It's curious, although perhaps fitting that Die Walküre would emerge as Wagner's first work to be released on Blu-ray. After all, this opera is about transitions. Rather than advancing the Ring narrative linearly, Die Walküre tells its own story and still stands as the turning point in the Ring cycle. It sets into motion a sequence of events whose effects become known by the later consequences revealed in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Consequently, Die Walküre can stand on its own requiring nothing logically prior to it. But enough of that. Let's get to the Blu-ray.
Wagner in high definition. Let me just say that this is a home video medium that can finally begin to do justice to his work. The video on this disc, filled with numerous close-ups that draw the viewer in, is superb even while falling short of reference quality for the Blu-ray format. The audio, presented here in DTS HD 5.1 is crystal clear and fully dynamic in its range. Experiencing the 1080p image on a 100" home theater screen with high-end audio is like being in the opera house, but at the same time more intimate - sort of like being on stage with the performers and feeling their parts as they do. It is a very personal and profound experience. This is the way opera, and Wagner in particular, is meant to be experienced.
The performance is from the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2007 and is part of a Ring cycle that will conclude in 2009. Reviews have been generally positive and there is optimism for continued success in the remaining operas. There has also been controversy, mostly over the production. So what else is new?
The minimalist staging of Stéphane Braunschweig will not appeal to everyone. In fact it may appeal to very few. The stark well-lit sets offer a confusing mixture of style that is imaginative, but dull and occasionally absurd (Wotan actually puts his daughter to sleep across three red French Louis XV parlor chairs). At the curtain call the audience was generous to Braunschweig with polite applause. He was lucky.
The costumes designed by Thibault Vancraenenbroeck are equally bizarre. Siegmund and Sieglinde don matching floor length white Victorian capelets as they run off together into the night. With his battered army fatigues underneath, Siegmund looks downright clownish in the attire. Wotan wears the same coat in black. Hunding looks like James Bond. Only Brünnhilde with traditional helmet and shield looks appropriate for her part.
Fortunately, the singing fares much better. The highlight of the performance is Eva-Marie Westbroek as Sieglinde. From unhappy housewife, to excited lover reunited with her brother, to horrified witness of a brutal killing to exalted mother-to-be, Westbroek covers the full range and captures every nuance both vocally and dramatically with great aplomb. When she sings O hehrstes Wunder, one expects all the angels in heaven to rally to her cause.
The oft-maligned Robert Gambill plays a weary, battle-scared Siegmund. It seems operagoers either love this guy or, well, they don't. In any case he usually delivers what one expects so generally he neither surprises nor disappoints. Depending on your view, Gambill is either fortunate or unfortunate (by means of comparison) to be paired with Westbroek. Physically they are a believable couple with considerable onscreen chemistry. Vocally, however, Gambill is no match for Westbroek. Nonetheless, any fair and balanced criticism of his performance should not be overly harsh. He is able to sing with great tenderness in Winterstüme wichen dem Wonnemond.
Mikhail Petrenko plays Hunding not as a burley woodsman, but as a coldhearted KGB assassin. Right from his opening line to Sieglinde, Du labtest ihn? (Did you help him?), we know he is lethal. When he took a brief bow with the others at the close of act one, he remained in character and gave the audience the same icy stare that made Sieglinde tremble at the very sight of him. His singing was adequate, perhaps even more than that, but all I remember about him was the menacing look of a born killer.
We first see Wotan as the silent observer of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Act 1. Dressed in a gray suit, he stands and sometimes sits off to the side in one of the aforementioned red chairs where he looks the part of a business manager watching rehearsal. When he appears at the beginning of Act 2, Wotan is seated at a table playing war games with toy figures. Really. Fortunately Sir Willard White - made all the more fearful and imposing by wearing a glass eye - has the stage presence to quickly overcome this childish and misguided start. He delivers a powerful portrayal of Wotan although his stage presence is at times more impressive than his singing.
Brünnhilde is played with a slight wobble by Eva Johansson. Still, she demonstrates fine vocal range. She was forceful without too much strain when required and still capable of poignancy and subtlety in her third act duet with Wotan. Dramatically, Johansson can be prone to some exaggerated movements and facial expressions that are not flattering in a Blu-ray close-up; this is a shame because she is otherwise attractive and a welcome addition to the Wagnerian sopranos corps.
The mountaintop gathering of the Valkyries is staged on a platform of steep steps where the girls are carrying fallen heroes (dummies dressed in battle gear) up to Valhalla. It's not as bad as it the image may convey and some clever lighting effects that create snow peaked mountains at least make the scene appear outdoors. Hojotoho is meaningfully delivered and Rattle has the Berlin Philharmonic in full splendor for this big orchestral moment.
It would be hard to imagine the BPO giving a more inspired performance under the baton of another conductor. I would not have thought that beforehand. Rattle is in full command and intuitively seems to know just where to add the right dramatic musical punch to bolster the narrative. The BPO really delivers the goods here. This is playing of a very high caliber that is ideally suited to the advanced audio capabilities of Blu-ray. It makes one even more eager to hear the next installment.
No one will declare this a definitive Walküre even for home video. The production value is far too weak and some of the vocal performances are uneven. On the other hand, Westbroek is magnificent and probably unequaled on any home video format. Rattle and the BPO are similarly hard to beat. Those two things alone would make this performance worth viewing. When you throw in the real star, Blu-ray, it becomes essential viewing. This presentation is far and away the best that a Wagner opera has ever looked and sounded outside of the opera hall itself.