Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The birth of... tragedy

Die Walküre - Metropolitan Opera, 4/26/2013
Dalayman, Serafin, O'Neill, Delavan, Blythe, König / Luisi

The plot of Wagner's Ring cycle begins, of course, with Rheingold, but story doesn't enter the picture until the first act of this opera. Perhaps Wagner saw it clearly himself in calling Rheingold the preliminary night, for though he recalled better than most that story first came with divine protagonists, he seemingly found it impossible -- as, in his telling, do they themselves -- to assign his gods and spirits much of the terrible transformative revelation that is story. Instead they get reflection and machination and obscuring transformation -- and it's perhaps productive to consider the first parts of the Ring a demonstration of this as inescapable divine role: on the first night, Alberich thinks he has rather a neat conquest story, but is foiled straightaway by Loge and Wotan's tricks and turns wholly to long plotting himself; Fasolt, too, perhaps senses the glimmer of some half- or misrealized story in his dealings with Freia, but that too is squashed by his murderous brother's claim of sole possession and long immovable brooding (to reappear much later as a speedbump in Siegfried's story). Meanwhile Wotan's adventures seem to happen only offstage and in reflective retelling after the fact; on stage, he is limited to his straight path at every turn.

Only with the human Wälsungs do we see a story proper take shape -- for themselves as well as for us. For while we see an extended reunion/recognition sequence play out between the siblings, they (and thereby we again as well) are called to remember that life is not a row of arbitrary and unbearable fortunes, misfortunes, and obligations but potentially -- that is, while a story goes -- the scene that shows us meaning, identity, and the great union of these that is love. And the lesson spreads, as Brünnhilde moves from the divine position of observation and manipulation to choosing/desiring story's fruits (love -- and though she doesn't yet realize it, transformation and new identity) in Act II before, in Act III, seducing Wotan with the promise of the great future tale of Siegfried's return as the only one who can reach her rock to claim her.

(And so it plays out in the next opera, but Brünnhilde's experience of the discouraging part of human life is only deferred. For after the glorious story of her and Siegfried's reunion and recognition closes, the pair continue to exist... and are sucked into the morass of misfortune, machination and entanglement from which the Wälsungs' desperate story emerged in the first place. Unfortunately that story-deficient concluding installment is blown up way beyond Rheingold to Meyerbeerian size.)

*     *     *

Though less starry than some previous performances, this second-cycle revival was in the fine Met tradition. Things started slowly, for of the first-act players only Martina Serafin -- debuting in the house with these Sieglindes -- carries much of the tragic story. Hans-Peter König sings well but hasn't much menace in either voice or person (the costume still makes him look like Santa) as Hunding, while Simon O'Neill -- healthy at last -- has a nice enough (though a touch monochromatic) bright sound but his phrasing's sort of stiff and in timbre and stage persona he seems too young and wide-eyed for Siegmund. But how much Serafin manages alone! Her voice is so firm and expressive through the middle and so well conveys the flux and import of the story: when she herself narrated "Der Männer Sippe" the drama at long last (Siegmund's earlier long shouts to his father notwithstanding) ignited for the evening's duration. Add to this her similarly expressive dramatic presence and Serafin is the most (only?) exciting new middle-weight soprano here since Anja Harteros vanished from these shores. Serafin's high notes don't quite like to be blasted over full Wagnerian orchestration, but I expect and hope that the more civilized top deployment of the Marschallin will show them happy under less duress.

Act II brought the other principals. I've praised Voigt in this because she knows what points to make as Brünnhilde and the voice still works well enough considering. But it's absurd that she continues to get twice the shows and (via broadcast) some gigantic multiple times the exposure of Katarina Dalayman, who has become really really good in this role with no considerations or allowances needed. This time it was the absolutely easy lyricism of her heart-to-hearts with Wotan that was stunning, and her almost-as-easy transition to the loud stuff. Even without a trill, Dalayman marries as well as anyone and better than most the youthfully impetuous lightness of Wotan's favorite daughter to her grand scale and situation.

Mark Delavan, neglected by the Met in favor of imported mediocrities even after some amazing shows across the plaza (he's actually reprising his biggest NYCO triumph -- Flying Dutchman, which he did there in 2001 -- in Princeton this summer), finally got some spotlight this season with two Ring cycles and a villain role in the Zandonai rarity. He's still, I believe, only a few Wotan cycles in career-wise, but the raw material and overall understanding are there and he can certainly hold his own playing with and off the female stars around him. His domestic byplay with Fricka and (in the happier act) Brünnhilde is funny and actually touching, and he traces a very particular and individual arc with Dalayman in the final scene, with Dalayman not relaxing at the beginning of the farewell, but only -- in ecstatic relief and excitement -- when he finally gets around to mentioning the bridal fire.

Fricka sits too high for Stephanie Blythe to really use her gooseflesh notes, but she does well in the part anyway. Fabio Luisi conducts with more fire than I recall from previous years, but it's a texturally and dramatically lighter account and I'd still rather have had Levine or Gatti at the helm. The Lepage production... well, it's a revival, so we don't have to think about it -- and idea-free as it was all along, the production is significantly more enjoyable as uncontemplated wallpaper.

Serafin, Dalayman, and Delavan carried the show, and though the first returns for one last round next Monday, I'm not sure I can recommend it without the other two. I'll be at Rosenkavalier though.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.