Almost Perfect Wagner

In Classical Music, Opera on April 11, 2011 at 9:10 pm

Listening to – The Valkyrie, Goodall.

Every so often along comes a production where the performances, conducting, production and direction all come together almost perfectly. Die Walkure in Hamburg was just one such occasion. What was more, having seen their production of Götterdämmerung last year which had struggled in places, the success of Die Walkure was all the more satisfying.

First the cast. Although the production boasted Angela Denoke as Sieglinde and Katarina Dalayman as Brunnhilde, the cast as a whole was incredibly strong. Falk Struckman’s Wotan was an incredible presence. His diction – even for a non-German speaker such as myself – seemed incredibly clear and his voice was strong through every register. Admittedly he did crack on a few top notes, yet it made little difference as overall his musicality dominated. Never for have I been so enthralled by Fricka as I was in this production. I had never heard of Lilli Paasikivi before arriving in Hamburg and admittedly the scene between Wotan and his wife in the Second Act often leaves me impatiently waiting for it to end. But on this occasion I was completely enthralled. Paasikivi is an incredible artist. Vocally she has a rich, characterful mezzo and her interpretation of the role was invested with the right balance of vengeful wife and vainglorious goddess. Even her silent appearance at the end of the Act carried great weight – a real sense of judgement achieved and a wife satisfied. She is a mezzo I shall be following with great interest from now on. The Valkyrie – as a group – are a difficult bunch to cast I would imagine. The individual roles are tough vocally and Wagner clearly gives each of them a distinct character. On stage this often means that they don’t sing completely well as an ensemble and their acting is wooden. They come across as individuals only, vying for vocal attention rather than – it often seems to me – listening to one another when the music dictates it. Not so here. As soloists they shone when required but when the ensemble was demanded they melded their voices. And as with every other member of the cast, their diction was clarion-clear. The role of Hunding was well observed by Alexander Tsymbalyuk With just the right balance of menace and cruelty. It’s a thuggish role musically and was well performed. He even managed to convey the ‘whining’ at the close of the Second Act before Wotan dispenses with him. Christian Franz’s Siegmund – who was announced as indisposed before the opera started – in fact performed incredibly well. I would imagine that on a good day his tenor is bright and clear. On the night he vacillated between caution and then recklessness, but his phrasing was particularly fine and particularly in the second Act his rose to the challenge. Shame he wasn’t Siegfried in last year’s Götterdämmerung.

And of course, both Denoke and Dalayman were superb. I have seen both in other roles, most notably as Salome and Isolde respectively. On the evening Denoke had the slight edge but it was close. She is an intuitive and incredibly talented artist. Her voice cut through the orchestra, riding above the rich orchestration when required but equally delivering the purest sotto voce when needed. And her acting was simply brilliant. Over the course of two acts she went from broken women to lover to widow to heroine so convincingly that her final departure was almost too unbearable to watch. Naturally the audience loved her. From her first entry, Dalayman’s Brunnhilde was vocally to be reckoned with. She has the heft for the role but also the ability to float her voice. Again her performance in the Second Act helped me invest more attention than in the past, and she was superlative in the closing scenes. Occasionally she over-compensated vocally but only on few occasions. Alongside Nina Stemme she must be one of the leading Brunnhilde’s on the stage at the moment.

Simone Young was simply masterful. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I returned home and listened to Goodall’s The Valkyrie. Immediately there was a connection between the two. Ms Young drew such a glorious sound from the orchestra. The opening, always a thrilling moment, was both dripping with menace as well as propelled forward by a real sense of desperation. The brass throughout were particularly fine and her handling of the closing scenes demonstrated a deep love of the score. Leb wohl was a heart-stopping moment.

But the biggest surprise for someone like me who has a love-hate relationship with Personnregie was the directing and set design by Claus Gruth, Chrstian Schmidt and Michael Bauer. First the directing. It was clear from the beginning that a great deal of thought and work had been done here. Often with Personnregie actions are performed merely – it seems – to fill space. Not so here. Each action was invested with meaning. The characters really did ‘live’ their roles. The stillness created in the opening scenes was almost suffocating. There was action only when it was required and with the minimum fuss or excessive display. Three moments particularly stuck in my mind. First, in his return, Hunding’s disdain for his wife when he realises not that she has drunk his beer, but rather than she has used his tankard. Secondly when Brunnhilde washes her face like an errant child before being sent to bed early as punishment and finally, once Wotan has consigned her to sleep, he picks up her boots and looks at them, smiles and shrugs, as if reminiscing over a private yet happy memory.

Similarly the stage design was simple yet nuanced. The opening scene at first seemed like it was being performed on an all-white disco dance floor. A single door moved around the stage with a small kitchenette and table and chairs set at opposite ends of the floor. By simply moving the door, the director managed to convey a real sense of Hunding’s home without being intrusive or distracting. When Siegmund and Sieglinde ‘stepped outside’ as it were, you really believed it. I wondered how they were going to ‘reveal’ the sword. Simple. Wotan – who from the start was seen to manipulate the characters on stage, simply placed it in situ. With the opening of the Second Act, the set that preceded it became clear. Now we were in Wotan’s studio. Along the walls were architectural models – including the set of Götterdämmerung – and propped up against the wall a model of the world, partially covered in bubble wrap. Nice touch. But on the table was a light-box with a model, complete with figures, of the First Act. As Fricka and Wotan argued they moved the figurines around before finally tumbling the set over. Brilliant.

The Third Act was the weakest of the three but didn’t detract from the overall production at all. Set in what seemed to me to be a run-down orphanage, the curtain rose on the Walkure as errant children pushing the bunk beds around the room. And not one of them vocally faltered. Form the final dialogue the room was cleared, with Wotan nicely giving one of the beds a helpful kick off-stage. Now the lighting director came into his own. The starkness of the room allowed for the intelligent use of light and shade and the space was convincingly used by the two protagonists. Even Loge’s fire at the end was subtly done.

So all in all as near perfect production of Die Walkure as I have seen. Comparable, if not stronger than Zambello’s production in San Francisco. But I will revisit that when I seen The Ring there later this summer.

So of course this begs the question, why don’t we see productions like this in London? For 60€ I saw a production that was incredibly intelligent and superbly performed. Not a week before I left ENO’s dreadful production of Ulisse in the interval. As I said above, I don’t mind Personnregie but Ulisse was a poor man’s interpretation and vocally sub-standard. It communicated none of the finesse of Montrverdi’s magnificent music but instead dreadfully affected and falsely strained.

Perhaps when Kasper Holten arrives at Covent Garden we will see more European sensibility adopted. Perhaps ENO will find it’s mojo again soon. Until then my money and time goes to Europe.

Now back to Goodall.

  1. I am not real great with English but I come up this very easy to read.

  2. […] with The Ring, next is Hamburg Opera’s production of Die Walküre (April). General Manager and conductor Simone Young drew incredibly rich and opulent music making […]

  3. […] And I have seen individual performances from the cycle in both the United States and Europe including the Schenk production in New […]

  4. […] And I have seen individual performances from the cycle in both the United States and Europe including the Schenk production in New […]

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