With its intense lyricism, turbulent heroics and arguably the most ravishing, intriguing and effective orchestration Wagner ever devised, Die Walküre has always been the most popular of the four operas that make up the composer’s Ring Cycle. Melba Recordings has now released a performance recorded onstage in November and December 2004, when the opera was performed in Adelaide by predominantly Australian forces. It makes an excellent showcase for the complete work (after the other three operas have been independently released over the next 18 months, the whole cycle will be available as a boxed set in late 2007). This is the first Australian recording of the complete cycle, so this is historic, to say the least.
Any good orchestra can deal effectively with Wagner’s big bow wow moments, and the famous (notorious?) ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ won’t disappoint any listener who turns first to the beginning of Act III – the Valkyries give the trumpets and trombones a run for their money, Hojotohoing and Helaha-ing with the best will in the world. In short, everything is as it should be. But listen to the playing of the more introspective pages of the score – the four horns at the beginning of the Act II passage between Brünnhilde and Wotan, for instance, and the transition between scenes three and four of Act II, leading to the moment when Siegmund raises his eyes from his fainting sister / wife and sees above him the fatal figure of Brünnhilde. The whole wind section is brilliant throughout, and the strings produce luscious sound.
If it is unusual to start a review of an opera with a tribute to the orchestra, it is partly because the support this band offers to the singers is remarkable: never overwhelming, always tactful and carefully guided by Asher Fisch, a conductor who lets Wagner speak for himself, with no attempt to over-dramatise climaxes or distract attention from the vocal line by encouraging over-sensuous or delirious sound from the pit. The orchestra accompanies the singers with all of the discrimination of a fine pianist accompanying lieder. Overall, Fisch’s direction is neither rushed (Sawallisch), over-relaxed (Knappertsbusch) or over-expansive (Goodall). What he does, simply, is concentrate on conveying the composer’s intentions, without interposing his own personality. Far from this making for dullness, it freshly illuminates passage after passage.
In the same way, the principals respect the text. Too often we hear Wagner’s lines sung as a succession of marvellous musical phrases whose sound is more important than the sense and narrative they are intended to forward. John Bröcheler’s Wotan is a model in this respect. He commands the necessary range (from low G to top F) with confidence, and his attention to the detail of the libretto pays off brilliantly both in his scene with a noble Fricka (Elizabeth Campbell, his equal in an intelligent approach to the text) and in the wrathful scenes with Brünnhilde and the closing pages of the score, which are among the most moving Wagner ever wrote.
Vocally, the obvious stars of the piece are Stuart Skelton and Deborah Riedel as Siegmund and Sieglinde, the brother and sister whose passion gives birth to the eponymous hero of the next opera in the series, Siegfried. Skelton creates a wonderfully moving, introspective moment in Act I when he explains to Hunding and Sieglinde why his name is Wehwalt (“Woeful”) rather than Friedmund (“Peaceful”), but is equally effective in his great cry of “Wälse! Wälse!” a few minutes later, as he implores his dead father to show him the sword with which he is to fight the villainous Hunding. He is a genuine heldentenor, but his voice has dark tones that give him an advantage over those tenors who can find the low tessitura of the part taxing, and lend effective sensuality to his performance.
In the sublime exchange with Sieglinde that follows – "Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond" – both he and Reidel sing magnificently. In this scene and later she shows herself to be a splendidly convincing actress as well as an effective and thoughtful singer with a naturally appealing voice. She is especially persuasive in the scene in Act II when, exhausted by their flight from Hunding, she moves from rapture to terror. Richard Green as Hunding gives a thrusting, virile, malevolent performance suggesting the right forceful sexuality. His voice is powerful and has an appropriately terrifying edge, but entirely lacks vocal harshness. In fact, there is very little shouting by the male principals, which in any production of the Ring is a noteworthy achievement.
There remains Lisa Gasteen, much praised for her Brünnhilde. I seem to remember that when she won the Cardiff Singer of the World contest 15 years ago Dame Joan Sutherland, one of the judges, remarked that Gasteen’s natural home might be with Wagner, and she was certainly right … she sings with assurance, beauty, and, again, intelligence. Her great scene with Wotan at the end of the opera is intensely moving, and one looks forward keenly to hearing her in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.
The other historic aspect of this release is that it is the first Ring Cycle to be recorded in the new SACD (super audio compact disc) surround sound digital recording technology. There is no question that the sound quality of this splendid record of a remarkable achievement is brilliant.
It was recorded under the supervision of Maria Vandamme, and the careful placing of 64 separate microphones and meticulous editing (by Ian Perry and the recording’s sound engineer Phil Rowlands) has resulted, as far as I could hear, not only in fine sound quality, but the complete absence of audience noises and of most intrusive stage sounds.
Expense now effectively rules out the production of major operas under studio conditions, and it is more important than ever to be able to record live productions as they are sung on stage in a quality that can be favourably compared to the best studio recordings. This is a tall order, but the achievement is obviously within reach. Listening to the SACD recording on first-rate equipment … the sound is fairly indistinguishable from that you would hear when occupying seat C36 in the opera house … [and] both in the most intimate and the most grandiose moments of the score, it is overwhelmingly effective.
However, it’s idle for the record companies to suggest that SACD is as much of an improvement over conventional CDs as they were over vinyl records, or indeed stereo over mono. The truth is that anyone who simply enjoys listening to music, rather than studying the sound it makes with the intensity of a research scientist peering down a microscope, will find this recording entirely satisfactory on any reasonably good sound system.
It is also worth remembering that the very best sound quality cannot add or detract one iota from the value of a performance. This recording will be enjoyed both by those who have SACD equipment and by those who cling to their much-loved ancient audio set-up. There is little doubt that this is going to be a complete Ring recording that will appeal worldwide …