Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Die Walküre at the Met

Date of Performance: January 14, 2008

Seeing as this was my first live Wagner experience, I’m not quite sure where to lay the blame for Die Walküre’s stagnant drama—is it inherent in the opera, and as such the fault of Wagner, who unusually is responsible for both the score and the libretto, or is it the result of Otto Schenk’s production?

The opera boasts a story both complex and absorbing, to the nerd in me at least; based on Norse & Germanic myths, it tells an intricate tale of gods, mortals and the fate of the universe, but despite its epic concerns the opera played out staidly on a dark and drab set (by Gunter Schneider-Siemssen), usually with two characters chatting about what's happened and deciding what to do next while rarely ever offering us a chance to really see anything happen. To me, opera is the king of the arts because of the unique way in which it blends music, drama and spectacle—a way no other art can hope to match—but Die Walküre was too often tame by the standards set by other composers and productions. Not to mention that Wagner's music isn't exactly inviting.

The stiff character of the German tongue doesn't lend itself to lovely sung melodies as does the fluidity of Italian and, to a lesser extent, French, and as such German opera, via Wagner anyway, isn't quite full of the lush arias, duets and ensemble pieces that I’ve come to expect from the opera hall. German opera, and Wagner, are an entirely different breed of music and style.

Though, when he wants to, Wagner proves he’s capable of composing some of the finest music in the repertoire. Wagner is best as a composer of orchestral music—he is an unparalleled overturist—and the reliable, exceptional Lorin Maazel made the score shine from the podium. The quality of the composition or performance (the cast was uniformly superb) wasn't really the problem—what’s most frustrating about Wagner is the tremendous patience he requires. As a friend observed during one of Die Walküre's two well-deserved intermissions, "I'm all for building things slowly, I really am, but that was tough." The first two acts of Die Walküre follow similar structures: long periods of both musical and narrative development that after quite some build-up finally climax in startling moments of great opera. It's a reserved score that, gradually, acquires stirring severity. (Gil Wechsler's gorgeous lighting design followed suit, with acts opening in darkness and slowly coming to startlingly natural-looking light.) There are moments of flowing sweetness, of incomparable sweep, but they are too hard-earned by the audience.

The third act breaks the mold established by the previous acts, though, working almost in reverse as it begins with the explosive and exhilarating bangs of "The Ride of the Valkyries" (amazing!)—the opera's only ensemble piece, with its ten warrior women wailing and scurrying across the stage—and ends with a soft, touching whisper. Well, at least until Wotan (James Morris, an outstanding, dramatic bass) literally sets the stage on fire; Die Walkure, after much build-up, finally has an epic moment that fulfills opera's unique potential for spectacle. Too bad there’s not more of it, especially as, clocking in at just under five hours, Die Walküre can't help but make the audience feel just like its hero Siegmund (looking done up as the Cowardly Lion from up in the Family Circle—costumes by Rolf Langenfass) at the opera's start—collapsed on the floor, begging for water.

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