(Posted this morning on the TONY Blog)
Lorin Maazel, music director of the New York Philharmonic and an experienced hand in the opera pit, returned to the Metropolitan Opera last night after a 45-year absence to conduct Die Walküre, the second installment in Richard Wagner's "Ring" cycle and arguably the most popular. It was big news, and an event worth getting excited about: Even those of us who aren't always fond of the musical micromanagement in Maazel's performances with the Phil could appreciate the rare opportunity to catch a stateside opera house appearance by this undeniably potent conductor.
Maybe it was that very sense of novelty that made certain characteristics of last night's performance—which might have seemed like fussy obsessiveness in a Phil concert—come across as so sharply detailed, exacting and exciting at the Met. There's no denying that James Levine musters more genuine warmth and sensuality in Walküre, and Valery Gergiev, who conducted the opera's last performances here in 2004-05, wrung out more blood, sweat and passion. What Maazel provided was an extraordinarily lucid account that underscored every little detail of orchestral characterization. No matter how thick and heavy Wagner's music was, Maazel summoned a transparency that approached the quality of chamber music. You could argue that he sacrificed surging momentum, but Maazel offered a razor-sharp clarity audible from the opening bars, and subtly emphasized each passing leitmotif (those musical themes that Wagner used to identify characters and plot developments) for narrative cogency. Credit also belongs to the Met's extraordinary orchestra, with extra-high marks to the bass clarinet and English-horn soloists.
The cast assembled for last night's performance was about as fine a group of Wagnerians as you're likely to encounter these days. Clifton Forbis was powerful, robust and virile as the doomed warrior Siegmund, with Adrianne Pieczonka a strong, strikingly sensuous Sieglinde. The pair sounded good together; physically, they were a strikingly well-matched pair of siblings. Mikhail Petrenko, a young Russian bass, sang well as Hunding, but lacked the edge of nastiness and brutality essential to the character. (You could almost complain that his Hunding was too sympathetic—a problem when you're supposed to be rooting for those crazy Wälsung sibling-spouses.)
James Morris remained an unassailable Wotan, his voice aged agreeably enough and his dramatic instincts profound; few if any actors could match Morris's realization of the character's majesty, regret and terrible fury. As his daughter, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, Lisa Gasteen got off to a slow start: her acting little more than leaping around and mugging, her high notes crashing considerably short of the mark in those cruel opening exclamations. Happily, Gasteen warmed up steadily, and her chemistry with Morris went a long way toward covering up shortcomings. Best in Brünnhilde's quieter, more introspective moments, she was extraordinarily moving in "War es so schmählich," the heartbreaking third-act passage in which Brünnhilde asks her father whether her disobedience—for which he is about to strip away his favorite daughter's immortality and banish her from his realm forever—was really so wrong, given that she was enacting his own forbidden desires.
The strongest performance of all was that of mezzo Stephanie Blythe as Fricka, Wotan's much-betrayed wife. Through her imperious presence and rich, powerful singing, Blythe created a Fricka that could credibly cause the most potent of gods to tremble, cower and finally capitulate. Like Natalie Dessay in the Met's season-opening Lucia di Lammermoor, Blythe took a scary tumble on stage; like Dessay, Blythe remained intensely focused on her character, suggesting the perfectly plausible notion that Fricka had simply lunged headlong to block Wotan's escape. An audience that warmly greeted the performers during their curtain calls mustered an extra intensity for Blythe.
The Metropolitan Opera will present five more performances of Die Walküre through February 9; on January 28, Deborah Voigt and Michelle DeYoung take over for Pieczonka and Blythe, respectively. Ticket information is available on the Met website.