1963 Wagner concert film is in clear black and white and opens
with the crescent above the Theater an der Wien stage, panning
along the circle onto the orchestra. During the performance,
cameras are rarely far from the stage, mostly following orchestral
and vocal highlights in the score. I would have liked contrasting
long views from the back of the stalls or high in the upper
circle, especially in orchestral tuttis.
sound is similarly close with microphones visibly and audibly
near the orchestra. Whilst the small number of microphones
means the basic orchestral sound picture is natural, the voices
are miked too for forward.
Knappertsbuch was a truly great Wagner conductor. His 1951
live Götterdämmerung (Testament CD) unfolds on a monumental
scale, culminating with extraordinary long-breathed power.
And I've recently been spell-bound by a 1963 live Immolation
scene from Humburg (Tahra CD), sung by mezzo Christa Ludwig
putting a capital 'H' into Heroic. Knappertsbusch makes few
temporal concessions for Ludwig being outside her comfort
zone, conducting with elongated rubati and magnificent Wagnerian
swell. So it was with some excitement that I approached this
film from the same year. Would the magic be here too?
an extraordinary craggy face! You could go mountain climbing
on Knappertsbusch’s prominent cheekbones. The cameras show
him often enough to reveal his economical gestures and how
he clearly uses the occasional glance to exert powerful authority.
He conducts with a clear beat but his gestures and technique
are overall fluid, more pulsing and pushing than stabbing
the baton. The great conductor was 76 when this film was made
and sits throughout the performance. However in a defining
shot Knappertsbusch stands and leans forward most dramatically
after Nothung is pulled from the Ash Tree and the violins
oscillate revelatory shards of light.
Walküre Act I encapsulates what is both special and controversial
in Knappertsbusch’s style. The opening Prelude exudes his
typically rich bass-up sound. Whilst the overall timing throughout
is not unconventional, his pulse is unusually steady. Siegmund’s
cries of "Walse" are not elongated Melchior-style
to the gallery. Also the famous passage where Sieglinde ecstatically
recalls Wotan’s visit is surprisingly even. There’s a majestic
inner rapture conveyed through the singer and orchestral colours,
the violin figures especially clear within the long line.
Sieglinde is given a natural arch to breathe and soar and
Claire Watson seizes the moment thrillingly.
why do I feel as if something was missed here? It's not as
if Knappertsbusch is buttoned-up and I love the way he buoys
and floats phrases. He certainly captures the radiance of
passion but the ardent, chemical-rush somehow slips through
his fingers. In key passages the orchestra needs to sing with
more outward fervour, for instance when Sieglinde anticipates
her avenging hero or in the closing bars. Furtwängler (studio
EMI 1954) or Böhm are preferable in this respect but Knappertsbusch
does not make Furtwängler’s mistake of over-dropping the temperature
in the opening scene.
Watson was an American soprano based in Munich. Benjamin Britten
cast her as Ellen in his legendary 1958 recording of Peter
Grimes and she also recorded Donna Anna in Otto Klemperer's
mid-1960s EMI Don Giovanni. Solti used Watson as both Freia
and Gutrune in his studio Ring cycle. Watson was much admired
as the Marschallin, Ariadne and the lead in Capriccio. Sadly,
she died, only 62 years old, of a brain tumour.
Watson delivers a fresh, passionate performance with beautifully
rounded tone and clear diction. Like her Siegmund Watson is
totally secure and never flags over the Act. She's certainly
no Lehmann or Rysanek, whose Sieglindes sound is if they are
bursting forth from every fibre of their being, but Watson
is engaged and natural enough for her Sieglinde to still be
special. I now greatly look forward to seeing the DVD of Watson's
Ariadne (1912 version), alongside Beverly Sills and conducted
by Leinsdorf, newly released by VAI.
Siegmund is Fritz Uhl, who bears a passing physical resemblance
to a youngish Walter Mathau. His key camera angle bears downward
giving the impression Uhl is singing to the front of the stalls
too often. Uhl is less well represented on records but did
sing both Loge and Melot on Bayreuth broadcasts. He was famously
cast as Tristan in Solti's disastrous Tristan recording, where
he sounded outgunned by Nilsson, Culshaw's engineering and
Solti's relentless conducting. So it’s a pity that Uhl suffers
here as the voices are miked too forward, making his projection
harder than it might sound if nestled in a natural orchestral
glow. In any event he lacks the warm baritonal shadings of
the finest Siegmunds, notably Ramon Vinay and Melchior.
opening line is hardly redolent of Siegmund’s world-weariness
but he does later respond professionally if not with the fullest
inspiration throughout Siegmund’s inner journey of renewal
and passionate discovery. Uhl’s richest singing appropriately
follows Siegmund’s Big Excalibur Moment so it seems churlish
to point out that he slips on a note in the final line.
Greindl’s black-voiced Hagen has the best physical stage presence
of the three singers with that large frame and those expressive
eyes that lower menacingly. Greindl often sang Hunding at
Bayreuth and must have been formidable when acting freely
leads to my ambivalence about concert stagings of opera. I'm
not expecting the performers to ham it up and run about -
there's no room on this tight stage anyway! - but there is
little physical acting here beyond facial expression. Something
feels held back, even constrained, for all the emphasis on
pure music. Watson, at one point, half turns to Uhl but soon
turns back again, unconsciously revealing how the natural
drama is suppressed. Would it overstep the mark if Hunding
was to turn and glare at Siegmund when challenging him to
a duel? Or if the incestuous twins were to smile at each other
when their true identities and passion are finally revealed?
mid-price TDK reissue is only 72 minutes long. The otherwise
informative booklet could have included fuller biographies
of the performers and I would have liked some discussion about
the making of this historic film. Was it made for television
or cinema? Subtitles are in German, French, English, Italian
and Spanish and there are no extras on the DVD.