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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walkure (1870)
Erin Caves (Siegmund); Hidekazu Tsumaya (Hunding); Renatus Meszar (Wotan); Kirsten Blanck (Sieglinde); Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde); Christine Hansmann (Fricka); Silona Michel (Helmwige); Susann Gunther-Dissmeier (Gerhilde); Joana Caspar (Ortlinde); Maire-Helen Joel (Waltraute); Carola Guber (Siegrune); Christiane Bassek (Rosweise); Kerstin Quandt (Grimgerde); Nadine Weissmann (Schwertleite); Erika Kramer (Grane); Elisabeth Anetseder (Freia); Lars Creuzburg (Donner); Steffen Bartl (Froh/Loge).
Staatskapelle Weimar/Carl St. Clair
Directed by Michael Shulz.
rec. Deutsches Nationaltheater, Weimar, 2008.
Sound: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1. Picture Format 16:9
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101 355 [2 DVDs: 237:00]
Experience Classicsonline

Reviewing the first instalment
of this 2008 Ring cycle from Weimar I concluded that "Das Rheingold" (Arthaus Musik 101 353) was valuable for the intense acting of the cast and for the great stress by director Michael Shulz on the overarching themes of family and childhood. A modern dress, highly conceptual production consciously and deliberately eschewing magic and grandeur was a price worth paying for an intense concentration on character interaction and for the way in which you could be sent back to more familiar productions with new insight. Whilst it made me look forward to the subsequent instalments, I was disappointed with a rather neutral interpretation by conductor Carl St. Clair and balance problems with the orchestra. I also could not avoid the belief that some, especially American, viewers would be put off by such a rigorous approach no matter how well delivered it was.

It is a pleasure to report that this "Die Walkure" shows the cycle hitting its stride in a way I hope will now sustain to the end. For one thing the sound balance between orchestra and stage has been improved and Carl St. Clair also seems to have mellowed with the lyricism that suffuses so many passages of this great score. The production values remain as before with many of the themes and ideas that were established in "Das Rheingold" now developed and explored. If anything the visual production values are even more austere and concentrated, playing up the virtues outlined above. This has the effect of welding the production together impressively. There will still be many opera lovers who remain implacably opposed to anything that does not conform to what they are used to, or what they think they are used to, on a stage. Opposed to any kind of experimentation or innovation, to me they are a lost cause and will simply dismiss this production out of hand; that is their loss. To those prepared to be challenged by theatre and by ideas I can promise a fascinating and rewarding time.

In "Das Rheingold" the drama began with the Norns as children reading Wagner's own prologue to the original text of Siegfried's Death. Here it is sung in Wagner's setting of 1848 but now the Norns are older and in a tableau containing the rest of the Wotan family. So again we are taken into an unfolding drama in family context with deceit and manipulation by the father figure driving events. We will never be allowed to forget this. We even see Alberich with the child Hagen in tow to ram home the point. As the Prelude music proper starts Wotan leaves the stage and we first see Siegmund and Sieglinde parting as children. The stage is very bare. There is a platform and what appears first as a sheer wall at the rear but is in fact a series of panels which will open and close as needed. This is pretty much all we will see onstage in this opera with variations only on this modular set. For those who find it too austere I need only point out that Wieland Wagner's productions at Bayreuth in the 1950s were, if anything, even more spartan.

Hunding enters to find Siegmund with Sieglinde in his house. He is clearly master here with greatcoat and bowler hat over a sharp suit. He brings other men in with him too, dressed as he is, who sit down at the table to be served a meal by Sieglinde. Among the men is Wotan who will remain onstage almost throughout, witness to what he sets in train, though unseen by his Walsung children. The way that Hunding's men menace Siegmund is impressive and this only ends when the men leave the stage, though Wotan remains behind. When finally Siegmund is alone for his monologue Wotan stays in shadow, miming the placing of the sword at the point Siegmund describes having seen it in the World Ash Tree. Then completely alone at last Siegmund describes to Sieglinde the coming of Spring with the rear of the stage open but pitch black. It is only when Sieglinde has blindfolded herself and Siegmund that Wotan can return with a real sword and give it to Siegmund. This idea of literal blindness giving inner sight is hardly original but it is sufficient of a powerful metaphor to work well again here. Only when names are given - Nothung to the sword and Siegmund to a man who has concealed his name - can the blindfolds come off. Wotan can leave now and the brother and sister run off into the night. But that is not quite the end of this act. Before the curtain falls, Fricka enters. Wagner's stage direction in Act 2 that her chariot should be drawn by six rams is usually ignored for obvious reasons. But in a surprising detail and in an adherence to a precise stage direction this so very austere production has small men in rams heads pulling Fricka onto the stage. In the final seconds of the act Hunding kneels before Fricka just as she will describe it to Wotan in the act to follow.

As Act 2 opens we realise that the gods have come up in the world since "Das Rheingold". Less the seedy nouveau riche, more the affluent aristocrats. Time has indeed passed too and this is something not always marked as well as it is here. The Valkyries then troop on and they will certainly be a bit of a shock to some Wagnerians. This production presents the sisters as large, naughty teenaged girls in what look like white confirmation dresses. They also make the Wotan salute - one outstretched hand over one eye - that we first saw in "Das Rheingold". After I drew attention to this in my review a reader pointed out to me that this gesture was also to be seen in the legendary Ruth Berghaus production of The Ring in Frankfurt in 1982. Only after Wotan's encounter with Fricka do the Valkyries leave the stage to Wotan and Brünnhilde. But it is worth pointing out a silent figure who marshals the Valkyries and seems almost in charge of them. This is an older woman with long grey hair and a black dress. Her appearance here and elsewhere is as a kind of nanny or teacher to the girls and she remains with Brünnhilde here and later. For Wotan's monologue the rear wall opens to reveal an Earth from space image on the cyclorama. But the main talking point of this scene will be when one of the dead heroes is brought on in a body bag and operated on by Wotan with Brünnhilde watching. So that is what he does with them. He wants them for spare-part surgery.

In the next scene the self-loathing of Sieglinde is brilliantly conveyed by Kirsten Blanck, her nightmare of the dogs tearing Siegmund to death is powerful and real. Great atmosphere is also conveyed during the Todesverkundigung scene as Brünnhilde, now in black gown, is silhouetted against white light in an opening of the back wall. I must also pay tribute to Carl St. Clair's beautifully paced conducting of this key scene. In the fight between Siegmund and Hunding, the interventions of Brünnhilde and Wotan are well staged by the use of opening panels obscuring and then revealing the parts of the battle. The final skewering of Siegmund on Wotan's spear is horrific in its simplicity.

The ride of the Valkyries opening Act 3 could not be further removed from Wagner's stage directions. It takes place in the girls' dormitory where they jump off and bounce on their bunk beds, play with dead heroes' bodies and generally lark about and shriek a lot. But this sets up the shock for what is to follow when Wotan deals with their errant sister Brünnhilde. Donner and Froh manhandle the girls as they are clearly shown as mere instruments in Wotan's grand design deserving little real consideration.

For the final scene Wotan and Brünnhilde are never alone. The grey-haired woman is ever-present, watching, waiting, witnessing. It is clear that this final scene is at the core of Michael Shulz's conception and Renatus Meszar as Wotan and Catherine Foster as Brünnhilde rise to the moment. Wotan's anguish when he realises his weakness and his predicament is palpable, as too is Brünnhilde's love for her father and her sorrow at the loss of his regard and with it her way of life. Stage acting at its best. Here again the fierce simplicity of the stage set concentrates on the human drama as well as the entirely naturalistic acting which is such a signature of this production. At the climax of the scene Wotan hands to Brünnhilde her wedding dress. This is clearly seen by the production as the family equivalent of what Wotan is doing by leaving her to whatever hero comes along to claim her. I think it works superbly and movingly, but I am sure others will not agree with me. Interesting to compare the same moment in the Copenhagen "Die Walkure" (Decca 074 3266) where Kasper Bech-Holten's production calls for Wotan to tear Brünnhilde's wings off. What a tribute to the dramatic depth of Wagner that two such completely different pieces of stage business can be introduced and still work with equal power in completely different ways. Brünnhilde leaves the stage to return wearing the wedding dress and be led up an aisle that opens in the rear wall with just a token fire around Wotan's spear to be conjured.

Renatus Meszar assumes the role of Wotan for this production. He is suitably older than Mario Hoff in "Das Rheingold" as well as being as fine an actor. We can almost see this Wotan thinking through the next part of his grand strategy on his face. Catherine Foster is an imposing, redheaded Brünnhilde, all girlish enthusiasm and touching vulnerability as she reacts to her father's wrath. In the final scene with Wotan she is superb. I have already mentioned Kirsten Blanck's Sieglinde. This is as fine a portrayal of edgy and disturbed paranoia as you could ever wish to see. Erin Cave is a superb Siegmund showing what a versatile actor he is too. It wasn't until I looked at the credits that I realised he had played Loge in "Das Rheingold". Hidekazu Tsumaya portrays Hunding as powerful and brooding but he steers well clear of the brutish. You do know when he is onstage, though. Finally there is Christine Hansmann's Fricka who we also saw in "Das Rheingold" and she has developed now from a grasping wannabe to a Grande Dame of the family. 

As before the soundtracks are PCM Stereo and DD 5.1 with the usual subtitles. Picture quality is still excellent and TV direction maintains the standard set in the previous opera. Liner-notes are detailed again with some good production detailing to work with. I didn't read these before I watched the discs for the first time but found that everything that the notes set out was easily grasped by just watching. Tribute to the clarity of the production perhaps. There is a Blu-Ray version available but this review was written from the DVD and heard in PCM Stereo. As I indicated earlier, I felt that the sound balance was better this time. More detail can certainly be heard in the orchestra and although they cannot summon the majesty of the Vienna Philharmonic or a good team from Bayreuth, the Weimar players suit the values of what you see and hear onstage. Carl St. Clair is emerging now as a persuasive Wagnerian. He can vary his tempo to great dramatic effect and accompanies his actors with subtlety and assurance.

This is an excellent successor to the "Das Rheingold" already reviewed and now makes me look forward to the "Siegfried" even more than I was expecting. Released separately this Weimar Ring cycle does give the opportunity to consider buying only one or two of the cycle rather than all of it. Certainly in terms of drama and acting this "Die Walkure" could be watched in isolation. The ideas that underpin it work on their own as well as in the context of a developing cycle. Michael Shulz is a skilled and consummate director who recognises that there can be danger in overwhelming a production of this nature with too many ideas that in the end obscure the original drama beneath. As in his "Das Rheingold", he judges this about right.

The interesting and innovative 2008 Weimar Ring cycle continues with a sharp and clever "Die Walkure" that will always interest and never bore.

Tony Duggan


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