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A Mixed Affair

Vienna State Opera
09/20/1998 -  
Richard Wagner : Die Walküre
James Morris (Wotan), Jyrki Niskanen (Siegmund), Matti Salminen (Hunding), Hildegard Behrens (Brünnhilde), Nadine Secunde (Sieglinde), Violeta Urmana (Fricka), Holly Hall (Helmwige), Ildiko Raimondi (Gerhilde), Ingrid Kaiserfeld (Ortlinde), Nelly Boschkowa (Waltraute), Katalin Halmai (Siegrune), Mihaela Ungureanu (Roßweiße), Liliana Ciuca (Grimgerde), Regina Mauel (Schwertleite)
Adolf Dresen (Director), Herbert Kapplmüller (Designer)
Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, Peter Schneider (Conductor)

This evening at the State Opera was a distinctly mixed affair. Dramatically, it was a very strong offering, with compelling acting from all protagonists. The singing, alas, was not as even.

Visually, this production is rather simple but well-conceived, with some excellent light effects. Act I showed a bleak igloo-like hut with a wintry tree in the centre and a fire place next to the tree. At Siegmund’s "Siehe, der Lenz lacht in den Saal" the walls of the hut dropped to the floor, exposing a blooming tree top and a dark-blue sky with a full moon.

The home of the Gods in Act II was a tent-like construction which magically vanished into the air at the end of Scene I, leaving the stage dark and empty. It then slowly began to snow as Siegmund and Sieglinde entered the stage on their flight from Hunding. In the confrontation between Hunding and Siegmund, Brünnhilde and Wotan were effectively illuminated by flashes of lightning as they were interfering in the fight.

Valhalla in Act III resembled a hall, perhaps in a castle somewhere on top of a mountain. The Valkyries entered the stage through doors at the back. Outside, it was snowing heavily. At Wotan’s arrival, the walls disappeared and Brünnhilde’s rock was visible at the back, separated from the rest of the stage by an abyss. As Wotan called upon Loge to encircle the rock with a magic fire, the small bridge connecting the rock with the rest of the stage collapsed. The most striking picture of the production was the final one, with Brünnhilde lying asleep on the rock, covered with her helmet and shield, and a rain of red sparks of fire blazing up from below against a dark sky.

Vocally, the evening clearly belonged to James Morris who was in splendid voice and sang and acted Wotan with an incredibly wide range of expression, from powerful outbursts of anger to resignation and sadness in the final act. A very poignant moment was his kneeling down and embracing the body of the dead Siegmund at the end of Act II and then chillingly hissing "Geh!" at Hunding. But the most moving moment of the entire evening was his deeply emotional, tender farewell to Brünnhilde which he sang in the most ravishing piano all the way from "Der Augen leuchtendes Paar" to "So küßt er die Gottheit von dir". A truly great performance that was rewarded by thunderous applause.

Regrettably the same cannot be said about the Brünnhilde of the evening. Hildegard Behrens is doubtless one of the great singing actresses of our day. Dramatically, she was a very intense, exciting Brünnhilde because she looked and acted like an ecstatic young girl but, vocally, she was a disaster. Behrens sounded as if she did not have any control over her voice. She has no middle voice left, resorts to a sort of "Sprechstimme" in the lower passages and squeezes out most of the high notes. It was a rather odd experience to watch her act the part so convincingly, especially in the father-daughter scenes with Wotan, and at the same time hear a voice totally in tatters.

The Wälsungs were effectively portrayed by Jyrki Niskanen and Nadine Secunde. Niskanen was a sympathetic Siegmund whose happiness and passion in the Act I love duet and desperation in Act II were very convincing. He has considerable vocal resources, beautiful ringing high notes, and sang with a lot of vigor and energy. Interpretively, Secunde was a very touching Sieglinde, shy and vulnerable in Act I and agitated and intense in Acts II and III, but her voice was not very clear and sounded rather strained at times.

Matti Salminen was a marvellously black and menacing Hunding and sang the role with huge, richly-coloured tone and clear diction. Violeta Urmana turned in an excellently sung Fricka who was every bit as commanding and majestic as her husband Wotan. The Valkyries were a rather variable lot and occasionally had to fight hard not be drowned out by the orchestra. The Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, under the baton of Peter Schneider, sounded full and lush and gave an energetic performance, effectively highlighting any dramatic moment on stage.

Bettina Maani



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