Although Die Walküre is the most human-scale work in the tetralogy, it is strange how elusive it is to stage directors, who seem to be more comfortable among the gods: how often does one sees how lonely and unhappy Sieglinde is, how vulnerable and desperate (and therefore capable of some very dangerous deeds) Siegmund is, how the fact that they are siblings in a family “hated by everyone” (Hunding’s words) makes them a couple? Certainly not this evening. Andreas Kriegenburg considers that Die Walküre is crossed by two axes – war/love, male/female – the impossibility of love in a world of violence makes it possible for an impossible love to exist. Well, this is a clever thing to say – but Kriegenburg was hired to stage and not to say clever things. In his staging, Sieglinde lives in some sort of female community (plus Hunding) that collects dead men’s bodies to be buried. They don’t have to go very far to find them – most of them are hanging from the ash-tree just above the table where they eat (this does not seem to bother them). There are some girls with lanterns on the palms of their hands who work as some sort of collective searchlight or sometimes as some sort of kurogo “invisible” stage-hands. From the point-of-view of the audience, it basically looks as if Sieglinde had 20 servants that make all the hard work while she makes sad expression for a Siegmund on the other side of the stage. Later their purpose would be something like a human-screen for Sieglinde and Siegmund’s love-making. Apparently, two is company and 22 is voyeurism.
If act II is a bit all over the place, at least it has some interesting ideas. Wotan’s “new position in the world” means that he no longer has time for being a warrior and has to perform executive duties. The set shows an audience hall more or less 1940’s in style with a large Romantic painting showing a forest scene on the rear wall. There is a desk too. Fricka, some sort of Jackie O-like first lady in a party gown, and Wotan do not need armchairs, they have each 10 waiters who double as furniture when they need to sit down. These godly couple likes to break glasses with their own hands during their discussions, but none of the 20 servants care to clean anything. Kriegenburg loves his stage machinery, and walls and ceiling go back and forth, up and down throughout. While Wotan is about to end his scene with Brünnhilde, lots of war survivors appear on stage, but with an impatient sign of his hand, they drop dead. The rest of the act takes place among the dead bodies and extensive usage of stage lift.
I had written that Zenta Haerter’s choreographies were effective in Das Rheingold. Not this evening, I’m afraid. Wagner’s music for act III had to wait for more or less 8 minutes while 14 girls in nightgowns played horsy. Yes, we’d got it on the first 30 seconds “ride of the valkyries – the girls are the horses”, but then the audience lost its patience around the fifth minute and started to boo and shout angrily. Then the act began – the horse girls went somewhere upstage, while the valkyries had long leather reins to play with. After heavy usage of stage lift, Brünnhilde and Wotan are left alone. In the end, she is raised on a round platform while the no-longer-horse girls come with some sort of flammable cable and gather around Brünnhilde. Yes, Siegfried wouldn’t be afraid of that – probably of the girls (as you remember – he had never seen any girl before getting to Brünnhilde’s rock) – so image of fire is projected everywhere to make it more formidable. Final curtain.
Does this sound uneventful? Now think of it with Kent Nagano’s conducting on the background. “On the background” is an apt description of the musical performance. Regardless of tempo, this conductor’s more evident feature is flaccid accent. When the music requires a more considerate tempo, as in the final scene of act I, the warmth of the Bavarian State Orchestra’s strings and the fact that singers could whisper over the recessed orchestral sound made for some sense of Innigkeit. Under the baton of other conductor, one could go for chamber-music like transparency, but although one could always hear woodwind, the articulation was so lazy, the structural coherence left to imagination, that the results couldn’t help being dyspeptic. When energy was required, you got drums and brass louder than the rest of the orchestra but without much consequence. Even then, the impression was of flabbiness – one felt like throwing a box of Viagra in the orchestral pit.
Even if Anja Kampe seemed to be in more flexible voice both times I saw her in Berlin (in a smaller hall, truth be said), she is still a radiant, ideally cast Sieglinde. I felt sorry for her in her farewell to Brünnhilde – she was about to launch the “redemption”-motive and she took three seconds to realize that she was alone there, the orchestra was still playing Debussy. It felt uncomfortable trying to carry all the hope of the world alone. Katarina Dalayman has everything to be an ideal Brünnhilde – the voice is big, warm and full and she phrases with unusual elegance, but the high notes do not come naturally to her. Or rather: she can hit some impressive percutant acuti provided they do not come too close to each other. When they do (as in the ho-jo-to-ho’s), she gets tired dangerously fast. In order to prevent that, she shortens note values without much ado. It seems that she took the decision of saving steam in act II, but then the tenor and the conductor made the Todverkündung so uninteresting that she suddenly decided to plug in and save not only Siegmund but the whole scene (too late unfortunately). I have the clear impression that Sophie Koch has carefully listened to Christa Ludwig’s recording for Georg Solti – and right she did, for it is with the masters that one is supposed to learn. Her voice, of course, is lighter than the legendary German mezzo soprano’s, but she is a cunning singer and made it work in her voice – actually, Nagano could learn from her how to produce impact in restricted dynamics.
When Sieglinde says that the echo of her own voice sounds similar to Siegmund’s, this generally sounds as something only a Romantic character would say. Well, this evening, it sounded less impossible than usual, for I cannot think of a tenor as light in tone as Klaus Florian Vogt in the part of Siegmund. The low tessitura generally involves a baritonal voice in the role – and hearing a voice far from virile in it was a puzzling experience for me. Although his tenor is definitely not heroic, it is curious how hearable it is. When the tessitura was congenial, such as in Winterstürme, this brought about a fresh lyricism to the role – but the role requires more than that. In exposed heroic moments, such as the Wälse sustained notes, he sounded nasal and strained and you could hear that (his voice is very projecting and there was very little orchestral sound to speak of). The Todverkündung scene simply did not work – he cannot properly support low notes, some of them were barely sung, he often seemed to be speaking and not singing the text and he produced far more breathing pauses than any other Siegmund I have ever seen. As usual, he was hugely applauded – so I guess that James King must have done everything wrongly in his performances.
When describing a particular singer, a friend of mine said, “her voice was more vertical than horizontal, if you can get my meaning”. These words describe Thomas J. Meyer’s voice very aptly. It is a truly forceful voice, but not really voluminous. When he has to operate on the lower end of his range, the sound is rather juiceless and unflowing. On the other hand, when the phrase is congenial, he can produce some big top notes. In heroic moments, he is often harsh of tone and pushes more often than he should – but he has a big personality and makes it part of a bully-approach to the role. And he pulls it out somehow. It is surprising that he could soften his tone for the closing scene and find a tonal palette that he could not count with in his long act II narration, where he successfully compensated by emphasis and clear declamation. I cannot help thinking that he is doing too much too soon – John Tomlinson made many Handel and Mozart recordings before tackling Wagner. James Morris, for example, had his share of Rossinis and Mozarts too – and, differently from Mayer, sang Banquo and not the title role in Macbeth (if you think that Morris’s Wotan had easier and more spacious high notes than Mayer’s, this seems something to be taken in consideration). Ain Anger was a very good Hunding, dark-toned, comfortable with the low notes and really menacing. Finally, I thought that the Bavarian State Opera could find a more efficient team of valkyries. Something was really wrong this