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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Recordings Review: Everything Louder Than Everything Else

Jaap van Zweden releases the hounds (and more) with Die Walküre.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Stuart Skelton (left) and Heidi Melton, seen here in an English National Opera
production of Tristan und Isolde are the incestuous twins Siegmund and Sieglinde in the
new Hong Kong Philharmonic recording of Die Walküre. Photo by Catherine Ashmore © 2016 English National Opera.
The first thing you notice on the Hong Kong Philharmonic's recording of Die Walküre, released in 2016 as part of conductor Jaap van Zweden's recently completed cycle of Wagner's Ring operas, is the sheer volume. The orchestra is loud, mixed bright and forward in the crisp, clear concert acoustic. They thunder through the opening prelude with gusto, with the Wagner tubas (those hybrids between French horn and euphonium suggested, if not actually designed by the composer himself) leading the charge.

Enter Stuart Skelton. The hearty Australian tenor makes a convincing Siegmund, using his voice with heft. He captures the emotional nuances of this character, from the desperate man on the run from his foes to the cagy encounter with Sieglinde (Heidi Melton) and Hunding (Falk Struckmann.) Then at the climactic moment where the tenor sings "Wälse! Wälse! Wo ist dein schwert?!" the voice opens up to full power, a huge floodlight of sound that shakes the timbers of Hunding's hut and (somehow) fails to wake his drugged antagonist.

After this huge outburst, the rest of the first act: Sieglinde's entry, the narrative "Die männer sippe" and the discovery of the sword seems almost anti-climactic despite the passionate singing of the two principals. Then, Mr. Skelton and Ms. Melton ride another huge wave of orchestral sound to the height of their climactic love duet. And at that height comes the big reveal: these would-be lovers are brother and sister! That doesn't stop them from finishing the duet and running away together into the night.

The riskiest bit of casting in this unconventional Ring remains Matthias Goerne. His performance of Wotan is scholarly and detailed, penetrating the depths of the god-king's misery and thwarted at every turn by Fricka (sung with fire by Michelle DeYoung. This is deep stuff, with Mr. Goerne investing this part with every skill known to an interpreter of art song. In the following long dialogue with Brunnhilde (which is, granted one of the toughest stretches of the Ring for even the most hardened Wagnerite) he leaves one a little cold. Though the scene is well-paced by Mr. van Zweden, we understand that this Wotan is thoroughly miserable, and little more.

Petra Lang is a powerful singer, but ultimately icy and unconvincing as Brunnhilde. In the key Annunciation of Death scene, it becomes the responsibility of Mr. van Zweden and his players to carry the emotional weight when it should be resting squarely on the soprano. Mr. Skelton, for his part is excellent in the second act, and one regrets his character's untimely death. As Hunding, Falk Struckmann is a baritone, not the usual bass. A regular Wotan on stages around the world, Mr. Struckmann is an intimidating presence, given to angry growls more than sonorous low notes.

Mr. van Zweden and the Philharmonic move to the fore at the start of Act III, with a rousing Ride of the Valkyries that gets the blood pumping. The concert setting allows for Brunnhilde's eight bloodthirsty sisters to make their entrance with a minimum of stage noise. Their singing is finely detailed but it's still hard to distinguish, say Gerhilde, from Rossweise or Schwertleite. The singer who's really impressive here is Ms. Melton, who delivers a thunderous "O hehrstes Wunder! Herrlichste Maid!" before Sieglinde makes her flying exit.

Perhaps the transfigurative power of Ms. Melton's performance inspired Ms. Lang to greater heights in the home stretch. She finds her humaity at last in the long scene with Mr. Goerne where Wotan chooses to punish, but ultimately forgive his wayward daughter. Here is the key father-daughter relationship of the opera, writ large with Mr. van Zweden's bracing accompaniment. Their long and tender scene climaxes with the Valkyrie theme roaring forth in the brass and the start of Wotan's long farewell. One wishes for more warmth and less bombast in this crucial scene, which does not quite hit the height of emotional climax that the composer intended. The Magic Fire Music rings down the curtain, conducted with care and detail from Mr. van Zweden.

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