Saturday, January 19, 2008

Valkyrie notes

Lorin Maazel's account of Die Walküre is nothing if not detailed, though from the first measures of Monday's performance one might have guessed that was all it would be. Every footstep, raindrop, surge of breath in Siegmund's stormy pre-curtain flight was independently audible in the prelude -- but not the flight itself, its sweep of urgency and desperation. Would this, then, be one of those trees-hiding-the-forest performances with which (fairly or not) Maazel is associated?

For much of the evening it seemed that it might. As clearly as he drew forth Act I's textures and details, so did Maazel leave its overall thrust murky: what large-scale concept he showed was coolly measured, at odds with the Wälsungs'* hot and spontaneous pathos and therefore ineffective. The moments failed to add up.

[*That is, for non-Wagnerians, Siegmund and Sieglinde -- the children of "Wälse".]

Yet Act II, on this night, brought a new focus. The three key dialogues -- Wotan-Fricka, Wotan-Brünnhilde, and Brünnhilde-Siegmund -- were each wholly of a piece, and increasingly effective as both sound and musical drama. After that, whether by the night's inspiration, increasingly simpatico music, or some other cause, Maazel led a remarkably unified and emotionally communicative account of Act III as one grand whole, and no less clear in texture and details for that. It may have been the best Met conducting of the season, for which Maazel deserved all bravos.

*     *     *

The cast did their bit. Adrianne Pieczonka is in the lighter, lyric tradition of Sieglindes, quite expressive vocally though without climactic power. She is excellently responsive onstage as well, whether in motion or standstill, though the fact that her acting is more or less school-of-Mattila conjures some (unfairly) unflattering comparisons. Her Siegmund, Clifton Forbis, is sonically an unobjectionable example of a groanentenor, but he does much with this resource, showing a deep-felt dignity that works to great effect in this part. (Domingo has always been too transparently demonstrative.)

The Valkyrie herself, Lisa Gasteen, was announced as suffering a sore throat. This, I hope, explains the very short top with which she worked -- not even trying the high notes in her entrance "Hojotoho" -- but her performance was still, on the whole, a success. Gasteen sings with a firm tone, not dark but effortlessly grounded in the chest, and a natural feeling for the musical line. These provide her great expressive resources for her dialog with Siegmund (the so-called "Todesverkündigung", death announcement) and final encounter with Wotan. She used them to heart-rending effect.

Gasteen and Forbis are on the same vocal-emotional page, and it shows. So are Gasteen and James Morris. The latter's detractors will, I suppose, note his refusal/inability to try blasting over the orchestra (which Maazel never really reigns in, for both good and bad) and near-crooned pianissimos, but in character and phrase he is more engaged and dead-on than ever.

*     *     *

While premiered in 1870, Wagner's Walküre was composed in the mid-1850s, not long after the premiere of Verdi's La Traviata. Monday's performance, featuring the aurally splendid, passionately-articulated Fricka of Stephanie Blythe, brought this to mind -- for don't both operas turn on a middle-act argument of respectability vs. love, where the former wins not by its own claims but by almost incidentally puncturing the latter's self-delusion?

One does better, I think, seeing the Ring operas separately: human-scale touches like this (and Siegmund's nobility, and the particulars of sibling, marital, and filial pathos) then aren't swamped by the grandiose big-picture mess.


  1. But in Valkyrie, doesn't love win the argument?

  2. E tardi!

    (For this generation anyway.)


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.