Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walküre [217:00]
Siegmund - Jon Vickers (tenor)
Sieglinde - Leonie Rysanek (soprano)
Hunding - Karl Ridderbusch (bass)
Wotan - Thomas Stewart (bass-baritone)
Brünnhilde - Birgit Nilsson (soprano)
Fricka - Christa Ludwig (mezzo)
The Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Berislav Klobucar
rec. originally broadcast live, The Met, NY, 24 February 1968. Mono
SONY CLASSICAL 88697 853082 [3 CDs: 73:30 + 77:40 + 65:36]
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 performers.
Simon Thompson
Undeniable weaknesses but parts are excellent and at this budget price you can afford to give it a go if you like the performers.