www.musicweb-international.com, 27. Juni 2006
When I reviewed Das Rheingold in the same cycle just a couple of months ago I was eventually won over by the production as a whole, even though I was less impressed by the singing (see review).
The present production is even more sparse with the action taking place on a kind of running-track surrounding the orchestra which itself is immersed in the middle of the stage but fully visible. The players remain an integral part of the action as well as producing an orchestral sound that challenges and even surpasses most of what is encountered on competing versions, whether it be sound only or DVDs. I have to admit that I am not fully updated on all the different versions of this opera that are currently available and so I will concentrate on a description and an assessment of the present issue with some references to other versions that I am familiar with. Some readers may have read my reviews - on Seen and Heard - of the ongoing new Ring from Stockholm Royal Opera, where Die Walküre was premiered at the end of February. I saw it a few weeks later and was enthralled. This “peeled off” production is a world apart from the Stockholm version but to my mind both are thought-provoking alternatives. The Dutch performance has a lot to its credit, not least the quality of timelessness – if that is what it is. The absence of references to milieus and epochs forces the viewer to focus on the interactions and conflicts between the main characters and that is the real strength of this performance.
The focus on the orchestra also pays dividends, as I hinted at the beginning and it is a pleasure to wallow in the sound of this well-rehearsed band. Listen to the lush string sound, especially in the first act love music which rarely has been so sensually and, dare I say, sexually coloured. Hartmut Haenchen may not be known as a Wagnerian, but just as in Das Rheingold, he won me over fairly early in the first act. Not from the very beginning though, since the stormy prelude seemed a notch too fast and too streamlined. Maybe it was all too well-rehearsed and had lost something of the raw power of nature. In this respect no recording that I have heard surpasses the old Furtwängler, which I hope will be released in Naxos’s ongoing series of classic opera sets. The rest of the performance feels absolutely right. The only problem with the placing of the orchestra is that some of the soloists do not always manage to be heard properly at climaxes; Haenchen obviously has no wish to hold back. This afflicts, most of all, Jeannine Altmayer’s Brünnhilde, who, although creating a wonderful portrait of Wotan’s favourite daughter, lacks the ultimate steel and, more seriously, is rather weak at the bottom of her register. However with such glorious playing one can gladly sacrifice a note or two of the soprano part. Sets and backdrop are practically non-existent. The costumes get pride of place and even they are not very stirring. Sieglinde looks at first like a run-away nun. Brünnhilde makes her first entrance in a dark-brown tight-fitting jogging-dress. When she takes on her duties as a Walküre, she adds metallic wings, which her sisters also wear in the third act. Wotan, in a red knee-length coat, has a kind of metal armour covering his right shoulder and part of his arm, maybe indicating that he is half-God but also half-human. Anyway, when he gets really private and personal in his exchange of thoughts with Brünnhilde in the third act, he removes the armour. Fricka, all white, has aged considerably, becoming frail and stumbling along on crutches, but when Wotan in anger tears them away from her she is fully capable of walking at full speed. She uses all her means to rule poor Wotan.
Much of the performance is filmed in close-up and since most of the principal singers are also good actors this enhances the feeling of presence and involvement. Reinhild Runkel is very impressive indeed as Fricka, her eyes very telling. She sings her part much better than she did in Das Rheingold, maybe partly because here she sounds her looks (or looks her sounds). Nadine Secunde, who was also Barenboim’s Sieglinde in the Bayreuth production from 1992, has lost some of her sonority and adopts an annoying wobble which becomes prominent when the voice is under pressure. That said, she has retained, and even developed, her insight in the role and at more restrained moments, which are legion, her reading of the part is extremely touching. John Keynes, a name new to me, also has a wobble, which initially is troublesome but either I got used to it or else he managed to keep it better in check as the performance progressed. In spite of these shortcomings he makes a good Siegmund, deeply involved, creating a nuanced portrait of his character and singing with a manly voice with a great deal of brilliance. He delivers a glowing spring song. As Hunding Kurt Rydl is imposing, black-voiced and threatening.
Jeannine Altmeyer has been around for some time now; she was Brünnhilde on the first digital Ring, released in 1983. Even then she was regarded by some critics as too light-voiced. The same criticism could be posed seventeen years later. It is still a beautiful voice, fairly unscathed by the passing years and she has stage presence. In the final duet with Wotan she is very vulnerable and touching. The real pillar of strength is, however, John Bröcheler as the Chief of the Gods. He is a singer in the John Tomlinson mould, maybe not quite as big-voiced and somewhat drier of tone but he is still powerful, intense and untiring. In the final scene he grows to heroic and tragic heights and from In festen Schlaf verschliess’ ich dich he gains even more dignity. Leb’wohl du kühnes, herrliches Kind up till the very end is great singing indeed with an added sonority and warmth that is heart-rending.
In sheer vocal terms the Barenboim version may be even more recommendable but the visual impact of this Spartan production is such that it will not be easily forgotten. It is recorded in surround sound. I heard it in ordinary stereo, which sounded excellent, and there is a good booklet. There is also an introduction to the opera. All in all this a quality product.