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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Die Walküre

This is a preview. The Superconductor review of the opening night of Die Walküre is now online.

A rehearsal image of "The Machine", configured for Act II of Die Walküre.
Photo by Yves Renaud, from a feature in

The debut of part II of the Robert Lepage production of Wagner's Ring Cycle features Deborah Voigt in the title role and Bryn Terfel as Wotan. Jonas Kaufmann is Siegmund, singing his first Wagner role at the Met. James Levine is scheduled to conduct the run of performances.

My old music teacher James Kurtz pointed out that Walküre was the first opera in the Ring to involve actual human beings with real emotions after the abtruse world of Rheingold with its gods, dwarves and giants. It also has some of Wagner's "greatest hits", including the "Winterstürme" aria, the Ride of the Valkyries, and the Magic Fire scene. Put those two facts together, and you have one of the most popular operas Wagner ever wrote.

The plot of Walküre concerns an act of incest and adultery between the twins Siegmund (Jonas Kaufmann) and Sieglinde, (Eva Maria Westbroek) the half-human Wälsung children of Wotan  the king of the Gods. The rest of the opera is a chase, with the twins' half-sister Brunnhilde attempting to save them from the wrath of their father Wotan. Siegmund is killed. Sieglinde goes into exile. But the ultimate result of their union: the hero Siegfried, is the title character of the next opera in the Ring.

Recording Recommendations:
For recommendations for a complete Ring, click here.
For a recommendation of a recording of Das Rheingold, click here.

There are probably more recordings of Walküre out there than any other Wagner opera, for the simple fact that it's the one opera from the Ring that stands alone without being part of a complete cycle. But when it comes to this opera, there are basically two contenders.

Bayreuth Festival, 1966, cond. Karl Böhm (Philips, (currently Decca) 1970)
This is a really special performance, recorded live at the Festspielhaus. What sells it is James King and Leonie Rysanek as an ardent, nearly unbeatable pair of lovers. This is the recording with the famous Rysanek scream: it comes at the end of Act I when Siggy pulls the sword out of the tree.

The later acts feature the solid Wotan of Theo Adam and the great Birgit Nilsson, the one soprano of the golden age of recordings who could sing Brunnhilde, Isolde, Turandot and Elektra and not seem fatigued. Karl Böhm keeps things moving at a lively clip, and the orchestra plays superbly.

To hear what the Ring sounded like in the silver age of Bayreuth, this is the recording to own. The fact that it comes as part of an excellent complete Ring on 14 discs for about $56 bucks should sweeten the deal.

Berlin Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan (DG, 1968)
Karajan's Berlin recording of the Ring is not without its admirers--and I'm one of them. The Austrian maestro has a special touch with Wagner, creating chamber-music dynamics out Wagner's huge set pieces, and making his crack Berlin troops respond with tender, languid playing that makes the first act feel, well, erotic.

This recording boasts a great pair of Walsüngs: Jon Vickers and Gundula Janowitz. For the casting of La Janowitz as Sieglinde, we can thank the confines of the recording studio: the role was far too heavy for this middle-weight soprano to tackle onstage.

The same applies to Regine Crespin, a controversial Brunnhilde (she recorded Sieglinde on the Solti Ring four years before) in a different mold from Nilsson. In the studio she brings a youthful freshness to the young warrior maiden. Thomas Stewart's performance as Wotan is under-rated.

Die Walküre opens April 22.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.