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Posts Tagged ‘Wagner’s Die Walküre’

Before the Deutsche Staatsoper shows its complete Ring (made in collaboration with Milan’s La Scala) in 2013, a recapitulation of the previous two installments has been offered during the Festtage 2012. While Das Rheingold had cast changes (most notably René Pape as Wotan), Die Walküre has the same cast from last year, when I could catch the last performance, conducted at white heat by Barenboim and sung in the grand manner by almost everyone in the cast. This evening, the circumstances proved to be somewhat less exciting. After an aptly raw introduction, Barenboim took some time to switch full powers and, even when he did, one had the sensation that, instead of continuous development, one would rather see moments when things seem to connect and build up in momentum only to sag back to slimmer orchestral sound and less exciting music-making. Friday he conducted Rheingold; Saturday, Lulu; this evening, Walküre – maybe this explains his variable level of energy. In any case, when all elements actually converged – as in the Fricka/Wotan scene and especially in the Sieglinde/Brünnhilde act III scene – memories of last year came back very vividly.

In terms of casting, all women deserve high compliments this evening. Iréne Theorin displayed a particularly strong middle register this evening without any loss of power in her high notes. Some may find her voice overmetallic now and then, but her artistry is beyond minor snags. Everything about her performance is generous: her powerful voice, her keenness on tonal and dynamic variety (exquisite pianissimi throughout), her fully committed stage persona. It is hardly her fault that Anja Kampe could sometimes be even more touching – she was born to sing Sieglinde and has inscribed her name along the great exponents of this role. Ekaterina Gubanova’s Fricka has only grown in strength since last year – she offers a perfect blended of warmth and focus in her rich mezzo-soprano.

Although Simon O’Neill has received warm applause, I have to say that his singing this evening got on my nerves. If you are curious to know how Gerhard Stolze would have sounded as Siegmund, you just needed to be in the Schiller Theater today. In any case, Stolze was a better actor (and a singer of more nuance) than O’Neill, who hams as if his life depended on it. Mikhail Petrenko’s bass sounded throaty and unsupported and offered very little impact as Hunding.  As we have often discussed here, the part of Wotan is on the high side for René Pape, but – in one of these six days in the year when one’s voice is just perfect – he has no rivals in depth, nobility and musicianship. Alas, this was not one of these six days, and his high register was basically non-functional. In the second act, he struggled a lot with it and had to resort to every trick available to get away with high-lying passages. Fortunately, he excelled in rounded, rich, voluminous tones in his long recap of Rheingold, in which he used all his Lieder singer abilities. The problem remained that he still had act III to sing. The fact that he saved his voice for the closing scene would be more disturbing, if Pape had not cunningly found a dramatic excuse for that: I have never seen such a world-weary, depressed Wotan as this evening. When he sang Nicht send’ ich dich mehr aus Walhall, it sounded as if he was describing all the torments of HIS life without Brünnhilde. When he finally had to sing out, the voice was still tense and unflowing in its upper reaches, but he still could make it to the end commendably. During the curtain calls he seemed at first a bit apologetic and then legitimately touched by the audience’s recognition. I just wonder how rewarding the experience is for him – and I have to believe that his intent to expose his reputation as an immaculate singer in such a strenuous part must come from his unreserved love for Wagner music. And I respect that.

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Last year, the first Ring Cycle in the Deutsche Oper clearly showed progressive improvement and accordingly the Walküre was an altogether more satisfying experience than the Rheingold. This time, the development is far more difficult to understand. First of all, the issue of orchestral sound volume is more complex this year. The cast last time was made of substantially larger voices (with one exception), what made it easier for the conductor to give freer rein to his orchestra. Before someone points out that I have been pressing the same key: even if a large orchestral sound is not essential for Wagner, it is nonetheless the safer way of producing the right effect. Herbert von Karajan, for instance, opted for chamber-like sonorities for his Salzburg Ring – and one easily realizes that the level of craftsmanship required is far above average. One needs only a top-tier orchestra exhaustively rehearsed to draw on tonal colouring and accent. And some still find it a bit undramatic. Is it fair to expect that every Wagner performance in the theatre to be thrilling? Maybe not – but a Ring Cycle is supposed to be a special occasion and, if I have to be honest about this evening’s performance, the adjective is “boring”. I was afraid to use this word, but then a singer friend who was there agreed sotto voce  “I was so afraid to call it boring, but that is what it was”. So, we both encouraged each other to express our feelings and the result is that I am writing it here. From the first bureaucratic bars, one could know what was coming. Not the last word in clarity, no tingle factor out of momentous orchestral sound, only occasional sense of forward movement: wherever you ran to, disappointment was waiting. Act II felt like as long as Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (the most uninteresting Todesverkündung scene ever shown to an audience included). After a messy Walkürenritt, only halfway act III seemed to catch some fire – the Deutsche Oper’s shining feature as a Wagnerian orchestra, its almost unique blend of brass and string sounds, was finally conjured, some emotion was put into the proceedings and, with the big-voiced singer in the evening alone on stage, Musikdrama made a fast but somewhat late appearance.

Jennifer Wilson seems to be one of those singers cursed with an exceptional vocal nature. God has really wanted her to be a dramatic soprano, but she has received very little help from her teachers. Basically, I don’t really think that the way she sings now is everything she can do. It is all right a big, bright, easy voice, but imperfectly supported. To start with, I know that the ho-jo-to-ho’s are assignments from hell, but she was audibly breathless in her first appearance and breathless she often was, chopping phrases more often than I am used to hear. Problematic breath support has many consequences – faulty legato, instances of dubious pitch, tonal meagerness, patches of reduced audibility (especially middle and low register), hootiness, lack of finish in long notes. This evening, there were examples of all that. Sometimes, seeing that an exposed high note would come, an extra effort would be made and a legitimate rich, full, vibrant note would be produced and one could see how exciting everything could be.  It is clear that she has the right instincts but, if she was not in a very bad day, she should look into her technique, for her voice is really worth the effort.

Petra Maria Schnitzer is almost the perfect opposite of her Brünnhilde: she is a lyric soprano with solid schooling who knows all the tricks to deal with dramatic roles without damaging her voice. Although she was not in any way exceptional , she was still a touching Sieglinde. Her voice is not very distinctive, but it is pleasant, round and healthily produced. As a result, it has a youthful appeal that, aided by unfailing sense of style and a very likable personality, puts you on her side. Predictably, the lower end of the tessitura proved to be more challenging than the high notes – and probably only in Der Männer Sippe one could feel some discomfort. Daniela Sindram is the Octavian/Komponist kind of mezzo and not someone would expect to find as Fricka. She knows that she is no Christa Ludwig and fortunately did not try to be that. With her focused, round mezzo she produced an elegant performance with some forceful high notes and a discrete use of chest register to pierce through in her low notes. She is also a very intelligent and charismatic singer. It is always a pleasure to see and hear her – even in a role not really meant for her.

Yes, Robert Dean Smith has sung Tristan – and, as our good friend Cavalier has reminded me – even at the Met – but Siegmund has a very special kind of difficulty. He is not the first lighter-toned singer in this role – Jonas Kaufmann at the Met is another example – and the comparison with Kaufmann is interesting. Vocally speaking, I find JK basically more “interesting” than RDS – the voice is more immediately recognisable, the high notes are more incisive and he is more dramatically connected. But Dean Smith has one great advantage – he is more experienced and only steps on firm soil. His Siegmund was beautifully sung in flowing legato and – this is the first time I use Leontyne Price’s little concept for a singer in Wagnerian repertoire – joie de chant: one can feel he is enjoying himself there and, to keep quoting Price, if he were not, neither would we. I’ve seen that many members of the audience were truly satisfied with his performance – I was to a certain point. Beautiful as it was, it lacked some thrill, and the lack of volume was only part of it.

Greer Grimsley’s curdled and slightly unwieldy bass-baritone is not very seductive – and his emphatic and often rough approach to phrasing and unclear vowels don’t make it more appealing, but – and this evening this is a big “but” – he has a voice of truly Wagnerian proportions. When I was ready not to like him, I noticed that, whenever he was singing, the maestro could really relax and let his orchestra hit home. Then I remembered how uneventful last year’s otherwise more pleasant-toned Wotan had been and Grimsley’s performance began to have some interest. When he proved capable of some nuance in the closing scene, I’ve decided to consider him an asset in this performance. Finally, Reinhard Hagen was, as always, a most reliable Hagen.

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Although I have already seen live transmissions from the Met of productions I had actually seen live, I don’t remember having ever watched one so close after seeing it there at the Met before this evening. The opening night, as reported below was eventful to say the least – Kaufmann was nervous, Westbroek was in very poor voice and nervous (or ill, as officially announced), Voigt had an accident with “the machine” in the day she decided to sing Brünnhilde for the very first time… Of course, in the last performance of the run most of this initial problems have been dealt with and my impression is that the audience this evening had a far better show than I had last month. I am not only sure if those who saw only the transmission really got a faithful idea of what happened live.

To start with, the way microphones have recorded it all voices sound more or less the same size. And this is somehow unfair to Stephanie Blythe and Hans-Peter König, for the volume and power of those voices were very much an important part of the thrill of their singing. Today in the movie theatre Kaufmann sounded as loud as Blythe – while my recollection is that even the ailing Westbroek was substantially louder than him. In any case, although Siegmund still sounds a bit low for him, free from the pressure of a role debut, he sang more spontaneously today and far more smoothly in act I. As for Westbroek, will it sound mean if I say that I preferred Margaret Jane Wray’s 3rd act? She is a good, solid singer – but considering that she is not a dramatic soprano and that, as a lyric soprano, she lacks flexibility and dynamic variety, I wonder what kinds of roles she intends to sing in the future. Her Elisabeth at the Covent Garden was more about vigor than subtlety.

In my original post, I have already praised Bryn Terfel’s detailed interpretation, but during the run it has developed into something sharper and even more perceptive. Although I can think of a couple of richer-voiced Wotans these days, none of them really offer something as complex and so revelatory in terms of comprehension of the text. I still dislike Deborah Voigt’s unappealing tonal quality in the middle register, absolute lack of variety and imagination, but I must acknowledge that she too is now more comfortable than in the opening night, when she often had to brace for her high notes. That said, this evening, with the help of close up, one could feel how emotionally engaged she was in her last scene and how efficient her chemistry with Terfel is. Their father/daughter relationship was particularly palpable – and that is quite rare.

Although James Levine’s has his disturbingly slow moments (Todverkündung will probably end next week…), the orchestra – at least with the help of microphones – produced a more positive sound. I confess I found that, while the live performance mostly left me cold, the transmission had a couple of beautiful moments. On the other hand, the camerawork was fussy, we were often showed unnecessary things (Kaufmann fighting to untie his hair* or slobbering, stagehands etc), close ups in moments when a larger angle would show the scenery more advantageously etc.

* I know it is silly, but why is it not Sieglinde who unties his hair? This would make more sense while she says that he is like spring for her etc than having Siegmund worried about his hairstyle while someone says all this to him.

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Guy Cassier’s “Ring of the present moment” does not belie its concept. Those who have seen it in Milan have now discovered an updated version in Berlin. If Cassier has reacted to some of the criticism of his La Scala première, then he deserves double praises for polishing his staging. Act 1 set looks less empty, the projections reflect changes of mood more sharply… and, most of all, there seems to be stage direction for his singers now. Siegmund and Sieglinde react to each other, Brünnhilde has a tactile issue (as in the expression of affection by touching the person one loves) with her too formidable father later to be transferred to a passionate Siegmund and finally dealt with in the opera’s closing scene – it is still all too elementary, but it already makes all the difference in the world. In the end, if this production is too basic and overreliant in empty aesthetics, it definitely does not stand in the way when musicians are willing to add some emotion into the proceedings. And they certainly have.

As this is the last performance in the run, I have the impression that Daniel Barenboim has decided to give free rein to his impulses, sometimes to the surprise of his singers, what added an urgency and vividness of expression rarely caught so uniformly in a cast as this evening. Barenboim opted for very rich sonorities, with revelatory highlighting of woodwind, impressive sense of theatre and protean orchestral sound. Although he had a very good cast this evening, the orchestra stood in the very core of the events, a paragon of flexibility itself – in terms of tempo, tone coloring, accent – carrying drama forward by magnifying the expressive power of soloists or challenging them in expression. At moments, I almost jumped from my seat with the impact of what the Staatskapelle Berlin was doing. The occasional white-heat approach tested these musicians at times: a hectic closing scene to act I, a hard-edged magic fire music and a somewhat rushed, almost Mozartian Winterstürme. It would be difficult to describe the many interesting features of this evening’s performance – sometimes a performance just catches fire and this one certainly has.

Anja Kampe’s rich soprano is focused and young-sounding and yet aptly expands to warm, powerful climaxes when this is required. She achieves a perfect balance between vulnerability and earthiness, what makes her an ideal Sieglinde. Her ecstatic singing of the “redemption through love” was one of the highlights of the evening. Although Ekaterina Gubanova’s Fricka was even more powerful in Milan, her performance this evening still had power, class and engagement to spare. Mikhail Petrenko, unfortunately, had his hooty and/or throaty moments as Hunding, but his characteristically Russian bass fits the part. Simon O’Neill (Siegmund) is capable of some impressively loud notes, but the voice is distressingly nasal and his attempts at animation often sounded Mime-esque. He did sang solidly, but in a cast such as this evening’s, he sounded basically uninteresting.

This is my first experience with Irene Theorin’s Brünnhilde. Hers is not a phonogenic voice: it is very metallic, a little bit tremulous in the middle and a bit short in the bottom. But if there is one high dramatic soprano in activity these days, she is it. Her endless supply of effortless blasting acuti is something to marvel. For a change, a singer who tosses her ho-jo-to-ho’s as if she were having fun with it. And at the same time Theorin finds no problem in scaling down to mezza voce, even in some very tricky passages. Her Todverkündung and act III had many breathtaking moments when she just floated pianissimi in a touchingly intimate manner. But there is more than this in this invaluable Swedish soprano. I couldn’t help noticing how alert an actress she is, responding to events on stage in an immediate and convincing manner – and her facial expression in her long scene with Wotan in act III was exceptionally moving. That scene brought the audience to tears – and the partnership with René Pape’s Wotan has a great share of responsibility.

I know I myself had become skeptical about Pape as Wotan since his Milanese Rheingold, but this evening he made an important stab at it. At this point in his career, nobody doubts his ability to portray nobility and authority. It is an exceptionally rich, warm, dark and beautiful voice – the question being how he would survive the test of singing in the Heldenbariton tessitura. The answer is difficult. When the phrase is congenial, he produces some impressively round and forceful high notes. When it is not, the voice sounds a bit straight and devoid of color, but never ugly, one must say. This is the last show in the run and I cannot say how wisely he dealt with the role before, but today his long act II narrative seemed to tire him. After that, he had to manage his resources to get to the end, which he did with a little help from Barenboim’s fast tempi in the most testing passages. All that said, he can soften the tone adeptly and takes advantage of that to produce the sort of sensitively varied singing one expects from a Lieder singer.  Der Augen leuchtendes Paar, for example, was so touchingly sung that one felt ready to forgive the German bass everything. My 11 or 12 readers (I see that I have a few more these days…) might be asking themselves if Pape is bound to be the great Wotan of his generation. As I was telling a friend at the theatre today, there are two kinds of Wotan: those who fight with low notes and those who fight with high notes (and there used to be James Morris…). Not long ago, John Tomlinson too had to find a way through the high-lying passages in the role, as many others before him. Pape has the advantage of an excellent technique that allows him to scale down instead of up when he needs some variety and the voice is naturally big, what exonerates him from forcing. Judging from this evening’s really moving performance, I would say that it is definitely worth the effort!

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According to the program of his staging of Das Rheingold, director Guy Cassiers believes his Ring is a Ring of the “present moment” as an opposition to a historical approach. Although his dramaturgs’ grandiloquent ideas hardly make into what one sees on stage, he might have  unintentionally achieved his aim by producing the first ever interactive staging of the Ring. First, he has done the unthinkable feat of creating consensus among Wagnerians. Yes, the ballet dancers are gone! La Scala’s bible-like program even shows photos of two green ones hanging from ropes, but it seem that the audience has had the last word and they were dispatched back to where they should have never left. The Corriere de la Sera has also published an article where Waltraud Meier says that the director does not help its cast and is more concentrated on his video projections. Although this kind of pre-première statement is usually considered ungentlemanly (or, in the case, unladylike…), readers seemed to have taken her side. Maybe that is why she (and, for that matter, neither Siegmund) are not wearing the elaborate costumes portrayed in the program.

In any case, Meier has a point – if there is any stage direction to speak of in this production, one probably has to wear 3-D glasses to see it… The approach to acting as seen this evening is basic the classical stand-and-deliver while remaining singers on stage basically watch it with generalized concerned expressions. Not Waltraud Meier, who tries to apply her famous histrionic skills when she finds space for that. It is true that her maneuvers may have become something of a routine by now, but they have actually rescued many scenes of complete boredom. I have to confess that I find her understanding of change of moods in the final act really masterly. Although stage direction is supposed to be the main element of a staging, there is more than that in a staging – and expertly devised sets, costumes and effects can ultimately deliver what is missing elsewhere. Not here, I am afraid. Mr. Cassiers’s philosophically and psychologically overcharged ideas are often scenically realized with the depth of a schoolboy’s drawing. As a result, the audience has to deal with very elementary imagery (and remember: clueless and cueless actors) in a long opera. The depthlessness of Hunding’s house is portrayed with… video projections showing a fireplace, just like those DVDs you can buy to pretend you have a fireplace. It made me afraid that they would use the fishbowl one in the next scene. And there are giant white toothpicks – I know they are supposed to be giant spears, but they look like giant toothpicks – landing on stage during Winterstürme. The toothpicks are such important stage devices that they become… tree trunks in the forest-landscape of act II. Images are, of course, projected on them – when singer sings about Glut, you have… flames, for example. After all, how the audience would understand the reference without it? During the Siegmund/Brünnhilde scene, the projection of a leaf-canopy becomes sequences of falling computer numbers. I thought it was just my imagination, but that is indeed a quote from Matrix. Remember – this is a Ring of the “present time”… In act III, the Walkürenritt is a group of ladies in stylized black Victorian dresses on top of wood-crates. And Brünnhilde’s magic fire is 10 or 11 red steaming lamps (two of them not working). Wotan’s costumes suggests that he was found in a dumpsite, that Brünnhilde is a regular at the party-scene in Berlin, that Fricka has just come from Paris Fashion Week and that Sieglinde and Siegmund are actually using the costumes borrowed from a normal staging of Die Walküre.

As you see, one had to concentrate on the musical side of the performance. And that also required some sort of commitment from the audience. The house orchestra clearly was not in the mood. Daniel Barenboim quickly understood that making energetic gestures did not elicit from these musicians any extra ounce of enthusiasm, so he started to make energetic noises. To very little avail. From some point on, I started to suspect that the noises were meant to show the audience that he was trying. If I have to be fair, a great share of responsibility for the act-1 debacle goes to the singers. Waltraud Meier was simply not in good voice. As always, she is such a cunning performer that she took any opportunity for quiet singing to score her interpretative points, but she could not really sing anything relatively high above mezzo forte. She was clearly saving for act III, where her understated and heartfelt account of the Redemption motive fitted her waning vocal resources*. Replacing Simon O’Neill, Frank van Aken was so visibly nervous that it is almost a miracle that something really bad did not happen. He lacked concentration, had a hit-or-miss approach to breathing (he often let go breathing pauses only to get breathless in the next ten seconds) and does not really seem to have a natural Siegmund voice. As heard here, the tonal quality was often curdled and the sound had a patch of nasality. I would really need to see him under other circumstances to say something. Next to John Tomlinson, tenor and soprano sounded mousy. But he was approximative with pitch and overcareful with the high end of his range. The lack of direction made his Hunding particularly short of menace. Having to deal with this situation, the conductor could do nothing but play down an orchestra that has no tonal refulgence in softer dynamics.

Act II took off more promisingly. The orchestra had a more positive, if not necessarily polished or exciting sound and some fresh-voiced singers left the maestro more operational space. I have often read about how Nina Stemme can be a special singers, but my only experience with her (a closing scene from R. Strauss’s Salome with Ingo Metzmacher and the DSO in the Philharmonie Berlin) was quite disappointing. I am glad to say that this evening I could finally have the complete Nina-Stemme-experience. First of all, she was in excellent voice and, although she does not have the bright-toned impact of Irène Théorin, she offers the modern version of the Helen-Traubel-approach to Brünnhilde, with her round, plush, extra warm soprano with impressively sensuous low notes and seamless legato. Although one can feel that the exposed top notes require some preparation from her, she offered very commendable Ho-jo-to-ho‘s and transported the audience to a state of grace with her exquisite account of the act 3 Wotan/Brünnhilde scene, when her command of dynamic effects and expressive, shapely phrasing could melt a Wagnerian heart. She has also a very positive stage presence and made the best of very little. To make things better, Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova offered a Fricka in the grand manner. Her full-toned, rich singing was matched by her intense delivery of her demands to Wotan and by her regal bearing. Finally, Ukranian bass-baritone Vitalij Kowaljow is a name to keep. He still has to develop his performance and ran a bit out of steam by the end, but he is a legitimate Wagnerian Heldenbariton and offered a far more secure account of the role than both Mark Delavan in Berlin and Albert Dohmen in Bayreuth earlier this year. These singers added a new life to the performance and, around act 3, the atmosphere was entirely changed. La Scala’s orchestra never achieved true brio this evening, but at least the proceedings acquired a Wagnerian scale after the second intermission. If I had a question to Mr. Barenboim, this would be – why keeping such considerate tempi with an orchestra that cannot fill in the slow pace with a big, intense sound? If that contributed to beautiful chamber-like sonorities in Brünnhilde’s pleas to Wotan in their last scene, it robbed most of any other moment of nobility and profoundness.

* disclaimer: I really like Waltraud Meier’s more intimate O hehrstes Wunder! For me, it describes more effectively Sieglinde’s gratitude than the usual full-powers approach.

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After a musically outstanding Rheingold, expectations for this evening’s Walküre were high, but the event reserved a few surprises, not all of them positive. To start with, although the orchestral sound was consistently beautiful and rich, act I lacked, in the absence of a better word, passion. Often the buildup to a climax would be cut off too soon and one would rather hear particular successful moments (such as a lyric, touching Winterstürme, sensitively sung by the tenor) that did not merge into a continuous arch of musical-dramatic development. Act II suffered from tempi that did seem slow, particularly during Wotan’s run-through of previous events when this evening’s Wotan failed to give life to the text. The Todverkündung suffered from absence of atmosphere, a situation when forward-movement rather than lingering is recommended, especially when the Brünnhilde did not seem really inspired. Only the Sieglinde/Siegmund situations came through as improvement from act I, since both singers showed themselves even more connected to the dramatic situation, and also the conductor could warm to their performances and wrap them in sounds that offered more than sheer sonic beauty. Something might have happened during the second intermission, for act III redeemed the whole evening. After a structural clear Walkürenritt, Christian Thielemann treated the audience with a Golden Age Wagnerian performance – the orchestra’s luxuriantly beautiful sounds were also laden with meaning and emotion, not only commenting the theatrical action, but carrying it forward with almost unbearable intensity. Sieglinde’s farewell was not an isolated powerful moment, but rather the culmination of a truly poignant scene, but the final Brünnhilde/Wotan scene stood out as the highlight of the evening, both singers giving their very best and an orchestra that magnified their performance in admirable expressive power. When Wotan kissed Brünnhilde’s godhead away, the very sound of the Festival orchestra transpired grief. By then, if you were not crying, you probably don’t have a heart. In a word, although the first two acts had their moments, act three alone was worth the price of the ticket, plus transportation and hotel costs.

If anything in this performance was consistently excellent during the three acts, this has to be Edith Haller’s peerless performance as Sieglinde. I had never heard her before, but she joins today my list of favourite singers. Her youthful, exquisite and bright-toned soprano often made me think of Maria Müller’s vulnerable Sieglinde from the 1936 Festival (elegant portamenti included), but Haller’s top register is more corsé, flashing through the auditorium without any hint of strain or difficulty. Her qualities are, in any case, more than purely vocal – she is an extremely musical, sensitive and intelligent artist. Linda Watson took more time to grow into her Brünnhilde – although her ho-jo-to-ho had flat sustained high b’s, she was well at ease with the rest of her battle cry. Her long scene with Siegmund challenged her otherwise in the expressive department. As well as unvaried, her exposed high notes sounded squally sometimes. Although not a very good actress, she finally offered a beautiful account of the third act, when she proved capable of real nuance and legato, never forced her voice and seemed engaged enough to offer a touching interpretation. Moreover, the scene’s tessitura fits her rich and warm low register. Mihoko Fujimura’s mezzo is on the light side for the Walküre’s Fricka, but she is a shrewd singer who knows how to handle her resources to deliver the right effect in the right moment. Johan Botha’s voice is higher-lying than those of the tenors usually cast in this role. As a result, the raw excitement of dark, beefy high g’s was not really there. In exchange, a brighter tonal quality and more flowing legato throughout. When Innigkeit was required, such as in his contemplation of the sleeping Sieglinde in act II, the South-African tenor was particularly appealing. In spite of his heavy frame, he did not appear to be really awkward on stage, but rather quite convincing in his attraction to Sieglinde in act I. Albert Dohmen did not show any improvement from yesterday’s Rheingold until the opera’s last scene, when he conjured all his means to produce a sensitive and varied farewell to Brünnhilde. His invocation of Loge right before the end of the opera even brought about his first really Wotan-like powerful top notes. As for Kwangchul Youn’s Hunding, saying that he was less than perfect would be an unforgivable lie. Last but not least, the casting of the remaining eight valkyries is praiseworthy.

As for Tankred Dorst’s production, it still lacks purport – the sets are  not really original, the intrusive presence of contemporary bystanders is tautological, stage direction has too many careless moments, the ugly costumes often make it difficult for singers to move (Fricka’s specially). If I should be positive about this staging, I would mention that it is well crafted – the sets are flawlessly built, the lighting is sophisticated and there is very little silliness going on here (something that should be cherished considering the present state of operatic staging).

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I do not know if the Deutsche Oper used the bad-news-first strategy, but it seems that their Ring has finally found the right track. Regardless of how intrinsically good today’s Walküre was, it is a significant improvement from yesterday’s Rheingold. To start with, Götz Friedrich’s production here is far more efficient than in the tetralogy’s first installment. Peter Sykora’s sets are more functional and better looking and, with the exception of a bunch of pointless props in act II (plastic dolls?) and of an unsensational solution for the magic fire  (as you might remember, it is supposed to be extraordinarily frightening – and four isolated bonfires fifty-centimeter-tall are hardly that). Actually, the costumes shown here are far more frightening – the Valkyries outfit and make-up reminded me the rock band Kiss. However, the most notable positive development is Gerlinde Pelkowski’s Spielleitung: both leading sopranos and the tenor interacted most sensitively – act I was particularly convincing – and gestures were economic, coherent and contributed to the understanding of the story. I am not sure if I actually like the weepy Wotan, but I guess that the approach fits the rather uncharismatic singer taking the role.

Musically, the most immediate difference from yesterday is the larger orchestral sound. Although the brass section still leaves more than something to be desired, the general sound picture was adequate and, by act III, quite satisfactory. It was hardly an orchestral tour de force, but rather honest and acceptable piece of work. Maestro Runnicles showed an inclination for a tad slower tempi than he had adopted at the Met (if my memory does not betray me). Curiously, the Wotan/Brünnhilde scene in act II seemed somewhat fast. Maybe because the Wotan available is not really fluent with the text and has instead an almost Mozartian legato-ish approach, this tricky passage gained a flowing, conversational character which struck me as quite refreshing. Naturally, it would have worked far better if the text could be more expressively handled. The ensuing Todesverkündgung was, on the other hand, particularly slow, an approach that would require from singers far more nuanced phrasing and from the orchestra far more narrating quality (as Maazel produced in his Met’s Walküre in 2008). Act III proved to be more successful, chamber-like textures were provided when necessary, the Walkürenritt clear and well-balanced and the closing scene sensitively built.

It is a pity that Violeta Urmana’s Verdian ventures have been hold against her status of leading singer in our days. Her work in Wagner is of surpassing quality – it is a pleasant, rich-toned, large voice with firm, round top notes with a most musical and elegant quality of phrasing. Of how many Wagnerian singers one could say something like that? Her Sieglinde is a touching portrayal, passion and vulnerability perfectly balanced. No wonder she was the favorite of the audience this evening. Evelyn Herlitzius’s Brünnhilde is more controversial. First of all – and one must keep this in mind on assessing her artistry – she is a singer whose Fach is simply the one required by Wagner for this role: she has no problem with the tessitura, tosses bright, powerful, unconstricted acuti, handles her passaggio to chest voice adeptly and enunciates the text with great accuracy. In fact, her technical security is quite soothing for audiences who have been too often kept at the edge of their seats fearing for the health of the soprano taking this role. That said, it is difficult to warm to the flutter mid-range, the squally articulation and the faulty legato. She is an energetic woman – and this is very positive for her engaging and convincing stage presence – and I have the impression that the overemphasis and the absence of shading (a drawback in the long Wotan/Brünnhilde  scene in act III) are maybe a byproduct of her attitude.

In spite of a a quite unseductive tone, Clifton Forbis is a most efficient Siegmund, who produces some powerful and firm high g’s. His crescendo in the sustained Wälse! Wälse! passage in act I is as impressive as it was in New York. It is a pity that his tenor is growing rather juiceless for cantabile passages – and Winterstürme was probably his weakest moment. He and Urmana established a particularly convincing partnership in their scenes, both musically and scenically. Reinhard Hagen was extremely well cast as Hunding – an all-round most satisfying performance. Mark Delavan’s Wotan still gives me an impression of work-in-progress. He responds for the particular challenges quite successfully, but his performance does not make into a coherent whole, but rather as a collection of moments. He seems to brace for the every musical or theatrical challenge and then simmer down to recover instead of keeping a continuous musical and interpretative line. I have to confess I rather saw in him “the guy playing Wotan”. I understand that he must have James Morris’s smoothly, elegantly sung account of the role as a model, but the veteran singer had at once a more powerful and voluminous voice, more spontaneous musicianship and a far more imposing presence. If Delavan wants to fill his shoes, he should tie all these loose ends in his performance first. It is a pity that Judit Németh was not really in good voice today – her Fricka sounding shrewish above everything else. Among the Valkyries, the Helmwige, Heidi Melton, offered a particularly accomplished ho-jo-to-ho, trills included.

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From the first bars of today’s performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre, one could say what a difference a new conductor makes. Donald Runnicles’s fast tempi and extremer dynamic effects would replace Maazel’s more balanced and organized approach to the score, crowned by true nobility of orchestral sound. I don’t imply that this was better than that or the other way round; only it is fascinating to compare. In any case, Runnicles’s more extrovert theatricality seemed to have a positive effect on Lisa Gasteen, who offered a more nuanced Todesverkündung today.

Cast only for the last performance, Simon O’Neill (Siegmund) offered a less baritonal and also less powerful voice than Clifton Forbis’s. Indeed, the newcomer’s tenor tends to be open and metallic, but his feeling for legato is most welcome – also his enthusiasm, which managed to draw some commitment from the otherwise sleepwalking Deborah Voigt (whose indifferent delivery of the German text reached its apex with a verse composed by her carelessness: Erschaffung quick ich). The remaining members of the cast were consistent with their previous performances, only a bit more tested by a louder orchestra today.

Unfortunately, I could not stay for the third act. Thus, I missed the opportunity of checking how Runnicles would deal with the Valkyries and if Gasteen would similarly offer a more varied dialogue with Wotan in their last scene.

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The first production of Wagner’s Die Walküre I have ever seen was precisely the Otto Schenk/Günther Schneider-Siemssen at the Met back in 1997. I may have published my comments somewhere in this website, but the fact is that I remember it as if I saw it yesterday. Deborah Voigt was a creamy-toned Sieglinde and the fact that she was overweight posed no problem considering her dramatic engagement, Plácido Domingo was in beautiful if not entirely heroic voice as Siegmund, Hanna Schwarz looked short in her first appearance but seemed to end her scene taller than her Wotan so majestic was her bearing and so incisive was her singing and Gabriele Schnaut… Before you start grimacing, I can tell you that back in 1997 Gabriele Schnaut was a fantastic Brünnhilde. Except for tight top c’s and the absence of mezza voce, she was just perfect. Our Wotan was James Morris and – what can I say? – he was more than perfect. He will always be my favourite Wotan. I know everybody says Morris is too smooth, but I think Wotan must leave an apollonian impression(after all, he is the Lichtalberich – the dark one is Alberich Alberich…). I remember, though, that the orchestra was not in a good day and I would only acknowledge Levine’s Wagnerian credentials in a superb Siegfried a couple of days later.

Seeing this production again eleven years later was like re-visiting in dreams people you have never seen again: there is a certain familiarity, but it is definitely not the same thing. To start with, although the sceneries still look beautiful in their Kaspar-David-Friedrich-ness , maybe it is time for a new production (even if it is another “traditional” one). I could neither sense any stage direction going on here – a regisseur pointing out entrances and exits at most. However, this performance breathes a fresh new excitement for me, due to the presence of Lorin Maazel at the pit. I don’t know if this has to do with the maestro’s legendary mastery of conducting technique, but rarely or maybe never have I listened to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in such great shape. Even the difficult passagework for the violins in the end of Act 1 was clearly articulated and you wouldn’t believe the perfect blending of rich soft-textured strings and glowing woodwind in the Walkürenritt. Also, the brass players can be proud for the almost complete absence of blunders. Some have complained about Maazel’s slow tempi – but that is nonsense. Not only do these tempi make musicians more comfortable for the extra polish displayed here, but also Maazel showed more than enough imagination to fill in the blanks offered by the more considerate pace. I was particularly impressed by the way the orchestra portrayed what Wotan explained to Brünnhilde in the long declamatory scene in Act 2 – that was the dictionary definition of what a truly Wagnerian conductor should accomplish as musical-dramatic expression.

Deborah Voigt has seen many changes in her life in these 11 years. Now she looks her part and seems even younger than she was in 1997, but as soon as you close your eyes, a shrewish tone, indifferent delivery of the text and complete absence of tone colouring soon dispel that impression. Only her big top notes remain to her advantage in this repertoire. Even her acting has become generalized and artificial. In that sense, I must admit that – in spite of her many flaws – I still preferred Lisa Gasteen’s Brünnhilde. It is true that she started her performance with the Ho-jo-to-ho from hell, during which she sang not one note written by Richard Wagner, but this Australian soprano is a most intelligent and musicianly singer, who knows her German text as if that was her first language and who commands shapely and sensitive phrasing (provided she does not have to sing around a top a and above). I cannot deny that this is a significant drawback in this role and, as much as I am tempted to say that there must be one of those traditional tongue/throat/neck/you-name-it tension-problems impairing the flow of her top notes, I am more inclined to believe that she is no dramatic soprano, but rather a large-voiced lyric soprano trying to deal with hoch dramatisch roles. The basic sound of her voice is lyric to my years – it is a smooth, pleasant warm sound before it becomes tense in the higher reaches. She has all-right an impressively natural low register, but this is not a sign of a dramatic voice; otherwise, someone like, say, Carol Vaness would have to be labeled accordingly. Gasteen is also a very good actress and brought to her Brünnhilde a surprisingly teenage impatience and bravado, which I found particularly illuminating.

Michelle DeYoung’s debut at the Met also happened in that 1997 Ring at the Met (cycle B, if I am not mistaken) – she was Fricka in Das Rheingold. I remember I had a more positive impression of her voice then than I had tonight. She was a small-scaled and rather shallow-toned Fricka in this Walküre, but she is also a cunning artist and her astute word-pointing finally helped her to make her dramatic points clear. Clifton Forbis was a reliable Siegmund. His tenor can get off focus now and then and his high register may sound bottled-up at times, but this is a healthy big voice and he achieves really impressive results sometimes, such as neverending crescendo in Wälse, Wälse, wo ist dein Schwert?

As for James Morris, it is true that his luxuriant bass-baritone has lost some weight and power in a decade and that his tone has also become a bit more nasal and his mezza voce less spacious – but I don’t think any of his younger rivals can sing this difficult role as beautifully and expressively as he still does. I would add that his present resources are still entirely satisfying for this role – he still produces marvelous firm rich large sounds and anyone who saw him only tonight can claim to have seen the greatest Wotan of his generation.

Finally, Mikhail Petrenko is a decent Hunding, not particularly dark or menacing, but definitely unproblematic. I cannot forget to mention the impressive team of Valkyries gathered here – truly amazing.

You might have noticed that the title of this post mentions a third Walküre – it is the one to which I am listening right now on my iPod. It has also taken place at the Met and featured a famous conductor, but it also boasted the greatest cast of one’s life, which – alas -was not the case of tonight’s performance. I am talking about March 1st 1969, when Herbert von Karajan presided over another one of those greatest nights of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. I was told that Karajan smuggled in many musicians from the NY Philharmonic to achieve that, but those were days when the Met’s house band had a notorious reputation. If you have never listened to this recording, don’t miss one more minute: Birgit Nilsson, Régine Crespin, Josephine Veasey, Jon Vickers, Theo Adam and Martti Talvela, all of them in great voice, and also a plugged-in Karajan, oozing energy from the pit. Those were truly great artists and personalities. Some might say that there was actually a great clash of personalities then, but it has certainly paid off.

[I feel I might be rambling, but if you think that Karajan’s rather highbrow DGG Walküre is a cosmetic affair, you should also sample his live performance at Salzburg, in which Régine Crespin and Gundula Janowitz are even more impressive than in the studio.]

PS – Maybe this has no importance, but I guess I saw Donald McIntyre near the box office at the Met. So I saw two Wotans at the same evening.

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