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Insightful Performances

'Die Walküre'
from Provence -
experienced by

'The cast is excellent.'

Richard Wagner: Die Walküre. © 2008 Bel Air Classiques

The surround sound DVDs of the second opera of Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung, Die Walküre, give the audience the feeling of a live performance. The cast is excellent. Its members look like movie actors and sing their strenuous parts accurately. The singing is well balanced so the orchestra and the voices seem to be coming from their positions on the stage. Belair Classiques recorded this live performance in July 2007 at the Grand Théâtre de Provence, a recently built theater with excellent acoustics that is part of the Aix-en-Provence summer festival. Despite its name, the hall accommodates a mere 1366 spectators, but its size adds to the intimacy of the performance.

Accompanying the two-disc set is an English, French and German booklet with the story of the opera and an interesting interview with Simon Rattle. Subtitles are available in French, German, Italian, English and Spanish and the DVDs, released in November of 2008, are playable in any region on modern equipment.

Watch and listen -- Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond (Act I Scene 3)
(DVD1 chapter 9, 52:15-53:14)
© 2007 Bel Air Media/ARTE France/Aix-en-Provence Festival

Directed by Stéphane Braunschweig, this production was seen at the Salzburg Easter Festival as well as at Aix. In addition to directing, Braunschweig designed the sets, but the costumes are the work of Thibault Vancraenenbroeck. The action on stage follows the story line of the libretto, but the sharply defined, box-like settings have little relationship to Northern Europe's flora and fauna. As a result, the voices are thrust forward and the sound is wonderfully close, but any Wagner enthusiast who expects the sword, Nothung, to be pulled from a tree will be greatly disappointed. It lies deeply thrust into what could easily pass for a stovepipe! Marion Hewlett's effective lighting adds considerably to the emotional impact of the performance, however.

Vancraenenbroeck's costumes are attractive, fit the cast members well and have some traditional features. The Valkyries have helmets and shields, for example, but why Sieglinde and Siegmund pause at the end of Act I, in the middle of their white-heated passion, to don white coats instead of falling into each other's arms or running out to be together in the night, is never clear.

Watch and listen -- Du bist der Lenz (Act I Scene 3)
(DVD1 chapter 10, 55:07-55:47)
© 2007 Bel Air Media/ARTE France/Aix-en-Provence Festival

Eva-Maria Westbroek is a fabulous Sieglinde. With her large blue eyes and comely presence, she is the vulnerable, unhappy bride of a bully. She is every bit as fascinating as the young Leonie Rysanek was in that role, but like any great artist, her strengths are entirely her own. In all probability, she will prove to be the best of the new crop of young Wagnerian dramatic sopranos now gracing the stage. She sings with a large nuanced voice, coloring her dulcet tones to enhance her characterization.

Robert Gambill is a good Siegmund, if not a great one. At times he seems to struggle with his vocal line, but his acting is first rate and he convinces the onlooker of his sincerity. As Wotan, the father of the gods, Sir Willard White is the charismatic embodiment of the role. Some of his predecessors may have been more vocally imposing, but Sir Willard, whose dark voice would seem to be the expression of a great soul, commands the stage for every minute that he stands on it. Here, he sings with burnished tones and eminently understandable German diction.

Watch and listen -- Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind! (Act III Scene 3)
(DVD2 chapter 18, 87:23-88:44)
© 2007 Bel Air Media/ARTE France/Aix-en-Provence Festival

Eva Johansson is an authoritative Brünnhilde who sings with strong but affecting trumpet-like tones and tugs at your heartstrings when she pleads with her father for mercy. Her voice surmounts the massed instruments of the Berlin Philharmonic with seeming ease except for a few rare occasions. Much less impressive is Mikhail Petrenko as Hunding. He has all the necessary notes and his voice seems to exude evil, but unlike the other cast members who look their parts, he seems physically undersized.

As Wotan's long-suffering wife, Fricka, Lilli Paasikivi offers much more than the usual caricature. She has a really beautiful mezzo sound and she interprets her rather ungrateful part with great sincerity.

Watch and listen -- So fliehe denn eilig (Act III Scene 1)
(DVD2 chapter 10, 45:23-46:33)
© 2007 Bel Air Media/ARTE France/Aix-en-Provence Festival

Each of the Valkyries in this production is in the midst of a viable solo career. Sopranos Joanna Porackova, Elaine McKrill and Erika Sunnegardh; along with mezzo-sopranos Julianne Young, Andrea Baker, Heike Grötzinger, Eva Vogel and Anette Bod; often sing in harmony, but each has a fine sturdy voice with a pleasing timbre.

Watch and listen -- Hojotoho! Hojotoho! (Act III Scene 1)
(DVD2 chapter 6, 37:21-38:20)
© 2007 Bel Air Media/ARTE France/Aix-en-Provence Festival

Sir Simon Rattle proves to be a worthy Wagnerite with his adroit handling of the musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He draws insightful performances from both orchestra and soloists and the aural aspect of this performance makes this disc well worth having.

Copyright © 19 January 2009 Maria Nockin, Arizona USA




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