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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Nina Stemme (soprano)
Wiener Staatsoper Orchestra
rec. live, 2003-13, Wiener Staatsoper
ORFEO C937171B [76:17]

The fact that Orfeo have dedicated an entire disc to Nina Stemme’s Wagner recordings at the Vienna Staatsoper is an acknowledgement that she is (surely!) the greatest dramatic soprano working today. She’s certainly the most in-demand. The voice may be ever so slightly past the peak of its prime, but anyone who has encountered her in the theatre will tell you that Stemme remains a compelling actress and a singer of flawless technique and fearless dedication.

As it happens, this disc captures a decade of that prime from 2003 to 2013, and it’s well worth sampling for lovers of her voice, as well as for Wagner’s music. The adjective that kept coming back to me while I listened was “commanding.” She bestrides these fiendish roles as though it were all in a day’s work, and never for an instant do you fear that she might not be able to reach the notes. More than that, you listen out for the way she is going to illuminate a character or bring fresh revelation to a role, and it’s the combination of musical and dramatic skilfulness that makes this disc worth hearing.

Her Senta is wide-eyed and idealistic, never purely naïve, and those opening Johohoes sound like a magical incantation, before a narrative that moves through mystical rapture and stormy description through to irrevocable decision-making. Her duet with the Dutchman is equally powerful, sounding as though this moment was the fulfilment of her life up to that date, and it was the first of several occasions on the disc where I marvelled at the sheer size of the voice.

Her Sieglinde sounds suitably vulnerable but also deeply feminine and never a passive victim. It’s from the same performance as the recording of Act 1 that Orfeo released in 2013 (review), and it’s tantalising to get another glimpse into how that evening developed. Her Brünnhilde, on the other hand, is world-beating, taking her Siegfried to the cleaners with the sheer strength of her voice, and when your Siegfried is Stephen Gould that’s saying something! The natural comparison for this role is with her compatriot Birgit Nilsson, but in none of the recordings I’ve heard does Nilsson sound as human or as sympathetic as this. True, Nilsson was more of a laser-beam of sound, but Stemme’s voice gives the fuller evocation of the character.

However, it’s her Isolde that is most worth listening for. This is, I think, her most recorded role, and it’s fascinating hearing how she has developed from her earliest recording of the part at Glyndebourne. This 2013 performance captures her at what sounds like her peak. The Act 1 monologue runs her through a huge span of emotions and the curse is an electrifying climax, while the Liebestod is as fine a performance of this episode as you’ll hear. It’s hard to believe she was singing it at the end of a long evening, so nuanced and convincing is her singing, and it’s a thrilling end to the disc.

This is altogether much more than a just a useful record: it’s a collection of great Wagner singing done the way it should be. Recorded sound is very good throughout, and there is very little stage or audience noise. The booklet contains essays in English and German, but no sung texts or translations.

Simon Thompson

Der Fliegende Holländer
Johohoe! Traft ihr das Schiff im Meere an [7:59]
Wirst du des Vaters Wahl nicht schelten? [8:54]
With Falk Struckmann & Seiji Ozawa, 5 December 2003
Die Walküre
Raste nun hier, gönne dir Ruh! [9:46]
With Johan Botha & Franz Welser-Möst, 2 December 2007
Heil dir, Sonne! [32:42]
With Stephen Gould & Franz Welser-Möst, 27 April 2008
Tristan und Isolde
Erfuhrest du meine Schmach [9:44]
Mild une leise wie er lächelt [6:41]
With Janina Baechle & Franz Welser-Möst, 13 June 2013



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