Wagner: Die Walküre. Stuart Skelton, Heidi Melton, Falk Struckmann, Matthias Goerne, Petra Lang, Michelle DeYoung, Sarah Castle, Karen Foster, Katherine Broderick, Anna Burford, Elaine McKrill, Aurhelia Varak, Okka von der Damerau, Laura Nykänen; Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jaap van Zweden. Naxos. $51.99 (4 CDs).
Wagner regarded Die Walküre as the first night of the three-night Der Ring des Nibelungen, deeming Das Rheingold a prologue. And certainly Die Walküre starts in medias res, with all the stormy intensity that the story requires. It is only as the opera develops that the background of the characters is filled in, and as that occurs, it becomes increasingly clear that this is a family drama on the grandest possible scale. Pretty much everyone is related to everyone else, one way or another: Sieglinde and Hunding by marriage; Sieglinde and Siegmund by blood; Wotan to them both, also by blood; Wotan to Fricka by marriage; Wotan and the Valkyries by blood. The complex intertwining of familial lines is what makes possible the psychological drama underlying the opera’s dramatic story, and eventually makes Wotan’s abandonment of Brünnhilde so emotionally powerful an event.
Indeed, it is at the conclusion of Die Walküre that the performance conducted and shaped by Jaap van Zweden reaches its pinnacle. The warmth of Wotan’s feelings, which he has such trouble acknowledging, merges with the warmth of the magical fire whose flickering intensity is so beautifully portrayed in the music, and the work’s quiet but highly portentous ending is simply captivating. A Die Walküre done at this level throughout would be a performance for the ages.
That is not, unfortunately, what van Zweden delivers here, but this is nevertheless a more powerful and ultimately more compelling reading than what he provided in Das Rheingold, which was the first Naxos release in a four-year project that will eventually produce the complete Der Ring des Nibelungen as played by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. There are several “firsts” in this undertaking, which will be the first-ever Ring cycle performed by a Chinese orchestra, and which marks the debuts both of Matthias Goerne as Wotan and of Michelle DeYoung as Fricka. The never fully answered question in Das Rheingoldi was whether Goerne and van Zweden have the necessary heft to make the tetralogy as effective as it can be.
Things are less equivocal here. The first three of these four operas can be seen (and effectively staged) as Wotan’s story, with the greatest of the gods diminishing in stature from opera to opera until he is left powerless in Siegfried and disappears altogether from Götterdammerung – a downfall even before the final collapse. But Die Walküre belongs as much to its central human pair of Siegmund and Sieglinde as to its central immortal pair of Wotan and Brünnhilde. And this performance is blessed – that is not too strong a word for it – with the presence of Stuart Shelton, who is first-rate both vocally and in voice acting: his technique is wonderful, his musicianship obvious and pervasive, and his portrayal of Siegmund absolutely convincing. And he is wonderfully partnered by Heidi Melton as Sieglinde: she offers a warm, touching portrayal featuring emotional radiance and tonal beauty. They are a thoroughly captivating pair, and they bring the human heart of Die Walküre marvelously to life.
Matters are more difficult among the gods. Petra Lang is an unusually girlish Brünnhilde, her impetuosity quite clear and her voice bright and vivid, if somewhat thin in its higher register. And that brings us back to Goerne and DeYoung. Goerne is better here than he was in Das Rheingold, more generally authoritative in his delivery and apparently quite comfortable with van Zweden’s tempo choices, which tend to be somewhat broad. If Goerne’s heartfelt delivery of the last part of the final act is the highlight of his performance, there are many other beauties in his interpretation, although he does seem to strain at times to be heard over the full orchestra. As for DeYoung, she is far more important here than in Das Rheingold, in fact being crucial to the plot as she faces Wotan down and forces him into an untenable position that makes the eventual tragedy of Götterdammerung inevitable. Fricka is a thoroughly unsympathetic character, but in her own way is as much at the mercy of events beyond her control as Wotan is. She is the event beyond his control, and needs to come across with an implacability and determination that match and, indeed, outmatch his. DeYoung does this by handling her role so imperiously that she, not he, appears to be the leader of the gods. It is an impressive performance.
The other roles are also well-filled, many by singers with considerable Wagnerian experience who here have smaller parts than they are capable of handling. Falk Struckmann makes a stolid but determined Hunding, and the Valkyries – Sarah Castle, Karen Foster, Katherine Broderick, Anna Burford, Elaine McKrill, Aurhelia Varak, Okka von der Damerau and Laura Nykänen – are one and all in fine voice throughout. What keeps the overall performance just below the very highest level is van Zweden’s orderly, cohesive but generally rather bland way with the score prior to the last part of the opera. The family squabbles here are utterly deadly ones, for all the parties involved and ultimately for the gods themselves, but there is little sense of this building immensity of destruction in this Die Walküre. Right from the start of Das Rheingold, it is clear that the gods suffer from pretty much all the same weaknesses as humans (even though there are no humans in that opera). It is in Die Walküre that the pettiness of the gods comes home to roost even as the nobility of the doomed human lovers shows them to be better and more deserving of never-to-be-attained happiness than those who rule Valhalla. It is this sense of role reversal that van Zweden never quite makes clear, or perhaps does not grasp. The whole of Die Walküre involves humans being elevated in love and honor even as the gods diminish themselves by twisting and being false to both. There are genuine profundities here that van Zweden’s rather superficial performance glosses over. Yet there is a very great deal to like in this Die Walküre, and its conclusion raises substantial hope that by the time he gets to Götterdammerung, van Zweden will be prepared to convey as cataclysmic but cathartic a conclusion of the cycle as Wagner wished to present.
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