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Monday, May 13, 2013

Recordings Review: A Flying Start

Valery Gergiev starts a new Ring with Die Walküre.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
"And this, children, is how Wotan lost his eye." Valery Gergiev on the podium.
Photo by Alberto Venzagos © 2012 London Symphony Orchestra.
Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra make their case as a premier Wagner ensemble with this new Die Walküre, released on February 12 of this year. With an all-star cast of Wagner singers and the enthusiastic Mariinsky players working under tightly controlled conditions, this may be the finest recording of this opera to  to emerge in this young century. In other words, it's damned good.

From the first notes of Act I, Mr. Gergiev combines driving rhythms with organic use of rubato in the more lyric moments of the score. These recordings were made at the Mariinsky Theater in 2011 and 2012 in a concert setting with audience. This is a common (and budget-minded) recording technique that allows for the electricity of live theater with the precision needed when committing operas to the permanent record. The big moments explode out of the speakers, with a thrilling Ride of the Valkyries and Magic Fire music.

It is as an accompanist that Mr. Gergiev proves his true worth, in the long, passionate mutual seduction of Siegmund (Jonas Kaufmann) and Sieglinde (Anja Kampe) in Act I. The incestuous love affair builds to a fevered level, with Mr. Gergiev providing expert shading and background as the romance kindles between these twins. That trend continues in the later acts, as the orchestra provides a velvety texture for the singers and a welcome burst of adrenaline in the long monologues of Act II and III.

The key figure here is Nina Stemme as Brunnhilde. Much has been made of this Swedish soprano's large, flexible instrument, with her choice of repertory and country of origin drawing comparisons to Birgit Nilsson. However, Ms. Stemme is her own artist, opting to sing each nuance in the role with a wide, sometimes engulfing soprano. She does have a large vibrato, which suggests the protagonist's underlying humanity, making the listener empathize with Brunnhilde's dilemma.

This is René Pape's first "official" outing as Wotan. Unlike most singers who tackle this massive role, Mr. Pape is a true bass, reaching up into the baritone range for the character's sweeter notes in the heart-melting "Farewell." He uses his experience as a lieder singer in hushed moments, singing lines like "ich Unfreiester aller!" with a chilling clarity that penetrates the subconscious. The big "Gotternot!" tantrum that follows is just as effective, with thundering accompaniment from the orchestra.

Mr. Kaufmann is in glorious voice here, melting and sculpting the phrases of "Wintersturme" and the all-important Annunciation of Death scene with Ms. Stemme. Ms. Kampe is a potent Sieglinde, with a sweet, timid manner that explodes into orgasmic joy at the end of Act I (when Siegmund pulls the sword out of the tree) and in "O heiliges wunder!" in Act III.  Ekaterina Gubanova is a grim, yet persuasive figure as Fricka, showing Mr. Pape the error of his ways. Finally, Mikhail Petrenko is a burly, menacing presence as Hunding, Sieglinde's brutish husband and this opera's main antagonist.

With the long-awaited opening of the Mariinsky II theater in St. Petersburg, Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra are in the process of their reinforcing their place as one of Russia's premiere cultural institutions. This new Die Walküre, their second complete Wagner outing after a 2011 Parsifal, does even more, staking a claim that this is one of the world's premiere Wagner ensembles. We'll know more in September, when Das Rheingold arrives in shops.

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