This latest instalment of the Met’s Matinee broadcast
reissues isn’t as great a success as some others in the
series. Even so, it has a lot of things going for it and you
may well decide that it’s worth a punt.
The Wälsung twins are both excellent though, to my ears,
they take a while to heat up. The opening of Act I plods a little,
perhaps in part thanks to Klobucar’s tempi, but the excitement
ratchets up once Siegmund is left on his own and Vickers sings
with really special energy. His cries of “Wälse”
seem to go on for ever, and his address to the Spring is thrilling.
Later, during the Annunciation of Death, he appears ready to
take on Brünnhilde and win and he, more than any of his
other colleagues, flourishes on the live-ness of the occasion,
producing something special and unrepeatable. I wasn’t
quite so convinced by Leonie Rysanek, however. To my ears she
always had something of a hoot to her voice and that’s
a fairly serious problem in the Act I love music which feels
somewhat weighed down by her heavy soprano. That said, she uses
this to her advantage during her scene in Act III, evoking genuine
sympathy for the character, and her final cry of “O Herrstes
Wunder!” is wonderful. Karl Ridderbusch’s Hunding
is predictably dark and compelling, as convincing a reading
of the role as you’ll find anywhere.
As for the divinities, the story is similarly mixed. Wotan was
one of Thomas Stewart’s greatest achievements, something
obvious to anyone who listens to the Karajan Ring. Here,
as there, he summons singing of tremendous power, but his Wotan
is shot through with humanity and we see much more of the vulnerable
god than the authority figure. He is exuberant and buoyant at
the start of Act 2, but seems to give up all hope during his
long monologue, towering with rage in his orders to Brünnhilde
at the end. Likewise, his long dialogue with her in Act 3 is
permeated with sadness and vulnerability and the farewell is
exquisite in its tenderness. His thunderous rage at the start
of Act III is all the more powerful because it is the exception
to his character rather than the norm. Christa Ludwig is excellent
too, arch without sounding waspish and quietly confident of
her victory right from the outset of their confrontation.
Nilsson’s Brünnhilde is here problematic, though.
No-one can doubt that she owned the part for most of the post-war
era, and all the strength and steel is there in this performance
too. However, to me she sounds oddly disengaged in comparison
with her other recordings. The hard edge of her voice comes
to the fore to the exclusion of almost everything else. Only
in the Annunciation of Death scene does her mask slip a little,
but she displays no vulnerability to speak of in this performance.
This is an interpretation only for those who want to hear the
part scaled by a singer with such exceptional apparatus, not
for someone wanting to get to know the nuances of the role.
Perhaps the heart of the problem lies with Berislav Klobucar’s
conducting. His pacing is anonymous most of the time and in
places it’s a downright distraction. He struggles, in
particular, to coordinate the fast-paced action at the end of
the second act, and there is a series of terrible timing errors
in the introduction to the Ride of the Valkyries. In
fact, I’m surprised that a conductor of such little renown
was given the task of steering such a top-notch cast: I wonder
if he was a last minute stand-in? The notes contain only a plot
summary so can’t help us to find out. Either way, the
playing of the orchestra is fine if unexceptional, and there
is a good ensemble of Valkyries to boot.
The most obvious points of comparison for this performance are
Karajan’s studio recording which also features Vickers
and Stewart, and Böhm’s Bayreuth recording which
features Nilsson and Rysanek in the same parts as here. Both
offer different advantages which outweigh this recording. Böhm
conducts the score like a man possessed, caught up in the moment
of the live occasion with his foot to the accelerator more often
than not. Rysanek’s vocal “issues” I found
much less off-putting with Böhm, and Nilsson’s performance
is more shaded too. James King’s Siegmund is one of the
best, though Theo Adam’s Wotan is too gruff. However,
while many disagree with me, I still find Karajan’s to
be one of the finest performances of this opera. Janowitz and
Vickers sound fantastic, as does Thomas Stewart, and I even
liked his controversial choice of Régine Crespin as Brünnhilde.
Furthermore, Karajan’s careful control of the Berlin Philharmonic
allows the listener to hear new things in the score and to appreciate
the grand climaxes as much as the more intimate moments.
For me this performance remains primarily a curiosity. It has
undeniable weaknesses but parts of it are excellent and at this
budget price you can afford to give it a go if you like the
Masterwork Index: Die