Met Ring 2000 - Die Walküre (2)

The double basses told me a man was running.
Then, in a moment which has never yet failed to quicken my pulse, the violins come tearing in like screaming banshees and the horns blow forth the mighty theme that Donner had used to clear the air in Das Rheingold.

I reach under my seat for an umbrella that isn't there and pull my collar up around my neck to stay the howling wind gusting from the pit as James Levine leads the mighty Met Orchestra through the exciting prelude to Die Walkure. While the horns and brass in general have their rough moments, the strings woods and percussion in this band are truly worthy of the huge ovations that greet them, particularly at Wagner performances. A monumental howl goes up when Jimmy's beloved head appears above the pit railing, and when he gestures to the band to stand there is an exciting cacophony of acclaim.

This would be the last Ring cycle for the wonderful gentleman and phenomenal musician that is Raymond Gniewek (pronounced "Ray"), the concertmaster and first violinist who leads by example and whom I am sure Jimmy would credit with much of the band's progress over the years. I wish Raymond a very happy retirement. I have on occasion seen him at close quarters with his lovely wife Judith Blegen, and wish them both well, for each of them have played their part in my discovery and enjoyment of Opera.

Every note Raymond and his section plays is cleanly articulated and rhythmically pushing forward. There is no lazy playing, nor can there be where a Wagner score is involved.

When the curtain rose on Hunding's huge dimly lit hut, it soon became apparent that there were stars on the stage, as well as before it: Placido Domingo is a superior artist, and who better to quench his thirst than Deborah Voigt? These are professional singers of the highest calibre. He is maybe 40 years older than the character he plays and Debbie has put back some of the weight she lost- but -what is this???- they can sing!! Wonderfully!

A big question mark and a big surprise came through the door in the tall and muscular form of Kristinn Sigmundsson, a wonderful black-voiced Hunding whom I hope to see again and again. Remember that name. He is Icelandic. Unlike in the Chicago and San Francisco Rings, he didn't have a quartet of henchmen toting rifles with him. A man who looks like he could administer a 40-foot trailer's worth of "whup-ass" walks alone.

Just as it should be: three characters on stage as written by a master music-dramatist. Music specifically tailored to the dramatic situation. I like these almost claustrophobic scenes where each of the characters has time to express whom they are: maybe that stems from my long held utter dislike of parties and rooms full of chattering people saying nothing of consequence against a background of music which is exactly that - a background. So in my world away from opera I like small groupings of people to mingle with: interesting people who are not shy about calling for another round of drinks and more of that trail mix stuff they put on the tables- that twigs and birdseed stuff.

When all the elements come together, namely the quality of the singers and orchestral playing, the stage setting and the directing and only the dismal lighting left wanting, then one can have a magnificent hour of being alive during a Met performance of Die Walkure.

Deborah Voigt sang the pants of "Der Manner Sippe". Could she possibly have known I was in the house? I resisted the urge to applaud and yell "Yeah! Deb-Bieeeeeee!!" And if I can resist the urge...why can't everyone else resist the urge in, say, Italian opera? Rodolfo can surely wait until after the Momus scene in La Bohème to find out how much you loved his singing. That way it doesn't hold up Mimi's side of the story, and allows people like me to get wrapped up in the proceedings until the bow lights and the composer tell me it is time to go for a pee/smoke/stroll/meal or make a cellphone call to some loser friend who is blown away to hear that I am actually speaking from within the Metropolitan Opera House.

Even the Wagner audience in the Met these days cannot wait until the music ends to begin their justifiable applause. Just another 10 seconds to wait....10 seconds that Wagner may have slaved over in his meticulous and graceful handwriting on manuscript, paid for by a friend. Those last couple of bars he wanted you to hear, but my fellow men cannot wait to slap their sweaty hands together and show how much they enjoyed all but 10 seconds of the Act. Then, when a little haste wouldn't go amiss, they dawdle toward the exits and stop to talk in passageways as if they have all the time in the world. It's actually about 25 of the shortest minutes of your life before the gongs sound to draw one back in.

Luckily I spent the intermissions in the Grand Tier restaurant, which is an expensive place to eat a meal that has been kept warm during the bow applause. It does however have chairs to sit on and plenty of elbow room and no lining up for a drink as the clock ticks away.

Act II brought forth the familiar face of Jane Eaglen and the return of Lord Morris of Baltimore. I am one of those who actually look forward to "Wotan's Narration" and particularly when James is singing. In fact, just recalling it now, some 3 weeks later makes me want to play the laser of the Met broadcast. It's lengthy by opera standards of course but still a fraction of the time one spends in a dentist's waiting room. I have read many opera drones dismiss it, talking about Wotan "waffling for half an hour": it's actually 13 minutes or so, just slightly longer than Bob Dylan's "Sad Eyed lady of the Lowlands" from 1966 (another classic) and only 6 times longer than "She Loves You" by the Beatles and 10 hours shorter than Die Zauberflote and if you can sit through that you can sit through Wotan's Narration and still have time to assemble a complete roomful of Ikea furniture.

Act II of course features the wonderful encounter between Brünnhilde and Siegmund. "Todesverkundigung" it is called, or "Annunciation of Death". A rivetting scene indeed, but of course in Die Walküre there are many more to follow.

Such is the lot of an opera goer- the great stuff that still treads the boards is chock-full of moments to savor and if your mind wanders for a second it is usually only to think of what is still to come.

So as Wotan fells Hunding with just a word - "Geh", and the brass storms into action and the curtain falls on a wail of applause and yelling, I am already on my feet and moving toward the restaurant to have dessert and the sooner I am back in my seat for The Ride of The Walküre, Lieb wohl and the Fire Music and everything that comes in between, the better.

Jane Eaglen came alive, and very much so, in Act III. Her voice was "golden" to coin a cliche: warm, rich and lustrous. Time flew by.

I haven't listed the names of the Walküre here. There were 8 of them- that I do know. Individually there was nothing to distinguish one from the other but their voices blended well. really gets interesting once they have galloped off into the wings and James and Jane are left alone.

You can pretty much surmise the rest for yourself. "Lieb wohl" comes along and your life can never be the same again. By this time you could probably open a fresh bag of Fritos behind me and I wouldn't notice, or if I did I would leave your murder until after the curtain. Sublime theatre of the very highest order. Glorious singing and orchestral playing. Stunning stagecraft, in particular the "Magic Fire" where the seldom used steam curtain at the front of the stage is put to good use. There are apparently 29 effects and lighting cues used when Wotan summons the fire to surround the rock and everthing went off effortlessly as planned which is not always the case in live opera- we will soon carry on Opera Jamboree reports from far afield, from touring companies in the North of England in fact, where the effects budget is smaller than that of the jam buttie and hedgehog pie budget. It is possible to take for granted the excellence of the Met's technical crew, led by the Right Honorable Joe Clark and the wonders they put on stage nightly. Joe unfortunately doesn't sing Siegfried........

To be continued......

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