[NOTE: This entry has been updated (1) as of 3:56 PM Eastern on 25 Apr. See below.]
The second act of Die Walküre, the second music-drama of Wagner's epic four-music-drama cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, is the linchpin of the entire tetralogy. If you were listening last night to the Met's live streaming (audio) webcast of the premiere of its new production of Die Walküre (and we can speak only of the webcast as we were not in the house), you heard, overall, and excepting a single jarringly wrong moment, one of the finest live performances of Act II of Die Walküre as you're ever likely to hear today. From the opening measure through the last, James Levine and the Met Orchestra were fairly on fire and the intensity and depth of their music-making never let up or flagged. Deborah Voigt, making her first-ever appearance in the role of Brünnhilde the Valkyrie of the title, met all our expectations in this act and we're confident that with a bit more experience in the role she will emerge as one of the foremost of the world's current Brünnhildes. Bryn Terfel, on the other hand, defeated all our expectations in this act in his role as Wotan and turned in one of the most nuanced and vocally and dramatically arresting performances of the role in our experience. How he managed to do that in this act given the un-Wotan-like timbre of his voice is a feat of vocal magic we'd rather not examine too closely lest the magic be exposed as a mere trick or illusion. Wotan's great Scene 2 monologue — an intense, 25-minute-long narration that, coupled with the immediately preceding Scene 1 colloquy between Wotan and his wife Fricka, is the defining moment of the tetralogy; a narration that only the most accomplished of singer-actors can carry off successfully — was perfect in its execution, or as near-perfect as makes no nevermind. We would gladly have paid the ticket price just to hear this performance of this monologue alone. Like most people, we don't like being shown to be in error in our predictions, but in this case we were simply thrilled to be proved wrong. The single jarringly wrong moment referred to above occurred not in this monologue but near the very end of Act II just after the slaying of Siegmund. Wotan confronts Siegmund's slayer, Hunding, and dismisses him with a twice-uttered "Geh!" (Go!) and a contemptuous wave of his hand whereupon Hunding drops to the ground lifeless. Terfel uttered his second "Geh!" in a drawn-out, angry, hysterically shrieked exclamation — dramatically and psychologically very wrong in itself, and triple-wrong if, as we suspect, it accompanied Wotan slaying with his spear Hunding directly; a bit of stage business that may or may not have been part of the action in this production's staging (remember, we were not in the house). If it was, it was in violation of the score (music, text, and stage directions) and dramatically and psychologically as wrongheaded a bit of staging as could be imagined as the very last thing Wotan would think to do at this moment in the drama is to himself slay Hunding directly. As for the other singer-actors in this fine Act II, Stephanie Blythe's Fricka was first-rate — not Christa Ludwig first-rate, of course, but first-rate nonetheless. Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund was mostly ideal in this act, his performance marred only by his repeated employment of a cloying, very un-German, Italian-opera catch in his voice which in Italian opera passes for the expression of a moment of great emotion but in Wagnerian music-drama merely makes the singer sound a bit ridiculous. Margaret Jane Wray as Sieglinde, stepping in for an indisposed Eva Maria Westbroek who managed to get through Act I singing the role in an acceptable if less than laudable fashion, performed her part most satisfyingly, no apologies necessary for her on-the-spot assumption of the role. Satisfying as well was Hans-Peter König's Hunding, both in this act as well as in Act I, even though he has little to do or sing in Act II of Walküre. And what about the rest of this Walküre? Well, Act I was, how to put it, somewhat lackluster both in terms of James Levine and the orchestra as well as the singer-actors for the most part although Jonas Kaufmann had his moments one of which was most decidedly not his twice-uttered cry of "Wälse!" as Kaufmann, although he ought to have known better, could not resist doing the Italian tenor thing by holding the notated fermata beyond what Wagnerian rhetoric (or the drama) required. Act III, on the other hand, had Levine and the orchestra performing as brilliantly as they had in Act II, the singing and the acting, however, not so much. Not that there was anything terribly amiss with the singing and acting in this act even though Terfel's entire "Leb wohl" had more of retribution than sorrow about it. Merely that it was routine in a major opera venue sort of way. How all this played out in the house and how The Machine performed (for those of you who've been living in a cave for the past year or so, The Machine is director Robert Lepage's gazillion-ton, computer-driven set that serves for all four music-dramas of this staging of the Ring) is something we'll have to wait to read about in the MSM and on the opera blogs and online opera forums. As always, it will be interesting to compare notes.
Update (3:56 PM Eastern on 25 Apr): The MSM reviews have trickled in, and while they're not in unanimous agreement on the music-making they pretty much are as concerns the direction of director Robert Lepage and the dramatic effectiveness of his creation, Le Machine: viz., they both suck (surprise!). Here's Anthony Tommasini, Anne Midgette, Martin Bernheimer, and Zachary Woolfe (added 6:00 PM on 26 Apr —acd) on the matter.