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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walküre (1870) [235.00]
Peter Seiffert (tenor) – Siegmund: Anja Harteros (soprano) – Sieglinde: Anja Kampe (soprano) – Brünnhilde: Vitalij Kowaljow (baritone) – Wotan: Georg Zeppendeld (bass) – Hunding: Christa Mayer (mezzo-soprano) – Fricka: Johanna Winkel (soprano) – Gerhilde: Brit-Tone Müllertz (soprano) – Ortlinde: Christina Bock (mezzo-soprano) – Waltraute: Katherina Magiera (mezzo-soprano) – Schwertleite: Alexandra Petersamer (soprano) – Helmwige: Stepanka Pucalkova (mezzo-soprano) – Siegrune: Katrin Windsam (contralto) – Grimgerde: Simone Schröder (contralto) – Rossweisse: Dresden Staatskapelle/Christian Thielemann
rec. live, Salzburg Festspielhaus, 5-17 April 2017
C MAJOR 742904 Blu-ray [235 mins]

When Herbert von Karajan mounted his presentations of Wagner’s Ring music dramas at the Salzburg Festival in the late 1960s, even those critics who lauded his unorthodox casting and sometimes controversial approach to the music found little to praise in the stagings which the conductor himself produced with such effort and labour. They were condemned as shrouded in stygian gloom – Birgit Nilsson at a Met revival was reported to have donned a miner’s helmet complete with lamp for rehearsals – and at the same time as too reminiscent of Wieland Wagner’s Bayreuth production mounted earlier in the same decade. Parallels were drawn between Karajan’s set founded around a ring-shaped platform that surrounded the stage, and Wieland’s circular central area; and similarities could also be found in the costumes and make-up, somehow reminiscent of early mediaeval chess pieces in appearance, as well as the statuesque nature of the action that these imposed on the singers. When Karajan in the 1970s attempted to film the productions with some addition of realistic touches such as swimming Rhinemaidens, the results were almost universally condemned (by many of the same reviewers who were later to be so contemptuous of Sir Peter Hall’s similarly ‘naturalistic’ Bayreuth production); and that Karajan cycle never progressed beyond Rheingold. It is therefore welcome that this DVD attempts to recreate the original presentation (now fifty years old), even if the final results are somewhat mixed.

Most welcome are the re-appearances of the original stage sets and glass-painted backdrops by Günther Schneider-Siemssen. The designer returned to the Ring for the New York Met in the 1980s, and the results are familiar from the video recordings made at that time; but, especially in Act One, his earlier thoughts are even more impressive. Instead of the Met’s hyper-realistic and well-appointed woodland dwelling, we have a solitary tortured tree-trunk beneath which Hunding holds court and which has an Arthur Rackham-like fascination of its own. It doesn’t serve well to conceal the whereabouts of the sword – Siegmund’s failure to notice it during his apostrophe to Wälse is totally inexplicable – but it does boast internal plumbing from which Sieglinde can draw water, and it frames the woodland scene in spring most effectively. Towards the end of Act Two the ‘unit set’ of the ring splits apart to provide a series of ramps which help to stage the duel and conflict between the various characters with real dramatic impact; but in Act Three the conflagration of the magic fire is rather unimpressive.

Part of the problem here, and indeed elsewhere, may lie in the fact that it does not appear that Schneider-Siemssen’s designs have been left entirely unchanged. During his long monologue in Act Two Wotan strides around the ring, drawing up projected blackboard-like tables on which he explains the extensive back history of the impossible situation in which he now finds himself, as a didactic schoolmaster instructing Brünnhilde like a backward school-pupil. I cannot imagine that this ever formed part of Karajan’s or Schneider-Siemssen’s plans – such an intrusive element would surely have occasioned comment from contemporary critics – and this feature, like Hunding’s chauvinist manhandling of his wife, must surely be laid at the door of Vera Nemirova who is billed as the ‘stage director’. They jar horribly with the Karajan ethos, although the new costumes which are credited to Jens Kilian (who also re-created Schneider-Siemssen’s sets) blend in somewhat better. In Act Three the whole of the action, including the scene between Wotan and his errant daughter, is witnessed by a crowd of extras who interfere with the dialogue which should be so intimate, and whose sole function appears to be to kindle the magic fire at the end (the results can be seen on the box cover). Again this seems to be totally at odds with the beautiful effect conjured up by the cyclorama projections of Schneider-Siemssen. The whole procedure is supposedly justified by Jan-Eric Dörr in his booklet note, where he states “it is both a glimpse into the past as well as a vision for the future, without shying away from the predominate stage aesthetics.” I am not sure what the latter part of the ungrammatical sentence is intended to mean; but the attempt to combine old and new elements seems to me to detract from both, rather than to enhance them.

The musical performance, on the other hand, needs absolutely no qualification; it is simply magnificent, fully the equal of any rival on video and vastly superior to most competitors. In Act One, Peter Seiffert and Anja Harteros are an impassioned pair of lovers, and Georg Zeppenfeld is a properly louring husband. In Act Two we are introduced to Anja Kampe who, once over a slightly tentative opening, is superbly incisive as Brünnhilde; she and Seiffert are both superbly rapt and still during their scene together. I expressed admiration for Vitalij Kowaljow a few years back when he undertook Wotan for Barenboim’s video cycle at La Scala, while noting that in 2010 he did “not yet fully inhabit the role”; now, seven years later, he is totally in command of its nuances. Christa Mayer is an imperious Fricka, although the humanoid rams drawing her chariot are an unwelcome distraction. Brünnhilde’s eight Valkyrie sisters are, as so often, a squally bunch but Christian Thielemann and the Dresden orchestra give a magisterial tone to their scene and rise without fail to all the magnificent perorations which this score contains so plentifully.

Indeed it is for this musical presentation, with so many elements perfectly in place, that this Salzburg restaging should commend itself to purchasers. Even while regretting the fact that the new stage direction by Nemirova dilutes the force of the original Karajan presentation – and there are indeed some who might regard this as a blessing – I would place this recording at the peak of the available versions of Wagner’s Walküre on video, with more dramatic punch than Levine at the Met even when the later Schneider-Siemssen sets (for Act Three in particular) have greater verisimilitude both in appearance and action. The sound and vision on Blu-Ray are both exemplary; the booklet, despite its quirky translation, contains a complete track listing and notes in English, French and German; and to these languages the subtitles add Spanish, Italian, Korean and Japanese.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review (DVD): Roy Westbrook

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