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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walküre (1851-6)
Siegmund – Poul Elming (tenor)
Hunding – Matthias Hoelle (bass)
Wotan – John Tomlinson (bass)
Sieglinde – Nadine Secunda (soprano)
Brünnhilde – Anne Evans (soprano)
Fricke/Siegrune – Linda Finnie (mezzo)
Gerhilde – Eva Johansson (soprano)
Ortlinde – Ruth Floeren (soprano)
Waltraute – Shirley Close (mezzo)
Helmwige – Eva-Marie Bundschuh (soprano)
Rossweisse – Hebe Dijkstra (mezzo)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
Directed for the stage by Harry Kupfer
Directed for video by Horant Hohlfeld
Recorded live at the Bayreuth Festival Theatre, June/July 1992
WARNER CLASSICS UNITEL 2564 62319-2 [2 DVDs: 237:00]



At last, the Ring most of us have been waiting for begins to make it onto DVD.

Warner has decided to bypass Rheingold and start with the ‘proper’ first evening opera: Die Walküre. This is probably a sensible move, as many critics regard Walküre as the most popular, certainly the warmest and most lyrical, of the cycle. It also gives the best possible impression of the Kupfer/ Barenboim partnership, one of the most productive, intelligent and thrilling of recent years.

There are many Kupfer touches apparent from the outset, and anyone who knows, for instance, his stunning Vienna Elektra with Abbado will recognise the same hand at work. He has his regular collaborators Hans Schavernoch as stage designer and Reinhard Heinrich on costumes ... and the mixture is effective. Kupfer opts for a largely bare stage, allowing the singers plenty of freedom but also giving a strong feeling of isolation in a big, empty world. It looks quite literally like a highway disappearing to nowhere, a feeling heightened by the generally gloomy lighting. What set there is consists mainly of big, sculpted features that make a bold gesture. Thus, Act 1 is dominated in the centre by the great ash tree, a gnarled, twisted affair that looks a bit like the huge watchtower at the start of Ridley Scott’s Alien. The sci-fi (or perhaps sci-fantasy) parallels are not unintentional, I’m sure; a great space station walkway dominates Act 3, the costumes (as in Elektra) have a shiny PVC surface that wouldn’t be out of place in Bladerunner or The Matrix and the whole thing is evocatively lit with side beams and laser effects. Thankfully, we still have room for swords and spears, so for much of the time (the fights, for instance) it is a production Wagner would have recognised. It takes a bold and imaginative director to see this sort of ‘contemporary but timeless’ approach through, of course, and Kupfer’s concept is so much more convincing than the tacky grunge-modern production from Stuttgart that for some inexplicable reason made it on to DVD recently. However, I still think that it’s Kupfer’s handling of the intimate moments, allied to Barenboim’s superbly flexible conducting, that really win the day.

We have come to expect excellent standards of singing and playing from Bayreuth but this Walküre really is as good as it gets. The first act gets off to a superb start with a virile, heroically ringing Siegmund from Poul Elming. He staggers in from the back of the vast, mist-filled stage and we’re already on safer ground than the Stuttgart Walküre, where Robert Gambill’s lighter-voiced Siegmund rushed on in jogging pants and wearing a walkman. We really believe Elming is a warrior (his ragged army fatigues and black boots hint at American GI, but it’s only a suggestion) and the voice is true heldentenor quality. His partnership with Nadine Secunde’s Sieglinde is both passionately moving yet dangerously fragile, light years away from the ridiculously unconvincing posturing of Jessye Norman and Gary Lakes for Levine and the Met (DG) well sung as that is. The wonderfully black-voiced Hunding of Matthias Hoelle is simply the icing on the cake for this first act  – no cardboard cut-out villain this.

Things get even better from here. At the heart of the next two acts we get beautifully nuanced performances from an intensely energetic John Tomlinson as Wotan and a bold, attractive Anne Evans as Brünnhilde, both artists surely at their peak in the early-1990s. Tomlinson has been accused of overacting in the past but his many grimaces and larger-than-life gestures seem entirely appropriate as things slip out of his control; the voice is also in magnificent form, effortlessly filling the stage with a stream of rich, firm tone. Evans matches him all the way, managing to keep the voice steady under great duress. She also looks good, the long auburn hair flowing sexily down the back of her black leather greatcoat, a far cry from the overweight, bovver-booted ‘teenager’ we got from Stuttgart. The superb all-British triumvirate is completed by Linda Finnie as Fricka, another intelligent and multi-layered assumption. This fiery marriage guardian simply will not take no for an answer, whether this is Wotan or not.

So singing and acting are of an exceptionally high order, with everybody in great voice and right inside their respective characters. What really lifts this set however, are Barenboim and the orchestra. It was conducting and playing that largely saved the Stuttgart Ring, at least for me, but here one is simply swept away. The richness of those strings, the blazing brass, the detailed wind solos, all are controlled with a mixture of utter precision yet with a surging ebb-and-flow of passion that sounds almost improvisatory at times. We all know of Barenboim’s Fürtwänglerian credentials, but I’ve not heard any better from the great man himself. It helps that the recording is totally splendid, true surround and with amazing depth and detail. The climaxes, which Barenboim unleashes with such force, are quite overwhelming. It really must have helped the singers give of their best to feel they were being supported in this way.

Camerawork is generally good, no intrusive cutting to the pit (which mars passages of Levine’s Ring) and only the occasional close-up being problematic, as when we see too much of the wax dummy ‘fallen heroes’ on their way to Valhalla at the start of Act 3, though I don’t doubt that this would be effective from a distance in the theatre. Kupfer had a hand in supervising the move to video (his interview makes up most of the booklet) so generally the emphasis is on intimacy, of the various ‘plays-of-couples’ that litter the opera. Quite honestly, there is almost too much to take in at one sitting (I watched each act separately a couple of times then the whole thing through) such is the detail and depth of the entire undertaking.

Picture quality is worth mentioning, true widescreen and with excellent clarity and colour. As mentioned, the booklet does include a reasonable length interview with Kupfer, though the set cries out for on-screen interviews with all the major players. They must have realised they were taking part in something pretty special and it would have been nice to share it with them. Still, we should be grateful that this highly-praised cycle is now reaching us on DVD  – as recent Rings go, it takes the biscuit for me. Roll on the rest!

Tony Haywood

See Das Rheingold
Die Walkure


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