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Keith Warner’s iconic production sets the stage for Wagner’s epic tale of family and power. Antonio Pappano conducts an outstanding cast including Nina Stemme, John Lundgren, Sarah Connolly, Emily Magee, Stuart Skelton and Ain Angerin in Keith Warner’s ‘outstanding staging’ (Evening Standard) of Die Walküre. Die Walküre is the second opera in Richard Wagner’s four-opera-cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. It is the most performed work in the cycle, loved and admired for its nuanced and intelligent exploration of complex family entanglements through music of astonishing emotive power. This includes the glorious music for the incestuous lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde, and Wotan’s passionate farewell to his beloved daughter Brünnhilde.
This performance of Die Walküre came as part of a Ring cycle at the ROH running from September 26 to November 2, 2018. The four operas were generally well received and if I can judge their quality from this one alone I can say I'm certainly not surprised by their positive reception. In the age of opera studio recordings, singers and musicians could do multiple retakes over many days, but now in the era of video, live efforts such as this one are usually culled from just a few performances. The dates given in the album booklet here indicate this one is derived from just two, which is all the more remarkable, suggesting the singers, pit musicians and conductor were truly in their element in this performance and thus likely throughout the entire cycle. But of course, there is another aspect to every opera on video—the production, what you see on stage. So, the issue is, this Die Walküre will have to be an exceedingly strong one in just about every respect to succeed in the marketplace, owing to the plentiful competition, which I'll deal with shortly. Let me start with the singers here.
Nine Stemme is probably the finest soprano to portray Brünnhilde that I've ever encountered on video. She doesn't have a weak or prosaic moment in this opera. John Lundgren as Wotan is also excellent: full-voiced and utterly immersed in his character—becoming Wotan, in fact—he is splendid, coming across as domineering and adamant, cold and vengeful, but struggling still in his attempts to deny all emotion. He is brilliant throughout the opera actually, and like Stemme, divulges nothing even tinged of mediocrity in either his singing or acting skills. Stuart Skelton as Siegmund is also extremely convincing, capturing the essence of his character as well, his singing and dramatic abilities consistently impressive. Emily Magee catches fire in the latter third or so of Act II and continues in the same spirited vein in the last act, really showing total involvement and singing her heart out, perhaps inspired to rival the imposing stage presence of Nina Stemme. Ain Anger as Hunding is more than adequate, as is Sarah Connolly in the role of Fricka. I'm not sure that any recording tops this cast in the competition from the video realm, though there are of course some great performances on older recordings in LP and CD formats.
Antonio Pappano generally employs somewhat brisk tempos and seems to grasp fully the emotional trajectory of each scene in his well-conceived and imaginative phrasing of the score. The ROH Orchestra respond with great spirit in their performance and also strike you as fully connected to this opera's strange but compelling world. There is much flair to their account of the Ride of the Valkyries' music but they also deliver the more subtle moments in the score in the same committed manner.
As for the staging aspects of this Keith Warner production, they are quite effective for the most part, though some Wagner traditionalists will likely object to certain liberties taken in this account. I found Warner's take on this opera generally quite fine though, not a radical rethinking of the story's events and characters. The costuming is a mixture of tattered medieval and casual modern, though Fricka's regal dress is an exception in the former category. The sets typically seem to convey symbolism, often in an inscrutable way.
It must be said that some aspects of this production don't go so well. The Ride of the Valkyries scene to open Act III is a bit awkward in execution, at least in the out of sync choreography of the eight warriors as they wave their horse skeletons in the air and traipse about the stage. Their singing is fine though, and their sense of drama quite good. In the background the wall serves as a screen which shows black and white filmed scenes of a sword battle and horses charging. Though brief, these film clips don't really enhance the happenings on center stage, but seem rather inconsequential instead. The special effects in the opera are mostly okay, not of outstanding quality. Still, while some visual effects aren't the product of some bold new technique, they often succeed quite impressively, like the jets of fire from above and to the side of center stage in the Magic Fire Music scene at the end.
The sound reproduction is excellent, as is the picture clarity and camera work. There are four short bonus features on the second DVD: the first three feature commentary by cast members, conductor Pappano, Keith Warner, the repetiteur and orchestra members; and the fourth contains the cast gallery.
What's my recommendation then in this crowded field? This new Pappano-led effort is truly superb, but so is the recent one by Thielemann. To muddy the waters further, the 2010 Barenboim is another recording I would never want to part with and for that matter, his highly praised earlier recording featured the excellent Harry Kupfer production. Any one of these four would probably do, but I must get to a verdict here. Without much hesitation I would now choose, especially for the singing, this new Die Walküre by Pappano on Opus Arte. As mentioned earlier, Wagner traditionalists might find some aspects of the production objectionable, but the whole package is immensely satisfying. A tremendous performance!
– MusicWeb International (Robert Cummings)