French for "between the acts" or "the interval between two acts of a theatrical performance"

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Die Walkure - Live in HD

Although a personal commitment took precedence over the HD Live transmission of Die Walküre's last Met Opera performance on May 14th, I was delighted to get tickets for the Encore screening at the Walter Reade theatre on Monday.  All of the other HD theatres in the New York area are showing the Encore on June 1st and I simply did not want to wait!

My companion for the screening was a friend who had accompanied me to one of the Met performances.  As a professional musician, he had more knowledge of Wagner than I, but  shared with me a previous resistance to the composer. While totally enthralled by our live Walküre experience, we were both eager to view the production from a much closer angle.  The HD broadcast left us in total agreement of this being a marvelous complement to the live theatrical performance.

Being at the Encore screening, we were aware of the tehnicial glitch causing a 40 minute delay of Saturday's live broadcast, as the techncians had to re-establish one of the electronic connectors to the computer system controling the operation of the set.  The Met's HD staff had reacted quickly, turning this into a fascinating intermission interview with the Met Technical Director explaing the process of operation for the set, complete with close-up shots of "The Machne" as the set has come to be known.  All quite interesting, but the close-ups of the set made me even more nervous for the singers who have to deal with it, while singing this gorgeous, yet very challenging music!

And, speaking of the music, we saw another stunning performance!  It was thrilling to have the relationship unfold between tenor Jonas Kaufmann's Siegmund and  soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek's Sieglinde from this vantage point. However, I couldn't help notice a few quirky details. Before Siegmund stumbles into Sieglinde and Hunding's hut, two stagehands were seen crawling in the background. As a mythological period piece, I still find it strange that chairs for the dining table are fold-out stools. Even more puzzling are the the silver or pewter flatware and dishes, which look contemporary. Speaking of silver, with all the money spent on this production, you'd think the sword Siegmund pulls out of the ash tree would be more grandiose looking, especially as it came from the god Wotan. And, someone please alter Sieglinde's dress and brush out her wig before the full Ring Cyle next year! I appreciate the desire to have the dress look appropriate for the period, but it could be better fitted to Westbroek's silouhette and tailored to look less baggy. I realize that Sieglinde is not wealthy, but that doesn't mean the one costume she wears can't be more flattering. The Met Opera Costume and Props Department create miracles, so I know all this can be taken care of.

I was so transported by seeing the intensely intimate and dramatic Act 1 up close that I was sorry to see it end. HD Broadcast Host Placido Domingo was waiting in the wings to interview a clearly exhilerated Kaufmann and Westbroek and it was a special thrill for me to see these two tenors together! Before the premiere, Kaufmann and Westbroek had participated in the "Met Talks" presentation before the premiere and their comaraderie as colleagues and friends is evident.  (Westbroek also duets with Kaufmann in the final cut on his latest CD, the terrific Verismo Arias.)

Although I have seen each of the Met productions over the past season, this was only my third HD screening for 2010-2011 and I found the Walküre intermission features the most enjoyable.  Aside from live cast interviews by Domingo and the fabulous mezzo Joyce DiDonato ("The Yankee Diva"!), there is an interesting feature on the horns Wagner wrote for, especially the "Wagner tuba". Members of the Met Orchestra horm section demonstated the different horms used, describing the "Wagner tuba",(or "Bayreuth tuba", as it is sometimes called) as a mix of a tenor tuba and French horn, which Wagner created for the Ring Cycle.  And, we were treated to a fascinating preview of the upcoming documentary, James Levine: America's Maestro, which PBS will present on June 1st -  also the date of more Walküre HD Enccore screenings. Included are scenes of Levine rehearsing Domingo in the 1970's for the lead tenor role of Gabriele Adorno in Simon Boccanegra and for his 2010 debut in the baritone title role.

By the way, my favorite quote of the cast interviews was powerhouse mezzo Stephanie Blythe's matter-of-fact description of her vocal technique. My friend and I shouted with ironic laughter at Blythe's calm assertion that singing Wagner is all about "...taking a breath, supporting it, singing the words and getting to the end of a phrase"  If only we all could reach the end of any phrases with the vocal quality, ease and authority of Stephanie Blythe! 

I had previously mentioned the projections during Siegmund's monologue in Act I and Wotan's in Act II.  Closer examination has made me only more convinced that both are irrelevant. But, Siegmund's death in Act II is even more moving on the large screen that it was live in the Met as is the anguish and anger of Bryn Terfel's Wotan.  At the Act II intermission, my friend and I were both shaking our heads in wonder at the accomplishment of Kaufmann's role debut as Siegmund. Accustomed to hearing Kaufmann in Italian and French romantic leading roles, the difficulties of Siegmund's lower register is quite a departure. As a tenor himself, my friend was especially appreciative of the challenges Kaufmann faced in this role. Kaufmann's performance is magnificient and I will be delighted to eventually have the DVD of this HD filming to remember it by.

Seeing the HD has also not changed my mind about the ending. Clips of the previous Met production show Wotan gently leading Brünnhilde to the rock, kissing her godly powers away and carefully lowering her on the rock, then slowly putting her spear, shield and visor in place. Truly a more tender and fitting last scene for these characters and more satifying. While the lights and fire effects of this production's finale are stunning, the staging must be altered, so it is not felt necessary to use a body double.  Brünnhilde should not be portrayed by a body double in the finale as it damages the heartwrenching emotion of a father's fnal farewell to his daughter. 

I've heard some professional musicians express concern about what they perceive as over-emphasis on the visual, rather than the musical aspects of opera productions because of the HD and other live opera film series. While nothing will ever replace the live experience of opera (or any other peforming art), the Met HD screenings are an extraordinary gift to opera lovers all around the world. Many HD viewers live in areas where there are no professional opera companies and look forward to all the HD screenings.  I know a family with three children in a very small Western town who drive an hour and half each way to see the HD performances. As a Met audience regular, I continually meet people from all around the world who became opera fans because of the HD screenings and then began to experience opera live in the theatre. Or, long-time opera fans who can't get to the Met as often as they like and greatly value the HD opportunities to see the Met productions. Once the DVD of the Walküre HD performance is released, it will be a cherished companion piece to my memories of these unforgettable performances at the Met.

(All photos by Ken Howard from the final dress rehearsal of April 19, 2011, are courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.)

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