08 November 2016

BEST OPERA RECORDING OF 2016: Richard Wagner — DIE WALKÜRE (P. Lang, M. Goerne, H. Melton, S. Skelton, M. DeYoung, F. Struckmann; NAXOS 8.660394-97)

BEST OPERA RECORDING OF 2016: Richard Wagner - DIE WALKÜRE (NAXOS 8.660394-9)RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Die Walküre, WWV 86BPetra Lang (Brünnhilde), Matthias Goerne (Wotan), Heidi Melton (Sieglinde), Stuart Skelton (Siegmund), Michelle DeYoung (Fricka), Falk Struckmann (Hunding), Sarah Castle (Waltraute), Karen Foster (Gerhilde), Katherine Broderick (Helmwige), Anna Burford (Schwertleite), Elaine McKrill (Ortlinde), Aurhelia Varak (Siegrune), Okka von der Damerau (Grimgerde), Laura Nykänen (Roßweiße); Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra; Jaap van Zweden, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Hong Kong, China, 21 and 23 January 2016; NAXOS 8.660394-97; 4 CDs (also available in Blu-ray Audio format), 236:32; Available from NAXOS Direct, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

It is not without justification that the name Richard Wagner strikes fear into the hearts of singers, conductors, impresarios, stage directors, and audiences. Mostly rightly and occasionally wrongly, Wagner’s operas are perceived as long, loud, perilously difficult to perform, and steeped in a mythology into which the listener must submerge himself—without the aid of a Bulfinch or Edith Hamilton—or sit stupefied as processions of deities, dwarves, giants, and men invade the stage. The trouble with reputations is that they too often reflect an entity’s negative rather than the positive aspects, and to dismiss Wagner’s operas, especially Der Ring des Nibelungen, because of their reputed defects is to be deprived of some of opera’s greatest thrills. To hear the Siegfried of Bernd Aldenhoff awaken the Brünnhilde of Astrid Varnay in the 1951 Bayreuther Festspiele Siegfried or the Siegmund of Jon Vickers burst into the humble abode of the Sieglinde of Dame Gwyneth Jones in the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Die Walküre of 16 December 1972, is to forget Wagner’s reputation for impenetrable storylines and—according to Rossini—dull quarters of hours and surrender to the ecstasy with which he infused the four monumental scores that comprise his Der Ring des Nibelungen. The ‘Erster Tag’ in Naxos’s complete Ring-in-progress, arguably the most ambitious operatic project that any label can undertake, this recording of Die Walküre expands the discography with that rarest of commodities: a performance of this tremendously demanding opera that legitimately deserved to be recorded for posterity.

Like the account of Das Rheingold that preceded it, this second installment in Naxos’s new Ring was recorded during concert performances in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, documenting the first complete presentation of Wagner’s epic Der Ring des Nibelungen by an orchestra based in Hong Kong or mainland China. Here consistently on par with the work of their counterparts in the pits of the Bayreuther Festspielhaus, Wiener Staatsoper, and New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the playing of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra is contrastingly earthy, effervescent, and eloquent as the score demands. The primordial energy of the opening pages of Act One surges from the strings, and the brass and woodwind playing is often magnificent in Acts Two and Three. The orchestra’s performance is never less than thoroughly professional, and with that achievement they prove superior to many ensembles with decades-long associations with Wagner repertory. The postlude to Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde in Act Three, shaped by the composer almost like a Baroque ritornello, and the Zauberfeuermusik are sumptuously and soulfully played. From the first ominous notes of Act One to the cathartic final phrases of Act Three, the Hong Kong Philharmonic musicians rise to every spectacular challenge of the score, confirming that their stunningly beautiful city is a peer of Bayreuth as a home for idiomatic Wagner performances.

Music Director of both the Hong Kong Philharmonic and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, as well as Music Director designate of the New York Philharmonic, Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden has established himself as one of his generation’s most respected conductors and administrators, continuing the tradition of his countrymen Eduard van Beinum and Bernard Haitink. With an array of impressive Wagnerian credentials to his credit, not the least of which is his exhilarating leadership of Hong Kong Philharmonic’s Das Rheingold, Zweden brings a wealth of experience and obvious dedication to his conducting of this Walküre. Zweden’s pacing of this performance occasionally recalls two of the great Wagner interpreters of prior generations: the insightfulness that he displays in highlighting the ways in which Wagner used the orchestra to further character developments brings to mind the conducting of Wilhelm Furtwängler, especially in Act Two, and, in the penultimate and final scenes of Act Three, the care that he takes to allow both singers and orchestra ample flexibility with which to explore the complex emotions that unfold in their parts resembles the meticulous attentiveness of Sir Reginald Goodall. Zweden fosters and maintains a superb balance between intensity and rapt expressivity, never sacrificing momentum when granting passages the expansiveness that they require. Zweden’s tempi unerringly meet the demands of the score, and there are far greater senses of tension and resolution in this performance than in many faster-paced, more pushed Walküres.

For every Walküre blessed with a steady-voiced ensemble of Valkyries—and it is indeed a blessing—there are countless performances of the opera in which the warrior maidens’ wailing is markedly more comical than Wagner intended it to be. Perhaps young singers respond ‘Ja!’ when offered an opportunity to sing one of the Valkyries without fully considering the difficulty of the music. The band of sisters in this performance is without a poorly-tuned instrument, however. Sopranos Karen Foster, Katherine Broderick, and Elaine McKrill as Gerhilde, Helmwige, and Ortlinde and mezzo-sopranos Sarah Castle, Anna Burford, Aurhelia Varak, Okka von der Damerau, and Laura Nykänen as Waltraute, Schwertleite, Siegrune, Grimgerde, and Roßweiße are musically and dramatically effective, individually and en masse, shielding Brünnhilde and then bemoaning her fate with fearless singing. Their sounds are not unfailingly beautiful, but hearing a wobble-free account of their music gives great pleasure.

As recently as 2011, German bass-baritone Falk Struckmann was a lecherously libidinous, powerfully-sung Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca at The Metropolitan Opera. Vocally, the distance from Scarpia, a rôle that punishes a baritone’s upper register, to Hunding in Die Walküre is great, but Struckmann spans the divide with astonishing comfort. As the implacable voice of conventionality in this performance, he sings robustly, the solidity of the voice throughout the range granting the character’s sinister utterances added impact. When Struckmann voices ‘Die so leidig Los dir beschied,’ there is no mistaking Hunding’s meaning or his distrust of the visitor to his home. Similarly, the bass-baritone’s delivery of ‘Ich weiß ein wildes Geschlecht’ pulses with villainous intent. Struckmann’s Hunding is predominantly a brutish, single-minded bully, but there are indications in his untiringly musical performance that the harsh man’s love for Sieglinde is sincere if crudely possessive. Hunding has little to do in Act Two aside from slaying Siegmund and being slain himself, but Struckmann commits the fateful act of vengeance with growling malevolence, all too willing to be Fricka’s pawn in her battle of morals with her proud husband. Like Hagen in Götterdämmerung, Hunding too often falls victim to ugly barking and shouting. He is a cruel, largely one-dimensional man, but Wagner wrote notes for him, obviously expecting the music to be sung, not snarled. Struckmann takes care to sing the music, and the product of that care is a credible, atypically enjoyable Hunding.

Considering aficionados’ profuse (and largely justified) lamentations for the state of Wagner singing in the first sixteen years of the new millennium, that this recording preserves one of the finest performances of Act One of Die Walküre ever committed to disc is a fantastically welcome surprise. Listeners could hope to encounter no more appealingly heroic a pair of young lovers among the ranks of today’s Wagner singers than soprano Heidi Melton and tenor Stuart Skelton. As Siegmund rushes exhaustedly onto the aural scene, his enemies at his heels, Skelton’s baritonal, buttered-rum voice fills the recorded space thrillingly, his diction generally laudable and his intonation uncommonly accurate. Skelton sings ‘Wes Herd dies auch sei’ with resilient but not insensitive masculinity. There is an audible change in his Siegmund’s demeanor when he encounters Melton’s Sieglinde, as well there should be: who could resist the allure of such a voice and the lady who nurtures it? The young soprano, already a practiced Wagnerian whose Sieglinde at the 2016 Festspiele immediately—and rightly—became part of Bayreuth lore, voices ‘Müd am Herd fand ich den Mann’ demurely, the hard reality of Sieglinde’s marriage conveyed by the granite core of Melton’s voluptuous voice. Her tone radiates erotic tension as she sings ‘Schläfst du, Gast?’ That tension is further heightens the mood initiated by Skelton’s declamation of ‘Ein Schwert verhieß mir der Vater.’ He is a Siegmund for whom—and for whose listeners—the great exclamations of ‘Notung!’ hold no terrors, and he sings the impassioned ‘Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond’ with burgeoning optimism and genuinely beautiful tone. Melton’s account of ‘Du bist der Lenz’ is the rare performance of this music in which the sound of the voice credibly matches the meaning of the words: as she sings of him, it is possible to fully believe that, in the frigid context of her torturous life, Siegmund truly initiates a vernal blossoming, epitomized by the sonorous top A with which Skelton ends Act One.

Wagner’s orchestra leaves no doubt that the tribulations endured by Siegmund and Sieglinde in Acts Two and Three will be anything but pleasant. Seeking shelter in their flight from Hunding’s dogged pursuit in Act Two, Skelton’s Siegmund articulates ‘Raste nun hier, gönne dir Ruh!’ with unmistakable affection, and his abiding concern for Sieglinde is touching. Skelton evinces more emotional engagement in his performance of ‘So jung und schön erschimmerst du mir’ than many Siegmunds manage to do in all of the character’s music. The tenor makes both ‘Zauberfest bezähmt ein Schlaf’ and ‘Der dort mich ruft’ profoundly personal musings rather than stentorian outbursts, and few of the most accomplished Siegmunds past and present expressed themselves so eloquently in the Todesverkündigung: here, Skelton astutely imparts the devotion to his partner that is the catalyst for Brünnhilde’s awakening to human feelings, a vital component of the Ring’s drama which must far too often be taken on faith. In Sieglinde’s brief but extraordinary music in Act Three, Melton provides the kind of singing for which Wagner connoisseurs long, mostly in vain. The soaring lines of ‘Rette mich, Kühne! Rette mein Kind!’ and ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’ are conquered, not merely survived, a feat of which a number of fine Sieglindes cannot boast, and the control that Melton has over her colossal voice is awesomely apparent. Pining for another Flagstad and Melchior is as pointless as comparing every subsequent Sieglinde and Siegmund to them, but this Walküre features a Sieglinde and Siegmund who earn the implicit praise of favorable comparisons with their illustrious predecessors.

On a level of excellence comparable with that inhabited by this performance’s rhyming Wälsung twins, Melton and Skelton, is mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, whose power and upper-register impact hint that both Sieglinde and Brünnhilde are well within her grasp. Riveting as her Fricka in the Naxos Rheingold was, her interpretation of the character in Die Walküre is still more successful. Her singing of ‘So ist es denn aus mit den ewigen Göttern’ wields force mightier than blows of Wotan’s spear, and she detonates ‘Deiner ew’gen Gattin heilige Ehre’ like histrionic dynamite. The fact that a figure who appears only in Das Rheingold and in one scene in Die Walküre casts such a long shadow over Der Ring as a whole is a testament to the brilliance of Wagner’s concept of the character, but not all Frickas exert every ounce of authority given to them by the composer. DeYoung’s Fricka is a goddess to the tips of her fingernails and the peaks of her shining top notes, and hers are arguments that cannot be ignored.

Met in the opening minutes of Act Two, when her ‘Hojotohos’ are war whoops worthy of the worst cinematic depictions of Native Americans on the attack, the Brünnhilde of German soprano—and former mezzo-soprano—Petra Lang improves steadily after this inauspicious start. She lacks the trill requested by Wagner, but so has virtually every Brünnhilde in recent memory with the exception of Rita Hunter, and her tone sometimes becomes strident when the ears most want it to bloom. Expanding a portfolio of Wagner characterizations that already includes the Walküre and Götterdämmerung Brünnhildes in Marek Janowski’s Pentatone Ring, recorded during concert performances, and a splendid Isolde at the 2016 Bayreuther Festspiele, Lang’s Brünnhilde in this Naxos Walküre is a formidable creation. Vocally, hers is a mature, sporadically cynical rather than an obviously youthful-sounding Brünnhilde, but she is an intelligent, inventive singer who uses the sheer effort required to sing the rôle to project the character’s naïveté. Conversing with her father, this Brünnhilde mirrors Wotan’s frustration and world-weariness from the first notes of ‘Schlimm, fürcht’ ich, schloß der Streit,’ notes that she dispatches with solid, focused tone. The surprise that she expresses in ‘So nimmst du von Siegmund den Sieg?’ progresses organically to the disbelief and exasperation of ‘So sah ich Siegvater nie.’ In the Todesverkündigung, the scene in which Brünnhilde reveals to Siegfried that it is Wotan’s will that he must fall in the coming fight with Hunding, there is a hauntingly disembodied quality in Lang’s voicing of ‘Siegmund! Sieh auf mich’ that recalls the Brünnhildes of fellow mezzo-soprano converts Dame Gwyneth Jones and Elizabeth Connell. Her dramatic profile sharpens as the scene’s momentum builds, limning the metamorphosis from unquestioning daughter to a free-thinking, intuitive woman willing to defy her father’s instructions in pursuit of what she perceives—and what she knows that Wotan perceives in his innermost thoughts—as the greater good.

Brünnhilde’s transformation in Act Three of Die Walküre is arguably the most vital character development in the Ring. It is her assimilation of mortality and human feelings that propels the cycle to its conclusion, and Lang compellingly depicts that crucial journey in her portrayal. Her Brünnhilde bursts breathlessly into her sisters’ company with a steel-edged vaulting of ‘Schützt mich und helft in höchster Not!’ When her apprising the Valkyries of her daring rescue of the pregnant Sieglinde is interrupted by her quarry’s rousing, the tenor of her singing changes as noticeably as did that of Siegmund’s when he first discovered Sieglinde in Act One. Lang’s voice shimmers as she tells Sieglinde that the child growing within her will be the world-altering hero Siegfried. Brünnhilde knows that Sieglinde’s safety depends upon defusing Wotan’s anger, and the trepidation that infuses Lang’s singing of ‘Hier bin ich, Vater’ reveals that the girl comprehends that punishment even for her father’s most-loved child will be severe. As she presents her defense in ‘War es so schmählich, was ich verbrach’ and receives Wotan’s response and sentence, it is apparent that this Brünnhilde is shocked by the seeming heartlessness of Wotan’s treatment of her, effectively foreshadowing the moments in Götterdämmerung in which the former Valkyrie becomes cognizant of the intricacies and implications of her anguished father’s plan. Lang shrinks from none of her rôle’s demands, rising to the top Bs and Cs with confidence and stamina. A Brünnhilde in possession of all of the notes must be appreciated, but Lang inspires adulation with her keenly expressive uses of those notes.

The great triumph of Hong Kong Philharmonic’s Rheingold was German baritone Matthias Goerne’s Wotan, and it is a triumph that is redoubled in Die Walküre. The criteria by which success in Wagner repertory is gauged are vastly different from those that govern the assessment of any other repertory, but by any standard Goerne’s singing in this performance is masterful. Engaged in heated discourse by first his beloved daughter and then his wife, Wotan is bowed in Act Two by the weight of supreme power. Goerne discloses with his kaleidoscopic vocalism that, though troubled, Wotan is gladdened by Brünnhilde’s presence, his ‘Nun zäume dein Roß’ resounding with subtle relief. Fricka’s entry changes the dramatic temperature from paternal warmth to icy determination, his wife now a political adversary instead of a caring mate. The fury of ‘Der alte Sturm, die alte Müh’!’ does not completely mask the heartbreak, and the irony of ‘Was verlangst du?’ is both unnerving and pitiable. Whether partnering DeYoung or Lang, Goerne sings handsomely and heroically. He is a Wotan who rules as sagaciously by charisma as by manipulation, but he equally despairs and berates himself for having lost the upper hand when Fricka backs him into an ethical corner from which there is no escape. Ignited by shame, his sorrow and disillusionment boil as he admits to Brünnhilde that Fricka’s agenda must prevail. The baritone bites at ‘So nimm meinen Segen, Niblungen Sohn!’ like a caged lion. Nevertheless, suavity and nobility are evident here and in the final fight between Siegmund and Hunding.

It is in Act Three that a Wotan achieves or misses greatness, and it is in Act Three of this Walküre that Goerne carves for his Wotan a place of honor among those of Friedrich Schorr, Hans Hotter, and George London. There is brassy menace in Goerne’s singing of ‘Wo ist Brünnhild’, wo die Verbrecherin?’ that yields to the sort of ire that derives solely from the bitterest disappointment. As Goerne shapes the narrative in ‘So tatest du, was so gern zu tun ich begehrt’ and ‘Nicht streb, o Maid, den Mut mir zu stören,’ Wotan’s disappointment at his own monumental failures is manifested as vividly as his reaction to Brünnhilde’s disobedience. Goerne easily traverses the wide range of the music, as steady on high as in the lowest depths of the part, and he is more responsive to Wagner’s genius for using text to propel melodic lines than any Wotan on disc since Julius Huehn.

Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde can be one of opera’s most heart-wrenching scenes, the tragedy of a father separated from his child not by uncontrollable circumstances but by the necessity of preserving the social order of which he was the primary architect battering the foundations of the most basic human instincts. In Goerne’s performance, resignation and resistance claw at the god’s psyche as he sings ‘Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!’ Until his last note falls silent, it seems possible that Goerne’s Wotan could reverse his decision and restore Brünnhilde to her sisters, intensifying the sadness of his ultimate abandonment of her. The broken voice of every grieving father sings in Goerne’s exquisitely-phrased ‘Der Augen leuchtendes Paar,’ and he summons Loge in ‘Loge, hör! Lausche hieher!’ with vehemence aimed as much at himself as at Brünnhilde’s would-be molesters. The protecting fire already burns in this Wotan’s voice as he pronounces ‘Wer meines Speeres Spitze fürchtet.’ The debacles with which Wotan contends in Die Walküre furrow the brow and darken the visage of the youthful, virile god introduced by Goerne in Das Rheingold, but the voice remains an instrument worthy of the fabled halls of Walhall.

Die Walküre is the most popular of the four operas of Der Ring des Nibelungen because, amidst the titanic context of the cycle’s drama, it recounts a self-contained story with a beginning, an ending, and a logical path from one to the other, comprehension of the broader, symbolic importance of which is not necessary in order to appreciate the opera’s plentiful musical and dramatic virtues. Intriguingly, however, this Walküre is especially enthralling because it is clearly a chapter in a continuing saga: its surging linear storytelling benefits from knowing the origins of the characters’ plights, established in the preceding Das Rheingold, and having foreknowledge of how their destinies play out. Principally, though, this is a Walküre of enduring value because Wagner’s score is performed so well. Perfection is perhaps more difficult to attain and analyze in the performance of Wagner’s operas than in those of any other composer; and, in reality, that elusive perfection matters less. This Walküre aims for persuasion, not perfection, and it comes closer than many performances of the opera to the latter by proving so adept at the former.