Thursday, 14 November 2013

Wagner - Die Walküre

Richard Wagner - Die Walküre

Teatro alla Scala Milan, 2010

Daniel Barenboim, Guy Cassiers,  Simon O'Neill, John Tomlinson, Vitalij Kowaljow, Waltraud Meier, Nina Stemme, Ekaterina Gubanova

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

Wagner's Ring of the Niebelungen is such a huge undertaking for any opera company that it is inevitably bound to involve some degree of compromise along the way. Even at a house as prestigious as La Scala in Milan. Their opening salvo of Das Rheingold wasn't perfect by any means, but in the areas that counted - in the establishment of a distinct dark and moody setting, in Barenboim's fine conducting and in the overall high quality of the singing - the Ring's prologue was as promising an introduction as you could hope for a new Ring cycle at La Scala. The second chapter however, Die Walküre, brings a whole new set of challenges.

The degree to which Guy Cassiers' direction for Das Rheingold successfully sets the tone for the rather more epic scale of the works to follow is however immediately clear from the outset. The darkness, the menace and the threatening tone carries over perfectly into the epic storms of creation and the flight of Wehwalt/Siegmund and draw us compelling into Die Walküre. The compromises that this section reveals however also gradually become apparent and it involves choices made in the casting and in the singing. Neither however are so great that they detract in any significant way from the overall success of this critical juncture in La Scala's Ring cycle.

Most notably - although it's by no means critical - there's no consistency here in the casting of Wotan and Fricke. On the other hand, the casting is still exceptionally strong. René Pape and Doris Soffel, who weren't entirely convincing in Das Rheingold, give way here to Vitalij Kowaljow and Ekaterina Gubanova, both of whom perform very well even if they don't have the same degree of stature or personality as their predecessors. The other vital roles are strongly cast with Waltraud Meier as Sieglinde, Simon O'Neill as Siegmund, Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde and John Tomlinson as Hunding. On paper that looks impressive, and there are indeed some exceptional performances, but not all are quite perfect.

There is perhaps some degree of compromise in the casting of Waltraud Meier and John Tomlinson. Neither is at their peak now and it shows in places. The diminishing power of John Tomlinson's voice that have been noted relatively recently (in his Gurnemanz for the 2013 BBC Proms Parsifal) aren't quite as pronounced here, but it's still not the powerhouse of earlier years. Tomlinson's ability and presence however, his deep understanding of Wagner's music and how it informs the characters even in a relatively minor role like Hunding, stand him in good stead here. The same could be said about Waltraud Meier, who is showing a little more restraint in her performances, but that works perfectly in keeping with Barenboim's dynamic approach to the score here. In terms of experience, expression and sheer professionalism, not to mention a voice of quite lyrical beauty and true force where required, Meier however really comes through.

All the roles in Die Walküre are important to the overall fabric of the work, but the ones that can make all the difference are Siegmund and Brünnhilde. Simon O'Neill sets his own pace it seems, not always following the tempo set by Barenboim, but he sings well and gets across the necessary sympathy and nobility of his character. Nina Stemme however is just phenomenal as Brünnhilde, and that's really what raises the overall high standard of this Die Walküre. Her's is a voice of immense richness of timbre, but Brünnhilde is by no means a role that can carry the work in isolation. It needs to work alongside the other characters and that's where the strength of the casting really shows. To use just one example, the critical scene of Siegmund, Sieglinde and Brünnhilde in the woods during Act II, Scene IV is telling in this respect. It's just stunning, the singing and expression of sentiments coming together, working in perfect accordance with the staging (light shading trees turning into shards of ice) and with Barenboim's orchestration to haunting effect.

It's Daniel Barenboim of course who is instrumental in bringing all this together quite so successfully. He adjusts somewhat to the strengths and weaknesses of the singers in a way that gets the very best out of them, but he also responds to the full dynamic of Wagner's score, allowing the lyricism, romanticism of the work to be expressed in the simple beauty, tone and melody of the music itself as much as in the measured force of the delivery. Act I in particular benefits from a more sensitive and lyrical approach to Siegmund and Sieglinde's encounter, even as the menace still broods dramatically in the background, suggesting that there is still a possibility of averting the tragedy to come at this stage, or at least that these characters offer the hope of redemption. Barenboim is just as expressive when that menace erupts, in the shimmering ecstatic raptures and in the heft of emotions that underline them. It's a sheer tour-de-force that allows the score space to breathe and assert it own power without ever overplaying its hand or over-emphasising.

That all works in perfect accord then with Guy Cassiers' understated direction for the stage, which is more about mood than strict representation. In this respect it's not dissimilar to the Met's recent Ring cycle, only with a set here that achieves that necessary impact much better and in a far less complicated manner than the Met's Machine. Following on from Das Rheingold, Hunding's lodge is a cube of light in what looks like a dark cave of glistening light projections. Act II, with a spinning globe connecting Valhalla to Earth, remains abstract but attractive to watch and feel without there ever being any sense of a "concept" being forced on the work and without distracting from the performances. The circle of fire conclusion is less of a spectacle, but that's in tune also with the simplicity and beauty of the line established by Barenboim's conducting of the work. It's not exactly traditional, but it all looks gorgeous and works well.

The Blu-ray from Arthaus looks and sounds fabulous, the full-HD image and the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio sound mixes perfectly representing the essential tone of the production and the performances. Other than a couple of trailers, there are no extra features on the disc. The BD50 Blu-ray is region-free and subtitles are in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian and Korean.