Die Walküre -- Metropolitan Opera, 4/6/09
Theorin, Morris, Meier, Botha, Naef, Tomlinson / Levine
[post on the previous Walküre revival here]
[UPDATE (5/9): post on a subsequent Walküre -- the last of the season -- here]
The Met during Ring-time is almost a wholly different company. Lead singers arrive who've not been seen since the last Ring, James Levine is always at the helm, audience and orchestra are ever-alert, and the star of stars is... James Morris. Not the James Morris one hears in other Met productions -- this year, for example, as Gremin and in a few Gala bits -- the forceful and authoritative but audibly aging singer whose vocal mannerisms have made for many detractors. No, this James Morris is someone else: tone cleared, breath strengthened, line firm, his rendering of Wotan's words and music is as fit and natural as some old god's own. It is almost unbelievable to say this, but Morris last night sang Wotan as well or better than he ever has, showing not weakening but improvement since the 2004 cycle (and I think, though my memory of it's getting patchy, even 2000!) and quite eclipsing his last-season portrayal. Yes, we finally have a Met Ring scheduled with the much-anticipated next-generation Wotan (Bryn Terfel), but on the current evidence the man about to have his 40th Met anniversary (Morris debuted in the 1970-71 season) should be far from finished with the Met Ring company. If these are Morris' final full-Ring Wotans and Wanderers here, what a way to end.
The other biggest triumph was by a Ring-only singer: Swiss mezzo Yvonne Naef as Fricka. I remember her being good for both Levine and Gergiev (in his Valkyrie-only season of 2004-05) five years ago, but this latest incarnation is revelatory. In this ongoing Golden Age of Mezzos we've not been short of excellent Frickas -- the last two in New York were Larissa Diadkova and Stephanie Blythe! -- but Naef shines even among these. She makes Wotan's wife not only compelling but wholly sympathetic, not just harridan and plot device but fully co-equal sufferer and protagonist. Naef seemed to me in looks, sound, manner and phrase uncannily like a mezzo Dorothea Röschmann, and what could be better than that?
The Act I trio were hardly less impressive. Most surprising, perhaps, was John Tomlinson as Hunding. Tomlinson is actually slightly older than Morris, but his bass -- as one heard at the Gala -- is as full and solid as ever. But voice is only part of it, here just deepening his enactment of the most masterful and authoritative of Hundings. This warrior feels assured of his might and place, backed by kin and Fricka: he can take dark pleasure in the irony of finding his enemy at his own hearth attended by his own wife, and taunt Siegmund without a hint of the sort of villainy that could consider breaking the forms of hospitality with an instant attack.
Waltraud Meier -- who debuted at the Met as Fricka -- was, as ever in Wagner, excellent, a bit clotted at the very top but no more so than, say, Karita Mattila on a lesser night. In fact I seemed to hear Mattila's timbre elsewhere in her voice as well, and actually the entire Sieglinde portrayal was not far from what the Finnish soprano might have offered. (Again, I mean this as a compliment.) Johan Botha didn't look much like Meier's twin, but he sang at least as well. As with his Otello, I feel his virtues here may be underappreciated: the combination of a big, spacious, easily ringing voice and scrupulous, almost refined musicality is difficult to register. He can sing and be heard as Siegmund with real dynamic range, and he uses it -- and a rhythmic sense -- to good effect. Botha's surprising and distinctive crescendi on the two shouts of "Wälse" reminded me of his willingness some seasons ago to try ending "Celeste Aida" as written... Not what you'd expect from a beefy heldentenor who still can't much act. (As Siegmund, acting-wise, he often makes a good Siegfried.) But singing the role Wagner wrote does much. This may be his best role yet.
Not least, of course, was the debut of Swedish soprano Irene Theorin in the title part. The voice isn't necessarily ideal, but the overall portrayal was a success. Of course, vocally Brünnhilde is a part for which none (except perhaps Frida Leider) are or have been ideal, and it's a matter of choosing the tradeoffs one prefers. Theorin's top is clear and piercing, at times perhaps a bit shrieky, but less so than, say, the current Deborah Voigt's. No audibility issues there, anyway. (No trill, though, if you're wondering.) Below that there is a warm vibrato which at times -- particularly in the lower-register parts of her dialog with Siegmund (the famous "Todesverkündigung") -- is the only thing carrying her sound through the orchestra. Ideally perhaps the voice is better suited to Sieglinde than the Valkyrie, but she carries the whole thing off pretty well. The physicality of the role is a plus: like Olga Sergeeva or the young Hildegard Behrens, Theorin has no problem hopping around and exulting like the young jock Brünnhilde is. She's in fact unabashedly and wildly expressive in her relations to James Morris' Wotan, and though the personal chemistry between the two hasn't yet caught full fire, her acting in the last act helps carry the finale to its full heights.
There was some of the apparently unavoidable bits of trouble in the brass, but the strings (including Rafael Figueroa in the first-act cello solo) and winds played marvelously for Levine, who seems to savor each turn of feeling (mostly agony) the score brings forth. Of the supporting valkyries Teresa S. Herold's strong mezzo/contralto made the biggest impression (as Rossweisse). Great and long cheers after, including a curtain call for -- I believe -- Otto Schenk, the original creator of this soon-to-be-retired production. Whether it was his doing or that of this revival's assistant stage directors (Gina Lapinski and Paula Williams), the unsatisfying cast-set disconnect of some past revivals was not at all present here.