Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Die Walküre Thielemann Dorst

Wagner - Die Walküre
Conductor - Christian Thielemann
Director - Tankred Dorst
Stage design - Frank Philipp Schlößmann
Costumes - Bernd Ernst Skodzig
Dramaturgy - Norbert Abels

Siegmund - Johan Botha
Hunding - Kwangchul Youn
Wotan - Albert Dohmen
Sieglinde - Edith Haller
Brünnhilde - Linda Watson
Fricka - Mihoko Fujimura
Gerhilde - Sonja Mühleck
Ortlinde - Anna Gabler
Waltraute - Martina Dike
Schwertleite - Simone Schröder
Helmwige - Miriam Gordon-Stewart
Siegrune - Wilke te Brummelstroete
Grimgerde - Annette Küttenbaum
Rossweisse - Alexandra Petersamer
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus
Recorded at the Bayreuth Festival 21 August 2010
Opus Arte OA 1045 D (2 DVDs)

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It's been fifteen years since Wolfgang Wagner's last production for Bayreuth – Meistersinger in 1996. Nevertheless, Tankred Dorst's Ring is the last staging of the cycle that Wolfgang commissioned, and so marks the passing of an era. In retrospect it is probably going to look like a very radical change indeed. The jump from Wolfgang's Meistersinger to Katherina's was a genuine paradigm shift for the house, and the conceptual distance between Dorst's Ring and the new production from Wim Wenders, currently in preparation, seems destined to be just as extreme.
Faced with the most daunting challenging in all opera, Tankred Dorst opts to keep things simple. There is no radical reinterpretation here, no Freud, no Nazis, but he also largely avoids falling back on tradition too. Dorst's background is in theatre (spoken theatre), a fact that comes through in many aspects of his conception for Die Walküre. The setting for Act 1 is a derelict 18th century mansion, a scene you could equally imagine in Chekhov or Ibsen. The sets for each act are more or less static, and Dorst clearly expects the singers to really act. But the kind of acting he is looking for doesn't quite work on the opera stage. What could work as coherent characterisations in spoken theatre become assemblages of isolated an exaggerated gestures, simply through the scale and pace of Wagner's drama.
However, there are many scenes in this opera where the approach has its benefits. Each act has extended two-hander scenes: Siegmund and Sieglinde in Act 1, Wotan and Fricke and Act 2, Wotan and Brünnhilde in Act 3. Intimacy and empathy are required in each of these, and more spectacular productions run the risk of overpowering the emotion. And if the singers' gestures seem exaggerated, it is worth bearing in mind that the camera is much closer than the audience, so we are not really given the correct perspective, valuable as these detailed images are.
The one interpretive decision that does offer some genuine insights is the decision to visually separate the gods from the mortals. In the first and third acts, there is a high balcony, from which Wotan can look down on the action. That is traditional enough, to the point where it would be a radical departure for a production not to use this device. But the costumes also make the point; Siegmund, Sieglinde and Hunding are all dressed in plain, pastel shades, while the Valkyries and the gods have more elaborate dress. And there is no missing the Valkyries, who are dressed in crimson with transparent perspex helmets and shields, Wagner meets Kraftwerk if you will.
Conductor Christian Thielemann is a fascinating Wagnerian. He is an interventionist conductor who never lets the music just play itself; everything must be sculpted and shaped. That's not to say his approach is megalomaniac (although he's got that Karajan stare in all the photos); there is a real sensitivity to his approach, but he always makes his presence felt. In fact, his conducting perfectly complements Dorst's theatrical approach to the work. Just as Dorst places the emphasis on the individual utterances of the characters, so Theilemann moulds the music around their phrases. The orchestra rises and falls in line with the singers' phrases, rubato and dynamic gradations are brought into play to emphasise the meanings of lines, and the balance always favours the stage over the pit.
That means the singers don't have to work quite as hard as they might for, say, Solti or Karajan. This gives them scope to sing with real individuality, which will no doubt benefit the audio-only release which is currently available on CD. It means that Johan Botha can play out the naïve and heroic dimensions of Siegmund, Edith Haller the vulnerability of Seiglinde, and Albert Dohmen the conflicted emotions of Wotan. Vocally, the only two questionable casting choices are Dohmen as Wotan and Mihoko Fujimura as Fricka. Both seem more comfortable in the lower register of their part than at the top, although in both cases that can work to the advantage of the drama. Wotan's indecision can be heard in the timbral contrast between his lower and upper notes, while Fricka's cold-heated insistent demands have all the more power for the colourless, emotional neutrality of Fujimura's upper register. The Valkyries are an astonishing ensemble, and the singing at the opening of Act 3 is the best I've heard recorded.
As befits the high proscenium arch of the Festspielhaus, the sets are all quite vertical. That poses a problem for the camerawork, not least that the frame is essentially square – not ideal in the widescreen age. Most of the camerawork is done in closeup, which as I mentioned can make the acting gestures seem exaggerated. However, the editing is good, cutting between the various singers to keep the viewer closely connected to the action. There is a making-of documentary on the second disc, which is quite interesting although frustratingly brief. When the video team are interviewed, they imply that the editing was done live, which seems like an unnecessary pressure. The fact that the filming is of a single performance (21 August 2010) is interesting. I'm not sure there are any specific benefits to the viewer, but it is notable that the sheer musical perfection of what we hear is the result of a single unedited performance.
The sound quality is excellent, but highlights a peculiarity of the Festspeilhaus acoustic. Wagner went to great lengths to ensure the correct balance in the hall, and the raked orchestra pit is intended to emphasise the string sound over the woodwind and (especially) the brass. But the balance and volume of a symphony orchestra, which is what this is, has changed beyond all recognition in the intervening years, making these measures all but unnecessary. However, the result is a soundscape that is distinctly hierarchical, with the singers above the strings above the wind. And the hall has a surprisingly resonant acoustic too, there is a warmth to the recorded sound of the voices that can only come from the venue. None of these is a problem, but it is interesting that in these technologically advanced times, we are now in a position to hear every detail of the acoustical interventions that Wagner made for the performance of his own music. For the amount of Wagner out on DVD these days, it is reassuring that even at this level of technological detail, there is something about the Bayreuth Festival that will always make its productions distinctive.
Gavin Dixon

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