Die Walküre Blazes In The Burbs

by David Yearsley, June 9, 2011

They were still there long after the last showing of Kung Fu Panda 2, the vampire-tracking Priest (in 3D!), and The Hangover 2 had released their meager midweek audiences out beneath the canted neon crown of the Regal Cinemas into the wasteland of a mall parking lot ringed distantly by stubby pines and, somewhere beyond this residue of the natural world, the street lights of a gloomy subdivision.

Of the 14 theaters in the muliplex all were now empty except this one, its audience assembled not for a sneak midnight preview of the latest offering of the interminable Harry Potter series or for some summer blockbuster that prematurely burst its marketing shackles, but for something else entirely. The moviegoers were still taut with attention after five hours, and thundering strong down the home stretch of an overblown and addictive 19th-century music-drama by Richard Wagner named after the virgin barmaids of Valhalla: The Valkyries. On flying horses these armored beauties transport the bones and accessories of fallen warriors to the festive hall of the gods where these daughters of Wotan serve the heroes mead and reindeer tenders with lingonberry chutney from the IKEA gift shop.

But in the multiplex seats facing this widescreen Wagnerian music epic, the drink-holders were empty and few appeared to have the nerve or inclination to gobble Good & Plentys in order to keep the system stoked with stimulants past midnight. Instead, the necessary infusion of energy was provided by the singing of a cast of international opera stars and the potent charge of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra under the direction of James Levine, soldiering on through the nearly six hours of Die Walküre despite what appeared to be a great deal of physical discomfort stemming from a pair of recent lower back operations.

And then there was the now famous — or, depending on who you ask, infamous — multi-million dollar, computer-controlled contraption of two dozen flapping and floating planks, a super elaborate construction devised by the cycle’s director Robert Lepage. Although cleverly conceived and imaginatively deployed in the first installment of the Met’s Ring quartet, Das Rheingold, which premiered this past Fall, the Machine, as it is was dubbed by the Met staff and musicians, did not seem to pay compelling artistic dividends in its first outing. A highly speculative investment even by New York standards, this most complicated and costly technology in the history of opera, itself the most expensive musical pursuit ever dreamt up, finally hit the jackpot in the sublime encirclement of the sleeping Brünnhilde in a ring of flame at the close of Die Walküre.

The box office of this past Wednesday’s evening rebroadcast of the live transmission from the Metropolitan Opera House even outperformed the neo-Nordic silliness of Disney’s Thor, as I ascertained in a fact-finding mission during the second Walküre intermission. It’s true that a Met simulcast on a few hundred screens worldwide hardly measures up to the nearly 4,000 American theatres that screened Thor; but the latter demonstrates that heroic exploits of macho Vikings with big swords still holds monetizable fascination for boys and young men, and that Wagner is unlikely to overtake Hollywood in gross receipts any time soon.

Yet Wagner’s appeal appears far more diverse. The robust simulcast audience had lots of old folks, whom one presumes generally didn’t stay up this late on a Wednesday night; there were also middle-aged couples out for a romantic evening; newly minted college grads; and a goodly number of high schoolers. So resilient is the Wagner cult that it can thrive in an environment more inhospitable to culture than even Brünnhilde’s distant outcropping — the American suburbs.

I’ll have to admit that prior obligations prevented me from making the 6:30 kickoff to this best of the four operas of the Ring. A middle school research fare and ensuing gathering at an ice cream place called Purity — a name brings with it an unintended Germanic overtones — had me sliding into my high-backed multiplex seat just before ten o’clock. Although at the simulcast itself two weeks earlier I’d opted not to go because I’d missed just the first twenty minutes, I couldn’t stay away from the third act given this rare second chance. Wagner is a big beast, and even a few slices can fully fortify one with enough gloom, guilt, and ravishing song for the bright summer months ahead.

Given the throng that showed up for the rebroadcast, I could only find a place way down front and to the side, so that I had to work my gaze across the screen like a search light scanning the sky for aircraft — or perhaps panning over a stormy sea for opera juggernauts. Moored to the right of the screen was Sieglinde in the perfectly cast and clad person of Eva-Maria Westbroek. She’d just expired in a heap of remorse and self-pity, having committed the double-barreled sins of incest and adultery, and then run off with her brother/lover Siegmund leaving behind her husband Hunding, who had offered the subsequent home-wrecker Siegmund refuge and hospitality in the opera’s first act. Even prone on the floorboards, this Sieglinde radiated naiveté and desire; there she was being tossed by the storm surge of emotions, as her heaving breast made clear.

Nearby Jonas Kaufmann’s Siegmund prowled the wilderness into which he had been flung. For all its heavyweight operatic talent, abundantly embodied in the persons of Bryn Terfel as Wotan and Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde, Kaufmann appeared the first among equals; his German singing is pure — there’s that word again! — and evocative and in his voice are huge stores of a sound that is never forced and perfectly projects the Wagnerian mix of blinkered heroism and uncontainable, illicit love.

Brünnhilde soon arrives to provide some couples-counseling for the runaways. Sieglinde is pregnant with the next generation of low-IQ superhero, Siegfried. It’s a Teutonic Planned Parenthood session: chainmail, and long and wavy red hair of a distinctly un-Aryan appearance all around, from Wotan on down, and brother and sister with an Über-bun in the oven.

The part of Brünnhilde lies low in the voice, a range that suggests this quintessential Wagnerian heroine’s tough resolve, which, of course, is figured as masculine according to the wandering gender criteria of the sometimes cross-dressing composer. Voigt cut through Wagner’s unsettled motifs like a dark steel blade. But the natural beauty and profundity of Kaufmann’s tenor, with its varied and luxurious vibrato and soaring power, is like ore dug directly from German earth. He’s utterly compelling and natural musically, and from this sonority flows the nature-boy guilelessness together with that peculiar emotional neediness that only heroes have.

Act Two culminates in a rare bit of swashbuckling action. Brünnhilde decides to go against her father’s command and to protect the young couple rather than whisk Siegmund alone off to Valhalla. When the cuckolded Hunding shows up and Siegmund gets ready to do him in with his trusty sword, Nothung, Wotan appears and shatters his son’s weapon, and Siegmund is slain by the revenging husband of Sieglinde. But there is also a contest going on for the attentions of the audience — Terfel, Voigt, and Kaufmann fighting it out vocally. Unlike on the Nordic battlefield, one doesn’t have to choose a victor, but if one did, the horned helmet would go to Kaufmann.

Escaping to the wings of the Met stage for the second intermission, Voigt was greeted by Placido Domingo, one of the hosts, and primo uomo of the debonair. As Voigt came at him in her figure-enhancing breast plate with tight-fitting chain-mesh sleeves, the great tenor bobbled his reading glasses (who wouldn’t?), and as he went to retrieve them said, “I‘ve lost my glasses between your …” It turned out the spectacles had in fact fallen to floor, but the preposition “between” and the dangling possessive pronoun “your” that followed seemed unambiguously to refer to her breasts. Thus the high Wagernian drama of filicide was immediately followed by one of the great off-stage comic moments in the Met’s simulcast still-young history, though it would have been even better if the genial Domingo had actually fished out his Prada glasses from the above-mentioned décolletage.

After some suave words between Domingo and four of Brünhilde’s Valkyrie sisters, the third act began with the famous Ride, the maidens each astride one of the the Machine’s planks with reins affixed to the distant ends — a kind of cross between a long board and the Grand National Steeplechase. Even though the audience in New York along with a few in the multiplex applauded this most famous set piece, I didn’t buy the look of it, though the joisting of singers and orchestra was terrific stuff. Lepage’s machine seemed yet again prone to the gimmicky.

The Valykries sisters are a more than a little surprised when Brünnhilde shows up not with the body of Siegmund, but with the grieving, heaving Sieglinde. An angry Wotan soon enough tracks down his rebellious daughter and strips her of immortality, and threatens to put her to sleep on a rocky promontory, presumably to be ravaged by the next marauding Goth. In the end this loss of honor would be too much for either father or daughter to contemplate, and Brünnhilde convinces Wotan to encircle her in flames so that only a real hero will be able beat the heat to rescue her. In a most opportunistic bit of plotting worthy of Hollywood — where Wagner would have made a killing — this farfetched set-up paves the way for Sieglinde’s unborn child to ride in for some cross-generational incest (Brünnhilde is Siegfried’s aunt) to be followed by the final conflagration of the world after eleven or twelve more hours of opera. All this and more will be offered simulcast audiences in the next final two Ring operas to be broadcast next year.

While the few minutes of Kaufmann I heard convinced me that a lavish niche in the Wagnerian Hall of Fame should immediately be prepared for him, Terfel and Voigt also gave epic performances — tormented, resolute, magical, and devastating. At the curtain calls I could have sworn Terfel was already sucking on a richly deserved lozenge to try to salve vocal cords laid siege to by Wagner’s unrelenting lines. Terfel was impressive musically as he was physically in simply enduring at such high levels of intensity. Neither he nor Voigt shrunk from the demands of their parts, but pushed them to their limits and occasionally beyond.

Final musical and moral negotiations between Wotan and Brünnhilde condemn her to sleep within the flames, and he exits leading his daughter. Both of them then appearing at the top of the Machine which slopes downward towards the lip of the stage. Brünnhilde’s face is covered by her opulent curls — a ready-made sleep mask — and Wotan fixes her feet to the two central planks. As the frolicking fire and soothing sleep music are shadowed intermittently the by ominous leitmotif of Destiny, the central planks tipped forward, with the outer ones splaying to suggest both the rugged terrain and the jagged teeth of the flames. Finally, Brunnhilde was suspended upside down, her shield covering her bosom, her fiery locks pulled downward by gravity to reveal her slumbering face as she was encircled by the darting glow of lush lighting effects in orange, brown, and yellow.

It was Gustav Klimt meets the Summer of Love meets Thor.

There is no more mighty a crown for the middle of the week than Wagner’s Walküre. So exhilarating was this final act alone that as the audience promenaded across the asphalt to their own magic steeds, one suspected that only a bit of Wotan’s magic would get them to sleep any time soon. If ever the suburbs needed a late night Mead bar, this was the night for it. ¥¥

(David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint  His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London,” has just been released by Musica Omnia . He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu .)

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