Met begins much-awaited `Ring' cycle with `Die Walk"ure'

Opening night of the Metropolitan Opera's 103rd season was marked by several firsts: It was James Levine's first opening night as artistic director.

It was the beginning of Bruce Crawford's first full season as general manager.

Most important for opera lovers, a brand-new production of Wagner's ``Die Walk"ure'' was unveiled, the first installment of a much-awaited ``Ring'' cycle.

``Die Walk"ure'' had been the focus of a good deal of pre-opening night attention: This was to be a ``Ring'' that consciously returns to a style Wagner himself might recognize.

There is no question that the time is right for a ``Ring'' that looks beautiful. Many people are tired of seeing the tetralogy set on Mars, or in some post-nuclear winter, where symbolism and imagery are piled so heavily on it that all sense of Wagner's vision and eclectic philosophy disappear.

Nevertheless, the Met's new ``Walk"ure'' is desperately disappointing. We were promised pretty sets, and G"unther Schneider-Siemssen has delivered them. We were promised a population of real human beings, not gods and mortals, and Otto Schenk has given them to us. (Surely we were not promised costumes as uniformly unattractive and unflattering as Rolf Langenfass's turned out to be.)

The problem is that there is no difference between gods and mortals here, no sense that they inhabit different worlds. Mr. Schenk's apparent fidelity to Wagner's stage directions cannot mask the reality that he does not seem to have any handle on what makes these characters tick. He does not suggest that the mortals Siegmund and Sieglinde were any different from the god Wotan and his tribe. Schenk is convinced that the gods have nothing supernatural about them, therefore this production has precious little magic.

It is all very pretty, but pretty is not enough. He relies heavily on a remarkable projection system, which, despite some superb storms and stunning sunsets, does not give the action its needed supernatural quality.

In so crucial a moment as Br"unnhilde's appearance before Siegmund in the celebrated ``Todesverk"undigung'' (``Death Announcement''), only some corny apotheosis-sunrises give us a sense that anything unusual is happening. The Valkyries' rock in the last act looks like most other rocks we have ever seen, except that Br"unnhilde is not put to sleep on it. And the ``magic fire'' becomes, here, something more akin to ``magic smoke'' with a rim of tiny ``flames'' that are hardly intimidating.

All through the evening, there is a sense that director and designer have consciously ignored the innovations of stage technology and the influence of cinematography. The imaginative blend of fidelity to Wagner and contemporary stagecraft could so easily have created a enviable, new ``Ring'' style.

Levine was conducting his first complete ``Walk"ure.'' His reading has the framework of a great performance. The sonorities are sometimes lacking in richness; there is plenty of majesty but, as yet, insufficient expansiveness. All he needs is time and seasoning -- more, no doubt, than the 10 performances he will have had before recording it for Deutsche Grammophon next April.

The singing was not very interesting, but even on paper it held little promise. The best came from Jeannine Altmeyer as Sieglinde, though her all-American demeanor and lack of fervor did not make for much of a characterization. Peter Hofmann, her Siegmund, looked the part, as he always does, but sounded tired and woolly. Brigitte Fassbaender -- wearing a costume that, unfortunately, made her look like Pocahontas -- was a committed, if squally, Fricka. Hildegard Behrens (the only cast member who will record her role) is in very difficult voice these days, sounding breathy and effortful; her Br"unnhilde rarely soared. And she was saddled with the additional liability of a dreadful costume. Simon Estes, was an unimposing Wotan. His acting was rudimentary; he tapped his foot to keep time in the long monologue; his singing, while solid, lacked imagination and tonal variety. Aage Haugland was over-gruff as Hunding, and the eight Valkyrie maids were as vocally ill-matched an octet as the Met has ever had.

The season continued with revivals of ``A"ida'' and Puccini's ``Manon Lescaut.'' The former was notable for Grace Bumbry's vibrant, anything-goes Amneris, the latter for Julius Rudel's animated, atmospheric conducting. ``A"ida'' remains one of the Met's least good productions.

Martina Arroyo's A"ida was a cautious, subdued creation, Giuseppe Giacomini's Radames, a raucously stentorian one. Leo Nucci was the sonorous and well-acted Amonasro, while debuting Alfredo Zanazzo, as the King, made an unfavorably gruff impression. No one seemed to benefit from Nello Santi's erratic conducting.

The ``Manon Lescaut'' sets were effective, if too massive. The title role ill suit Leona Mitchell histrionically and vocally, some lovely tones notwithstanding. She had little help from Ermanno Mauro's oafish, unevenly sung Des Grieux. So uninteresting were both casts, one must wonder why the Met seemed compelled to revive them at all.

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