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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walküre - Act One (1870)
Siegmund - Johan Botha
Sieglinde - Nina Stemme
Hunding - Ain Anger
Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera/Franz Welser-Möst
rec. live, Vienna State Opera, 2 December 2007
ORFEO C875131B [61:35]

The first act of Die Walküre is the most commonly excerpted part of The Ring, and it’s easy to see why. The love story of Siegmund and Sieglinde is extraordinarily compelling in the way it gathers momentum and the act contains some of the most appealing music in the whole Ring. Orfeo have released this excerpt from Welser-Möst’s Ring presumably to coincide with the Wagner bicentenary.
Its chief asset is Nina Stemme who is a Sieglinde of rare nobility and authority. She was already a remarkable Isolde by the time this was recorded, and one feels for the Brünnhilde in this performance who would surely have seemed inadequate in sharing the stage with a Sieglinde of such richness and excitement. The voice is rich to the point of opulence, a real luxury quality, and the only down-side is that it somewhat undermines the character’s vulnerability. As a triumph of great singing and beautiful sound, though, Stemme is remarkable.
Johan Botha, making his debut in the role, is a surprisingly lightweight Siegmund, especially in comparison with Stemme. That’s not to do him down - he is always entirely audible - but his voice isn’t really heroic, and that means that any fans of, say, James King, Jon Vickers or Jonas Kaufmann will be disappointed. The narration of his past, for example, isn’t that compelling. However, he brings his own particular character to each scene and it’s a case of his being different rather than disappointing. His Wälse monologue stresses the character’s vulnerability rather than his heroism, and Botha’s bel canto-ish way with the line delivers a reading that remains distinctive, especially in the clean-ness of its attack. Ain Anger is also a very successful Hunding, vigorous of voice and sly of character. No mere bully or ruffian, there is something cunning about him, thus making him all the more dangerous.
Welser-Möst’s conducting is the most variable quality on the disc because it takes quite a while to catch fire. The account of the opening storm sounds rushed and therefore lacks excitement, though Welser-Möst manages to control the slowly unfolding momentum of the twins’ recognition in a way that builds tension and keeps you wanting more. On the whole, though, I found the orgasmic quality of the act, the sense of an uncontrollable momentum building, a little lacking. The turning point is Sieglinde’s narration of the stranger who leaves the sword: after this point, with Siegmund’s Dich, selige Frau, an extra level of excitement is injected into the music. The gathering tension flows into an undulating, beautiful Winterstürme and an ecstatic Du bist der Lenz. At the naming of Siegmund the impetus grows as though he had just pulled the cork out of a bottle, and the flow of the music to the end of the act is hugely exciting. It’s just a shame that it wasn’t delivered more consistently.
The playing of the orchestra is predictably excellent, as it always is from this source. The ORF sound, however, is acceptable but rather boxy, the voices recessed and the orchestra a little distant. I continually felt as though there were an inconvenient filter between your ear and the performance, one of the vagaries of radio recording that it’s difficult to eliminate.
Other recordings of this Act from complete cycles are self-recommending, and my favourite has always been that from Janowski’s Dresden cycle featuring Jessye Norman whose luxuriant voice is probably the closest on disc that you’ll come to Stemme’s, Siegfried Jerusalem and Kurt Moll. If you’re looking for an individual disc, though, this one is superseded by Barenboim’s recording from the Berlin Staatsoper featuring Polaski, Domingo and Tomlinson. It’s better recorded and conducted than here and the men are, on the whole, finer, though it’s hard to come by unless you’re able to download it. However, seek out the present issues if you want an account of Stemme’s Sieglinde.
Simon Thompson

Masterwork Index: Die Walküre