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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walküre, Opera in Three Acts
Anja Kampe (Brünnhilde); Anja Harteros (Sieglinde);
Peter Seiffert (Siegmund); Vitalij Kowaljow (Wotan);
Georg Zeppenfeld (Hunding); Christa Mayer (Fricka);
Johanna Winkel (Gerhilde); Brit-Tone Müllertz (Ortlinde);
Christina Bock (Waltraute); Katharina Magiera (Schwertleite); Alexandra Petersamer (Helmwige); Stepánka Pucálková (Siegrune); Katrin Wundsam (Grimgerde); Simone Schröder (Roßweiße)
Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann
Stage Director – Vera Nemirova
Co-Stage Director – Sonja Nemirova
Set designer – Gunther Schneider-Siemssen
Costume designer – Jens Kilian
Lighting Designer – Olaf Freese
rec. April 5-17 2017, Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg
Sound: PCM Stereo, DTS HD MA 5.0; Picture: 1080i 16:9
Subtitles: German (original language), English, French, Spanish, Italian, Korean, Japanese
C MAJOR 742904 Blu-ray [2 discs: 235 mins]

This April 2017 production of Wagner’s Die Walküre marked the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Salzburg Easter Festival by Herbert von Karajan. This opera, the second of the four Wagner Ring operas, was the inaugural work which kicked off the festival on March 27, 1967, with Karajan on the podium. Vera Nemirova, stage-director for this 2017 production, used a reconstruction of sets employed in that original Karajan-led staging.

Christian Thielemann is the conductor here, and his cast is a highly respected assemblage of singers, all with strong Wagnerian credentials, and their performances are, on the whole, quite strong. That said, it is Thielemann who is the star, fashioning a most spirited and effective interpretation of this opera, and drawing excellent performances from the Staatskapelle Dresden, the orchestra in residence at the Salzburg Easter Festival. Thielemann, by the way, has served as artistic director of the festival since 2013.

In the past, Thielemann has always struck me as a conductor favoring moderate to slow tempos. Indeed, he has been associated with more traditional styles of interpretation; i.e., less quick tempos in Beethoven’s symphonies and a general disdain for de-Romanticized approaches to much of the Germanic repertoire. Thus, my experience with his previous Wagner recordings suggested his pacing at times was a little too broad, perhaps a bit too ponderous in places. Here, however, the music moves with a vital sense of flow, the drama having impact, with even Wagner’s plentiful slow sections compelling and potent, never lingering detrimentally.

Thielemann’s first video recording of this opera was on Opus Arte from the 2010 Bayreuth Festival where his overall timing was 259 minutes, compared with this Salzburg effort of 235 minutes. True, the Bayreuth version includes curtain calls between acts and about eleven minutes at the end for more. But the Salzburg, with about half as much bloat, is still considerably leaner. More importantly, it’s the better of the two from a musical point of view. But it’s the production too that’s crucial to any opera – and you wonder, how good is it?

Some reviewers commented that it was not particularly imaginative, while a greater number considered it either the highlight of the season in Wagner opera or at least one of the better productions. The cast received similarly mixed reviews, again with opinion coming down on the more positive side. Me? I like the production for its general neutrality and it’s not attempting to insert some supposedly relevant message into the story, a common tendency in the last couple of decades, especially in Wagner operas. And I like the cast here, foremost among whom is Anja Kampe as Brünnhilde.

She enters with a fine ‘Hojotoho’ at the beginning of the Second Act and remains in fine form throughout. Try the final scene in the Third Act to sample her superior singing and dramatic skills. She makes the most of ‘War es so schmählich’ and the numbers that follow, imparting a powerful sense of both earnestness and desperation as she pleads with her unyielding father Wotan. Lesser singers can actually make this music sound a bit bland and uninvolving. Admittedly, in an opera this long, almost any singer will have a moment or two that is sub-par: in Act III’s first scene Kampe sings ‘Fort denn eile, nach Osten gewandt’, and after she turns away from Sieglinde for a moment to pick up the broken sword (Nothüng), you can hardly hear the first two words when she continues with “Verwahr’ ihm...” But I may be nitpicking in pointing this out, as such moments are so very rare for her and because she is ultimately so convincing in the role. The other Anja, Anja Harteros, is also very fine as Sieglinde, and Georg Zeppenfeld portrays a very nasty and sexually abusive Hunding. You will love to hate him. Vitalij Kowaljow makes an imposing Wotan, and Christa Mayer is fine in the role of Fricka.

That now leaves us with Peter Seiffert as Siegmund among the leads here. He can be a little inconsistent, not exactly hot and cold, but perhaps hot and lukewarm. His First Act ‘Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond’ is somewhat understated, though it’s a respectable performance. Yet, he has many fine moments: in the three subsequent numbers (with Sieglinde) that close out the First Act, where he is more spirited and quite effective. In the end, one must assess his performance as good and reasonably strong, though not outstanding.

Regarding the other aspects of this production, the sets are adequate, if not lavish or boldly imaginative. In the First Act Hunding’s lodge has at its center a huge sequoia bored through at the bottom to form a sort of archway to enter and exit rooms. The Second Act features a circular walkway upon which the action takes place, and in the Third the walkway lies in gradual elevation as it runs clockwise. Thus, sets are minimal, the stage mostly barren. Lighting is rarely ever very bright in the foreground and typically dim or almost totally dark in the background. Costuming is fairly traditional for this Wagner opera, especially in the headwear and battle gear: the helmets of Brünnhilde and the Valkyries have feathered wings, and their body armor and spears have a sort of medieval genuineness.

I should mention that the audience reaction at the end of the opera was most enthusiastic, the curtain calls drawing plentiful and vigorous applause and cheers. I always watch to the end, measuring their reaction against my impression. Had I been there, I would’ve cheered too. Camera work, picture clarity and sound reproduction are all very good.

Thus, this Thielemann Die Walküre must be hailed as a triumph. I must point, however, that it goes up against heavy competition on video. I have five other performances either on DVD or Blu-ray, and all have something going for them. Two by Daniel Barenboim from his Ring cycles are both excellent: the first, from 1992 at Bayreuth (Warner Classics DVD), features an utterly splendid production by Harry Kupfer; and the second, from La Scala in 2010 (Arthaus Blu-ray), is also very fine. James Levine (DG DVD) from the Met, dating to April 1989, is very impressive as is Hartmut Haenchen in a 1999 performance from Amsterdam (Opus Arte DVD), but these two, like the first Barenboim, feature less up-to-date video and audio qualities. I’ve already commented on the previous video effort by Thielemann: it has many assets, but his newer one has the edge. I should mention also there is a very excellent Blu-ray audio-only Naxos set with Jaap van Zweden leading the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra in live concert performances from 2016. So, there is much to choose from. My recommendation at this point would be either the Barenboim/La Scala or this fine new Thielemann-led Salzburg effort. Devoted Wagnerians might want to seek out both.

Robert Cummings

Previous reviews: Paul Corfield Godfrey (Blu-ray) ~ Roy Westbrook (DVD)


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