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Wagner, Die Walküre : Soloists, Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris, Philippe Jordan (conductor). Opéra Bastille, Paris, 29.6.2010 (MB)


Siegmund – Robert Dean Smith

Sieglinde – Ricarda Merbeth

Hunding – Günther Groissböck

Wotan – Thomas Johannes Mayer

Brünnhilde – Katarina Dalayman

Fricka – Yvonne Naef

Gerhilde – Marjorie Owens

Ortlinde – Gertrud Wittinger

Waltraute – Silvia Hablowetz

Schwertleite – Wiebke Lehmkuhl

Helmwige – Barbara Morihien

Siegrune – Helene Ranada

Grimgerde – Nicole Piccolomini

Rossweisse – Atala Schöck


Günter Krämer (director)

Jürgen Bäckmann (designs)

Falk Bauer (costumes)

Diego Leetz (lighting)

Otto Pichler (choreography)

Yvonne Naef (Fricka)  and Thomas Johannes Mayer (Wotan)


I surprised myself by concluding that the first instalment of the Paris Ring had been ‘all told, … the best Rheingold I have attended since Haitink’s tenure at the Royal Opera’. Die Walküre is arguably a tougher proposition still than the cycle’s Vorabend, but I am delighted to report that earlier promise was essentially maintained. Günter Krämer’s production remained sure-footed and often imaginative. The orchestral contribution was truly excellent. Philippe Jordan’s conducting grew in stature as the evening progressed. And, if the singing was rarely at a level to challenge the great interpretations we have all heard – or fancy that we have – then much of it was creditable, Katarina Dalayman’s Brünnhilde at least proving very much more than that.

The synthetic nature of Krämer’s Rheingold continues into his Walküre. Many ideas might well be traced back to other productions, but that is not to say that either the particular mode of expression or the particular synthesis too closely resembles any other. No Wagner scholar would claim that he did not rely upon, that he was not inspired by, the work of his predecessors. Nor, I am sure, would any Wagner performer be so arrogant, though I have a nasty suspicion that Sir Roger Norrington, he of the Tristan Prelude waltz, would come close. There seems to be no good reason why we should expect stage direction to be entirely different – and should be it so, that is more likely to be the product of default than design. But actually, what we have here, more importantly, is a case of ideas that generally have basis in the work. There is plenty of directorial leeway in deciding what to emphasise, what to extend, without any great necessity to transplant something entirely ‘new’ onto Wagner’s drama.

The first act is a case in point. Krämer elects to convey a greater sense of Hunding’s society, in this case highly militarised, reminding us that this brutal man is a representative of a highly contemporary – both for Wagner and for us – bourgeois hierarchy. Hunding is clearly a middle-ranking figure in whatever civil war is raging; Siegmund hails of course from an insurrectionary wild race, to whom nothing (at least nothing that Fricka, voice of custom would understand) is sacred. The thugs under Hunding’s command, billeted upon Sieglinde, Hunding’s mere chattel, are Krämer’s invention, but the violence they exude conveys Wagner’s dramatic purpose. Another social aspect emphasised, again in contradistinction to Volsung outlawry and anarchism, is that of the Valkyries: a choice set up for Brünnhilde to make. Wotan’s maidens also serve a military role, in this case not only returning heroes to Valhalla but cleaning up their bodies and enrobing them. Theirs is probably the most convincingly integrated Rides I have seen: no danger here of something to be tacked on, endured, until we can return to the business of Wotan and Brünnhilde. Valkyries and soldiers form part of an uncomprehending society that watches the extraordinary turn of events at the end of the second act, as the first intimations of the power of love for Brünnhilde make her disobey Wotan’s command.

The sickness of the (painted) tree in the first act stands consonant with that of the nineteenth century: a sort of sub-Pre-Raphaelite post-Romanticism. First we do not see it, then Sieglinde reveals it. Then we – or at least I – think: is that not just too poor a substitute for Wagner’s ash? But there is something more to come, the revelation behind the painting of the sword that mysterious visitor had deposited. The real forest, when viewed properly during the second act, evokes Caspar David Friedrich, but at a slight remove, as if that artist’s day has already passed, which in a way of course it has, whilst retaining a presence. Reality, and especially history become more layered than one might have thought, just like Wagner’s motivic method.

GERMANIA now stands tall, of course, but Krämer and his team cleverly undercut, just as Wagner does, Valhalla’s grandiosity. They do it with mirrors, which both extend the scope of Jürgen Bäckmann’s set and highlight the trickery involved. Gothic letters – seen in the production pictures – may be seen in black on stage and white in reflection: magically, as it were, the ‘right way around’. This, presumably, is what the gods see, or delude themselves they see, likewise the upholders of self-righteous, hypocritical bourgeois morality: a properly Feuerbachian inversion of religious practice. Moreover, where Feuerbach had praised the antiquity for its lack of belief in and unawareness of the doctrine of immortality of the soul, it was now necessary to strike against that belief, which is what Siegmund does. Interestingly, Wotan himself takes Siegmund to his final resting place during the third act, honouring perhaps ‘das Ende’, for which the god has wished, and to which the Volsung might have pointed the way. Freia’s golden apples are littered around Valhalla, to remind us of the casual abandon with which the denizens of light have adopted their false immortal cause. Ubiquitous yet already insufficient, they equate very well to the terms of the drama so far. One might even claim that they not only support the words but compensate for a surprising absence from the music. Still, Wagner had so many balls in the air that dropping the odd apple is neither here nor there.

Erda returns at the end, reprising her slow walk across the stage. Brünnhilde elects to sleep beneath the table Wotan has prepared for her and Siegmund. It is not yet clear what this might mean, since there is more to come, but the handling of Walküre makes me eager to find out.

Philippe Jordan’s first act opened impressively, not least on account of the tremendous bite from the opera orchestra’s strings. This was a true storm, but also a musical one, a mini-exposition if you like. Tension was not always maintained, however. Yet the structure of the second and third acts was much more clearly in place: a sterner task, one might have thought, but a task that met with great success. I fear that no one in my theatrical experience is likely to match Bernard Haitink’s direction of the potentially sectional second act, Wotan’s monologue and all, but shape and momentum were skilfully conveyed. Wagner’s endlessly melody sang – and sang meaningfully.

Robert Dean Smith is never going to win prizes for charisma, but he was for the most part a dependable enough Siegmund. I cannot help but think that ‘dependable’ is not enough in this role, however. His second cry of ‘Wälse’ seemed to last for an eternity, certainly far longer than I can recall. Jon Vickers might have brought it off, but here we ended up with an audibly tired hero for much of what followed. Ricarda Merbeth portrayed a feistier, less pure Sieglinde than one often encounters. Her odd facial expressions took a bit of getting used to, but the confidence of her vocal assumption grew, culminating in a refulgent, genuinely moving ‘O hehrstes Wunder!...’ Günther Groissböck and Yvonne Naef made much of the words of Hunding and Fricka, and could act too. Thomas Johannes Mayer, substituting for the expected Falk Struckmann, was an eminently creditable replacement, gaining in stature as the drama progressed. He too showed especial attentiveness towards the words, veritably hissing his contempt at Hunding, but also proving perfectly capable of lyricism where required. Katarina Dalayman was the star turn, however, as Brünnhilde: tireless and yet a soul in transition – arguably in emergence. The demands of words, music, and stage action combined here to present a Valkyrie whom I doubt could be matched by present-day exponents.

Mark Berry

Picture © Opéra national de Paris/ Charles Dupra

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