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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walküre (1869)
Stuart Skelton, tenor – Siegmund: Emily Magee, soprano – Sieglinde: Nina Stemme, soprano – Brünnhilde: John Lundgren, baritone – Wotan: Ain Anger, bass – Hunding: Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano – Fricka: Alwyn Mellor, soprano – Gerhilde: Lisa Davidsen, soprano – Ortlinde: Kai Rüütel, mezzo-soprano – Waltraute: Claudia Huckle, mezzo-soprano – Schwertleite: Maida Hundeling, soprano – Helmwige: Catherine Carby, soprano – Siegrune: Monika-Evelin Liiv, mezzo-soprano – Grimgerde: Emma Carrington, mezzo-soprano – Rossweisse: Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Sir Antonio Pappano
rec. live, 18 and 28 October 2018, Royal Opera, Covent Garden,
Extras: Why the Royal Opera love performing Die Walküre: What it’s like performing The Ring Cycle with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House: The musical secrets of Wagner’s Die Walküre [14.00]: cast gallery
OPUS ARTE OABD7270D Blu-ray [254 mins]

For a great many years it has always been a fairly safe starting point for a critic reviewing any new recording (audio or video) of a Wagner opera to complain about the poor standards of modern Wagnerian singing compared to a supposed golden era situated in the 1960s, or the 1930s, or whatever semi-mythical era the memory of the reviewer can stretch back to. The fact that those older performances were frequently riddled with errors, cuts or both, and that they were recorded in abysmal sound that produced only a travesty of Wagner’s orchestration, is regarded as almost irrelevant in the face of the supposedly superior quality of the singing and dramatic performances. And while it is true that many modern Wagnerian recordings do fall musically short in one way or another, this video performance from the Royal Opera proves that singers of the present day can equal if not surpass their legendary predecessors in both these departments as well.

To begin at the very beginning, Stuart Skelton’s is one of the best assumptions of the role of Siegmund that I have ever encountered either live or on disc. I was impressed with his Tristan last year, but even the excellence of his performance there had not prepared me for his rendering of the lower tessitura of Siegmund’s music. His held high notes on his cries of “Wälse” are predictably fine (although one should not take their splendour for granted) but even more impressive is his dramatic involvement with the part, and in particular his willingness to sing with dangerously soft but always vividly projected tone. And despite his unheroic stage appearance his facial expressions bring a sense of despair and heartache to the Toderverkundigung scene that brought tears to my eyes, and would have melted the heart of the most implacable of Brünnhildes. As his long-lost sister, Emily Magee rises above the somewhat matronly interpretation of the downtrodden Hausfrau forced upon her by the staging to produce radiant tones in their duet in Act One – she trumps his Spring Song with an ecstatic delivery of Du bist der Lenz, entirely free from any suspicion of unsteadiness – and she gives an enthralling display of terror in the closing sections of Act Two. Once past an uncomfortably pitched delivery of “Heilig ist mein Herd” Ain Anger as Hunding gives us a firmly sung and viciously depicted bully of a husband, hulking about with a sense of real menace and danger in his eyes, and in his closing death scene he gives a marvellously portrayal of triumphant vengeance collapsing progressively into awe-struck terror and dread which for once raises the character to truly tragic status in his own right.

In Act Two we are introduced to John Lundgren as Wotan and the incomparable Nina Stemme as his daughter. Lundgren comes close to rivalling Sir Bryn Terfel (who had preceded him in the role in this production) for the subtlety of his shading of the words, his willingness to sing quietly, and his dramatic engagement with the part. He also proves more than capable of rising to the many climactic phrases in the music, and he sounds as fresh and resonant at the end as he does at the beginning, taking “Wer meines Speere Spitze furchtet” in one breath when many of his rivals in other recordings require three. Nina Stemme may no longer have the youthful soprano that she possessed when she recorded Isolde with Domingo fifteen years ago, but she has now substituted for that freshness a sense of warmth and sympathy that bring new and very different rewards – and she can still produce her top notes fearlessly during her confrontations with Wotan. She even manages to deliver her cruelly written “Hojotohos” at the very beginning of her part with conviction, despite being forced to sing them from a decidedly precarious position hanging onto a ladder at the side of the stage. To round out the principal roles, Sarah Connolly is a carefully observed Fricka, at once shrewish and motherly, and displaying a real sense of anger when she actually slaps Wotan’s face during their confrontation. The Valkyries in Act Three are as usual a mixed bunch – some of them having stronger voices than others – but all the relevant solo lines are clear and they combine into a thrillingly resonant and unified ensemble.

The playing of the Covent Garden orchestra is also excellent, with Wagner’s many subtle effects perfectly realised, and we even have the composer’s full specified complement of six harps which in so many performances are boiled down to two. The recorded balance is not impeccable – there are occasions where the horns are undesirably prominent, occasionally obscuring solo lines elsewhere in the score – but the clarity of the piccolo playing in the Magic Fire Music, to take but one example, has a clarity that one could seek in vain elsewhere. Antonio Pappano takes a brisk view of the music which brings plenty of excitement, and certainly does not seek to hold back at orchestral climaxes; fortunately his singers can rise to the occasion, but one does sometimes miss the more delicate touches that for example can be afforded by a more flexible approach to tempo. Nonetheless, as a musical experience, this is a performance of Die Walküre that can proudly hold its own with any other on disc.

At this point it is usual to register regret and disappointment with the visual aspects of the presentation – especially in Wagnerian music drama, which seems to invite the worst excesses of producers intent on making their mark by a radical new interpretation of the work. There are certainly elements in Keith Warner’s staging that are irritating, if only because their intent is so unclear. Why is there a rotating air conditioning fan suspended high above Hunding’s hut, and why is it suddenly galvanised back into action during the Magic Fire Music three hours later? Why is Brünnhilde consigned to sleep (which we don’t actually see being done) on the same leather-bound chaise longue on which Sieglinde reclined while listening to Siegmund’s account of his early life? What are the balls of metal sponge that Fricka brings onto the stage with her and which Wotan subsequently squeezes during his monologue like a hen-pecked husband reluctantly doing the washing-up? The director appears in a brief documentary supplied as an extra to this Blu-ray issue, but doesn’t actually offer any explanation to the perplexed viewer.

This is all the more annoying when he gets so many other things just right. For once the staging of the fight in Act Two, a very tricky episode to encompass, is perfectly judged so that Wotan’s spear actually comes into contact with Siegmund’s sword and breaks it – an important point in the drama, and one that most producers miss entirely. (Warner then rather spoils the effect by having Wotan actually use his spear to kill Hunding, instead of condemning him to death with a gesture of contempt, but that is acceptable by comparison with the monstrous perversions of the action that one finds in many other contemporary stagings.) The realisation of the similarly difficult Ride of the Valkyries is also highly successful, with the singers coming on and off stage at the points indicated by Wagner carrying the skulls of horses’ heads and producing a wild shadow-play on a screen behind them which is enhanced with projections of battle scenes and slain heroes; when Wotan enters he half-rotates the screen so that Brünnhilde is concealed behind the other Valkyries, another Wagnerian direction that is often hard to accomplish. During his final apostrophe Wotan plunges his hand into the magic fire, bringing it out with flames rising from his flesh during his final words; I don’t see how this was managed, but the effect is thrilling. There are some nice touches earlier, too: Wotan appears behind Sieglinde during her nightmare at the end of Act Two, seeking to extend the hand of sympathy and then shrinking away, just as earlier he seemed to stumble beneath the weight of guilt and grief during his wrathful exit following his monologue.

However, the sets by Stefanos Lazaridis, and even more seriously the costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca, are irretrievably ugly. It is very difficult to feel any warmth or sympathy for a Wotan who parades his hideously scarred face and solitary glaring eye so ferociously even during his moments of tenderness, although again one should be grateful that we are at least made aware of the fact – referred to frequently in Siegfried and elsewhere – that he is missing an eye, a circumstance that some other productions totally contradict. Siegmund in his cut-off blue overalls, overlaid somewhat incongruously with a wolfskin that is used with symbolic intention later as a token of his Wälsung heritage, is a deliberately unheroic figure throughout - and there is no real sense of cultural differentiation between his bedraggled refugee and the prosperous landowner and householder Hunding, who also wears overalls with braces and looks like a foreman on a rampage. Sieglinde and Fricka are both Victorian matrons, the latter with a line in glamour that would have been regarded as old-fashioned even in 1869; and Wotan is all too predictably dressed as a capitalist, complete with casual evening wear to which he adds a sort of frock coat for his more godly utterances. The results are not only reminiscent of every other symbolic Wagnerian updating that follows in the footsteps of Patrice Chéreau at Bayreuth in 1976 (and George Bernard Shaw in The perfect Wagnerite), but also positively detract from the dramatic effect that the singers are seeking to convey. The sets by Lazaridis are less positively offensive, once one ignores the air-conditioning fan suspended high above the stage, and the appearance of the magic fire at the end looks positively dangerous. At the same time the clutter on the stage itself, with piles of books for Wotan to throw around during his monologue, hardly lends itself to ease of movement.

One is often tempted in video productions of this kind to recommend that the purchaser should listen to the recording with their eyes closed (although that rather undoes the point of having the performance on video in the first place) but that would be unfair to this staging, which often realises Wagner’s intentions in a way that other more traditional productions (even such as Otto Schenck’s at the Met for Levine) miss or get wrong. As I have observed, the dramatic and musical qualities of the performances by the singers here leave some of Levine’s cast standing. I will certainly want to watch this video recording – with well-chosen subtitles and camera angles under the direction of Jonathan Haswell – again. The audience cheers at the end are well merited; and they are exceptionally well behaved too, not breaking in with applause until the music has actually ceased. Subtitles come in German, English, French, Japanese and Korean; the booklet includes a synopsis in English, German and French, and a most interesting essay by Barry Millington (in English only) about the relationship of Wagnerian thought to the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach.

A rather special release, despite my reservations.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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