Once Over Lightly Through The Magic Fire

Review by: Albert Innaurato

Artistic Quality: 5

Sound Quality: 6

Complete recordings of Die Walküre, the most popular opera from Richard Wagner’s Ring, can be stacked into a mountain. This one is conducted by the highly promoted Valery Gergiev conducting “his” orchestra from the Mariinsky (formerly Kirov) Theater in St. Petersburg. It stars three of today’s hottest Wagnerians: Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund, René Pape as Wotan, and Nina Stemme, our reigning Brünnhilde. It’s a multi-miked, sonically highly contrived bore. Gergiev is superficial, scenes don’t play for theatrical impact, he fails to get his (sometimes iffy) orchestra to dig into rhythms, phrases lack imagination, and he seems to miss the point of details, even when he observes them. Slow or fast doesn’t matter that much—one of the best studio stand-alone Walküres, the very inexpensive Leinsdorf recording, now on Decca, is fast but firm, alert and well pointed. The live Bayreuth performance conducted by Clemens Krauss in 1953 is swift but thrilling. Gergiev is simply noncommittal.

There isn’t much the singers can do in this context. Siegmund is low for Kaufmann; here he settles for dignity. His most beautiful moment is his farewell to the sleeping Sieglinde in Act 2, “Zauberfest”. There are some other wonderful sounding phrases, but exaltation and grief are gone. Pape sounds pressured; the mikes are so close that a hoarse edge can be heard on his tone. It’s still often a glorious sound, but he makes nothing at all of the words and, like the conductor, skates over the trickier passages while phrasing like a lump. No rage, heartbreak, or terror here: when he accuses and punishes Brünnhilde in Act 3 it sounds like he’s chiding her for leaving the crusts on the cucumber sandwiches.

Anna Kampe, Sieglinde, and Ekaterina Gubanova, very tame as the fierce Fricka, are well-routined pros, no more, no less. The Valkyries drafted for the famous “Ride” hoot and holler their way through, Gergiev’s rhythm is unsteady, and the thousand mikes do not pick up the wonderful orchestral details in this sequence. They can be heard on another speedy but spectacularly played and recorded Walküre, that by Marek Janowski (soon to be cheap on Sony).

Nina Stemme takes over when she can and shows that even in this context the words and phrases can matter; tension, suspense, grief, and exaltation can be expressed. She can’t do it enough to save the performance, but it shows her as a potentially great singer. Those obsessed with this over-sold conductor and these famous singers will bite, others interested in Die Walküre should look elsewhere.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Leinsdorf (Decca)


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