has, alas, made sure we aren’t spoiled: it’s a rare season that gets more than two production revivals of Wagner, and some years there have been none.

Richard Wagner: Die Walküre

Brünnhilde: Lisa Gasteen; Sieglinde: Adrianne Pieczonka; Fricka: Stephanie Blythe; Siegmund: Clifton Forbis; Wotan: James Morris; Hunding: Mikhail Petrenko.
Metropolitan Opera: conducted by Lorin Maazel. Performance of January 14.

Above: Adrianne Pieczonka (Sieglinde) and Clifton Forbis (Siegmund)
All photos by Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera


A dearth of major Wagnerian voices might be, has been, blamed … but other companies do better … or so it seems to us New York Wagnerians.

The current revival of Die Walküre, always the most popular of the Ring operas, is impressively satisfying: none of the singers are bad, some of them are great, only one of them is even stout (Stephanie Blythe, who, however, sings like the goddess she plays and moves in a stately, never clumsy, manner), while an unfamiliar hand on the podium brings out some unfamiliar colors from the depths of this shimmering score.

The weakest link in the cast was Clifton Forbis, the Siegmund — his gravelly, forced quality, an ill-supported top, no lyricism in the “Winterstürme,” all made this a woeful Wehwalt. The only time he sang with much power was the cry of “Walse! Walse!” — something about this shout seemed to align his throat properly for the first — and last — time all night. In rather striking contrast, Adrianne Pieczonka, a slim, girlish Sieglinde, sang with a full tone a bit beyond complete control, and was underpowered only in the “triumph of woman” explosion in Act III. She might be starting on the road to a major interpretation; Forbis, however, seems simply miscast.

James Morris had a Mozart and bel canto background when he first essayed Wotan twenty years ago — and was then widely expected to fail. Instead, he thrilled all ears, and he has owned the part ever since. (Could his bel canto experience be responsible?) Wobbles in his Hans Sachs last year made me wonder if his Valhalla sun had set, but he was in fine voice during the second performance of the run of Walküres, a little dryer than the lustrous hue of old, no doubt, but wobble-free, in command of the full range of notes and dynamics, and an experienced actor of this figure who attains tragic stature through tardy self-knowledge.

Lisa Gasteen, a star of Rings from London to Vienna to Adelaide, made her first essay at the title role of this opera in New York. She sang, it was announced, with a sore throat, and one would like to credit that for the general weakness of her voice above the staff that began with her first war-cry and continued to the end of the night. But Wagner was not a high-note composer, and the rest of her voice was lovely, beautifully produced, full of deep emotion.

Walkure-_scene_Pieczonka___.pngA scene from Wagner's “Die Walküre” with Adrianne Pieczonka as Sieglinde and Clifton Forbis as Siegmund.

She also cuts a handsome figure and bounds about the rocky sets with youthful athleticism, as a hard-riding warrior goddess ought to — but how many do? In the orchestra, I had doubts about the size of the voice when it came to filling the Met, and friends who sat upstairs shared them, but this was an honorable attempt that gave much pleasure. If her health on Monday is not the reason for her weak top, however, she is hardly the woman to sing the higher Brünnhilde of Siegfried. This experience of her made one interested in hearing her under optimum circumstances and in many roles. (A revival of Frau ohne Schatten would suit her nicely — she’s sung both soprano leads in Germany.)

Walkure-_scene_0086.pngA scene from Wagner's “Die Walküre” with (from left) James Morris as Wotan, Stephanie Blythe as Fricka, and Lisa Gasteen as Brünnhilde

Among the smaller roles, Mikhail Petrenko was especially striking — joining the lengthy list of Hundings whom one wishes had more to do, or big juicy roles in something else in the very near future. (Whatever became of Stephen Milling?) Kelly Cae Hogan, a singer new to me, was first off the mark among the valkyries, and one wished her war-cry, clear and focused and bright, had somehow been substituted for Gasteen’s cautious one; the rest of the gang were also happy choices.

The stage direction seemed to have been tightened, and was especially well synchronized at such tricky moments as Siegmund’s death (and Sieglinde’s flight) and the valkyrie ensembles. The diction all around was exceptional, precise without being intrusive. Lighting for this production seems to be getting steadily dimmer — which makes things like the magic fire all the more effective.

Lorin Maazel’s approach to Wagner was vivid and the pace snappier than we are used to, which rather heightened the excitement of a happy occasion. As at every great Wagner performance, one heard things, instrumental colors, one had never noticed before. Consider, for instance, Wagner’s use of kettledrums for everything but beating time: enhancing this, emphasizing that, pointing words or other instruments, a sudden insertion of ominous texture in the midst of a leitmotiv associated with things not ominous — insofar as anything in the Ring is free from shadow.

John Yohalem

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