October 26, 2006


Wagner: Die Walküre. Robert Gambill (Siegmund), Attila Jun (Hunding), Jan-Hendrik Rootering (Wotan), Angela Denoke (Sieglinde), Renate Behle (Brünnhilde), Tichina Vaughn (Fricka). Staatsoper Stuttgart and Staatsorchester Stuttgart conducted by Lothar Zagrosek. Naxos. $26.99 (3 CDs).

It is only in the second of its four operas that Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung becomes a fully human story. In fact, it is only in the second opera that humans show up: there aren’t any in Das Rheingold. That first opera requires the audience to see the larger-than-life gods, dwarves, giants and other characters as driven by all-too-human impulses – but a direct human connection is missing (although skilled singing actors in the role of Alberich can make one).

Die Walküre, though, is the most human-focused opera in the cycle, and the one in which the gods themselves seem to be turning into vulnerable and doomed humans – something that really does happen to Brünnhilde at the end, when Wotan strips her of her powers as a Valkyrie and abandons her on the fire-surrounded rock to whatever man shall be bold enough to win her.

Aside from containing the most popular music in the Ring cycle – the “Ride of the Valkyries,” which is even more astonishing and effective in context than as a concert piece – Die Walküre contains the most famous (or infamous) incest ever set to music. The love music of Siegmund and his sister-bride, Sieglinde, is so soaring that it caused famed classical-music parodist Anna Russell to remark, “You can do anything in grand opera as long as you sing it.” And “sing it” with great fervor is just what Robert Gambill and Angela Denoke do, as the former’s search for his father (Wotan, who is also Sieglinde’s father) collides with the latter’s bitter unhappiness in her life with her husband, Hunding. The intensely human emotions swirling around the marital triangle are mirrored among the gods, with Wotan favoring Siegmund as the potential savior of the gods from the curse of Alberich’s ring; Fricka, his much-wronged wife and the guardian of marriage, favoring Hunding, the cuckold; and Brünnhilde, the rash and impetuous daughter, determined to do what Wotan wants even when Wotan commands her to do the opposite.

What a family drama this is! Wotan has fathered not only Siegmund and Sieglinde but also all the Valkyries – no wonder Fricka, a shrew if there ever was one, is determined to force Wotan to acknowledge some shred of sanctimony in marriage (even if not in his). Wotan can feel his doom, the doom of all the gods, approaching inexorably, and he knows that his craven theft of the Ring (in Das Rheingold) has set events in motion that even he cannot stop. Wotan’s role affords the most difficult acting job in Die Walküre, and if Jan-Hendrik Rootering does not quite plumb the depths of the part, he certainly sings it well. Tichina Vaughn never makes Fricka much more than a shrill conniver, but this is a particularly difficult role in which to try to garner any sympathy – and Vaughn’s vocal prowess certainly makes her a fine foil for Rootering. As Brünnhilde, Renate Behle has plenty of pluck and a voice that, if not perfectly suited to Wagner, is nevertheless effective and dramatically deployed. And in the thankless role of Hunding, so contemptuously swatted to death by Wotan immediately after Wotan allows him to kill Siegmund, Attila Jun is appropriately sly and unpleasant.

Lothar Zagrosek paces the choral and orchestral forces exceptionally well: the performance runs nearly four hours but never flags. There are multiple climaxes in this work – Siegmund and Sieglinde’s consummation of their love, Siegmund’s death, Wotan’s pursuit of Brünnhilde – but everything builds to the final scene, in which the opera ends quietly as the doomed Wotan abandons his most-loved Valkyrie daughter to the fate he has himself imposed on her. Zagrosek paces all the climaxes, including the final one, very well, drawing out the emotion of both the words and the music.

The one major flaw in this release is the lack of a dual-language libretto – not only in the box (that is understandable) but also online. Naxos does make a libretto available through its Web site – but in German only. This puts English speakers at a major disadvantage in a work whose words are every bit as important as its music: Wagner did not call his works “music dramas” for nothing. It’s worth the effort to track down a translation of the libretto – following it adds a lot to hearing this performance. It’s a shame, though, that the effort needs to be made.

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