Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Met HD Die Walküre & San Diego Opera's Carmen

When a couple of early morning cancellation opened last Saturday (May 14th) up like a peeled banana I made a galloping sprint right over to the AMC Mission Valley 20 cinema with 40 minutes to spare to catch the Metropolitan Opera's HD live broadcast of Richard Wagner's Die Walküre (The Valkyrie). Like the other 3 operas in the Wagner cycle, Die Walküre is a long sit at 5 hrs plus intermissions, so it pleased no one when the performance was delayed for 40 minutes.

No announcement was made until 15 minutes had lapsed since the posted showtime when the screen went black and ran the 'This performance has been delayed. The show will begin shortly,' notice. Half an hour into the delay a cinema staff came in and told us that there will be a 20-30 minutes further delay due to 'projector failure', which was both good and bad to hear. Most mechanical failure is quite more welcomed than 'indisposed principal cast' announcement! Not wanting to stay seated for longer than we already needed to, about half the audience (me included) went out in the lobby and walked around a bit. I came back to my seat after 8 minutes or so to find that the theater screen was showing live image from the Met auditorium with a running countdown clock saying that the show was about to begin in 1:50 minutes. Eh! At least 1/4 of the opera goers were still out of the theater buying food or stretching their legs because nobody had told them that the delay had been cut by more than half.

The Machine in Robert Lepage's staging of Die Walkuere at Metropolitan Opera in 2011. (Photo: Ken Howard)
As it turned out, the delay was due to a displaced encoder on one of the high-tech set's dynamic planks and they had to relocate and recalibrate the thing. 'La Machina', stage director Robert Lepage's gigantic mechanical set of the entire Ring Cycle is a real shape-changer that draws as much ire from the audience as it does admiration. I quite enjoy the thing and its many imaginative use to stand in for anything from Hunding's hut to its surrounding dense woods to Valhalla and even the galloping horses of the Valkyries. But then again, I'm a fan of minimalist staging that demands a lot of acting from the singers. After all, one of my all time favorite opera singers, Astrid Varnay (who happened to be one of the greatest Wagnerian soprano/contralto to ever walk the planet), wrote in her memoir that no other opera is as adaptable to the fantastic realms than Wagner's Ring Cycle. It is a mythical tale that can really benefit from imaginative staging... Many in the theater weren't happy with it, though, and spent the intermissions bemoaning the lack of other stage props.

Well, the show started with the entering of Maestro James Levine to the pit. He didn't look in the best of health (and it seemed to have a painful time struggling into his conductor's chair), but conducted with such fervor that ignited his orchestra into a splendidly thrilling playing of the hunt overture (this was one of the few bits of music that actually benefited from the loud volume of the auditorium sound system). If only all 5 hrs long opera could smolder through time the way he led this Walküre I'd risk my achy back sitting through them a lot more often!

Levine's conducting along with the stellar performances by Jonas Kaufmann (Siegmund), Eva Marie Westbroek (Sieglinde) and Hans Peter König (Hunding) made the first act feel just half its length! I heard Ms. Westbroek was battling a throat infection, but that didn't show much. She sounded very secure, and though the acting isn't much in the voice there was plenty of it on her face and in her every gesture. Herr König wasn't given much to do physically and wasn't the usual bad-guy Hunding, but I found him very convincing in his own way as a more reasonable and more passively nasty lord of the hut. Jonas Kaufmann was nothing short of flawless on all fronts imaginable. Rarely have I heard such nuanced singing in a 'Heldentenor' part like this. The voice is beautifully dark and vibrant with colors, deployed with delightful touch and dynamic command... And it drove the music forward in a way that made you anticipate his character's plight. He was also an exemplar colleague to his stage partners, only letting loose his glorious top notes for dramatic purpose and somehow commanding the stage without overshadowing anyone else.

Then, of course, came the second act with the entrance of the gods. Bryn Terfel's Wotan proved that he had the voice to match the physique (6'4") of a deity, and Stephanie Blythe's Fricka was riveting without even having to move off her mobile throne. The star marquee of the show, Deborah Voigt's Brünnhilde, however, was not very over-whelming as Wotan's favorite (and lead) Valkyrie. The voice has shrunk considerably since a few years ago and her pitch was at times a bit iffy. The choreography that had her spanking about with Wotan during her 'Hojotoho!' bits was rather.... ungodly in many ways. Even though I usually favor attempts to find humor in serious operas, this overt sort of silly fun making in a rather dignified and glorious musical scene seemed just frivolous. That said, she settled down after a while and sang much better in the final act (where Terfel was terfel-rific in the famous Abschied... though the orchestra somehow didn't sound very sparkly in the Magic Fire Music that followed... Perhaps that was the sound system's problem).

I had a great time with Die Walküre, and loved most of the intermission features with interviews with cast members and stage hands... Joyce DiDonato is a wonderful host, though I have to take some issue with Maestro Placido Domingo's lack of command of English (even when he was reading it). I will freely agree to anyone who says that Domingo is a great performer and ambassador of opera to a very wide audience. That said, his English is very hard to understand and annoying slow.... especially when he attempted to ad lib stuff. What is wrong with giving the interviewer job to someone who also knows the opera well and can actually speak English... and can really use the money? I'd buy a ticket to hear Domingo sing any day, but you can't pay me to hear him attempt to interview someone in English... I'm not that patient a person.

I also attended the San Diego Opera's opening performance of Bizet's Carmen on the same evening. This post is already long enough to make me a Wagnerian suspect, however, so I'm not writing about it here. If you are interested, though, I did muse on it earlier at another website.


Anna said...

Hallo Smorgy!
That's a full opera day indeed! I'm surprised that you managed to peel yourself out of the seat after Die Walküre. I think I'd be too zombified to move.

Best regards and wishes from rainy Melbourne,


Smorg said...

Hiya Anna!
Sorry for the late reply! I don't know, matie, I think I did leave a bit of my bottom on the seat there. It didn't feel the same for quite a few days afterward. ;o)

Hope Melbourne is being nice and enjoyable! Best greetings and wishes from sunny Southern California! :oD