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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walküre, Opera in Three Acts
Stuart Skelton - Siegmund; Emily Magee - Sieglinde; Ain Anger - Hunding; John Lundgren - Wotan; Nina Stemme - Brünnhilde; Dame Sarah Connolly - Fricka; Alwyn Mellor - Gerhilde; Lise Davidsen - Ortlinde; Kai Rüütel - Waltraute; Claudia Huckle - Schwertleite; Maida Hundeling - Helmwige; Catherine Carby - Siegrune; Monika-Evelin Liiv - Grimgerde; Emma Carrington - Rossweisse
Royal Opera House Orchestra/Sir Antonio Pappano
Keith Warner – stage director
Stefanos Lazaridis – set designer
Marie-Jeanne Lecca – costume designer
Wolfgang Göbbel – lighting designer
rec. 18 & 28, October, 2018 at the Royal Opera House, London, UK
Bonus features included
Sound formats: Dolby Digital and DTS Digital Surround; Picture Format: 16:9 Anamorphic
Subtitles: German (original language), English, French, Japanese, Korean
Reviewed in stereo
OPUS ARTE DVD OA1308D [254 mins]

This performance of Die Walküre came as part of a Ring cycle at the ROH running from September 26 to November 2, 2018. The four operas were generally well received and if I can judge their quality from this one alone I can say I'm certainly not surprised by their positive reception. In the age of opera studio recordings, singers and musicians could do multiple retakes over many days, but now in the era of video, live efforts such as this one are usually culled from just a few performances. The dates given in the album booklet here indicate this one is derived from just two, which is all the more remarkable, suggesting the singers, pit musicians and conductor were truly in their element in this performance and thus likely throughout the entire cycle. But of course, there is another aspect to every opera on video—the production, what you see on stage. So, the issue is, this Die Walküre will have to be an exceedingly strong one in just about every respect to succeed in the marketplace, owing to the plentiful competition, which I'll deal with shortly. Let me start with the singers here.

Nine Stemme is probably the finest soprano to portray Brünnhilde that I've ever encountered on video. She doesn't have a weak or prosaic moment in this opera: her Second and Third Act encounters with Wotan are brilliantly acted and sung, and as she pleads with Wotan throughout most of the Third Act's final scene, she comes on with such emotional force, such arresting charisma as to make the power of Wagner's music all the more gripping. But here too, John Lundgren as Wotan is also excellent: full-voiced and utterly immersed in his character—becoming Wotan, in fact—he is splendid, coming across as domineering and adamant, cold and vengeful, but struggling still in his attempts to deny all emotion. He is brilliant throughout the opera actually, and like Stemme, divulges nothing even tinged of mediocrity in either his singing or acting skills. Stuart Skelton as Siegmund is also extremely convincing, capturing the essence of his character as well, his singing and dramatic abilities consistently impressive. Emily Magee catches fire in the latter third or so of Act II and continues in the same spirited vein in the last act, really showing total involvement and singing her heart out, perhaps inspired to rival the imposing stage presence of Nina Stemme. Ain Anger as Hunding is more than adequate, as is Sarah Connolly in the role of Fricka. I'm not sure that any recording tops this cast in the competition from the video realm, though there are of course some great performances on older recordings in LP and CD formats.

Antonio Pappano generally employs somewhat brisk tempos and seems to grasp fully the emotional trajectory of each scene in his well-conceived and imaginative phrasing of the score. The ROH Orchestra respond with great spirit in their performance and also strike you as fully connected to this opera's strange but compelling world. There is much flair to their account of the Ride of the Valkyries' music but they also deliver the more subtle moments in the score in the same committed manner.

As for the staging aspects of this Keith Warner production, they are quite effective for the most part, though some Wagner traditionalists will likely object to certain liberties taken in this account. I found Warner's take on this opera generally quite fine though, not a radical rethinking of the story's events and characters. The costuming is a mixture of tattered medieval and casual modern, though Fricka's regal dress is an exception in the former category. The sets typically seem to convey symbolism, often in an inscrutable way. In Act I there is a large metal structure in a spiral or helix sort of shape snaking down to the stage from above and embedded in tree roots. Hunding's dwelling seems to have fairly modern furnishings and dinnerware among the otherwise olden surroundings. In the Second Act the metal structure remains, but added now is a high ladder perhaps reaching to the heavens which Brünnhilde descends from. There is also a junk heap consisting mainly of books. In Act III there is a revolving wall on center stage, which swivels around to various angles at certain times. Lighting throughout the opera is generally adequate for foreground action and characters but dark and shadowy for the background scenery, in the end appearing quite fitting for the mysterious world of this opera.

It must be said that some aspects of this production don't go so well. The Ride of the Valkyries scene to open Act III is a bit awkward in execution, at least in the out of sync choreography of the eight warriors as they wave their horse skeletons in the air and traipse about the stage. Their singing is fine though, and their sense of drama quite good. In the background the wall serves as a screen which shows black and white filmed scenes of a sword battle and horses charging. Though brief, these film clips don't really enhance the happenings on center stage, but seem rather inconsequential instead. The special effects in the opera are mostly okay, not of outstanding quality. Still, while some visual effects aren't the product of some bold new technique, they often succeed quite impressively, like the jets of fire from above and to the side of center stage in the Magic Fire Music scene at the end.

The sound reproduction is excellent, as is the picture clarity and camera work. There are four short bonus features on the second DVD: the first three feature commentary by cast members, conductor Pappano, Keith Warner, the repetiteur and orchestra members; and the fourth contains the cast gallery. As for the competition, this performance fares very well against it. I have seven other versions of this opera either on Blu-ray or DVD. In 2018 I reviewed Thielemann's excellent 2017 Salzburg Easter Festival Die Walküre here. There is an earlier one by Thielemann on Opus Arte from the 2010 Bayreuth Festival that is nearly as good. There are two by Daniel Barenboim: his 1992 Bayreuth effort on a Warner Classics DVD (review) and his 2010 La Scala performance on Arthaus Blu-ray (review). Both are truly splendid, though I favored the latter effort, not least because his Brünnhilde is Nine Stemme and his Sieglinde is Waltraud Meier. James Levine on a DG DVD offers a fine 1989 performance from the Met, and from Amsterdam Hartmut Haenchen on an Opus Arte DVD from 1999 is also quite good (review). Yet, these latter two have less up-to-date video and audio qualities and I believe at least the Haenchen effort falls a tad short of the best already mentioned anyway. Let me rule out an excellent Blu-ray performance from Naxos led by Jaap van Zweden because it is an audio-only disc, and here I'll deal only with video.

What's my recommendation then in this crowded field? This new Pappano-led effort is truly superb, but so is the recent one by Thielemann. To muddy the waters further, the 2010 Barenboim is another recording I would never want to part with and for that matter, his highly praised earlier recording featured the excellent Harry Kupfer production. Any one of these four would probably do, but I must get to a verdict here. Without much hesitation I would now choose, especially for the singing, this new Die Walküre by Pappano on Opus Arte. As mentioned earlier, Wagner traditionalists might find some aspects of the production objectionable, but the whole package is immensely satisfying. A tremendous performance!

Robert Cummings

Previous review (Blu-ray): Paul Corfield Godfrey



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