Opus Arte releases both CDs and DVDs of Wagner from Bayreuth and elsewhere. They have a box set of Thielemann's live Ring cycle from Bayreuth in 2008, from which this Walkure comes. We are not in an age of great Wagner singing, even though the Ring seems to crop up everywhere. But Bayreuth bends over backward to get the best of the best, which by historical standards still amounts to second or third-best. The most positive way to approach this set is to consider Thielemann's contribution, because like Karajan, his style dominates the proceedings. If Karajan drew fire for his "chamber-music" refinement forty years ago, I don't know what to say about Thielemann, who tends to mellow out Wagner's dramatic tension, spinning smooth lyrical lines rarely punctuated with visceral force. He's not doing this for lack of skill. He seems to genuinely believe that the operas should be this relaxed, even dreamy, outside the obvious high dramatic moments.
On the plus side, the orchestra sounds better than it ever has on disc -- not an exaggeration when you hear, from the opening bars, how beautifully balanced and gorgeously voiced everything is. I guess we give up velocity for verticality; each chord being caressed. The singers follow Thielemann's lead. Each has taken a small dose of Prozac to insure that they don't get too excited, while at the same time they pay attention to softer details of phrasing. In Act I the Siegmund and Sieglinde could be meeting on Facebook, so if you expect unbridled anguish or passion, this isn't the right venue. The cast contains reliables like Linda Watson but is mostly made up of unknowns (at least to me). This might be a good place to interject the cast list:
Endrik Wottrich (Siegmund), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Sieglinde), Albert Dohmen (Wotan), Linda Watson (Brünnhilde), Kwangchul Youn (Hunding), Michelle Breedt (Fricka), Sonja Mühleck (Gerhilde), Anna Gabler (Ortlinde), Simone Schröder (Schwertleite), Edith Haller (Helmwige), Wilke te Brummelstroete (Siegrune), Annette Küttenbaum (Grimgerde), Manuela Bress (Rossweisse)
As Siegmund and Sieglinde are introducing themselves politely, in walks an actual Wagner-sized Hunding in Kwangchul Youn. He seems to be from a larger, more menacing world, but no, his manners are rough but civil. In his big solos Endrik Wottrich's Siegmund does sing out heroically, which one must be grateful for, even if he garbles his German. The voice itself is a bit glottal and plain, but I'm happy for a game try at sounding mythic. Too bad that Thielemann drags his feet and saps energy from the melodic line. Another plus is Eva-Maria Westbroek's warm, feminine tone as Sieglinde. Under a more propulsive conductor who wasn't so concerned to make small points, she would be stronger. Even better is the fact that the pulling out of the sword from the ash tree is actually a triumph. All things considered, the young lovers' Act I is a good listen, and one cannot argue with its careful musicality.
Act II needs a compelling duo of Wotan and Brunnhilde, with the addition of a fine Fricka as icing on the cake. I would call Albert Dohmen more a Klingsor or Hagen than a Wotan, but the voice is imposing and authoritative when it needs to be. One longs for Bryn Terfel's multifacted portrayal from the Royal Opera, limned with regret, self-awareness, and noble sadness. Linda Watson has become a standby Brunnhilde, and despite some wobble under pressure, she sounds genuinely engaged and dramatic. The voice has no real distinction, but it's not ugly or leathery, and she attacks the most difficult high notes bravely. The Fricka of Michelle Breedt comes as anice surprise; she sings with command, not shrewishness, and the voice itself matches Dohmen's well. Their long squabble, usually taken for granted, here amounts to something musically appealing, thanks in large part to Thielemann's excellent orchestral support. He knows how to move narrative along when it grows quieter.
The slow poke has gone out of him in this act, and the buildup to the entrance of Siegmund and Sieglinde has sweep and epic proportion. He's also the best thing about the Todesverkundigung, where the Siegmund and Brunnhilde fall woefully short in expressive emotion. Both singers miss the momentousness of hearing the announcement of death, the hero's defiance, and the Valkyrie's impassioned change of heart. Wotan's enraged entry is powerful, however, as indeed is the whole climactic duel that ends the act. On balance, Act II is as good as Act I, with regrets that its heart and soul, the scene between Siegmund and Brunnhilde, falls flat.
So far, there is no doubt that this performance belongs to the orchestra, conductor, and recorded sound. The Ride of the Valkyries could appear on any Wagner excerpts record, refulgent and propulsive as it is. Bayreuth has always prided itself on a strong pack of Valkyries, and so it is here. But the core of Act III is the parting of Brunnhilde and Wotan, and unless the latter rises to nobility -- as Hans Hotter, Thomas Stewart, and Bryn Terfel memorably do -- the whole opera misses its final meaning. Up until the crucial confrontation, the ensemble singing and pacing are very impressive. Dohmen has no trouble sounding magnificently enraged, given his deep, rock-solid tone. But Watson doesn't tear our hearts out with tearful anguish and pleading tenderness the way that Regine Crespin does for Karajan. She remains stalwart on the whole. Dohmen, too, takes refuge in making big sounds rather than deeply characterizing a father's grief. Great Wotans don't just sing out; they also sing in. So despite Thielemann's best efforts, Act III is the weakest of the three, a regretable state of affairs.
All things considered, this is a Walkure to set beside the good ones, and when it comes to conducting and sound, not to mention the dazzling orchestra, it rises considerably above that.