14 February 2013

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner—DIE WALKÜRE (Stemme, Pape, Kampe, Kaufmann, Gubanova, Petrenko; Mariinsky MAR0527)

Wagner: DIE WALKÜRE [MAR0527]

RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Die Walküre—N. Stemme (Brünnhilde), R. Pape (Wotan), A. Kampe (Sieglinde), J. Kaufmann (Siegmund), E. Gubanova (Fricka), M. Petrenko (Hunding), Z. Dombrovskaya (Gerhilde), I. Vasilieva (Ortlinde), N. Evstafieva (Waltraute), L. Kanunnikova (Schwertleite), T. Kravtsova (Helmwige), E. Sergeeva (Siegrune), A. Kiknadze (Grimgerde), E. Vitman (Roßweiße); Mariinsky Orchestra; Valery Gergiev [Recorded in Mariinsky Concert Hall, Moscow, during 06.2011, 02. and 04.2012; Mariinsky MAR0527]

Throughout 2013, the bicentennial of the birth of Richard Wagner will be celebrated by the operatic community, with performances of Wagner’s operas in virtually all of the world’s important opera houses and several new recordings planned.  The recent release of a recording of Tannhäuser—in which Nina Stemme, the present Walküre’s Brünnhilde, sings Elisabeth—continues Pentatone’s celebratory series of Wagner operas conducted by Marek Janowski, a series that will culminate in recordings of the Ring operas, recorded in concert.  Similarly, the Mariinsky Orchestra’s recording of Die Walküre launches a complete Ring, with release of the complementary Rheingold scheduled for autumn 2013.  Based upon the level of achievement in this Walküre, it must be hoped that the Mariinsky Ring does not suffer the same fate as DECCA’s effort with the Cleveland Orchestra and Christoph von Dohnányi, aborted after unimpressive sales of the Rheingold and Walküre performances.  Recordings of Die Walküre are certainly not in short supply, though, and even in the year in which Wagner’s bicentennial is celebrated it is possible to question the wisdom and desirability of recording the Ring anew, especially considering the expense incurred both by the record labels and the potential purchasers.  The vital consideration, then, is whether there are singers or conductors whose performances of Wagner’s music deserve to be preserved.  Only a few minutes into Act One of the present recording, the entrance of Siegmund gives notice that this recording is one that all Wagnerians will want to hear.

During the twenty-five-year tenure of their Artistic Director, Valery Gergiev, the Mariinsky Orchestra has been transformed from an ensemble appreciated almost exclusively for its performances of Russian music to a celebrated orchestra with a rich repertory—and discography—of international works.  In 2003, Maestro Gergiev presided over the first performance of the complete Ring presented in Russia for more than ninety years, a milestone in his leadership of the Mariinsky.  In the present Walküre, compiled from concert performances, the members of the Mariinsky Orchestra justify the esteem in which they are held by the international musical community.  Bringing the individual strengths gained from sterling performances of Russian opera to the music of Wagner, the players embrace the very different idiom with evident dedication, producing playing that rivals that of the greatest German and Austrian orchestras.  Nonetheless, this Walküre unfolds with a sonic ambiance very different from that of Bayreuth, with its notorious covered pit, or the Metropolitan Opera.  Recording the opera during concert performances partially accounts for this, but much of the difference can be attributed to both the orchestra and Maestro Gergiev.  Collectively, there is considerable brilliance in the orchestral playing, with particular honors going to the woodwinds and brass.  Russian repertory is littered with resplendent passages for woodwinds and brass, and the Mariinsky reeds and horns play with assured intonation rivaled only by their Wiener Philharmoniker counterparts.  No exposed passage embarrasses an instrumentalist, and the balance of the recording allows even the lowest bass grumblings consistent clarity.  The harps, often harmonically critical in Wagner’s music, are granted welcome prominence within the sonic landscape, and the high woodwinds in the ‘Zauberfeuer’ music glisten, highlighting the evolution of Loge’s musical transformation into fire.  Motifs that in many performances are unearthed by only the most attentive and practiced ears break the surface of this Walküre, supplying new insights even in a scene as musically sparse as the ‘Todesverkündigung.’  As a result of the balance of the recording, the orchestra occasionally overpowers the singers, which is not uncommon in performances of Die Walküre, whether staged or presented in concert.  The overall acoustic of the recording is slightly unnatural, but the dynamic range and richness of sound are very rewarding.

Maestro Gergiev brings to this Mariinsky Ring a wealth of experience as a Wagnerian in the world’s greatest opera houses, in addition to a lauded Mariinsky recording of Parsifal.  Pacing performances with an aim of producing a recording is a tricky business, one that has undermined the best work of fine conductors.  Thus far, the Wagner recordings in the Pentatone series have been of one-off concerts, whereas the Mariinsky Walküre is compiled from a series of performances: though recording a single performance introduces greater opportunities for debilitating blunders, recording multiple performances can create nightmares for producers, engineers, conductors, and casts by necessitating a consistency of approach that can prove elusive.  It is to the credit of the engineers involved with this recording that the editing is absolutely unobtrusive.  Maestro Gergiev maintains a firm grip on the reins, achieving the consistency necessary to theoretically elucidate an individual concept within the context of a recording compiled from multiple performances over a prolonged period of time.  Tempi for the most part are slow, allowing passages that are often rushed to unfold with exceptional clarity.  With committed singing from the cast, lapses in dramatic cohesion are mostly avoided, though musical phrases are often given prominence that threatens to stall narrative progression.  Musically, Maestro Gergiev’s attention to color in the orchestra recalls Ring performances conducted by Herbert von Karajan, but the sense of Wagner’s characters evolving, gradually but inexorably, towards their respective fates is shortchanged.  Scenes do not always unfold along traditional lines under Maestro Gergiev’s baton, but there are few idiosyncrasies that compromise the integrity of Wagner’s dramaturgy: the root of the problem seems to be an absence of personal engagement with the score on the part of Maestro Gergiev.  The care given to orchestral balances and logical if not always conventional phrasing produces an interesting Walküre and bodes well for the other installments of Maestro Gergiev’s Ring, musically: dramatically, considering that the challenges of the other Ring operas are more daunting than those of Walküre, greater focus on momentum will be paramount.

The Mariinsky’s Valkyries—Zhanna Dombrovskaya as Gerhilde, Irina Vasilieva as Ortlinde, Natalia Evstafieva as Waltraute, Lyudmila Kanunnikova as Schwertleite, Tatiana Kravtsova as Helmwige, Ekaterina Sergeeva as Siegrune, Anna Kiknadze as Grimgerde, and Elena Vitman as Roßweiße—are a formidable clutch of warrior maidens, their tones occasionally strident but little troubled by the wobbles that often affect Slavic voices.  The ‘Walkürenritt’ is exciting but not without humor.  The voices combine effectively in the cantilena-like passages in which the Valkyries plead with Wotan for clemency for their sister, and the abandon with which high notes are attacked reminds that these girls are happiest in the heat of battle.

Bass Mikhail Petrenko is a menacing presence as Hunding, his oily voice slithering through Wagner’s music with chilling precision.  The irony of Hunding’s false chivalry in granting Siegmund temporary asylum from both elements and enemies is evident in every note that Mr. Petrenko sings.  The intelligence of Mr. Petrenko’s singing makes Hunding less of a dolt than he is in many performances, with the sense that he is less Fricka’s puppet than an opportunistic mercenary.  His exchanges with Sieglinde in Siegmund’s presence drip with sarcasm, suggesting that this Hunding is the sort of abusive spouse whose crimes are always just out of sight.  Musically, Mr. Petrenko commands Hunding’s text and tessitura with complete security.

It is interesting to note that the Fricka of this performance, Ekaterina Gubanova, sang Giovanna Seymour in the Metropolitan Opera’s 2011 – 2012 production of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena.  Though Donizetti’s music is vastly different from Wagner’s, bel canto credentials are anything but a disqualification for singing Wagner.  It is well documented that Wagner hoped for bel canto ideals to extend to the singing of his music, though admittedly his vocal lines often suggest otherwise.  If Ms. Gubanova’s voice seemed slightly ungainly in Giovanna Seymour’s music, it is entirely in its element in Fricka’s.  To her credit, Ms. Gubanova’s Fricka is more womanly and audibly a wronged wife, wounded to the quick by her husband’s philandering, than many Frickas, but her baleful pronouncements to Wotan are voiced with dire authority.  This is a Fricka who is not merely a consort but a powerful goddess in her own right, pursuing her own agenda.  In order for Wotan’s denunciation of Brünnhilde to be completely convincing, Fricka must be a towering figure whose demands cannot be denied, and in this regard Ms. Gubanova’s performance is completely successful.  The phrasing is not unfailingly idiomatic, but the voice is fully capable of delivering the role with aplomb.  Top notes are granitic but solid, hurled out with defiance.  The equalization of vocal registers required to sing bel canto lines eloquently is in evidence throughout Ms. Gubanova’s performance, which ultimately amounts to a fiery, fierce Fricka.

The Wotan of René Pape is an intriguing compromise.  Mr. Pape is a bass singing a role that requires a bass-baritone voice, and the fact that several of Wotan’s highest notes, especially those in Act Three, push the singer to the very limits of his range cannot be overlooked.  While many prominent Wotans lack ease on high, Mr. Pape’s struggles with the extreme top of the tessitura undermines climaxes.  When the music stays low, however, Mr. Pape delivers a wonderfully assured performance, shaping many of the lower-lying phrases in Act Three with ease and greater firmness of tone than many singers bring to these passages.  Mr. Pape’s native German diction is very welcome, and though his is not an exceptionally nuanced or insightful concept of his role he recognizes Wagner’s often eloquent matching of musical lines to the conversational flow of text.  Perhaps the most involving aspect of Mr. Pape’s performance is his audible embarrassment at his favorite daughter witnessing his subjugation to his wife: not unlike Rigoletto’s reaction to Gilda’s first encounter with him in his jester’s garb, Wotan’s reaction to Brünnhilde’s confusion at his crumbling beneath Fricka’s unanswerable arguments is crucial to the opera’s ultimate conclusion.  Seeing her father’s will dominated by his wife’s awakens Brünnhilde’s desire to continue Wotan’s agenda and precipitates her fall.  Mr. Pape’s anger when confronting Brünnhilde after her rescue of Sieglinde is mild, sung with attention to vocal rather than dramatic values, but his farewell to his daughter is poised and poignant.  If Mr. Pape’s Wotan is not one for the ages, worthy of mention in the same breath with Friedrich Schorr and Hans Hotter, it is handsomely though not perfectly sung and convincingly balanced between virility and resignation.

If her soaring Leitmotif is to be interpreted literally, Sieglinde is the seed from which Brünnhilde’s self-sacrifice, the destruction of the gods, and the rebirth of humanity are grown.  It is interesting to note how few completely satisfying Sieglindes there have been in the years since Die Walküre was first performed in 1870, and it is delightful to hear from Anja Kampe a performance that comes so near to total mastery.  A veteran of several acclaimed Ring productions, Ms. Kampe knows her way round Sieglinde’s music, and she exhibits the acumen required to focus the voice appropriately for each scene.  In a sense, Sieglinde is similar to Verdi’s Violetta, each of Walküre’s three acts making different demands upon the singer: in Act One, Sieglinde awakens to true love with music of lyrical ecstasy; her terror in Act Two is depicted in rocketing dramatic lines; desperation and exultation in her final scene take her soaring to the top of her range.  In Act One, the infusion of warmth into Ms. Kampe’s voice as she converses with Siegmund makes audible Sieglinde’s recognition of her brother.  The sadness with which she sings of her life with Hunding is supplanted by radiant joy as she contemplates her flight with Siegmund, Ms. Kampe’s crisp diction contributing meaningfully to her persuasively excited singing.  Unfortunately, Maestro Gergiev’s approach chips away the foundations of the dramatic arcs that Ms. Kampe strives to build, but she makes her points movingly nonetheless.  In Act Two, Ms. Kampe’s Sieglinde battles fear, doubt, and uncertainly without resorting to stridency.  Sieglinde’s greatest challenge comes in Act Three, however, in the brief but unforgettable outpouring of ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’  Ms. Kampe builds to this climax with gleaming tone and a power that temporarily threatens to upset her refreshing security, but she manages to re-focus the voice and scale the heights with commendably sure intonation.  It is apparent from the strength with which she takes her leave in Walküre that this is a Sieglinde who will brave any hardship in order to safely deliver her son.  Ms. Kampe enters the company of Sieglindes who both earn sympathy and emerge from their vocal and dramatic trials with glory.

Much of the interest in the Metropolitan Opera’s Robert Lepage production of the Ring centered on the Siegmund of Jonas Kaufmann.  Mr. Kaufmann is without question one of the most significant singers of the current generation, and his forays into Wagnerian repertory have mostly been undertaken judiciously as the voice has darkened and expanded.  In comparison with Lohengrin, in which role Mr. Kaufmann was acclaimed prior to his inaugural Walküre performances, Siegmund’s tessitura is markedly lower, accessing Mr. Kaufmann’s burnished, baritonal lower register.  Natural diction shapes Mr. Kaufmann’s musical phrasing, enabling him to focus on the technical challenges of the music.  There is a touching simplicity to the Siegmund who stumbles into Hunding’s hut in search of shelter, and the sense of wonder that Mr. Kaufmann brings to Siegmund’s increasing cognizance of his ancestry is disarming.  Siegmund is no ‘holy fool’ like Parsifal, but there is more poetry in Mr. Kaufmann’s performance than in many Siegmunds.  This is not to suggest that any power is lacking in Mr. Kaufmann’s singing: in the context of concert performances, he brings impressive power to climaxes without forcing the voice.  At Maestro Gergiev’s tempo, Mr. Kaufmann’s ‘Winterstürme’ is an expansive performance, the tone beautifully bronzed and completely steady.  Steadiness is also an impressive hallmark of Mr. Kaufmann’s singing in the ‘Todesverkündigung,’ where the low tessitura poses daunting challenges for many tenors.  The boldness and unflinching focus of Mr. Kaufmann’s performance recall the acclaimed Siegmund of Jon Vickers.  Mr. Kaufmann’s timbre is leaner than his Canadian forbear’s, but he has little to fear from comparison with the best Siegmunds of past generations.  It can be debated whether Wagner repertory is natural territory for Mr. Kaufmann, but there are few instances in which hype proves as justified as in the case of this Siegmund.

Brünnhilde is a role in which the success of any Hochdramatischer soprano is measured.  In Die Walküre, the soprano singing Brünnhilde endures tremendous vocal ordeals—the infamous battle cry with which she makes her entrance demands trills and takes her, within a few bars, to top C—and has the difficult task of credibly portraying a free-spirited immortal whose brush with humanity engenders her own mortality.  In her initial interview with Wotan, the voice must possess the sharp edge of her father’s spear.  When she appears to Siegmund as the harbinger of death and destiny, her vocal lines inhabit the low tonal world of the man whom she addresses, presenting perilous choices of registers and vocal placement.  As she reveals Sieglinde’s pregnancy and plans the despondent mother’s escape, she must display spot-on intonation.  Perhaps most difficult is the necessity in her final scene with her father of audibly transforming from playful girl who has never suffered reproach to a troubled, remorseful figure who will wake in Siegfried fully a woman.  Few are the sopranos who accomplish these feats.  That Nina Stemme achieves almost total success, singing each scene almost as if she were checking requirements for a first-rate Brünnhilde off of a list, is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this Walküre.  When the young Brünnhilde greets her father at the start of Act Two, it is obvious that this is a maiden who enjoys nothing more than doing Wotan’s bidding on the battlefield.  She is audibly confused and exasperated by Wotan’s response to Fricka’s ultimatum, however, and her uncomplicated psychology is shattered by her observation of Siegmund’s love for Sieglinde.  After triumphantly rescuing Sieglinde and the unborn Siegfried, Ms. Stemme’s Brünnhilde stoically faces Wotan’s bitterness, offering her defense imperturbably.  Ms. Stemme is one of the few Brünnhildes heard in recent years whose voice is genuinely worthy of the role in terms of vocal amplitude, and her singing on this recording is a rare example of a Wagner performance for which no apologies must be made.  Ms. Stemme’s is a large but also an attractive voice, and she sings with near-native command of the text.  It is clear from her first notes that this Brünnhilde is no shrinking violet but also no mindless harpy.  Intelligence and emotional directness are central to Ms. Stemme’s performance.  While she does not achieve the dramatic wonders remembered from the Brünnhildes of Martha Mödl and Dame Gwyneth Jones, Ms. Stemme sings more securely and beautifully than either of her esteemed predecessors.  Her interpretation of Brünnhilde will likely deepen with time, but it is a great gift to Wagner on the occasion of his 200th birthday to have a Brünnhilde as imposing, impressive, and thoroughly capable as Ms. Stemme recorded in her prime.

Despite significant drawbacks, it would be churlish to regard this Walküre as a missed opportunity.  A recording that preserves the superb singing of Nina Stemme, Anja Kampe, and Jonas Kaufmann in clear, well-balanced sound is a major addition to the Wagner discography.  By many Wagnerians’ assessments, Die Walküre is the most dramatically straightforward of the Ring operas, however, and the one that works best on its own, without benefit of the accompanying operas in the tetralogy.  No matter how excellent the quality of singing is in any performance, the task of building a compelling Walküre does not fall solely to the singers, and in this regard it is regrettable that the worthy singing of the principals does not enjoy the dramatically alert setting it deserves.  Perhaps there is something valid to be said for leaving room for improvement.  That is emphatically done in this recording, but this Walküre is still a vehicle for wonderful Wagner singing and, on those terms alone, is likewise an auspicious beginning to what is likely to be a divisive but endlessly fascinating Ring.