Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Die Walküre: a synopsis and review (kind of) from the 2011 Met Performance

Often I've been told that the music I'm listening to is descriptive of a scene and that I should clearly be able to hear what it is if I knew how to listen.  "Can't you hear the ocean there in the strings?  And that trumpet that came in: that's the moon coming out between the clouds.  Can't you hear it?  Isn't it obvious?"  No it's not, and no I can't; but I know exactly what's going on when Die Walküre opens.  Many operas we're familiar with begun with an overture that is basically a sampler of the music to come.  Not so here, here the orchestral prelude accompanies a man running from his foes, having been bloodied and disarmed and we know that's what happens as a result of the music.  The first 3 1/4 minutes of the video below give you the prelude:

Our running hero is Siegmund, being chased through the forest by faceless foes.  Lepage's great machine, the subject of much debate in staging The Ring is here perfect.  The long, metal finger bend down and reflect the video images of trees as Siegmund dashes between them.  Finally spent, he finds a house in the midst of the woods and casts himself down at the hearth.  Enter Sieglinde, woman of the house and wife of the brute Hunding.  She is struck by his beauty and when he awakes gives him drink.

The two speak briefly, clearly both enamored of each other but soon their dialog is cut short by the entrance of Hunding.  He commands dinner be made from him and their mysterious guest.  Over dinner (in which the unhappy relationship between wife and husband is clearly shown) we learn that Sigmund was separated at birth from his twin sister and spent his life wandering with his father fighting off enemies.  Now his father has vanished and he has been beaten and is being chased after trying to defend a young woman forced into marriage (who has died in the midst of the fight incidentally).  Hunding reveals that he is one of the men called to hunt Sigmund and that this is the task he was returning from when he found the stranger in his home.  Because he has been welcomed as a guest Hunding tells him that he has the night in deference to hospitality but come morning Hunding will fight and slay Sigmund.

Well it's all getting rather fraught, isn't it?  Hunding goes to bed, aided by a sleeping draught Sieglinde has slipped him and the two love-birds talk.  Sigmund bemoans his state: his father had promised him that in his hour of need he would find a sword and would win victory with it.  Surely now, unarmed in the house of an enemy the time has come!  Sieglinde tells him that on her wedding day a strange man came, shoved a sword into the tree that stands at the center of their house and left.  Since then no man has had power to remove it.  Sigmund takes the sword out and rejoices, he and Sieglinde are in love!  Once more, they discover they are brother and sister which only compounds their joy.

Yes, it's weird but that's the way it goes in mythology, and particularly in Wagner's portrayal of it.  The rather incestuous plot is greatly helped by some stunning love music, started by a lone cello and caught up into the orchestra and the voices.    In the Met's production no singer is anything but stellar, and though this isn't the act in which each will show their magnificence the music swoops and soars, and carries us through to the end when Sigmund and Sieglinde run off together, knowing they will soon be chased by Hunding and his kin.

Perhaps this a is a good time to mention James Levine.  The primary conductor at the Met (who has many titles there), chosen at incredibly young age to lead the world famous opera house he has become one of, if not the most renowned opera conductors today and is especially noted for his interpretations of Wagner.  Recently he has suffered back problems and had to recuse himself from all summer performances.  It is rumored that he may never return which would make this particular performance his last in the Met.  A sad day indeed, but suffice it to say that this showing was worthy of him, and worth seeing as a final hurrah should that be what it is.

Well again and orchestral prelude opens us into Act II.  It's another wonderful piece of music and shows the wait leitmotives (musical themes that represent people, objects, emotions, or ideas) can be used to tell the story.  Hear the Walküre theme at the end?  You'll recognize it from the Ride of the Valkyries.

Here is Wotan, king of the gods and our first view of the connection between Die Walküre and its predecessor, Das Rheingold.  In comeBrünnhilde, daughter of Wotan and the Valkyrie of the title, though she has eight sisters who will appear later.  Deborah Voigt sings the title role and does so in a world-class fashion.  Her voice is spectacular, and as is becoming more and more a concern in opera, her acting is also quite good.  She is jovial and war-like, she loves her father and her task: to bring fallen heroes to Valhalla where they can help Wotan defend the gods themselves.

Well in comes Fricka, wife of Wotan and goddess of marriage and contracts.  It is by her that Wotan is able to rule, and she is quite upset at the breach of contract he is making!  It turns out that, unknown to the children, Wotan is father of both Sigmund and Sieglinde and has planned from them to kill Hunding and go on to preform a task he needs done to rescue him from his poor choices in the past (long story guys).  Well Fricka points out that they have both committed the crime of incest and broken the covenant of marriage, thus he must reverse himself and kill Sigmund as punishment for his crimes.  Stephanie Blythe is Fricka, a renowned Wagnerian singer, and she is sublime here in her basically 20 minute long nag aimed at Wotan (presumably stolen from Wagner's wife at the time, Mina).

Wotan slinks away, having agreed to perform the deed.  A wonderful piece of music here highlights the change that will come over the opera.  He orders Brünnhilde, who he just told to save Sigmund, to have him killed and bring him to Valhalla.  She is outraged but Wotan flies into a rage, orders her to proceed and exits.  He does so after having run over the whole plot The Ring up to this point, which fills in holes if you aren't familiar with Das Rheingold and some holes that that opera left as well.  In addition, it fills the listener in on all the important leitmotives that accompany each event or object.  When he speaks of the ring of power, there is the music for the ring.  When he sings of Valhalla here is the Valhalla theme.  A good way to get caught up: listen closely!

Brünnhilde, loving her father, goes down to Sigmund who is standing beside his sister, the two in the process of running from Hunding and Sieglinde fallen asleep with exhaustion.  Brünnhilde informs Sigmund that he is to die but that she will take him To Valhalla where he will be in the company of heroes, his father and served his every desire in the great hall.  Sigmund seems excited but then asks the big question: will Sieglinde be there?  No, Brünnhilde replies, she can not come.  Then Sigmund is determined to kill her and himself and walk in hell together rather than be separated in the heaven of Valhalla.  A wonderfully lyrical piece of music here accentuates Sigmund's longing for glory and his is even greater love of his sister Sieglinde. 

Well, Brünnhilde is so touched by their love she changes her mind, defies her father and tell Sigmund that she will save him.  And she tries when the fight begins but Wotan himself appears and shatters Sigmund's sword: allowing him to be run through by Hunding, who Wotan than kills in disgust.  Brünnhilde, frightened for her life and Sieglinde's, takes the woman with her and flees from the wrath of her father who is incensed that she disobeyed him.  The curtain falls on his anger.

Ah, Act III, one of the most spectacular pieces of opera ever created.  It opens with one of the most famous works of art in the Western world: The Ride of Valkyries (it's important to have a recording with singing).

The Valkyries (Brünnhilde's sisters) are riding up to a great mountain top with fallen heroes aboard their horses.  Here the set and direction of Robert Lepage is wonderful, with the Valkyries actually riding the set itself down onto the stage, bucking and galloping the whole way!  The sisters great each other in joy and discuss their exploits.  They note that Brünnhilde is not here, where is she?  Ah, there she comes!  But in great haste, and who is aboard her horse?  She appears with Sieglinde and begs her sisters for help.  Give her a new horse that she may flee father!  Her sisters are too loyal and too afraid of Wotan to do so.

Brünnhilde then turns to Sieglinde who is depressed to the point of being catatonic.  She wishes she had died with her love Sigmund and does not have any special thanks for Brünnhilde.  That is until she's informed that she is now pregnant with Sigmund's child (who will become Sigfried: the hero and title character of the next opera).  Brünnhilde instructs her to go the woods to the East where Wotan fears to go and their give birth to the great hero Sigfried.  Sieglinde is newly inspired and thanks Brünnhilde greatly with music of astounding beauty.  Here we hear the redemption theme that will come to cleanse the world two opera from now.  These few lines of Siglinde's are a demonstration of the incredible power of  Eva-Maria Westbroek's voice.

Sieglinde is off with the ruins of Sigmund's sword, and just in time for here comes Wotan!  Brünnhilde's sisters try to hide her for a time from the wrath of her father but they are soon chased away and the daughter and father left to sing one the final scene in the opera together: the most beautiful part of an opera packed with astounding music.  In his wrath he curses Brünnhilde to lie sleeping until some mortal wakes her and becomes her master in her now limited life.  Brünnhilde argues that she was only fulfilling Wotan's true will with her actions and does not deserve such a punishment.

The predicament reminds me of Jephthah from Judges who has sworn in haste to sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house to God.  One must ask what he thought would exit, was his dresser surprisingly mobile and apt to run out to great him?  Of course his daughter appears and is subject to his rash promise.  Here to Wotan, not just now but through-out his life, has made rash contracts which have bound him down until he is given no escape.  He has just been forced to kill his favorite son (Sigmund) and now must remove the immortality of his favorite daughter and giver her to a mortal man.

Brünnhilde convinces Wotan to place a ring of fire around her, and that only a man who does not feat Wotan will be able to cross it: ensuring that at least the man she is bound to will be a great warrior.  Wotan agrees and says good bye to the daughter he knows he will never see again.  Summoning fire to encircle Brünnhilde , he sings the opera to its close.

This passage is so incredibly moving that I was brought to tears and remained in them for the final 15 minutes of the opera.  It is a powerful scene from the storyline alone, but the music is without equal.

The whole opera was one of the more intense experiences I've ever had with a work of art of any kind.  With two long intermissions it clocks in at over 5 hours, so it is not to be undertaken lightly, but it is well worth the time invested, and the Met's production is simply superb.

No comments:

Post a Comment