Monday, 18 May 2020

Wagner - Die Walküre (London, 2018)

Wagner - Die Walküre

Royal Opera House, London - 2018

Antonio Pappano, Keith Warner, Stuart Skelton, Emily Magee, Ain Anger, John Lundgren, Nina Stemme, Sarah Connolly, Lise Davidson

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

In contrast to Das Rheingold, which has a more obvious dramatic narrative and a number of wonderful theatrical set pieces, Die Walküre is much more contemplative as a standalone work, a conflict between the opposing forces that have been set in motion during the first day Prelude. Musically however and in terms of overall importance to the development of any Der Ring des Niebelungen (as well as the sheer exhilaration of any performance of Ride of the Valkyrie) it's Die Walküre that counts. Likewise if you are going to give a representative part of a the tetraology a DVD release, and Keith Warner's not greatly loved Royal Opera House Ring cycle first seen back in 2006 doesn't look likely to be getting a full release on DVD, this is the one you want to see. So how does Warner's Die Walküre stand up on its own terms?

Well in most respects it's a perfectly serviceable production but as is often the case with Die Walküre, its chances of a successful revival are reliant to a large extent on the strength of the casting. It's not that a strong concept and direction aren't important but the nature of this work demands singers who can bring the kind of intense dramatic conviction that this opera needs. This particular recording has a superlative cast of experienced Wagnerians and it gets off to an impressive set with its cast for Act I where Stuart Skelton is the standout, a Siegmund  of heroic magnificence. Ain Anger as Hunding and Emily Magee aren't quite at the same level but both are resolute and steady. Directing them however, Warner ensures that there's no standing around or histrionics, they incarnate the nature of the characters and put everything into expression of their dilemma, making them far more three-dimensional that is usually the case, and that sets up the whole tone of what follows in the subsequent Acts.

With its long Acts and tiring monologues it might be short on conventional drama, but it's hard to imagine a more dramatic musical opening that the thundering Vorspiel to Die Walküre. In the first few impressions of this production, Warner attempts to get across a sense of all that darkness of a world left in turmoil due to the weakening influence of the gods, but the production design also has the benefit of this being a place outside of time. The depiction of Hunding's lodge is semi-abstract then, expressionistic and dark, a box within a spiral. Sieglinde is seen hovering nervously in the fearful captivity of her husband, bewildered by the arrival of a stranger in exhaustion and distress. Roots and branches twist through the furnishings in the room, Nothung embedded in a smouldering beam.

Act II uses much of the same set with only the box room removed to establish a connection and reveal a shattered rundown Valhalla. It's difficult to make Act II dramatically engaging but the singing and musical performance alone are more than enough to make this compelling. Warner matches the highs and lows in the actions and movements, leaving it to the simmering rumble of the music to hold you in the grip of the predicament of Fricka, Wotan and Brünnhilde. Siegmund and Sieglinde's reappearance using a red rope that I presume is related to the Norn's Cord of Destiny, stumble into the room where Brünnhilde has just learned the history of Das Rheingold, the fate of the brother and sister tied up with the gods and their inevitable downfall.

Keith Warner manages to play Act II with the same attention to characterisation and motivation, showing more than just a bitter domestic dispute between an arrogant god who is henpecked and reduced down to size by a jealous and vengeful wife. There is a fire to their relationship that still burns even in such moments as this current crisis, and you can see the balance of power play out on a sexual level between them. It makes them more than just ciphers and suggests that their dispute is more than just a domestic quarrel, but that deeper forces drive their words and actions. John Lundgren and Sarah Connolly give a charged account of what can otherwise be a very dry scene in dramatic terms, Pappano musically holding the tension throughout. Only Nina Stemme disappoints somewhat, not living up to the expectations you might have for her Brünnhilde.

Act III's opening Ride of the Valkyrie however is disappointingly underwhelming as far as Warner's staging goes, the Valkyrie looking like Shakespearean Weird Sisters holding horse skulls, but musically at least it certainly packs a punch under Antonio Pappano and ROH orchestra, and it helps too when you have Lise Davidsen among the number as Ortlinde. Elsewhere in the third Act there's impact aplenty where there needs to be, Lundgren's Wotan a fearsome presence, the Valkyrie and Brünnhilde credibly cowering before his rage. But again the third Act's sheer force is all there in the performances, Nina Stemme and Emily Magee raising their game impressively, the playing and of course the music itself just phenomenal.

In terms of production design you would hope for more in Act III, but the abstract approach is consistent in its follow through, a huge wall thrown up here between Wotan and Brünnhilde and her sisters. If the major part of the Act is very dull and unimaginative as far as Valkyrie scenes go in Die Walküre, it at least gives the closing conflagration scene a little more of a spark, so to speak, in a way that closes the opera on a huge emotional high. Warner's Die Walküre is not a classic production by any means but my goodness this gets across everything that is great about this work and it sounds like it near brings the house down during the curtain call of this 2018 performance.

Whether you consider Antonio Pappano as effective conducting Wagner as he is with Puccini and Verdi in the Italian repertoire, I liked his blood and thunder interpretation here. The Vorspiel to Act I seems to collapse in on itself at the end but elsewhere he really does draw out all the beauty, lyricism and simmering emotion that is built into the highly charged scenes. The state-of-the-art High Resolution audio recording and superb mixing certainly helps hear the quality, detail and sheer glorious weight of the musical performance. I don't think I've ever heard a recording of this work with such depth and dynamic range. You can just revel luxuriously in the sound world of Wagner here, particularly in the simmering eroticism buried in the Act II confrontation between Wotan and Fricka, which is just as gripping as any of the more familiar key scenes. But all the high points are emphatically hit here.

The HD presentation on the Opus Arte BD is impeccable. The image is clear and detailed, but as mentioned above it's in the High Resolution uncompressed soundtracks where the real benefit of the HD format really comes into its own, the spacious uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix in particular capturing all the dynamic and detail of the performance. The English translation is also good, the subtitles making this easier to follow than the archaic language more often used without distorting the meaning in any way. The usual short features on ROH productions give a brief overview of what goes into a production like this. The booklet contains a synopsis and a good essay on the influence of Feuerbach on Wagner's Ring of the Niebelung by Barry Millington.

Links: Royal Opera House