Opera Britannia, 8 February 2013
Die Walküre (Mariinsky) *****
play fantasy opera casting! You’re commissioning a recording of Die Walküre,
the first release in a projected Ring cycle to mark Wagner’s bicentenary.
Money is no object. Assemble the finest cast you can. Pencils poised? Go!
When EMI recorded its Tristan und Isolde in 2004-5, with Antonio Pappano
conducting, it was widely heralded as the last major studio recording of an
opera. There have been examples since, of course, but the giants of yore –
DG, Decca, EMI – have largely given up the ghost when it comes to big opera
recordings. It’s cheaper to capture them live in concert or to release
recordings of productions from opera houses. If you miss a cinema screening
of a production from the Metropolitan Opera, rest assured that DG will be
along to issue it on DVD within a year. Some orchestras and institutions
have their own labels specifically to distribute their performances to a
wider audience. LSO Live was one of the first (and most successful), while
the Mariinsky hails from the same stable.
Valery Gergiev, in a
characteristically ambitious move, is now at the helm launching a recorded
cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen. He has a long association with Wagner,
although not one that has been met with universal adoration. His detractors
are quick to point to the quality of productions with which he’s been
(personally) associated – derisory, according to some, regarding his vision
of the Ring – while his casting of Mariinsky-based singers who are less than
idiomatic in Wagner has not always paid off. His recording of Parsifal won
praise largely because of its luxury casting of Gurnemanz. For Die Walküre,
however, there is a noticeable difference. A booklet and slipcase box credit
thanks Yoko Ceschina ‘for her generous support’. I can’t begin to speculate
on the size of her financial donation, but it has helped gather a pretty
fine cast, the like of which any opera house would be drooling over.
Recorded in concert and studio sessions from 2011 and 2012, it will also be
the envy of the major labels.
How is your fantasy cast list shaping
up? You’ll want a first-rate Wotan, of course. Bryn Terfel would be at the
top of many lists, having recently performed in cycles at the Met and Covent
Garden. He inhabits the role like few others, but for an audio only account
his vivid characterization, with shouts and snarls, might be considered too
much. No, for a bass voice of sheer beauty, step forward René Pape, the
Gurnemanz from that Parsifal recording. I have rarely heard such an eloquent
Wotan. His Act II narration adopts a hushed, confidential manner, while his
second ‘Geh!’ could fell a stronger man than Hunding. Pape’s rich tone is
most welcome in Wotan’s Farewell, especially in the long lines of ‘Der Augen
leuchtendes Paar’ through to the god’s tender kiss upon Brünnhilde’s eyes.
Pape is not an extrovert vocal actor, but everything is done tastefully,
without a single ugly sound produced.
Brünnhilde is an even harder
role to cast, a challenge rarely met if the standards heard on recent London
and New York broadcasts are anything to go by, which occasionally plummeted
to a level marked ‘lamentable’. So, which Wagner soprano would top your
list? Nina Stemme? Certainly. No problem. The performance of this great
Swedish soprano can stand comparison with her compatriot Birgit Nilsson;
rock solid throughout her range, with gleaming top notes without any great
wobble or sense of blasting the speakers. She interacts with Pape extremely
well. I sincerely hope she will be cast across the cycle. Anyone enraptured
by her Isolde at Covent Garden in 2009 will want to hear Stemme’s
I imagine just about every Wagnerian would put
Jonas Kaufmann at the head of their wish-list casting for Siegmund and –
rather wonderfully – that’s what the Mariinsky has done here. ‘A voice as
soft as wild honey dripping from a tree’ – Kipling describing Bagheera, the
black panther in The Jungle Book; it could equally be applied to Kaufmann,
whose baritonal timbre and almost smoky half tones make his Siegmund
intensely masculine. His ‘Winterstürme’ is softly ardent, immediately
answered by a beautiful ‘Du bist der Lenz’ from our Sieglinde. Anja Kampe
might be a surprise choice for some – her Wagner hasn’t always been
ecstatically received – but she sings all the notes with a good deal of
control. She is possibly less warm than Eva-Maria Westbroek, but she sings
tenderly when required and opens into a marvellous ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’ in
Act III. Kaufmann and Kampe are simply thrilling at the end of Act I, so
much so that it elicited a cheer from this armchair listener.
Hunding and Fricka are cast from Gergiev’s Russian roster, but two
impressive singers who have very decent careers ahead of them. Mikhail
Petrenko’s Hunding isn’t the grizzled hunter, but a plausibly young husband
of Sieglinde and more of a threat as a result. Ekaterina Gubanova sings a
very fine Fricka, firm-toned, without the haranguing tone sometimes
associated with ageing mezzos taking on the role. In most Walküre recordings
of the past couple of decades, there has been at least one serious vocal
drawback in the main casting. No such fault can be applied here.
Valkyries are drawn from Mariinsky forces and they’re a decent team. In a
nice touch, for those listening in 5.0 surround sound, they approach from
different directions in the infamous ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, so that
Helmwige, for example, calls over your left shoulder on her first
appearance, lending a sense of theatre to proceedings.
And so to
Gergiev. While criticisms of his productions and his casting may have been
deserved, he is now an experienced Wagner conductor. His Parsifal on disc
and in the concert hall suits the darker timbre of his orchestra and in
Walküre he maintains narrative momentum well, without the rather excitable,
fitful approach of someone like Pappano. It’s sometimes a bit of a slow burn
– nothing like as slow as Levine (who is?) – but it burns with an intensity
which is welcome and well sustained. The orchestral playing is excellent,
especially lower woodwinds in solo passages, while the brass is superb. The
recording, from the fine acoustic of the Mariinsky Concert Hall, is
sumptuous. It is not possible to tell how much was recorded in concert and
how much from ‘studio conditions’; there were times when I felt aware of an
audience, although no applause is retained.
Das Rheingold is
scheduled for release later this bicentenary year, but Siegfried and
Götterdämmerung have to wait until 2014. It is to be fervently hoped that
Gergiev’s luxury casting stretches to the whole cycle.