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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walküre (1870) [238.00]
Nina Stemme (soprano) - Brünnhilde; Vitalij Kowaljow (bass) - Wotan; Simon O’Neill (tenor) - Siegmund; Waltraud Meier (mezzo) - Sieglinde; Sir John Tomlinson (bass) - Hunding; Ekaterina Gubanova (mezzo) - Fricka; Danielle Halbwachs (soprano) - Gerhilde; Carola Hoehn (soprano) - Ortlinde; Ivonne Fuchs (mezzo) - Waltraute; Anaik Morel (mezzo) - Schwertleite; Susan Foster (soprano) - Helmwige; Leann Sandel-Pantaleo (mezzo) - Siegrune; Nicole Piccolomini (contralto) - Grimgerde; Simone Schroeder (contralto) - Rossweise
Orchestra of La Scala/Daniel Barenboim
rec. La Scala, Milan, 7 December 2010
Sound: PCM Stereo, dts-HD Master Audio 5.1
Picture: 16:9/NTSC, 1080i HD
Subtitles: German (Original Language), English, French, Spanish, Italian, Korean
Region: worldwide
ARTHAUS MUSIK 108 091 [238.00]

I gave a rather mixed reception to the first Rheingold instalment of Barenboim’s new Ring cycle on video a couple of months back (review). I am pleased to be able to report that some of the most desirable features of that release are retained in Die Walküre while other of the less enticing elements have been jettisoned. In the first place, the sets by Enrico Bagnoli and the producer still retain the sense of Nature as an essential ingredient in the Wagnerian world view, even though the composer’s specific instructions are not always complied with.
The water which covered the stage in Rheingold has been reduced to a small pool at the centre of the stage in Act One of Walküre. From this Sieglinde draws the water with which she refreshes Siegmund and into which she looks as she sings of her vision of her own face in the brook. The latter stages of Act Two are set not in the rocky wilderness that Wagner specifies but in a thick tangled wood which serves well to conceal the comings and goings of the various characters. This also serves to provide a spectacular curtain as Wotan in his wrath seems to set a spectacular forest blaze. The elements of realism extend also to a gigantic hearth in Hunding’s house. This appears to have consumed the best part of a couple of tree trunks, a rather pallid moon for the closing of the same Act, and bevies of horses for the Ride of the Valkyries. The latter are less satisfactory, since it is all too clear that we are seeing a series of repeated projections on a film loop. The appearance of the same horses as statuary in the first part of Act Two has an unfortunate overtone of monumental masonry at Versailles or some other palace. This is not aided by the fact that Wotan seems to drag the whole montage offstage with him when he leaves at the end of his monologue. One is pleased to see that the often intrusive element of dancers which sometimes jarred in Rheingold has now gone. Instead there are just two acrobats on stage to provide spectacular effects during the Ride of the Valkyries. As before, Guy Cassiers’s production sticks pretty closely to Wagner’s stage directions. We don’t get such glosses as a posse of heavies to accompany Hunding. The Valkyries are kept offstage when the music requires this. Also the Volsung twins don’t seem about to consummate their incestuous relationship on the spot in Hunding’s house - with the husband sleeping next door? - but run off into the forest as the curtain falls.
There are a couple of minor alterations to Wagner’s scenario. The first and second parts of Act Two are clearly differentiated into two distinct settings. The music to accompany the entry of the fleeing Volsung twins is treated as an interlude between the two scenes. As the Valkyrie approaches Siegmund in a vision, the forest becomes suffused with a silvery light. This emphasises the other-worldly nature of the scene, with normality only restored as the dreaming Sieglinde wakes up. This, together with Barenboim’s measured approach to the Todesverkundigung, makes for a real dramatic experience. This is secured without the need for any of the anointing and body painting to which some producers resort in an attempt to provide action for this essentially static scene. The only problem is that the silvery light resolves itself into a series of numbers and letters which stream up and down like a wayward airport terminal departures board. I cannot discern any purpose to this, although it is only really visible in close-up. When the viewer becomes aware of it the result tends to distract from the central characters in the scene as one tries in vain to read what is going on.
The admittedly complicated comings and goings at the end of the Act are somewhat differently treated from Wagner’s perfunctory killing of Siegmund. Although it is not always easy to see what actually happens on stage here, it is clear that Wotan comes behind Siegmund to break his sword and then pushes him forward onto Hunding’s weapon. In this he is thus more immediately complicit in his son’s murder. Siegmund does not die immediately, but reaches out his hand to Sieglinde as she is hurried away by Brünnhilde. Hunding then comes forward and delivers the coup de grace on the loud timpani roll which follows the fleeting reference to the Ride of the Valkyries. Wotan in the meantime stands rooted to the spot until he kills Hunding and then sets fire to the forest in the spectacular manner which I have already described.
Cassiers is not the first producer to find Wagner’s original scenario unsatisfactory; Patrice Chéreau and others have introduced a group of armed men to accompany Hunding in hunting down the fleeing twins. Even the usually faithful Otto Schenk preserved Siegmund’s life long enough to allow him to recognise his father before he died in his arms - a very moving interpretation of the music, and one which fits well with the emotional outburst from the cellos at that point.
There are only two characters from Rheingold who reappear in Walküre. It was originally the intention that both René Pape and Ekaterina Gruberova as Wotan and his wife should reprise their roles in this production. However Pape fell ill and withdrew at the last minute, and his place here is taken by the young Swiss-Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowalijow. It has to be said that he does not yet fully inhabit the role, but his interpretation seems to be closely modelled on that of Bryn Terfel with the same manic look in the eyes; we see both of these quite clearly throughout. He has yet to achieve the same degree of ability to sing quietly while retaining intensity in his delivery. During his long Act Two monologue a large globe is suspended turning above the stage. This comes to a rather delayed halt at the words “Das Ende!” His singing in the forceful passages is always firm and noble, but one does sometimes wish for the ‘muffled’ tone that Wagner repeatedly specifies in the earlier stages of his monologue. Gruberova is a tower of implacable strength in her one scene.
It is extraordinary to see that this whole production has been taken from a single performance. The general standard of accuracy is very high but there are inevitably some points of concern which would surely have been rectified if more footage had been available. These particularly affect the performance of Simon O’Neill as Siegmund. He was clearly suffering from laryngeal problems which not only leads to a passage of hoarseness during his Spring Song but also a few frogs in the throat during Act Two. These do however serve to reinforce the impression of a man at the end of his tether. He has a nicely ringing tone otherwise, but his voice lacks sheer romantic ardour and he seems to have difficulty riding the orchestra during the more strenuous passages at the end of Act One. As his sister, Waltraud Meier is a tower of strength and dramatic ability just as one would expect. Only during her final delivery of “O hehrstes Wunder!” does one feel a lack of sheer heft in the upper register. She makes a virtue of necessity here by delivering the passage as an expression of interior emotion. The sheer impact of a singer like Jessye Norman is missing. On the other hand, she and O’Neill make a more believable pair of Volsung twins than Norman and Gary Lakes did in the Metropolitan production. She is properly cowed by John Tomlinson’s louring Hunding - that is once an unfortunate momentary pitch uncertainty during his opening line is out of the way. It was hard to imagine Norman’s assumption of the role being frightened of anything at all.
Nina Stemme is properly fearless throughout as Brünnhilde. Her voice has darkened since her Isoldes during the 2000s but her notes remain true. She delivers a thrilling Hojotoho! on her first entrance. She is not a steely goddess in the Birgit Nilsson mould, but rather a more womanly Valkyrie in the style of Rita Hunter or Martha Mödl. She is without the unsteadiness and sometimes curdled tone that sometimes afflicted the latter. This pays real dividends in the Todesverkundigung and her extended scene with Wotan during Act Three. Indeed she is quite simply the best Brünnhilde since Nilsson, albeit of a very different stamp. There is not one moment in her delivery of the score that finds her wanting.
The Valkyrie girls are a good collection - plenty of dramatic interaction with the principals, too - with no weak links. However; the production of the second part of Act Three is the weakest link in this video. In particular the closing Magic Fire is a particularly feeble moment, with a number of lanterns descending from the flies like a collection of nightclub illuminations. These only gradually seem to catch alight towards the very end just before the curtain closes. Incidentally the La Scala audience is exceptionally well behaved here, refraining from applause until the music has actually finished. God knows one does not want overkill at this point - I remember the old Sadlers Wells production - in the days before English National Opera - where the Coliseum smoke machine went wild and flooded the whole of the stage, the orchestra pit and the auditorium with fumes of dry ice - but this is just weak. Possibly something went wrong with the production here, with a lighting cue missed or muffed, which could not be corrected in this single performance; but reviews of the live presentation seem to imply that this was what the producer intended. 
Nonetheless, despite these reservations, this is a very good performance of Die Walküre indeed, with a generally superlative cast. Daniel Barenboim is a conductor at once powerful and sensitive. To take just one example of many; at the point when the Valkyries are discussing where Sieglinde is to be hidden, at the mention of Fafner Barenboim reins in the tempo as the Ring motif enters, with a sinister frisson which casts a pall across the music. I don’t remember ever having heard this done before and it works superbly. The avoidance by the producer of extra-musical glosses is welcome. As a general performance with superlative singing of a more or less faithful production this is superior to the Metropolitan Opera Walküre, the weak link in Levine’s cycle. All the singers are good actors with plenty of stage presence. There are no extras.
Paul Corfield Godfrey

Masterwork Index: Die Walküre