Opera UK, May 2013
Hugo Shirley
Die Walküre, Wagner
Three years after the release of their Parsifal, here comes Die Walküre from Gergiev and his Maryinsky forces, the first instalment of a projected Ring cycle, recorded in the Maryinsky Concert Hall, which similarly mixes international principals with home-grown singers. And in this case those principals are perhaps even starrier. Rene Pape returns, here as Wotan; he is joined by Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund and Nina Stemme as an unusually human, rich-voiced Brünnhilde, both of whom are likely to top anyone's list for their roles today. Anja Kampe's Sieglinde is highly committed and powerfully sung, even if the sound can become a bit squally (the climactic 'O hehrste Wonne' in Act 3 is marred by some pronounced vibrato).

Ekaterina Gubanova is the better of the two Russian principals, her Fricka beautifully focused, noble and immoveable; Mikhail Petrenko's Hunding, not helped by accented German, strikes me as a little woolly and generic. The Valkyries are a lively, full-voiced bunch.

It is surprising, then, that the set only rarely adds up to a compelling experience. And the blame must largely lie with Gergiev, whose reading, admirably considered and detailed though it is, is surprisingly undramatic. The first act comes off worst, with tempos too often feeling a little cautious, and any erotic charge created by Kaufmann (in excellent voice, and enunciating the text beautifully) and Kampe routinely neutralized as Gergiev holds back, occasionally introducing additional little pauses, too. He doesn't stint on Wagner's sehr schnell' at 'Siegmund heiss' ich', but it's a bit late by then. Matters improve for Act 2, but the big confrontation between Fricka and Wotan seems short on tension, and the transition to the third scene lacks urgency. Gergiev's approach pays off in a slow-burning Todesverkündigung, with Kaufmann making sure Siegmund's moment of resolution registers powerfully. In Act 3, Pape is more than capable of sustaining the phrases of 'Des Augen leuchtendes Paar' at the slow tempo Gergiev takes, while suddenly the Magic Fire music, dispatched with glittering virtuosity, is a notch faster than one often hears.

The playing of the orchestra is of consistently fine quality (the principal trumpet is particularly excellent), and it's rare to hear Wotan and Brünnhilde sung as musically as they are by Pape and Stemme, but, despite their exemplary vocalism, neither manages to communicate a great deal in way of incisive, engrossing drama. Such a sense might be a result of the work having been recorded in three three-evening spans over the best part of a year. It is not helped, either, by engineering that too often makes the orchestra sound constricted (although, strangely, the upper winds are unnaturally vivid in the Ride of the Valkyries), makes Pape's voice sound underwhelming and gives the other voices too little space—I struggled to find a volume that sounded natural for all the elements in play. Ultimately, though, it is Gergiev's strangely reticent approach that leaves this Walküre, for all its considerable virtues, feeling rather tepid.

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