- Associated Press - Sunday, December 12, 2010

MILAN, ITALY (AP) - No speeches from the orchestra pit this time. No tear-gassing of demonstrators outside. No parade of political and social celebrities.

But the season’s second performance of Richard Wagner’s “Die Walkuere” on Friday night at La Scala did make one bit of news: the unexpected debut of an exciting Dutch tenor, Frank van Aken, in the role of Siegmund.

While Daniel Barenboim conducted a reading of the score filled with magical moments _ along with some ragged ones _ van Aken and the rest of the excellent cast coped bravely with a new production by director Guy Cassiers that seemed to offer two bad ideas for every good one.

Italy’s leading opera house is staging Wagner’s four-part “Ring” cycle at the pace of one opera a year, in a production shared with Berlin’s Staatsoper unter den Linden.

“Die Walkuere,” the second installment, shows Wotan, king of the gods, failing in his attempt to wriggle out of the curse he has brought upon himself by stealing a golden ring. By the end of the opera he has sent his son, Siegmund, to death in battle and stripped his favorite daughter, Bruennhilde, of her immortality, putting her to sleep on a rock surrounded by fire.

Gone from the production are the ballet dancers who mingled with the principal singers during last season’s “Das Rheingold.” Instead, Cassiers gives us a hodgepodge of symbols cluttering the stage, along with endless murky videos projected on walls behind the sets.

These videos mostly distract from the action, rather than adding insight. In Act 2, for instance, a large metallic globe spins over Wotan’s head while he recapitulates the plot in a crucial monologue. As images morph in and out of focus on the surface of the globe, our attention is inevitably drawn to trying to decipher them, and away from Wotan.

Occasionally, the projections are effective. During the “Ride of the Valkyries,” as Bruennhilde’s sisters sing of transporting dead heroes to Valhalla, a twisted mass of bodies, some human, some equine, writhe evocatively in the background.

But Cassiers can’t quit while he’s ahead. That mass disperses into fragmentary shapes that keep metastizing through the next scene, interfering with some of Wagner’s most gorgeous music, including metastasizing ecstatic cry “O hehrstes Wunder!” when she learns she is pregnant with Siegmund’s child.

To end the evening, the magic fire that Wotan summons to protect Bruennhilde arrives looking like a cluster of sun lamps from a tanning salon that descend over her sleeping form, dripping what seems to be wax.

Amid this gimmickry, the performers were pretty much left to fend for themselves. As Sieglinde, mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier sang and acted with her customary riveting intensity, even if age is draining some warmth from her voice. Bass Vitalij Kowaljow sang Wotan’s demanding music untiringly and with a solid, pleasing tone, but dramatically he made little impression.

Soprano Nina Stemme, as close to an ideal Bruennhilde as one can find today, gave a blazing performance, with a vibrant, steady sound throughout her wide range. She also should get a good sportsmanship award for tolerating the night’s ugliest costume, a dark, glitter-encrusted dress that had a huge pouch of fabric bunched up and hanging from behind her waist.

Van Aken, who learned only Thursday that he would be substituting for an ailing Simon O’Neill, showed promise of being a fine addition to the ranks of heldentenors, who specialize in the heaviest Wagnerian roles. He had a bit of trouble sustaining some soft, low-lying passages, but his voice expanded and strengthened as it climbed the scale, taking on a ringing, heroic quality at the top.

Completing the ranks of soloists were rich-voiced mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova as Wotan’s wife, Fricka, and bass John Tomlinson, who blasted out sinister low notes as Sieglinde’s husband, Hunding.

At Tuesday’s season opening, before Barenboim lifted his baton, he appealed to Italy’s president, seated in the royal box, to protect Italy’s cultural institutions against threatened budget cuts. Outside the opera house police clashed with demonstrators protesting cuts to both culture and higher education.

On Friday, Barenboim’s focus was all on the conducting. He chose daringly slow tempos in places where other conductors accelerate, as in the music that describes Siegmund and Sieglinde’s flight through the forest. And he repeatedly brought the woodwind section to the fore, adding an unaccustomed warmth to many passages.

But he had severe problems coordinating between orchestra and soloists. With van Aken, given the lack of rehearsal time, that was understandable. With the other singers, less so.

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