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April 2012

Frank van Aken Makes Last-Minute Met Debut in Die Walküre

Frank van Aken siegmundEva-Maria Westbroek and Frank van Aken from the 2010 Frankfurt Opera production of Die Walkure

There's something about Wagner and tenors that seems to bring about dramatic Met Opera debuts. First, there was Robert Dean Smith, who made a last-minute debut as Tristan in Tristan und Isolde during a Saturday matinee broadcast in 2008 (which I said at the time was "like being called up from the minors to pitch Game 7 of the World Series.") Then, there's Jay Hunter Morris, who last season stepped into the punishing role of Siegfried as a virtual unknown and continues his triumphant run in this season's Ring cycles. 

But, taking the cake is Dutch tenor Frank van Aken, who made his Met debut today as Siegmund in Die Walküre, also broadcast live around the world. Van Aken was visiting New York - and the U.S. - for the first time this week so that he could see his wife, soprano Eva-Maria Westrbroek, sing the role of Sieglinde opposite Jonas Kaufmann. But, when Kaufmann fell ill on Thursday, Met General Manager Peter Gelb gave van Aken a call while he and Westbroek were eating dinner, asking him if he could sing it. "We basically drafted him," Gelb said from the stage before today's performance. 

While van Aken wasn't flawless - there were some flubbed notes in Act 2 - the performance was nothing short of heroic, given that he had less than 24 hours to prepare a role he hadn't sung in nearly two years. What's more, he had been walking around NYC like any other wide-eyed tourist, with no plans to perform - much less sing in front of 4,000 people at the Met, and on the radio for millions. When interviewed during the Act 2 intermission, van Aken said he didn't sleep at all on Friday night. 

When asked what advice Westbroek offered her husband before he went on today, she said: "Just keep breathing. I'll walk you through it." And, just like in Airplane, they got the bird down in one piece.

Van Aken may have had to skip his visits to the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building this time, but something tells me he'll be back in NYC again before long.


Ken Howard/The Metropolitan Opera

"I utterly disagree with those who were dissatisfied with the decorations, the scenery and the mechanical contrivances at Bayreuth (for The Ring.) Far too much industry and ingenuity was applied to the task of chaining the imagination to matters which did not belie their epic origin."

Friedrich Nietzsche, 1878 

Seems there's been disagreement on these things from the very beginning.

The Met's Ring Cycle: Götterdämmerung

by Angela Sutton

Photo: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera

Wagner's epic opera cycle hurtled to its fiery conclusion on Tuesday night at the Met, with the final installment, Götterdämmerung. Alberich's curse on the Ring of the Nibelungs finally sinks to its bitter end, pulling down the old order of the gods and closing the age of heroes.

The evening carried high drama, and Tuesday's cast delivered the heat. Jay Morris and Debra Voigtthe marquee singers for Siegfried and Brünnhilde, respectivelywere absent, replaced by Stephen Gould and Katarina Dalayman. Gould gave an unforced and mellow Siegfried, and although he showed some signs of fatigue in the third act, he quickly recovered. Dalayman's performance was of a different order altogether: Brünnhilde carries much of the load in this opera, but Dalayman devoured the part, in total control of the action. I vastly preferred her to Voigt in this role.

Iain Paterson's Gunther demonstrated the character's slow descent into misery as he realizes just how far in over his head he is. Wendy Harmer's Gutrune served as a clear-voiced counterpoint to the swirling plots around her. The basses let it rip as well, with Hans-Peter König filling the hall with sound as Hagen, the plotter, playing against Eric Owens' more piercing Alberich in their gloomy second-act duet.

The cast got help from another great lighting scheme, consistently a strong point throughout the cycle. The Machine, in this case, mostly served as architecture in the scenes around the Gibichung's hall, though it also depicted the Rhine, Brünnhilde's rock, and the Norn's cave. This production (thankfully) didn't use it for distracting object-making, but rather to organize the stage space instead. The big miss here was the puppet-horse, Grane, which was toy-like and tragically inneffective as the mount for Brünnhilde's death ride.

The orchestra, under Maestro Fabio Luisi, nearly gave their best performance yet in the cycle. Götterdämmerung features a number of highly exposed horn and woodwind solos, all of which the players nailed. Yet, inexplicably, Siegfried's death music came apart at the seams; collectively, the orchestra managed to lay a flabby, disjointed egg. Maestro Luisi turned the funeral march portion into a quickstep, as if to put the pit out of its collective misery. This was particularly disappointing here, serving as the climax of some 16 hours of opera. Like true professionals, however, the pit regrouped almost immediately, at last sounding like wild Wagnerians during both Brünnhilde's immolation scene and the conclusion, as the Rhine's blue waters washed the wreckage away.

The second cycle of this controversial but ambitious production kicks off tonight (4/26) at 8:30 at the Met, for those who want to dive into the madness from standing room areas.