Walküre, Die


WalkureRichard Wagner - Die Walküre

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | James Levine, Robert Lepage, Deborah Voigt, Bryn Terfel, Stephanie Blythe, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Jonas Kaufmann, Hans-Peter König | The Met: Live in HD - May 14, 2011

The second part of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, Die Walküre, closed the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series for a 2010-11 season that had opened with the first of the Met’s new and ambitious Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold. Robert Lepage’s production of the prelude of the epic opera cycle certainly showed a lot of ambition and ingenuity, with a specially designed and constructed piece of twisting, revolving high-tech machinery that would serve as a backdrop and stage over and above the (reinforced) Met stage, but as to whether this Ring cycle would be one of the greats, well, like any staging of the complete work, judgements really need to be reserved until we get to Die Walküre. On the basis of now having two parts of Wagner’s massive work performed (with the remaining two parts Siegfried and Götterdämmerung to be staged in the Met’s 2011-12 season), it’s still a little too early to say, but the Lepage production is certainly looking like being a highly memorable new staging of the Ring Cycle.

What was at least already evident from Das Rheingold, beyond the obvious and impressive ingenuity of the morphing huge mechanical structure of “planks”, was the quality of the singing that lent the prelude’s entertaining fairytale of gods, giants and dwarfs with their lust for gold and power a deeper and rather more human quality than the opening part of the story is traditionally accorded. Whether that element would be sustained in Die Walküre was however in little doubt, with Bryn Terfel and Stephanie Blythe reprising their roles as Wotan and Fricka and a terrific casting that would see Deborah Voigt in the role of the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, Eva-Maria Westbroek (recently seen at the Royal Opera House as Anna Nicole) playing Sieglinde, Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund and Hans-Peter König as Hunding.

Die Walküre is structured in such a way that all these roles are of vital importance and any one weak link could bring the whole construction down. Act One depends on a strong bond being developed between Siegmund and Sieglinde, two twins, human Wälsung offspring of Wotan, separated at birth who meet and fall in love in an incestuous relationship that is to produce the important figure of Siegfried; Act Two is largely sustained and dramatically driven by the argument between Wotan and Fricka over Wotan’s meddling in human affairs and the threat to the sanctity of marriage that this incestuous relationship represents; Act Three, and really the opera as a whole, relies on the bond that exists between Wotan and Brünnhilde, his favourite daughter and leader of the Valkyrie, a warrior band of sisters whose task it is to lead heroes who have died in battle to Valhalla, who defies the will of her father to tragic consequences.

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As fine as the singers all are in these roles, Wagner’s Die Walküre presents tremendous vocal challenges that can expose those unused to its demands, so there were nonetheless potential dangers in each of the music-drama’s key relationships. More used to lyrical Italian tenor roles, Jonas Kaufmann however switched to a different register without too much difficulty, while Eva-Maria Westbroek, who I’ve seen do Puccini, Strauss and Turnage, clearly seems to be best suited to being a Wagner soprano, delivered the finest performance I have ever seen from her to date. Stephanie Blythe succeeded in making her Fricke seem more than a bitter shrew in the Second Act, the audience able to sympathise to some extent with her position, short-reaching and motivated by personal jealousy though it is, while Bryn Terfel’s Wotan at the same time did not seem weak in bowing to her demands, but rather fatalistically yielding to the inevitable fate that has been predicted by Erda at the end of Das Rheingold. The conclusion to Act II that brings all the characters together was therefore every bit as effective and doom-laden as it ought to be.

Where Die Walküre stands or falls however is in the father-daughter relationship between Wotan and Brünnhilde, and it was by no means certain that it would work in this production any better than the most recent Bayreuth production (on Blu-ray). Deborah Voigt showed a few wobbles in her earlier Met performances as Minnie in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, while Bryn Terfel – as terrific a singer and performer as we all know he is – failed to make a significant impression as Wotan in a Rheingold filled with much stronger Wagnerian voices. The real test of his Wotan however is in Die Walküre. It’s an opera I’ve seen him sing before most powerfully back in 2005 (in concert for the BBC Proms), and if anything his singing here was even better and his interpretation of the role much improved. And that is saying something. Deborah Voigt didn’t have the rich middle register that you’d ideally like to hear in the role of Brünnhilde, but she sang the role superbly and her lighter voice actually worked well in establishing her as an impetuous child torn between pleasing her father and incurring his wrath through an act – intervening in the fate of Siegmund – that she believes is necessary.

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The relationship between father and daughter is critical in dramatic terms and in human terms for the tragedy that unfolds, and Terfel and Voigt get it right, and not just in the Third Act. Act II establishes the nature of their relationship well, with some playful kidding around and punches to the shoulder that other productions would find difficult to countenance as being the actions of dark, serious immortals. The nature of the relationship changes as the drama progresses, and at every stage the two singers seem to be on the same page, Voigt’s sensitive Brünnhilde supporting the depth of feeling that Terfel draws out of Wotan’s terrible dilemma, truly giving him something to agonise over. It’s absolutely wonderful to see.

Also wonderful is watching the Met’s Ring Machine in operation, transforming fluidly in an instant from the dark and imposing forest of the opera’s stormy Vorspeil to Hunding’s lodge, the synchronised projections creating the necessary textures. It’s not overused either in a way that would dominate over the drama or the singing, blending subtly rather to meets the demands of the narrative and the mood, as it should. I would prefer it however if it was a little more integral to the opera and had some more obvious conceptual meaning. In an interview for ‘Opera News’ Robert Lepage makes interesting observations about Time and about the Ring Cycle being not so much a circle as a series of spiralling events, but it’s difficult to grasp this from watching Das Rheingold and Die Walküre alone. The remaining two instalments will prove whether something is made of that necessary conceptual element that will determine whether this is to be a truly great Ring Cycle or not, but even from a spectacle viewpoint and from the quality of the performances so far – not least with James Levine leading a storming Metropolitan orchestra performance – this is shaping up to be a memorable staging of one of the opera’s greatest achievements.

WalkureRichard Wagner - Die Walküre

Bayreuther Festspiele 2010 | Christian Thielemann, Tankred Dorst, Johan Botha, Kwangchul Yun, Albert Dohmen, Edith Haller, Linda Watson, Mihoko Fujimura, Sonja Mühleck, Anna Gabler, Martina Dike, Simone Schröder, Miriam Gordon-Stewart, Wilke te Brummelstroete, Annette Küttenbaum, Alexandra Petersamer | Opus Arte

Traditionally, Die Walküre is seen as the start of the Ring story proper, the previous episode Das Rheingold being only a prelude, musically as well as thematically, for what is to follow. It’s in Die Walküre moreover that what is seen as the human element enters into the story after the mythological struggle of dwarves, giants and gods in the first part. Personally, I’d argue that the human element is there from the first notes of Das Rheingold, the origins of the Ring being inextricably tied up in Wagner’s philosophy towards the creation of a new German art form, and the expression and attainment of those highest ideals that humanity can aspire to is evident in every aspect of the mythological symbolism of the whole work, as well as in its method of operatic expression. That’s perhaps a debate for another time, but in as far as it concerns this 2010 Bayreuther Festspiele production, one would have hoped to see more of the underlying humanism in the story brought out than is actually achieved here.

As if mindful of the need to relate the great struggle that continues to be fought out largely on an epic scale level to some kind of human level, Tankred Dorst introduces a few irritating and ultimately pointless elements into the staging. The opera opens with a very brief sequence showing a modern-day family, seemingly on a picnic, wandering through a deserted, semi-ruined manor house, the young boy unveiling the figure of Sieglinde and in the process setting off the retelling of the ancient myth that is to follow. In Act 2, the father sits in the background throughout, reading his newspaper, his bicycle by his side, while Wotan and Fricke carry on what I suppose could be termed a domestic argument, albeit one on which the eventual fate of all humanity depends.

As pointless as these kind of intrusions are, they are minor and easily blocked out, feeling little more than half-hearted attempts to introduce an underlying concept that doesn’t bear much scrutiny and doesn’t in the end impose much of a presence either. The minor tweaks to the staging relating to the position of the sword in a lamp-post that has fallen through the wall of the ruined hunting lodge, is likewise a minor conceit that doesn’t affect the overall purpose of the drama or how it is played out. It does in fact introduce a strong sense of ruin and decline that is to be the eventual fate of the gods, and indeed the inevitable end for all those who strive for ultimate power. Elsewhere however the staging feels a little anonymous and unimaginative, even somewhat restrictive, the performers not really given anything to do for most of the time other than statically sing their parts and attempt to express everything through the poetry of the libretto and the voices alone.

Fortunately, in that respect, the singers are all exceptionally good, if not quite good enough for the most part to make up for the deficiencies elsewhere in the production. Only Johan Botha really stands out, and he may even be considered to be one of the best Siegmund’s you’re ever likely to hear, with a wonderful voice that contains all the warmth of humanity that should be in his character’s make-up. That characteristic is just a little bit lacking in the others, although Edith Haller sings wonderfully and interacts well with Botha. Part of the problem might well be Christian Thielemann’s conducting of the Bayreuther Festspiele orchestra. Thielemann is a superb conductor of Strauss and Wagner when working with material that suits his style, but that style is often too clinical, intellectualised and, particularly in the case of Die Walküre, a little too aggressive. Whatever the reason, the richness in the melody and the wealth of the emotional content of the tragedy just isn’t found here.

Overall however, this is a worthwhile production, fairly traditional in its setting (not something you can always say about Bayreuther Festspiele productions), and more than competently performed – exceptionally so in the case of Botha and Haller – lacking only a little spark of warmth or inspiration that might have made all the difference. It’s presented well on the Opus Arte Blu-ray with a fine, detailed and strongly coloured picture, with the usual strong PCM stereo and DTS HD Master-Audio 5.1 mixes. There’s a good 18 minute made-for-television featurette on the production on the disc, which is not in-depth, but sets the scene well (barring a horribly inappropriate modern jingle-style soundtrack).