Die Walküre [First Day of Der Ring des Nibelungen]
The State Opera of Australia:
Siegmund Stuart Skelton
Sieglinde Deborah Riedel
Hunding Richard Green
Wotan John Bröcheler
Fricka Elizabeth Campbell
Brünnhilde Lisa Gasteen
Gerhilde Elizabeth Stannard
Ortlinde Lisa Harper-Brown
Waltraute Liane Keegan
Schwertleite Zan McKendree-Wright
Helmwige Kate Ladner
Siegrune Gaye MacFarlane
Grimgerde Jennifer Barnes
Rossweisse Donna-Maree Dunlop
Adelaide Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 16 November-12 December 2004 in the Adelaide Festival Theatre
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: September 2006
CD No: MELBA MR 301091-94
[4 Hybrid CDs/SACDs]
Duration: 3 hours 44 minutes
To my knowledge, there have been a mere five studio recordings of the ‘Ring’ in its entirety (a sixth, conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi, was abandoned by Decca half-way through), and so a large part of the tetralogy’s discography is made up of ‘live’ recordings, many of them from Bayreuth, the theatre built expressly for the first complete performance of the cycle in 1876. Thus recordings – official and otherwise – abound, many of them with ‘big name’ singers and conductors who dominated the post-war Wagnerian scene.
This Melba release is the first CD/SACD instalment of what was the first completely Australian-originated production of the ‘Ring’, staged in 2004. I assume the remainder is to follow. One is struck pretty quickly by the high quality of the orchestral playing. Indeed the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra need not fear comparison with, say, the Vienna Philharmonic (Solti/Decca) or the Berlin Philharmonic (Karajan/DG), not to mention the various incarnations of the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra itself. The solo playing is of outstanding quality – the cello in the first act is most moving – and there is a real sense of engagement from all involved. There is just a moment towards the end when I thought the high strings sounded a little thin. Maybe this was from a different take from the scene that had gone before, or perhaps the players were tired. In any event, overall, the orchestral contribution is a pleasure to hear in its own right.
But fine playing in Wagner is only part of the necessary ingredients. Fortunately, Asher Fisch provides sound, thoughtful and purposeful conducting. A former assistant to Daniel Barenboim (working with him on the ‘Ring’ in Berlin and Bayreuth), his conducting of “Die Walküre” is notable for its breadth and shaping. I don’t know whether he has conducted the ‘Ring’ before, but Fisch is clearly a sympathetic exponent of Wagner, encouraging expressive singing and playing and allowing time for the events to develop. He does not fuss at the music, but gives it the requisite space to bloom – not that I am suggesting that tempos are unnecessarily slow. On the contrary, they feel just ‘right’, once past an opening that sounds rather mannered with the string articulation too clipped, though it could be convincingly argued that this is a literal realisation of the staccato markings in the score.
With the arrival of Siegmund and Sieglinde, the warm burgeoning of their love is touchingly conveyed, reaching an ardent – but not forceful – climax at the end of Act One. Stuart Skelton initially sounds a little stiff, but seems to relax once he is into the more lyrical music. He is suitably ardent in Act One and appropriately defiant later on. Deborah Riedel is a lovely Sieglinde: vulnerable, tender, but with a hint of fire and determination. Certainly, she and Skelton ignite sparks off one another to tremendous effect.
Richard Green articulates Hunding’s pithy lines with character, but this part needs a deeper, more baleful bass than is at Green’s command. He is powerful in his off-stage cries to Siegmund at the conclusion of Act Two, however – a scene which has considerable frisson in this performance.
As Wotan, John Bröcheler suggests a somewhat more youthful character than we are perhaps accustomed to hearing. He does not have the darker tone of Hans Hotter (Solti and numerous live Bayreuth recordings), nor his sense of weariness and profundity. Indeed Bröcheler can sound a little impetuous (with attendant ‘barking’ in places) rather than imperious, but he finds a more lyrical vein in his exchanges with Brünnhilde, especially towards the close, even though both singers at that point are audibly tiring, with some moments of flat singing. Wotan’s scene with his wife Fricka has an underlying tension thanks in no small part to Elizabeth Campbell’s strong characterisation. This is a passage which can either ‘hang fire’, or irritate by how shrewish Fricka is. This is not the case here.
It is less easy to be entirely convinced by Lisa Gasteen’s Brünnhilde, though she sounds in better voice here than she did in the Royal Opera’s 2005 staging. Hers is a strong instrument, though, as yet, she does not convey the gentler aspects of Wotan’s favourite daughter as do, say, Gwyneth Jones (Boulez/Philips) and Hildegard Behrens (Levine/DG). Though she interacts well with the others, her portrayal is insufficiently varied.
There is a terrific team of Valkyries, whose scene is launched with great aplomb by Elizabeth Stannard; it wouldn’t surprise me if she were singing Brünnhilde herself in a few years’ time. But all the singers are strong and convey individual personalities. Their ensembles are uncommonly good, too, and off-stage cries well-placed (though I suspect some utilisation of microphones, amplification and artificial reverberation, and maybe elsewhere, too). A pity that in ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, as so often, the accents are misplaced in the main theme. They should be on the first beat of the bar, not the second.
One or two oddities need to be noted: whilst the overall presentation is handsome, the performance could have fitted quite easily onto three discs – the second ends most abruptly. As a ‘live’ performance, there are occasional stage noises, but they don’t distract unduly, save for a strange yelp from Sieglinde in the first act. Applause is retained. I could have done without this, and the whistling, which greets the end of the performance, especially as Fisch’s conducting of the closing pages is particularly sensitive.
Whilst this set is not going to displace the many which are already available, I am glad to have heard it. It has many strong qualities and merits a recommendation. I will be interested to hear the remainder of the cycle>