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NEW YORK : Met ‘Walkure’ Sounds Bold, Looks Timid

Times Music Critic

The mighty Metropolitan Opera has been toying--that’s the right verb--with Wagner’s massive “Ring” cycle in general, and with “Die Walkure” in particular, since 1885.

For the most part, the productions have adhered with dogged fidelity to what operatic optimists call realism. Taking the composer more or less at his florid word, the directors and designers have provided the requisite cardboard mountains and canvas clouds, the abundantly breast-plated divas, beefy bearskinned heroes and horny-helmeted villains.

While Europe explored the expansive possibilities of abstraction, stylization and symbolism, New York continued to regard Wagner’s mythology as a cartoonist’s paradise. The music may have been glorious, but the drama always tended to be quaintly perverse at best, preposterously funny at worst.

Things changed, slightly and briefly, in 1967 when the Met began to import a modification of the “Ring” conceived for Salzburg by Herbert von Karajan and Gunther Schneider-Siemssen. This half-hearted flirtation with modernism--a chic rip-off of the revolution established in post-war Bayreuth by Wieland Wagner--ultimately foundered with Karajan’s premature withdrawal and bizarre vicissitudes of casting and staging.

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Now, the Met has assembled a new “Ring,” and it looks very old. Otto Schenk has directed the action with primary concern for literal detail and traditional maneuver. Schneider-Siemssen has returned to create decors in which a rock looks like a rock and a tree like a tree.

This reactionary “Ring,” with its lavish picture-post card vistas and neatly ordered tableaux, may trivialize Wagner’s epic for modern sensibilities. Nevertheless, it must delight any conservative willing to equate the Wagnerian ethic and aesthetic with pious kitsch.

Next month, the company will venture the sprawling tetralogy in consecutive, unified performances for the first time in decades. Then, no doubt, it will be possible to assess the continuity of thought, if there is any, in Schenk’s staging and the cumulative impact of Schneider-Siemssen’s storybook designs. In the meantime, the imperfect Wagnerite can savor a “Walkure” that, judged by the best contemporary standards, looks timid and sounds bold.

On Friday, the fundamental boldness emanated from the superbly staffed pit. James Levine, obviously in his element, conducted Wagner of the old school-- spacious and majestic in the grandiose climaxes yet poignant and leisurely in the lyrical flights. It was splendid.

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The cast offered no Flagstad or Nilsson, no Melchior or Vickers, no Schorr or Hotter. But it did offer some remarkably reasonable latter-day facsimiles.

Even with a voice that is considerably brighter and lighter than nostalgia demands, Hildegard Behrens projected poignantly girlish radiance and rare emotional intensity as Brunnhilde. Even if he lacked the ultimate vocal heft and tired a bit at the end, James Morris complemented her as a Wotan of bel-canto sensitivity and dramatic fervor.

By comparison, Jessye Norman and Gary Lakes as the young lovers emerged as conventional operatic types. She rose nobly to the hysterical outbursts, seemed a bit strained between them, and struck bigger-than-life diva poses. He looked like a jolly giant, produced a flood of easy, healthy tone that marked him as a potential Heldentenor with little competition, and remained equally stolid in love, fear, desperation and fatal battle.

Christa Ludwig, Karajan’s Fricka 22 years ago, came back to the role with her vocal luster slightly tarnished and her dramatic sympathies vastly enhanced. Matti Salminen as nasty old Hunding suggested that the hulking Germanic basso-profondo is not an extinct species after all.

The Valkyrie octet was led by a newcomer with the intriguing name of Pyramid Sellers and Katarina Ikonomu, the company’s ersatz Salome. The squawking warrior maidens resembled a gaggle of silly geese in armor, as they always do. In context it hardly mattered.

The performance, deliriously applauded by a capacity audience, was uncut. It began at 7 and ended after midnight. Despite major visual problems and minor vocal ones, the evening seemed short.


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