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Wagner: Die Walkure
If I may be permitted to channel none other than Susan Powter for just a moment, please excuse me while I scream to whatever Gods (Teutonic or otherwise) may be listening, "Stop the insanity!" I recently reviewed Staatskapelle Weimar's pretty abysmal production of Das Rheingold, a production which left me literally shuddering in disbelief at the stupendously bad decisions made in staging. At least I gave credit where credit was due, to the production's largely flawless singing and orchestral accompaniment, both of which were delivered more or less flawlessly on that ArtHaus Musik BD. Well, to paraphrase another pop culture icon of sorts, Poltergeist, "They're baaaaack," this time doing Die Walküre, the first opera proper of The Ring cycle after Das Rheingold's prelude. Unfortunately, while many of the ridiculous staging elements of Rheingold are thankfully jettisoned this time around, the recording on this effort is abysmal. Levels are so anemic as to verge on the ridiculous, something all the more inexplicable when you realize just how bombastic so much of Wagner's music in this outing is. It's a trade off I fear very few opera lovers will want to engage in.
Die Walküre is the grand edifice upon which so much of Wagner's mythology is built. As strange as it may sound, anyone who has seen or read anything from the Star Wars films to T.H. White's The Once and Future King is going to be familiar with at least a few of the elements of the labyrinthine plot of this piece. We have twin siblings, Siegmund and Sieglinde (Luke and Leia, anyone?), who at least initially have no clue they're related to each other. Siegmund is on the run after having gotten involved in a little family squabble where quite a few people ended up dead. He takes refuge in Sieglinde's home, where her husband Hunding turns out to be part of the posse searching for Siegmund. Sieglinde drugs her husband and tells Siegmund about a magical sword buried in an ash tree that only a true hero can remove and use to his benefit (King Arthur, anyone?).
True to Wagner's somewhat darker aspirations, the plot takes a decidedly grimmer turn in the two subsequent acts, especially when it turns out the siblings are actually progeny of the god Wotan, and that they have embarked on a love affair. That sets up the central tragedy of the piece, as Wotan must balance his love for his children against the moral prescription against incest and adultery.
What this production gets right (at least most of the time) is exactly what sank Das Rheingold. The physical production here is spare and lean. No craggy rocks, no Norse costuming, just basically a blank stage with flats that open to reveal various characters. It's minimalist, to be sure, but strangely it works. (I must forewarn you that Albericht as Dorf--see my Rheingold review--does make a cameo appearance). Costumes are sort of middling 19th to 20th century, nothing ornate, but again, I'd much rather have something less flashy like this than some of the ridiculous adornments which accompanied the Rheingold singers.
What sinks this production is the completely lackluster recording. How could levels this low have been tolerated, or not addressed in post production? You'll hear it immediately in the prelude and, though it gets a bit better in Act II, it hampers the entire production and robs this epochal piece of music theater of its very lifeblood--the music! I really could not believe what I was hearing, and kept switching between the soundtracks to see if something was amiss in one of them. Alas it's endemic to all the mixes, and it really is a shame, because once again this is a gloriously sung and played piece.
As opera BDs get more prevalent, hopefully we'll have a classic Ring cycle delivered to us, one perhaps that features both a traditionalist and modernist version so that viewers can choose what they prefer. As it stands, Weimar's productions are so far mostly good for comedy relief, not exactly what Wagner had in mind when he crafted these epic scores.
Though this is a spare, largely gray production, the AVC encode provides a sharp and well detailed 1.78:1 image. Colors are noticeably muted throughout this piece, so don't expect anything jumping off your screen in ultra-dimensionality. But what's here is sharp, well defined and nicely detailed.
I am just completely at a loss to understand the low levels on this BD. Both the PCM 2.0 and DTS HD-MA 5.1 mixes are anemic, to say the least. I will say that pushing the volume doesn't reveal any distortions, and the singing and orchestral playing are magnificently rendered (save for the volume), so if you're desperate to see this, I guess you can "turn it up to 11." Subtitles are available in English, German, French, Italian and Spanish.
The only real extra is a nice, informative essay, including score quote reproductions (in miniature, obviously) in the insert booklet.
One can only wonder what wonders lie in store in Weimar's Siegfried and, heaven forfend (literally, I guess), Götterdämmerung. I think I'm OK not knowing, frankly. Skip It.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet