Bachtrack, 14 Mai 2021
|Von David Karlin
Wagner: Die Walküre, 1. Akt, Bayerische Staatsoper, 13. Mai 2021
A concert Walküre to remember: Kaufmann and Davidsen in Munich
It was always going to be a hot ticket and it turned out to be an emotional
event, with a distinct quaver in Intendant Nikolaus Bachler’s voice as he
welcomed a Bayerische Staatsoper audience – albeit a much reduced one – back
to the Nationaltheater after an absence of six months. It was a cast list to
send shivers up one’s spine: Jonas Kaufmann, still the world’s most
sought-after tenor, Lise Davidsen, a soprano at the very pinnacle of
Wagnernian voices, Georg Zeppenfeld, one of the very top basses of today.
Could the reality match the paper?
On the programme was Act 1 of Die
Walküre, a bite-sized chunk of the Ring Cycle that would make for a decently
self-contained episode in a TV series. Seeing this performed in concert –
evening dress, music stands – makes one focus on the music and especially on
the voices: there are no distractions from trying to decode a stage
director’s concept or even from assessing the protagonists' body language
and acting ability.
A few years ago, Stuart Skelton (another great
Siegmund), explained to me that the key to Wagner is to sing it as
beautifully as possible, because when Wagner wrote his operas, there was
only bel canto and that would have defined the singers he had available.
Last night’s performance demonstrated the virtues of that viewpoint in no
Kaufmann’s voice may have gone through a few wobbles
in recent years, but he was back to his sensational best. His sheer beauty
of timbre lit up the whole evening. His control of breath was exceptional –
no one else does a messa di voce quite like him. His shaping and colouring
of every phrase exuded both strength and delicacy. His diction was pin sharp
(no surtitles needed). Siegmund’s two cries of “Wälse”, surely the biggest
money notes in the whole of Wagner, were utterly thrilling, not overdone for
length and with a perfectly judged progression of colour and volume.
But even Kaufmann in peak form can be upstaged by the kind of performance
produced by Davidsen – a kind of love-child of bel canto and Lieder singing.
Next to the screen in my living room is a large antique armchair: so clearly
articulated and intense was Davidsen’s storytelling that I could imagine her
sitting in that chair pouring out the woes of Sieglinde’s back story.
Somehow, even when Wagner’s vocal line hits fever pitch in the high
register, even when the mood turns angry, Davidsen’s tone never becomes
anything other than bewitchingly beautiful – and yet the power and
laser-like accuracy with which she hits every note is indisputable. With the
concert format giving Kaufmann and Davidsen no need to act their own roles
when not singing, it was instructive to watch their faces: each of these top
singers was gazing at the other, rapt with admiration of the artistry they
It’s rare for opera composers to give the bass villain
the chance to put his voice on show to the same extent as the hero and
heroine, and the part of Hunding is no exception. Within those confines,
Georg Zeppenfeld showed that he’s in the same quality bracket as Kaufmann
and Davidsen: his voice is noble, refined, authoritative. If your view of
Hunding is a thug (as he is often played), you will need to readjust,
because in Zeppenfeld’s portrayal, he is tough and uncompromising but in no
In similar vein, the Bayerische Staatsorchester turned in
a cultured performance. You will have heard Die Walküre played at higher
octane, but not with more clarity or beauty of solos (the oboe solos were
particularly notable) or with more depth of resonance of brass ensembles.
Conductor Asher Fisch’s overall feel was brisk and he can be praised for not
turning up the decibels too far: given that the orchestra were on stage
rather than in the pit, the singers could easily have been swamped.
While curtain calls were made with a closed curtain, the orchestra departed
and a piano appeared for Fisch to accompany each singer in an encore:
Kaufmann singing Träume from Wesendonck-Lieder with heartfelt delicacy,
Davidsen reminding us of her beauty of voice in Grieg's Våren (Spring) and
Zeppenfeld capping it all with a gorgeous rendering of Richard Strauss’ “Wie
schön ist doch die Musik” from Die schweigsame Frau. “How beautiful is the
music!” Amen to that, Georg.
This performance was reviewed from the
Bayerische Staatsoper TV live video stream.