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Friday, February 19, 2010

DVD Review: The Boulez Ring: Die Walküre

Donald McIntyre as Wotan in the Magic Fire scene from Die Walküre.
The second installment of the landmark Boulez/Chéreau Ring is a passionate, fiery performance that rockets forward with momentum, passion, and energy. From Peter Hofmann's entrance, the sense of sexual chemistry between Siegmund and Sieglinde (Jeanine Altmeyer) propels the first act, aided by delicate textures and precise orchestral playing. This is one of the fastest performances of Die Walküre ever recorded, but Boulez does not skip over the big moments--he just gives them a greater sense of urgency.

Hofmann, a sturdy Nordic blonde who looks the part of a Wagnerian hero, does not have the prettiest heldentenor voice--he later went into contemporary repertoire and country music. However, 1980 saw the singer at a personal peak, and this Siegmund is his legacy performance. Altmeyer (who has the distinction of singing Freia, Sieglinde and Brunnhilde in three different video productions of Wagner's operas) expertly conveys the weight of Sieglinde's plight. Matti Salminen is a fine Hunding, portrayed here as the leader of a gang of Mafia toughs who will help him hunt down the hero who steals his wife.

Peter Hofmann and Gwyneth Jones in Act II of Die Walküre
Act II introduces Brunnhilde, sung by Welsh soprano Gwyneth Jones. Jones is a singer with a powerful instrument who, through the course of a long career, was beset by vocal inconsistency. However, she is a consumnate actress, and although her voice isn't always pretty, she sings with passion and power. Few other Brunnhildes capture the character's blend of bravado, innocence and vulnerability. This comes across most strongly in the Annunciation of Death scene. Boulez makes that famous three-note figure shimmer in the air as Brunnhilde confronts (a now shirtless) Siegmund and informs him that he is going to die in the coming fight. This is the scene upon which the whole Ring turns, and the actors are superb.

Donald McIntyre remains one of the most intelligent interpreters of Wotan ever committed to videotape. The famous moment when he stares into a mirror and removes the covering from his mutilated eye remains a signature image of this Ring Cycle. His reliable bass-baritone lacks warmth and some of the sonorous depth associated with the part (although this may be due to Boulez' interpretation of the score.) However, this remains a deeply understood reading of the character that makes perfect dramatic sense. And he dominates the latter half of the third act, singing a moving Wotan's Farewell despite an orchestral accompaniment that wants to make it as brief as possible.

Hunding (Matti Salminen) deals with a domestic issue in Act I of Die Walküre

All photos and video footage © 1980 Unitel/Deutsche Grammophon.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats