Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Reviews of opera Blu-rays on the web can't be that plentiful, so I'm already anticipating reactions from readers shocked that a person basically ignorant about opera (me) should even attempt a review. But, as I was curious about the new Arthaus Musik Blu-ray of Wagner: Die Walküre (St. Clair Ring Cycle Part 2), I've decided to give it a go. Unless the opera faithful resent outsiders peeking in on their special world, I'll probably survive. Let the eye rolling begin.
If I were any more uninformed I might think the Ring Cycle was on the washer dial between Spin and Dry. I know my way around a fairly wide array of movie subjects but was intrigued, in my own unschooled way, to find out more about Wagner. The other stage and music performance Blu-rays I've acquired have been of excellent quality: Company, Amor, Vida de Mi Vida
Zarzuelas by Plácido Domingo and Ana María Martínez. Why not learn a bit about Wagner? I mean, the subject is still relevant. Every time an opera company announces a performance of the Ring Cycle, cultural-political protests make the back pages of the L.A. Times.
Here's the basics as understood by a neophyte: Die Walküre is actually part two of a four-part epic. Part 1, Das Rheingold, is sometimes considered a prelude, while Siegfried and Götterdämmerung (#'s 3 +4) continue the story. Performances of the complete opera cycle can last more than fifteen hours. Deeply rooted in European myth and folk tales and structured after Greek dramas, the overall structure of the saga will be familiar to fans of the Lord of the Rings. The possessor of a magic ring has the power to control the world. The Dwarf (Nibelung) Alberich steals the Rhine Gold from the guardian Rhinemaidens, and uses it to fashion the ring; it becomes magical because Alberich has renounced love. The balance of the plays stage a sweeping drama in which various factions, including Wotan, the ruler of the Gods, seek the ring. Gods, mortals and mythical beasts are involved in the struggle between raw power and love. At the finish the ring is returned to the Rhine, an act that that precipitates the Twilight of the Gods: Götterdämmerung.
Die Walküre recounts a fiery domestic clash in the household of Wotan (Renatus Mészár) and his severe wife Fricka (Christine Hannsmann). Wotan's eight legitimate daughters are warrior maidens called Die Walküre. The most active and noble of these is Brünnhilde (Catherine Foster). Wotan also had two other children by a mortal woman. Twin brother and sister Siegmund and Sieglinde (Erin Caves & Kirsten Blanck) have not been told that they are related, and fall in love; their child Siegfried will become the half-god, half-mortal hero of the third part of the story. Die Walküre is divided into three acts. It begins when Siegmund seeks shelter in the house of the mortal Hunding (Hidekazu Tsumaya), the husband of Sieglinde. Hunding plans to kill Siegmund but Sieglinde drugs her husband's drink: she's convinced that Siegmund is the savior-hero prophesized at her unhappy wedding. The prophecy was Wotan's doing -- he wants to find a hero who can bring him the Ring of the Nibelungs.
Act 2 sets a number of plots in motion. Fricka block's Wotan's scheme, forcing him to let Hunding prevail. Brünnhilde defies her father to help Siegmund. The illicit (and incestuous) lovers prepare to flee as Wotan predicts the death of the Gods. When Hunding fails to kill Siegmund, Wotan steps in to finish the job. Moved by the love of Siegmund and Sieglinde and aware that Sieglinde is carrying Siegmund's child, Brünnhilde rescues her distraught half sister.
Act 3 sees the showdown between an angry god and his strong willed daughter. The seven sisters rise from their beds to greet Brünnhilde, who tells Sieglinde that her unborn son will be the greatest hero of all: Siegfried. Sieglinde flees to the east, while Brünnhilde stays to face the wrath of her father. Wotan places her in a magical sleep, but after Brünnhilde pleads to be protected, he surrounds her with a barrier of fire. Only the noblest of heroes will be able to wake her.
The Blu-ray was recorded live in 2008 at the Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar. The performance is seen from an audience perspective at all times, without cranes or fluid camera moves; the added resolution of HD is a necessary factor to appreciate the show's many wide shots. The conductor is Carl St. Clair and the stage director Michael Schultz.
The traditional staging, elaborate sets and costumes have all been dropped, but not to the detriment of the singing performances. The stage consists of a giant featureless wall that opens and closes when needed, and two low walls that serve as the only décor. No attempt is made to visualize literal cues from the stage directions; when Sieglinde sings that she'll bring Siegmund water, no water bowl appears. The walls open up to provide a battle arena for the fight in Act 2, and open again in Act 3 to depict Br¨nnhilde's imprisonment in the tomb of fire. The magic sword is present -- broken and unbroken. Actors carry the occasional spear -- Siegmund ends up transfixed by a pair of spears -- and a single flaming spear effectively suggests the magical fire guarding the sleeping Brünnhilde. No traditional rocky peaks are present to provide a dramatic stage for Brünnhilde's arias.
Costumes are also very basic. Horned helmets are out. Hunding and his tribe wear business suits, while Wotan favors furry robes. He has gory makeup for a missing eye and wears a couple of different eye patches. One is bright chrome, suggesting warrior armor, and another is a flat black patch that makes him look as if his empty eye socket is a hole into his skull. These exaggerated details help position Wotan as a laughing, power-mad demon. Fricka seems even more wild-eyed and vengeful, willing to sacrifice mortals like disposable chess pieces. Hunding is a cold corporate type and another obvious villain. Siegmund and Sieglinde are plump, emotional lovers forever distraught. It remains for the strong and sympathetic Brünnhilde to come to the rescue.
Act 3 begins with the signature musical piece known as the Ride of Valkyries. The stage action is simply the rousing of the seven Walküre sisters at the news that Brünnhilde is on her way. The sisters are bunked together in oversized stacked beds that make them look like little girls. Instead of armored warriors, they dress and move like giggling teen sisters from The Sound of Music. Yet two of them sleep with the bloody corpses of defeated heroes -- I think one of their functions is to transport fallen mortal warriors to Valhalla -- (?) The dynamic music now associated with Apocalypse Now looks very strange played over seven smiling girls lined up as if to sing "do, re mi".
Brünnhilde is of course the key character, and this show has a powerful warrior-princess in soprano Catherine Foster. She's a big woman with a big voice and makes a powerful impact with her cascades of bright red hair. When the stage directions call for Br¨nnhilde to break out a huge, toothy grin, Ms. Foster manages to look inspired instead of deranged. And she hits those high notes with ease. "Hayotoho!"
The stage directions give Brünnhilde and her sisters the frequent gesture of covering one eye (see the package illustration). I don't know if this is traditional or new staging, but in the absence of an official explanation I'd say it's a salute expressing their sense of loyalty (or submission) to their one-eyed father. The stylized, stripped down production does indeed concentrate our attention on the characters and their voices.
Wagner's music clearly operates at a level above common appreciation, which makes this Blu-ray review entirely inadequate as a musical critique. I know basically what a leitmotif is but Wagner's oft-discussed sophisticated use of leitmotifs is beyond me, as is the notion that his music is composed in "key regions" as opposed to keys. Much easier to grasp is the concept that the lyrics don't rhyme but instead use "interior alliteration". The emotionally charged singing is never boring, as the characters are always in the midst of one passion or another. The only aspect that seems awkward are the many expository explanations ... as soon as something happens, it will be re-explained in song to the Walküre or whomever, presumably to keep the audience informed.
If there are mistakes or missteps in this massive performance I certainly am unqualified to catch them; the three acts unspool just short of four hours flat. The disc comes with a liner note insert booklet in German, English and French that's essential to help neophytes get their bearings. But it's assumed that we're already familiar with the meanings and context for the Ring Cycle, a cultural touchstone. It would be great to see an opera or a Shakespearean disc recorded with a trivia footnote track that imparts contextual analysis and other meaningful sidebar information. My web search on the subject soon led to a fascinating old essay by George Bernard Shaw called The Perfect Wagnerite. Shaw was clearly absorbed by Wagner's opera for he reinterprets it as a critique of the economic system of his day. The essay is dated 1883-1901 but reads as if it were written yesterday.
Arthaus Musik's Blu-ray Wagner: Die Walküre (St. Clair Ring Cycle Part 2) is a handsomely encoded 1080i presentation with flawless HD video and full multi channel audio in a choice of configurations. Subtitle choices include German, French, Italian and Spanish. Perhaps because of the length of the program, no extras appear, not even promos.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Wagner: Die Walküre (St. Clair Ring Cycle Part 2) Blu-ray rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 5, 2009
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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