Die Walküre – Music-drama in three Acts to a libretto by the composer [sung in German]
Siegmund – Stuart Skelton
Sieglinde – Emily Magee
Hunding – Ain Anger
Wotan – John Lundgren
Brünnhilde – Nina Stemme
Fricka – Sarah Connolly
Gerhilde – Alwyn Mellor
Ortlinde – Lise Davidsen
Waltraute – Kai Rüütel
Schwertleite – Claudia Huckle
Helmwige – Maida Hundeling
Siegrune – Catherine Carby
Grimgerde – Monika-Evelin Liiv
Rossweisse – Emma Carrington
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Keith Warner – Director
Stefanos Lazaridis – Set Designer
Marie-Jeanne Lecca – Costume Designer
Wolfgang Göbbel – Lighting Designer
Recorded 18 & 28 October 2018 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: February 2021
CD No: OPUS ARTE OA1308D (2 DVDs)
Duration: 4 hours (plus 14 minutes of extras)
For many, Die Walküre is the most approachable and human of the Ring dramas, and so it is not surprising that if any single instalment of Keith Warner’s production of Wagner’s tetralogy for the Royal Opera House were to be released individually (rather than the whole cycle, from its 2018 revival) then it would be this.
Relationships between mortals and gods, and among mortals, are represented in some telling spatial arrangements in this production, building upon what Warner started in Das Rheingold and is then maintained in the subsequent operas. It takes seriously the deep influence upon Wagner of the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, whose interpretation of Christianity – and religion generally – was that it was a mythological projection of mankind’s most profound experiences, and so those ideals and concepts should now be recognised as such and conceived anew in a properly humanistic fashion, rather than continuing to be used to subject mankind to empty and oppressive metaphysics and rituals.
Although Die Walküre shifts to this world after Das Rheingold’s oscillations between non-human aquatic, subterranean, and celestial realms, the Feuerbachian notion of the bringing down to earth of the divine order is symbolically sustained in this production by the ladder which Brünnhilde descends in Act Two (carrying over that feature from Das Rheingold), and is broken by Siegmund later – surely pre-empting not only the fatal fracture of his sword in the fight with Hunding, but also his son Siegfried’s more conclusive smashing of the gods’ power when he breaks Wotan’s spear in the next opera. If the wall which is intermittently revolved by the characters in Act Three becomes distracting – and unhelpfully constricting in terms of the possibilities for choreography – it perhaps graphically symbolises the obstructions to Wotan’s will (and to the metaphysical order represented by Valhalla generally) that is played out in that Act by Brünnhilde’s arguments and deeds, just like Fricka’s in Act Two. It also visually maps out a horizontal dimension in this final Act where the relationship between father and daughter is explored, as opposed to the vertical relationships of the gods, fate, and Hunding on the one hand, to Siegmund and Sieglinde on the other, in the first two. As Wotan has to bow to the arid legal order and logic which he represents, and sacrifice his son Siegmund, it is significant that his altercations with Fricka in Act Two take place over the same dining table at which Hunding eats previously, as well as also evoking the example of the Last Supper and the Eucharist perhaps, and thereby the notion of Christ’s sacrifice in Christian theology. Some concept of a dinner party disrupted would also go some way to make sense of why the gods’ otherwise fairly bland, clichéd appearance in a certain state of dishevelled evening dress and the Valkyries in black sleeveless dresses, all haling as they do from the celestial banquet that Valhalla can be thought to be. Again, the Feuerbachian connection between the bourgeois code of law, order, and morality, and its representatives in Valhalla is clear.
The cast members are on reflective rather than heroic form – though generally still excellent – as befits the thrust of this interpretation of the opera. Nina Stemme sometimes sounds brittle as Brünnhilde, the chief Valkyrie of the title, but otherwise she sustains a penetrating and commanding line over the orchestra, marking her as one of the leading exponents of the role today. Despite the demands of the music, she remains clear, unforced, and energetic in her acting. John Lundgren conveys a comparatively quieter sense of Wotan’s (waning) authority in expressing the tenderness of the god’s feelings towards Brunnhilde, as well as his conflicted attitude to her and Siegmund. He is not an especially stentorian Wotan, with even some hollowness in his tone (and tiredness creeps in during the last Act) but the beginning of his monologue to Brünnhilde in Act Two as almost a sprechgesang is very effective in this respect. Sarah Connolly stands out for the colour and theatre she brings to her performance of Fricka, one moment hectoring, the next self-pitying, and ultimately grimly persuasive as she forces Wotan to yield to the necessity of allowing his son to be slain.
Stuart Skelton ideally combines heft and lyricism as Siegmund, asserting himself with some confidence in Hunding’s hut in Act One, but otherwise rightly bringing to bear vulnerability and compassion through the steady, even tone of his singing, which never becomes raw or strained. On the stage, however, he appears somewhat inflexible. In both her agitation and ecstasy, Emily Magee’s Sieglinde maintains a strong musical presence, though she becomes a touch squealy. Ain Anger presents a compellingly suave account of Hunding, and probably all the more menacing for it, amidst the dark and sombre hues of Act One’s set, rather than a more obviously extrovert and malevolent force.
As a group in the famous opening of Act Three, the Valkyries are fearsome with their almost shrieking cries, providing striking musical drama to make up for the limp, underwhelming staging of their appearance, lolling around with merely the skulls of horses, in front of the projections of some images of fighting warriors on to the wall behind them, resembling the recreations of prehistoric fighters from the era of silent films – maybe even from Lang’s Die Nibelungen.
Antonio Pappano conducts the Royal Opera House Orchestra in a fluent and lucid account of the score which brings out an iridescent wealth of inner detail which is often missed in more brashly vigorous readings. If some listeners may feel that this rather splinters or destroys a proper sense of Wagnerian ‘endless melody’ in the musical texture, others may find that it brings the music suggestively within the more intimate remit of much of this particular part of the Ring, if perhaps at some cost to tension.
Certainly the performance lacks a necessary degree of drama and impact at the most urgent moments, as the duet between Siegmund and Sieglinde could burn with more passion; the climax of Wotan’s monologue as he contemplates “das Ende” is strangely inconsequential; and the farewell with Brünnhilde too guarded. If both the production and musical performance lack immediate, visceral appeal, they reward instead by offering much to ponder at a more abstract level.