Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Wagner with Words

Die Walküre
composed by Richard Wagner
production by Otto Schenk
conducted by Lorin Maazel

Performances on January 7-February 9, 2008
The Metropolitan Opera
West 62nd and 65th Streets and Columbus and Amsterdam Aves.

Gasteen (Brünnhilde) and Morris (Wotan)
(photo: Marty Sohl)
Pieczonka (Sieglinde)
and Forbis (Siegmund)
(photo: Marty Sohl)

The biggest news concerning the Met’s revival of Die Walküre, the most-performed opera of Wagner’s Ring cycle, is not the generally excellent cast nor how well the old, conventional production by Otto Schenk holds up–a new staging by Robert LePage replaces Schenk’s in the next few seasons–but the reappearance of New York Philharmonic music director Lorin Maazel in the pit, leading the Met Orchestra for the first time since his debut in the 1962-3 season.

Maazel, whose idiosyncratic readings of several orchestral warhorses across the plaza on the Avery Fisher Hall stage has drawn the ire of some New York critics, drew impassioned playing from the instrumentalists right out of the gate: the swirling storm with which Wagner begins the opera has rarely sounded so immediate, so involving, so thrilling.

It remained that way for the next five hours, as Maazel–a first-rate Wagner interpreter who has performed the Ring Without Words, a seamless version of excerpts from the entire cycle, with the Philharmonic–led the Met Orchestra to exciting heights in a rare Wagner night off for the Met’s own music director James Levine. Maazel’s conducting differs from Levine’s approach in its tempi: Maazel takes the score more briskly than Levine, which primarily underscored the devastating dramatic impact when the music was tautly stretched to its breaking point. Much of Act I is taken up by the slow realization of Sieglinde and Siegmund, reunited sister and brother, that they are falling in love, and Maazel beautifully handled Wagner’s carefully-crafted climb toward the lovers’ climactic duet.

Die Walküre contains much of Wagner’s most beloved music, hence its popularity relative to the other three Ring operas. Maazel didn’t disappoint, whipping the orchestra into a glorious frenzy for “The Ride of the Valkyries” to open Act III and closing a lengthy (but not long) evening with a splendidly shimmering account of the “Magic Fire Music,”which makes for a most fitting finale.

The Met’s cast is mainly American singers on top of their vocal game. Ageless Baltimore bass James Morris may no longer be in his prime–he’s 61!–but still invests the character of the god Wotan with pathos and pity, especially in his sorrowful Act III scenes with his favorite Valkyrie daughter, Brunnhilde, who was sung with full-throated power by Lisa Gasteen. Despite a disclaimer that she had a sore throat, it didn’t sounded as if this was an off-night for the Australian soprano.

The siblings Siegmund and Sieglinde were sung with controlled passion by Nashville tenor Clifton Forbis and Poughkeepsie soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, while Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko was memorable as Sieglinde’s erstwhile husband Hunding. In an important cameo, upstate New York mezzo Stephanie Blythe invested Wotan’s put-upon goddess wife Fricka with all the biting irony and bitter humor that Wagner intended.

Blythe received the evening’s loudest ovation during the curtain call among singers, but the most applause was rightfully saved for Maazel, whose smashing return to the Met this is; one hopes it isn’t just a single engagement.

originally posted on timessquare.com

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