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The Torch Is Passed

New York
Metropolitan Opera House
09/25/2004 -  
Richard Wagner: Die Walkuere
Olga Sergeeva (Bruennhilde)
Margaret Jane Wray (Sieglinde)
Yvonne Naef (Fricka)
Placido Domingo (Siegmund)
Mikhail Kit (Wotan)
Stephen Milling (Hunding)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Valery Gergiev (conductor)

It would grossly unfair to compare the Wagnerian performances of Valery Gergiev to those of James Levine, acknowledged by many, including this reviewer, as the living master of this particular arcane craft. So let’s do it anyway. Gergiev has become a major force at the Metropolitan Opera, slowly making much of the repertoire his own. Taking the reins of Levine’s signature ring cycle is a statement as filled with chutzpah as Bernstein conducting Shostakovich in Russia in the first decidedly chilly days of détente.

The knock on Gergiev is that he is unfocused. A recent performance of Macbeth, which I did not attend, was reviewed by many of my colleagues with the overriding consensus that parts were quite good, even thrilling, but that much of the evening showed this conductor’s disaffection with long passages in the score. Considering that tonight’s Die Walkuere is twice as long, how meaningful would be the whole rather than just some of its parts?

In the main, the performance was eerily similar to that of Levine, most probably because the company just revived this Walkuere last spring. If one thinks of Gergiev’s role as that of steward rather than an innovator, then the results are highly satisfying. He certainly retained that special late night, point of nervous exhaustion quality of the Levine original. Perhaps the most memorable part of this particular production, around now for twenty years or so and always conducted by Levine, is its “after the caffeine has worn off” feel.

The only real changes made by Gergiev, normally prone to inject adrenaline into his performances, were surprisingly enervating. The opening storm, for example, was much less exciting than Jimmy’s. But the poignancy and the beauty of the underlying orchestral music in the last scene between Wotan and Bruennhilde was a tad more opulent and nostalgic than last season.

I had somehow hoped that the new conductor would tinker a bit with Levine’s Valkyrie ride, one of the low points of his otherwise electric cycle. For a pupil of George Szell, Levine always seemed to miss the point of prominence of the swirling strings underneath the powerful brass. Further, his tempo was always regal and majestic, rather than brash and rebellious. Sad to say, Gergiev reproduced it verbatim.

Of course, the big story was the changes in the cast. They fell into three distinct categories:

1. The Holdovers

Placido Domingo was truly magnificent as Siegmund, leaving every last drop of energy on that stage. He was obviously exhausted by his second act curtain call. The tenore di forza of our generation, Domingo showed that he can still pull off extended moments of highly charged emotive power. He is also intelligent enough to know the limitations forced upon him by age. Years ago, when he debuted in this role, he could hold those three Waelse notes almost as long as Melchior; now he knows enough not to even try. Although a truly great effort, one might ask about characterization. Is this really a young wolf cub or simply the memory of one?

Yvonne Naef was superb as Fricka. Here the characterization was spot on: Minna incarnate. Ms. Naef is very solid in this role and captivated New York audiences last season by not only singing the part in both Rheingold and Walkuere, but also portraying two characters (Waltraute and the second norn) in the same evenings of Goetterdaemmerung. I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with Ms. Naef last spring; she is a remarkably intelligent musician who possesses a commanding knowledge of the repertoire. Expect great things for many years to come.

2. The Promoted

Margaret Jane Wray has made it from Gutrune to Sieglinde this season. Her performance was especially notable for her confident handling of the difficult elongated melodic passages; she could stand up and match Placido Domingo in the Winterstuerme for Heaven’s sake! Very secure and rounded on top, she exhibited strong vocal quality throughout and yet, truth be told, she never moved me. Having heard at least four different women in this particular role in this production alone, I would regretfully still have to rank Ms. Wray as the weakest of the group (although, since the other three are Altmeyer, Norman and Voight, she should not be discouraged with this honorable mention).

3. The Newcomers

Thrown into the breach at the last minute, Mikhail Kit replaced Vladimir Vaneev as Wotan. He proceeded to impress by running through this entire marathon with no wavering or pitch problems. Overall, this was a Herculean effort, but their was little or no
sense of personality development, no majesty to later fail, no fall of the gods, no especial poignancy in the final scene. Perhaps I was just wishing for James Morris to return.

However, the other Russian, Olga Sergeeva as Bruennhilde, was fabulous. From the first yohotoho we all knew that we had found our new warrior princess. Her high notes were thrilling, her pacing sensitive, her physical movements delicious, her defiance palpable. Those of us who never got over Hildegard Behrens and were forced to suffer in silence through the Eaglen years can now revel in this mesmerizing total package. She might even bring in the teenaged boy demographic; perhaps we can pose her with a tennis racket in her hand.

Yuri Temirkanov is bringing the St. Petersburg Philharmonic to town next month and Valery returns this spring with the Kirov Orcheatra. Kirov artists past and present are all over Lincoln Center Plaza. Olga Borodina and Ildar Abdrazakov are starring in Carmen this same week. If this keeps up much longer, I’m going to expect the sun to stay out all night this June in New York.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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