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A Musical Tapestry: Part Two

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
04/06/2009 -  & April 11*, 28, May 5, 2009
Richard Wagner: Die Walküre
Gary Lehman (Siegmund), Waltraud Meier (Sieglinde), John Tomlinson (Hunding), James Morris (Wotan), Iréne Theorin (Brünnhilde), Yvonne Naef (Fricka), Kelly Cae Hogan (Gerhilde), Claudia Waite (Helmwige), Laura Vlasak Nolen (Waltraute), Jane Bunnell (Schwertleite), Wendy Bryn Harmer (Ortlinde), Leann Sandel-Pantaleo (Siegrune), Mary Ann McCormick (Grimgerde), Teresa S. Herold (Rossweisse)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, James Levine (Conductor)
Otto Schenk (Production), Günther Schneider-Siemssen (Set and Production Designer), Rolf Langenfass (Costume Designer), Gil Wechsler (Lighting Designer)

J. Morris (Wotan) (© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Tenor Gary Lehman, has a great talent, extraordinarily steady nerves and, comparatively at least, robust good health. Just three years ago, he was a fairly successful baritone who had decided to become a tenor. When Plácido Domingo caught a cold, Lehman made his heldentenor debut as Parsifal at the L.A. Opera. A year later, Ben Heppner, who was scheduled to sing Tristan at the Met with Deborah Voigt as Isolde, was struck down by a virus. His cover had a difficult time so, for the following performance, the Met called upon Lehman. When the Met’s General Manager, Peter Gelb, announced the cast change, he told the audience that Lehman was making his house debut in a role that he had never sung before. Stunned silence. Nevertheless, things went along fine until the middle of the second act, when Deborah Voigt doubled over and rushed off the stage. Stomach flu. Her cover was summoned, and Lehman had to finish the opera making passionate love to an Isolde he just met.

For this final revival of Otto Schenk’s Ring cycle, the Met brought Lehman back to cover the role of Siegmund. On Saturday morning, just hours before the performance was set to begin, he was told he had to replace Johan Botha, who was ill. Lehman had sung Siegmund once before, in English, with a 25 piece orchestra, at the Long Beach Opera. That abridged version of The Ring had been developed by Jonathan Dove and Graham Vick for the City of Birmingham Touring Company. So Lehman’s performance at the Met was to be his third high profile role debut. There was an air of disappointment when Peter Gelb made the announcement, but Lehman won the audience over straightaway. He was superb.

He sang with a ringing tone, unforced power, and a seamless legato line. But he did more than that: he inhabited the role of Siegmund. When he told Sieglinde and Hunding the story of his past, it seemed as if he was reliving his own memories. His phrasing and every gesture showed great intelligence and sensitivity. He projected a touching vulnerability in his interactions with Sieglinde as he fell in love with her before our eyes. But he was also convincing as the noble hero. When he told Brünnhilde that rather than go to Valhalla, he would remain with Sieglinde, he conveyed both dignity and an almost unbearable poignancy. She was moved and so were we.

The rest of the cast turned in fine performances. Waltraud Meier was a lovely emotionally fragile Sieglinde. Yvonne Naef as Fricka sang with a rich tone and excellent acting skills. Sir John Tomlinson crafted a masterful portrayal of Hunding with spot on enunciation, every gesture precisely coordinated with the music, and a voice that seemed to issue from the murky depths of pure evil.

Iréne Theorin sang Brünnhilde with a much fuller voice than she used at her Met debut five days earlier. Perhaps she had become accustomed to the size of the house. Her voice was strong when it needed to be, but it was in her more quiet moments, particularly in her scenes with James Morris as Wotan (where she conveyed such a tender solicitude for her dejected father) that she really excelled.

Morris was extraordinary. While there remain problems with his voice - which sounds best when it is strong and loud - his portrayal of Wotan, honed as it has been over years of performance, was Shakespearean in its tragic dimensions. What drives Wotan is fear that Alberich and the evil he embodies will destroy the world and all the good in the world. Fafner has the ring but cannot use it to create mischief. Only Alberich can do that. Wotan wants it back to assure that it will never fall into Alberich’s hands. But he cannot just take it. He paid Fafner with the gold and he has to honor his contract. Hence all the machinations to produce the Walsungs and through them Siegfried. But Fricka sees through his strategy and Wotan has to bow to her wishes (and her just claim about marriage vows) and ensure that Hunding wins his fight with Siegmund. Gone is the Wotan of Das Rheingold, a lawgiver who was cavalier about the law. This is a god with responsibilities that force him to do what breaks his heart. To allow Siegmund, his beloved son, to die in battle and to shun Brünnhilde, his favorite child, because she had disobeyed him and tried to save Siegmund. Morris’s Wotan has both the gravitas of a god and the supremely human emotions of a father.

Throughout Die Walküre, Wagner embodies the essence of the drama in the orchestra. James Levine conducted a powerful and energetic performance that began with a storm in gripping low strings. Wagner’s extraordinary palette of sonorities was brilliantly highlighted as was his network of leitmotifs as they were stated, restated, contrasted and combined. The sets were splendid as was Schenk’s direction.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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