One of the glories of a well-executed performance of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle is the sonic dimension of the work, with the dramatic contrasts between the larger musical canvasses and the more intimate ensembles that occur between several voices and within the orchestra itself.
This recording of Die Walküre meets those challenges in a recording that is sonically responsive to Wagner's score. Celebrating the accomplishments of the State Opera of South Australia, this performance is led by Asher Fisch, whose leadership and vision is apparent throughout the work. His tempos and pacing are convincing and allow the vocal line to emerge clearly throughout the work.
The first act is notable on various counts, with the telling opening having a fine sense of urgency that propels the drama forward. With the entrance of Siegmund, the tenor Stuart Skelton... offers a fine interpretation that stands out for the elegant phrasing and diction that brings together the text and the music. Skelton's scenes are compelling, and this recording shows his voice well. The well-known passages in the first act show a Siegmund who is attentive to the conventions of the role and also makes it personally expressive. Skelton's sustaining of certain syllables reinforces the text, while not distorting the rhythm, and it demonstrates his individual stamp on the role. Richard Green is necessarily assertive as Hunding, who creates his role admirably, and his scene with Siegmund at the end of the second act is quite solid.
Deborah Riedel is also fine in interpreting the role of Sieglinde in her spirited performance. The "Winterstürme" scene is well played, with the requisite emotion matched by their musical involvement that culminates with Sieglinde's "Siegmund, so nenn ich dich!" While there is nothing visual to suggest their demeanor on stage, the performance itself suggests that Skelton and Riedel work well together, a crucial element for this demanding act.
The second act involves the soprano Lisa Gasteen (a winner of the Cardiff 'Singer of the World' competition) as Brünnhilde and John Bröcheler as Wotan, and their efforts are shaped by Asher Fisch. The vocal line is always present and Fisch is careful to allow the orchestra to accompany and never dominate. Because of the attention given to this aspect of the work, the diction could be clearer and more pointed. Yet the interchanges between those two individuals, later joined by Elizabeth Campbell in the role of Fricka, is engaging and contributes to this recording.
The third act exhibits the dramatic tension that must occur in the opera. This is evident in the opening Ride of the Valkyries, always a popular scene not matter how it may be staged, and yet the urgency among the singers in this production is evident. The resolve that Gasteen delivers as Brünnhilde is effective, and it intensifies when she is paired with Bröcheler. Moving between the more extroverted gestures of the opening scene to the intimacy of the ones that follow it, the fine sound quality of this hybrid SACD helps in delivering the nuances of the performances. As a live performance, though, the recording has minimal audience noise or other background sounds, with the sound quality chosen being full without sounding artificially enhanced. The stage sounds that occur from time to time serve to remind the listener that this CD is derived from live performances (between 16 November and 12 December 2004), rather than the result of studio performances, and that may account for the exciting that colours much of the recording.
This performance represents some fine Australian music-making, and the celebratory nature of the release is evident in various ways. For one, the packaging differs from conventional opera recordings in having the liner notes, libretto, and CDs bound together with a sewn signature that keeps the materials together neatly and unobtrusively. All in all, it resembles a small book, and in concept it prevents the various components from from becoming lost as they are used. Thus, the libretto is never far from the CDs, and the liner notes conveniently include detailed track listings that refer back to the pages of the text that follow.
This is an exciting performance of Die Walküre with a young cast, whose enthusiasm is one of its assets. The direction that Asher Fisch offers is notable, and those who may not have yet experienced his work in the opera house can gain a sense of it from this recording. This is a remarkable effort from the State Opera of South Australia, and the company deserves credit for mounting what must have been an exemplary production and bringing it to the wider public in such a laudable manner.