The singers, individually, were in superb voice, but Walkure is a series of conversations and conflicts between two characters and what caused this production to be such a failure from my perspective is that each pairing failed to work on a dramatic level. Everyone seemed mismatched in some way and none of the scenes, except for the showdown between Fricka and Wotan (more on this in a moment), was convincing. This was only magnified by the talent onstage and seeing it all unfurl larger than life on the big screen in HD.
Taking it from the top, James Levine led the orchestra through a musically thrilling first act- superbly paced, the details in the score coming through with a slicing precision I've seldom heard anywhere else that made the listener pay attention. Sadly, that precision disappeared during the second act ("Du hehrstes Wunder, herrliche Maid!" came and went with no impact at all) and only sporadically returned during the third, mostly in the conclusion. The orchestra wasn't bad by any means, but the heights achieved during the first act weren't heard again.
Kaufmann and Westbroek, both offering fantastic phrasing, tone and diction, looked like a great pairing of the Walse twins on paper but the reality was quite different. Kaufmann seemed tentative with Westbroek, as if he wasn't quite sure how far he should go with her, and his performance lacked a necessary passion and desire, though his voice is simply amazing. This hesitancy on his part made his Siegmund have less stature onstage than Westbroek's Sieglinde, rendering their entire pairing something of a dramatic mismatch. As Hunding, Hans-Peter Konig's entrance, delivering a devastating side-ways glance perfectly cued to the music (albeit lifted straight from Hunding's entrance in the Copenhagen Ring- the first of many "borrowed" ideas in this production), was the kind of subtle touch wholly missing from Kaufmann's performance.
In Act II Voigt and Terfel started off with a playfulness similar to what Francesca Zambello is doing with her "American" Ring about to unfold in its entirety in San Francisco later this month. This would be the first of two moments during the afternoon which made me think director Robert Lepage has been seeing every Ring Cycle he can, searching for ideas because dramatically he has none of his own (more on this later). Voigt's first "Heiaha" immediately served notice to the doubters that she was going to be on. While hers wasn't a display of endless range, she was in complete control and remained so throughout the performance. On top of that, despite the ridiculous costumes she and everyone else had to endure, she looked and acted the part.
The highlight of the second act, indeed of the entire show sadly enough, was Stephanie Blythe's Fricka. Making a fantastic entrance on a throne with prominent goat-horns as armrests (this reference to cuckoldry would be only thoughtful piece of set-design we would see all day), Blythe's eighteen minutes onstage were devastating in more ways than one. Completely emasculating Terfel's Wotan, Blythe turned this Die Walkure on its head in a way I'm not sure was intentional because it never recovered afterward. Her imperious, take-no-prisoners Fricka not only slices off Wotan's balls during their scene together, but Terfel seemed so beat-down by her that his character couldn't seem to shake his newly imposed impotence for the remainder of the opera.
And that's a problem because while we all know Wotan is weak in many ways, there has to be moments during the rest of Walkure where we see that weakness cast aside and he reclaims the anger and gravitas which make him such a compelling figure. Sadly after this scene, Terfel's Wotan has this air of "my mom just cut off my balls" about him that never goes away and makes him seem pathetic and powerless, which LePage's stage direction does nothing to ameliorate, example one being when Wotan steps in to break Siegmund's sword and the net impact was "really- is that all there is to that?" Ho-hum, check off another plot point. Some of this is also exacerbated by Terfel coming across as appearing much younger than Blythe and Voigt- another downside of casting in the current era where every nuance and detail is illustrated in HD. Compared to them, he seems to possess no maturity. On the upside, he sang beautifully, though after the marvel of the singing in Act 1, there was a noticeable difference in the diction of the native Germans versus the non evident in Act 2.
Act 2 also featured the second of LePage's pilfering of ideas from others- the eyeball, which 20 years from now might seem like a neat homage to the brilliance of Achim Freyer's LA Ring of last year, but in this context seems one-step shy of plagiarism. Furthermore, this reminder of the LA Ring brought into full relief what's missing in LePage's- a concept or vision. There simply isn't one at all. Where in the LA Ring everything onstage made the audience think about the connections and relevance to the characters and story, there isn't anything going here at all- it's just the Machine doing its tricks and the singers moving around it. Sure there are some glorious visuals- the hunting of Siegmund through the trees, and the forming of the Ash tree- both in Act 1, and the final visual of Brunnhilde on the rock was visually gorgeous and arresting, but beyond that? Nothing.
Even the "Ride of the Valkyries" felt flat and unexciting, even though this was the closest thing we'll likely ever see of them making their entrances riding their steeds through the air. This, of all moments, should have been the one where the Machine silenced its critics with the amazing theatricality LePage brought to La Damnation de Faust, which caused me to get all excited about him doing this Ring in the first place. But like everything else except the scene with Fricka, it remained unconvincing and devoid of drama.
There were two priceless moments during the broadcast- the first came during the first intermission when Joyce DiDonato was interviewing the Met's stage manager about the 45 minute delay in the start due to some mechanical malfunction with the machine- as she ended the interview, she said to him "Thanks for getting it up today!" to which the guy looked completely flummoxed and any response he may have had was drowned out by the uproarious laughter from the audience in the theater. The other was the sight of Jonas Kaufmann drooling a six-inch long bit of goo off his lower lip which will probably be edited out of the DVD release so it doesn't become a YouTube sensation following him through the cyber world for the rest of his life.
I'm pleased for Voigt's triumph in this, but dismayed that this Walkure not only made me lose interest in what's to come in the following installments, but surprisingly, it made me see Zambello's production in a kinder light- I don't like most of what she's doing with her concept- but at least she has one.