Friday, 14 November 2008

DVD Review: Die Walküre, Festival d'Aix en Provence, BPO/Rattle

Bel Air Classiques BAC034. Filmed live in high definition at the Festival d'Aix en Provence, July 2007.

Grand Théâtre de Provence

Siegmund – Robert Gambill

Hunding – Mikhail Petrenko

Wotan – Sir Willard White

Sieglinde – Eva-Maria Westbroek

Brünnhilde – Eva Johansson

Fricka – Lilli Paasikivi

Gerhilde – Joanna Porackova

Ortlinde – Elaine McKrill

Waltraute – Julianne Young

Schwertleite – Andrea Baker

Helmwige – Erika Sunnegårdh

Siegrune – Heike Grötzinger

Grimgerde – Eva Vogel

Rossweisse – Anette Bod

Stéphane Braunschweig (director and designer)

Thibault Vancranenbroeck (costumes)

Marion Hewlett (lighting)

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

The star of this Walküre is, without a shadow of doubt, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. I doubt that the music can ever have been played better than it is here. Every section of the orchestra has an opportunity to shine and takes it; the blend is equally impressive. Astonishing immediacy of sound in the storm-Prelude to Act One, for which Bel Air's recording must take credit, enables us to hear and to feel bows flying off 'cello strings and the richness of tone really must be heard to be believed. The same may be said of the celebrated 'cello solo at the beginning of the act: full of hope, promise, potential. In much of this act there is a sense of chamber music, albeit on a grand scale, recalling Karajan’s Wagner. This does not preclude weight of orchestral tone, for instance at Siegmund’s cries of ‘Wälse, Wälse,’ yet such tone was differentiated, never monolithic. Kettledrums punctuate ominously whilst the woodwind are simply delectable. When Wotan tells Brünnhilde of the Nibelung host threatening Valhalla, it is in the orchestra – Wagner’s modern-day Greek chorus – that terror truly registers. The orchestral thunder as Wotan arrives in Act Three is not only splendid on its own terms; it ensures that even a Ride of the Valkyries as spirited as we have just heard does not overshadow what is to come: keen strategy on the part of Sir Simon Rattle. And by far the most moving parts of the final scene were those in which the orchestra truly spoke, unhindered by voices.

Rattle’s direction is generally reliable and often more than that. He certainly knows how to secure the sounds he desires from his orchestra and rarely indulges in the micromanagement that characterised some of his earlier work in Berlin. (Conductor and orchestra’s triumphant Tristan-excerpts and Turangalîla-Symphonie at this year’s Proms were indicative of a greater naturalness than had sometimes previously been the case.) If the long line does not sound quite so inevitable, quite so symphonically conceived, as in the work of the greatest Wagner conductors, they have all benefited from greater experience with the Ring. Rattle’s reading remains worlds away from the unstructured choppiness that has so bedevilled Antonio Pappano’s London Ring. My only real reservation lies with the conclusion to the first act. For all the extraordinary beauty of the Berlin Philharmonic’s playing, the direction during this scene sometimes wants greater forward propulsion. At times, it sounds oddly held back: almost defensible when we thereby revel in ravishing woodwind detail, not so otherwise, when it merely sounds arbitrary. There is no competition here for the all-consuming passion of the Boulez-Chéreau Ring on DVD – having Peter Hofmann and Jeannine Altmeyer enhances visual credibility, of course – nor indeed for many audio recordings. Karajan, with Jon Vickers and Gundula Janowitz, remains a favourite of mine in this respect. Furtwängler naturally remains in a class of his own.

The cast is generally of a high, if not overwhelming standard. Mikhail Petrenko and Eva-Maria Westbroek seemed to me strongest. Petrenko’s Hunding arrives looking and sounding every inch the brutal bourgeois: black of tone, yet never unmodulated. This Hunding is no mere caricature, however; he is possessed of a dark, gangsterish attraction. Despite the odd instance of spread at the top of her range earlier on, Westbroek’s Sieglinde develops into a stronger character than we often see and hear. If I remain wedded to the silvery beauty of Gundula Janowitz as the examplar for how this part should sound, that is no reason to dismiss other approaches, especially when conceived so intelligently as here. In the third act, ‘O hehrstes Wunder! Herrlichster Maid’ sounds as expectantly radiant as I can recall, quite outshining Eva Johannson’s Brünnhilde, the weakest link in the cast. Johansson can ‘do’ youthfully impetuous, although camera close-ups do her no favours. More seriously, her diction and intonation leave a great deal to be desired. Much of her third act music is sharp, shrill, and wobbly. Moreover, she comes to sound and look somewhat deranged; it is difficult to ascertain whether this were intended.

Robert Gambill’s Siegmund is ardent if occasionally a little strained – ‘Winterstürme’ would be a case in point. It may be unfair but one inevitably compares him with his predecessors and the voice is not always at the level of the best of them. Still, he can act well – which cannot truthfully be said of all of them – and he looks the part of an outlaw. His tenor is often baritonal in heft yet remains unmistakeably a tenor. Sir Willard White is a good Wotan, although once again, when one considers his predecessors, one realises that this is no John Tomlinson, let alone Hans Hotter. One can see the anguish in White’s face and often hear it in his voice. His second act monologue was commanding, if some way short of unforgettable.

Rattle, according to a booklet interview, entertains a strange conception of Fricka. It is fair enough to recoil from portraying her as a shrew but ‘the most sympathetic and reasonable figure in the entire opera’? As ‘the orchestra makes ... clear’? What of the rapturous evocation of the Volsungs’ mutual love as Wotan speaks of them? Wagner, in a letter to Theodor Uhlig, refers to Wotan’s ‘struggle with his own inclination and with custom (Fricka)’. The incestuous union of Siegmund and Sieglinde entails no crime against nature; like that of Œdipus and Jocasta, it produces healthy offspring. Such unions merely offend against what Wagner, in Opera and Drama, called the ‘wonted relations’ of familial society, a society whose revenge was without mercy. ‘The old storm, the old trouble,’ is Wotan’s weary remark upon Fricka’s furious approach, indicating not merely a hen-pecked husband but also a clash between the new, developmental side to his ‘inclination’ and ‘custom’, set in stone as hard and unalterable as the Law of the Medes and the Persians. Thankfully, there is little in Lilli Paasikivi’s Fricka that bears witness to Rattle’s idea, other perhaps than the twinge of sympathy one feels as she laments her marital neglect. This is movingly accomplished and all the better for it.

What of Stéphane Braunschweig’s production? There is not much to obect to in it, although some aspects may irritate. However, I cannot discern any guiding principle behind it; there is little to suggest that we should have lost out by hearing a concert performance. ‘Little’, but perhaps not nothing, for there are a few nice touches. I liked the opening of the second act, in which we witness Wotan playing a chess-like war-game. He puts the pieces away as Fricka arrives and she tosses them aside when she sees them. There is an interesting likeness to an Ibsen family-drama during this confrontation, followed as it is by having Brünnhilde sit at Wotan’s feet as an obedient daughter in the nursery. The bodysnatching Valkyries impressed too. It is confusing, however, to have Siegmund and Sieglinde appear in the very same location in which the earlier parts of the second act have taken place, a confusion that put me in mind of similar loose ends in Keith Warner’s Royal Opera production. If relative location does not matter, then it is better to give no sense of location at all. How very different are Chéreau and indeed Harry Kupfer in this respect. Moreover, whilst we are treated to a grave Todesverkündigung, especially from the orchestra but also from Gambill’s well-acted response, it is not at all clear why Brünnhilde should kiss Siegmund as she does. This was not a hint in any sense prefigured or followed up. I was also confused by Marion Hewlett’s lighting in the first act. The orange lighting to accompany the glistening of the sword seems wildly excessive, more suggestive of fire. Spring’s entrance thereafter resembles a return of winter moonlight. Having said that, I welcomed the video-projection of fire in the third act, even as I puzzled at the point of the chairs – familiar from Act Two’s Valhalla – on which Brünnhilde is put to sleep. She would hardly awake refreshed.

There is, then, certainly no production challenge to Chéreau or Kupfer, though it is not difficult to imagine, or indeed to witness, worse: far better this than the prettified non-drama of Otto Schenk’s would-be exhumation for the Metropolitan Opera. The most pressing reason to acquaint oneself with the present Walküre remains the superlative performance from the orchestra. However, it is unforgivably philistine to have placed a disc-break during the second act.