Saturday, 12 November 2011

Vienna's Thielemann Ring: Die Walküre

Wiener Staatsoper, 06/11/2011

Christopher Ventris | Siegmund
Eric Halfvarson | Hunding
Albert Dohmen | Wotan
Waltraud Meier | Sieglinde
Katarina Dalayman | Brünnhilde
Janina Baechle | Fricka
Donna Ellen | Helmwige
Ildikó Raimondi | Gerhilde
Alexandra Reinprecht | Ortlinde
Aura Twarowska | Waltraute
Ulrike Helzel | Siegrune
Monika Bohinec | Grimgerde
Zoryana Kushpler | Schwertleite
Juliette Mars | Roßweiße

Christian Thielemann | Conductor
Sven-Eric Bechtolf | Director

Of all the understatements to make about conditions at the Vienna State Opera, ‘it’s not at all easy to bring this Ring to life’ is hard to best. That was Christian Thielemann in Sunday’s Kurier, who by ‘zum Klingen bringen’ certainly didn’t mean muddling through without too many mishaps – the most flattering thing that could be said about Das Rheingold.

And so on to Die Walküre. Boy, the first act of this opera is a strange experience when the orchestra can’t decide how to articulate the sword motif. When it wasn’t simply out of tune, the rhythmic emphasis got shifted to the dotted and double notes – as if the trumpets were getting it confused with the consolidated sword and horn-call motif heard in Siegfried. The Wagner tubas summoned up some fine tone for Hunding but spoiled it with poor balance. And while this unreliable source is claiming that principal cellist and Philharmoniker legend Franz Bartolomey was responsible for the love motif, the intonation and questionable portamento sounded nothing like the Bartolomey I’ve heard. Elsewhere the playing was so bland it might not have been a bad thing for the scrappiness of the storm music, which at least had some edge, to have continued.

Waltraud Meier’s soprano extension was no less impressive than in Fidelio: what a magnificently pure, open and flowing ‘Hehrstes Wunder!’ – so far the only moment in this Ring that will stay with me. Chest notes were good as well. But her middle voice is sounding a bit covered these days, with too little focus and brightness to cut through the orchestra. Acting was expressive, with some much-needed sharpening of up Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s feeble Personenregie: there was a poignant vulnerability to her emotional baring which finally made some sense of that moment in the love scene when Sieglinde turns her attention from Siegmund to her toy chest (items produced in this show-but-no-tell include, for no apparent reason, a Brünnhilde reference in the form of a doll and toy horse). The love scene was otherwise unmemorable, with Christopher Ventris giving a solid but unexceptional performance. There’s nothing to dislike about his tone, even if his ‘Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater’ and Wälses were a bit underpowered, but there’s not much in the way of character, warmth or Heldentenor ring to it either. Eric Halfarvson’s Hunding has to be one of the darkest around, but the lack of any dynamic contrast put his unvaryingly loud and emphatic singing in pantomime villain territory.

Act II opened more promisingly. OK, so Katarina Dalayman scooped her Hojotohos all the way up the octave and overshot the mark – for which she got some nasty Buhrufe – but I thought the rest was more than solid and occasionally compelling. Her Brünnhilde wobble is at the incipient slow vibrato stage, which actually doesn’t work out too badly as notes are generally firm and tone distinctive. And she held my interest despite some rather static and blank acting (how she will react to getting goosed by Wotan’s spear in the Lepage Ring next spring is anyone’s guess). Talking of acting, Albert Dohmen was back on the golden apples and gave a much less pedestrian performance than in Rheingold – for which, I should add, he replaced Juha Uusitalo at fairly short notice. Top notes were less ragged and singing generally more supported. The monologue gets my rapt attention for the music alone, but Dohmen contributed some expressive moments worth listening to and projected well without too much strain.

The orchestra finally rallied in Act III and while there was some unevenness to the Ride of the Valkyries, Thielemann fashioned a convincing arc of it. I didn’t sense much sparkle, an expression which his conducting seems to attract, but rather a smoothness and flexibility which put me in mind of Abbado. The Valkyries really excelled themselves; not a single weak link here, and good ensemble. The farewell saw some unexpectedly tender singing from Dohmen, though Bechtolf doesn’t allow it to end there. After ‘Wer meines Speeres Spitze fürchtet’ he has Wotan wander around aimlessly among the Valkyries' horses before exiting clumsily and making a (presumably unintended) mockery of the video-projected fire in the process. It was as if Jean-Louis Martinoty took charge of the Personenregie for that bit. The Magic Fire certainly wasn’t sparkling, but not too untidy, which is more than can be said for the Staatsopernorchester’s Magic Sleep. Thielemann or no Thielemann, it’s difficult to appreciate a whole so pockmarked with moments as badly under-rehearsed as this.

Image credit: Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

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