Views of the NZSO’s epic “Valkyrie”

WAGNER – Die Walküre

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Pietari Inkinen (conductor)

Cast:  Simon O’Neill (Siegmund) / Edith Haller (Sieglinde) / Jonathan Lemalu (Hunding)

Christine Goerke (Brünnhilde) / John Wegner (Wotan) /  Margaret Medlyn (Fricka)

The Valkyries : Morag Atchison, Amanda Atlas, Sarah Castle, Kristin Darragh,

Wendy Doyle, Lisa Harper-Brown, Anna Pierard, Kate Spence

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Sunday 22nd July, 2012

Antony Brewer – guest reviewer

Wagner wrote works of enormous complexity. They make extraordinary demands on conductor, singers and players especially the music-dramas of Der Ring des Nibelungen. So performing Die Walküre in New Zealand is ambitious to say the least. We certainly have the orchestra and, somewhat to my surprise, the conductor Pietari Inkinen. We also have our own Simon O’Neill, a leading artist at Bayreuth, Covent Garden, La Scala and the New York MET. We have a riveting Fricka in Margaret Medlyn, we have the Walküren (a fabulous team!) and a Hunding of ideal voice in Jonathan Lemalu. Australia provided the (unfortunately indisposed) Wotan, John Wegner, whose efforts to stay the course were  extraordinary considering the demands of the role. The Sieglinde and Brünnhilde were non-antipodeans and also magnificent.

I do not share the belief, expressed in another review, that we should put up a totally Kiwi cast for such an event. If we have the singers, as we did for the Parsifal, we can do so with pride. Already for our size we have had and have New Zealand Wagnerians who can shake the stages of the world. Pushing the wrong voices at the wrong time into Wagner is both unnecessary and damaging.

And what voices we had! Simon O’Neill’s Siegmund rang out with intensity and a touch of real metal in the voice. As do most Siegmunds, he made a bit of a meal of “Wälse, Wälse” but that was easily forgiven when his “Winterstürme” was phrased with such rare beauty. His Sieglinde, Edith Haller , was that operatic rarity, a singer whose singing and acting were outstanding while she also looked the part. It was a wonderful experience to feel convinced at the visual level as well as the aural. Her instrument is not unlike that of classic Sieglinde Leonie Rysanek, a full and beautiful mid-voice with a clarion top register: “O Herstes Wunder” rang out with full and intense tone, supported magnificently by Inkinen and the orchestra.

John Wegner’s indisposition has already been noted. Yet he held the stage as a Wotan should, despite a disappearing voice. He has that special ability to be still without seeming immobile and because of the stillness, movement and expression gain in power when they occur.

Fricka can be a bore if she be more sanctimonious than angry. The great Frickas ( e.g. Elisabeth Höngen, Rita Gorr, Christa Ludwig) always have a more or less imperious outrage barely concealing the painful indignation of a woman scorned by her partner. I admit to being a huge fan of Margaret Medlyn. She was in fine voice and she was Fricka. What an artist she is.

Jonathan Lemalu was HUGE as Hunding. The voice and expression worked superbly, especially his ability to darken the voice and inject it with so much menace.

I’ve left Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde to the end because of the singers she was, for me, the great discovery of the evening. Her stage presence, her facial expressions and her acting in general were quite magnetic: she has that rare ability to draw attention to herself without compromising the other artists, in fact enhancing what they are doing by association. I felt myself involved with Brünnhilde’s dilemma in a way that only the great Brünnhildes manage to convey. Obviously her interpretation will mature; in many ways it is fine and wonderful already.

As to the voice, WOW. Used as I am to the dearth of true hochdramatisch voices available to sing these roles since Nilsson retired, it is amazing to hear not a spinto voice pushed out of it’s natural fach but a richly coloured and powerful dramatic soprano with the top gleaming, the middle darkly tinged and lower register (so crucial, say, in  “War es so schmälich” ) full-toned without that “chesty” quality.

My sense of Pietari Inkinen’s conducting in the past has been of refinement and structural cohesion rather than emotional intensity. Even in the music of Sibelius which he conducts so well, I have experienced a feeling of emotional restraint and even compression of climaxes. He has certainly refused to flirt with brass in full cry and timpani, for example, at levels of ear-thwacking intensity.

Die Walküre is clearly different emotional territory for him. His direction of this performance had all the qualities of his best work and a new frisson of freedom and excitement. The orchestra provided some of the finest climaxes I’ve ever heard in Wagner, along with some exquisite playing in soft passages: the shaping and sifting of the orchestral tracery in the introduction to Siegmund’s “Winterstürme” was simply magical, just as it should be. I’ve seldom heard this wonderful orchestra of ours play with such unanimity and beauty of tone. The strings in their many hushed passages played as if their tone were suspended in mid-air, tangible but of the finest grain.

Inkinen’s decision to seat the orchestra with violas to the right front and cellos behind was inspired. Wagner’s orchestration is masterly and his writing for violas crucial to the “mix”. We heard every detail, while the cellos and basses (who were missing a player I heard later) had plenty of power to be heard perfectly.

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Die Walküre – another review of the Wellington performance, by Peter Mechen

Mention Wagner to the average person in the street, and if you get a response it’s more than likely to be along the lines of something to do with the “Ride of the Valkyries”, one of those pieces of music that have become icons in their own right and perfectly capable of standing alone and being appreciated in splendid isolation. I myself still remember as a musically inexperienced twenty year-old hearing a recording of Die Walküre for the very first time, and being electrified by the beginning of the opera’s third act, which of course opens with those well-known irruptions of orchestral energy that herald the Valkyries’ wild ride.

But as for the other four hours’ worth of music, I was equally captivated, drawn into a fantastic world by the range and scope of Wagner’s creative imagination. I recall on this first occasion late at night playing the opening of the first LP side of the impressively packaged set (the famous Decca recording with Solti conducting) which I’d borrowed from the Palmerston North Public Library, intending to “sample” a few minutes of the music and play the rest in the morning if I liked what I heard. I think it was at about 4:30am or thereabouts that I finally came out of my trance, having ignored sleep and simply kept going to the very end of the opera, all ten LP sides of it – I was unstoppable, and so, it seemed, was Wagner.

On Sunday afternoon at the Michael Fowler Centre just as captivating (and unstoppable) were Pietari Inkinen and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, plunging whole-heartedly into the Prelude from Act One of Die Walküre (which the publicity called “The Valkyrie”) and never relinquishing their grip upon the music throughout, right to the last few strains of the glorious “Magic Fire Music” which concludes the work. What followed was, in my experience, unprecedented, a standing ovation from the MFC audience for all of those performers concerned, a tribute whose enthusiasm truly reflected the efforts of singers and players and conductor to present to us something very special indeed.

This Walküre, though worth the wait, was a long time in coming to Wellington, fifteen years after the groundbreaking concert performances of Das Rheingold which the orchestra had given, also in semi-staged form in the Michael Fowler Centre, under the leadership of its conductor-in-chief at the time, Dr. Franz-Paul Decker. My belief at the time was that the NZSO and Decker were planning to work their way, at various intervals, through the remaining “Ring” operas, making the venture a “first” for this country. Alas, due to sponsorship difficulties, the plan was scuppered, or at least put on indefinite long-term hold.  I greatly admired Decker as a conductor of the Austro-German repertoire, and loved his Rheingold, as I had equally enjoyed his concert-hall performances of Mahler and Richard Strauss. It was a numbing disappointment that we weren’t able to experience any further Wagnerian efforts on this kind of scale from him and the orchestra.

So, it was in this context that I awaited the present Walküre, my excitement at the prospect coloured, I admit, by my previous encounters with the conducting of Pietari Inkinen. I’ve had occasion to admire him greatly in the past as a musician – his technical aplomb, his intellectual grasp of scores and works, and his ability to extract beautiful and accurate playing from the orchestra. But up to now, I had always thought his music-making somewhat inhibited emotionally – to my ears he seemed reluctant to bring out from his players any kind of no-holds-barred realization of what was in the music. It seemed enough that he was getting the orchestra to play beautifully, and at times brilliantly, and thereby avoiding those moments when the music’s expression demanded a darker, deeper, more desperate and urgent approach – when, in fact, beauty and brilliance were simply NOT enough to realize the music’s fuller expression.

Perhaps it took me the whole of the first Act of Walküre to be completely and utterly won over by Inkinen’s conducting – but there were plenty of excitements and intensities along the way. The tempestuously-driven Prelude was a great start to the performance, the string-players bending their backs to the task, and the winds and brass sounding the growing warnings of the storm’s thunderous arrival (the timpani absolutely shattering at the climax). By contrast, the tenderness of the string-playing throughout the first exchanges, sung and unsung, between the fugitive Siegmund (Simon O’Neill) and his long-lost sister, Sieglinde (Edith Haller), was heart-melting, with Andrew Joyce’s ‘cello solo one to literally die for.

I did think the playing of the motif associated with Hunding (Jonathan Lemalu), Sieglinde’s husband, needed more brassy girth, a blacker-toned brutality (Hunding is a particularly nasty customer, after all!). But the bite and impact of the orchestral accompaniment to Siegmund’s account of his earlier encounters with Hunding’s own murderous kinsmen was thrilling projected, as was the trenchant support for Siegmund’s scalp-prickling cries of “Wälse”, desperate invocations of his father’s guiding spirit, underpinned by fierce string tremolandi, and radiant contributions from trumpet and winds pinpointing the presence of the sword in the tree. And there was more orchestral radiance framing Siegmund’s poetic “Winterstürme”, the excitement building within the orchestra surrounding the singers’ exchanges as they ascertain their true brother/sister identities as well as acknowledging their love for one another. The Act’s last couple of pages were a ferment of newly-awakened passion between the lovers and great orchestral excitement, by which time I was convinced this was a different Pietari Inkinen at the orchestral helm to that which I’d encountered before.

If Act One had built gradually to that point of intensity, Act Two was on fire orchestrally right from the beginning – and so it went on with scarcely a falter, right through to the end, Inkinen seeming to revel in the intensities and unleash his players’ capabilities to realize those same impulses. My notes are filled with comments such as “wonderful atmosphere – orchestra terrific!” during the exchange between Wotan (John Wegner) and Fricka (Margaret Medlyn), and “the music’s darkness strongly brought out by Inkinen” when Wotan voices his fear of the Nibelungen, and “terrific vehemence in the orchestra” during Wotan’s grief at “Das Ende”. Tremendous stuff from conductor and players, here, as well as throughout Act Three.

All of which would have gone for very little without the singers, who with one disappointing exception made the most of the wonderfully-wrought orchestral support. To get it out of the way, the disappointment came with German-born Australian John Wegner’s Wotan, the singer developing problems with his throat during the course of Act Two, and having to seriously conserve his voice right throughout the following final Act. As the latter contains some of the character’s most significant and memorable moments of the entire cycle Wegner’s ailment was a blow not only for him but for his Brünnhilde and for the audience – instead of the glorious and heartfelt resolution of father-daughter conflict which makes the third Act so very memorable, we had the admittedly absorbing spectacle of an experienced singer intelligently using what vocal resources he still had to get through an extremely demanding series of episodes. He succeeded creditably, but I thought that there ought to have been some kind of announcement made beforehand concerning his ailment, as is done in opera houses, to put the audience in the picture, as it were.

By way of compensation (one of many), we were able to enjoy American soprano Christine Goerke’s debut as Brünnhilde, an assumption that I found gave so much pleasure for a number of reasons – for a start I loved the SOUND of her voice, rich, warm and flexible, drawing me further into the character she was creating with her whole demeanour. Everything her face and body did seemed to flow from the text and its meaning, giving a natural, organic quality to her impulses towards interaction with the others (generally, the three leading women seemed more at ease than did the men in their use of the narrow stage and their interplay with other characters). But Goerke and John Wegner, despite the latter’s vocal ailments, managed to convey plenty of musical and dramatic ebb and flow between them, especially in their Act Two confrontation over the fate of Siegmund. And Goerke brought the same heartfelt qualities to her interactions with each of the Volsung twins, a gravely beautiful Todesverkündigung (announcement of death) with Siegmund, and great and vigorous compassion for the bereft and defenceless Sieglinde.

As Siegmund Simon O’Neill was truly resplendent of voice, if not quite as easeful and fluent in his gestures and movements as his Act One on-stage partner Edith Haller, who took the role of Sieglinde. The “edge” to O’Neill’s bright, heroic tones I always find takes a bit of getting used to at first – but there’s straightaway also that wonderful freshness of aspect and manner, which gives me the impresion that he’s singing all of his music for the first time and is enchanted by its discovery. By the time O’Neill had reached the point of recounting his adventures to the vengeful Hunding, the voice had relinquished its “bleat” and acquired proper warmth and girth, exemplified by those thrilling cries of “Wälse!” already referred to. His delivery of “Winterstürme” was sheer poetry in its effect, and his wholehearted give-and-take with Sieglinde in their increasingly passionate exchanges towards the end of the Act had just the right amount of animal energy and excitement, singers and orchestra catching fire and conveying the sheer exhilaration of it all to us in no uncertain terms.

As his partner and lover-to-be Sieglinde, Edith Haller looked and sang like an angel. She brought to the performance recent experiences in the role at both Bayreuth and the Vienna State Opera, and thus seemed readily able to turn her uncompromising “acting-space” into a vibrant and believable world of repressed emotion, which was then unleashed by Siegmund’s arrival. Equally telling was her desperation in flight from Hunding with Siegmund, and her fierce joy at the thought of carrying her brother/lover’s child, though she suffered, along with everybody else on the platform, through a lack of strong dramatic direction and vision regarding the actual staging of Siegmund’s death. But her Sieglinde was a joy, an unalloyed delight to encounter.

Besides Simon O’Neill, two more New Zealanders took important roles, Jonathan Lemalu as Hunding, the brutal husband of Sieglinde, and Margaret Medlyn as Fricka, Wotan’s long-suffering wife, and guardian-goddess of marriage. Jonathan Lemalu’s darkly-resonant tones made Hunding sound a truly menacing figure, his singing compensating for a rather too-static stage presence – I couldn’t understand why he and Edith Haller didn’t seem to take any notice of Wagner’s quite explicit music-cues during the sequence when Hunding orders Sieglinde to bed, for example. By contrast Margaret Medlyn as Fricka was able to demonstrate her wonderful stage-instinct throughout her scene with Wotan, conveying both the umbrage of a dishonoured goddess and the frustration of a long-suffering wife. I thought her voice seemed more effortly-produced, and not as resplendent as with her Kundry of a few years ago on the same stage – but she successfully brought the character and her underlying motivations to pulsating life.

There would be no show without the Valkyries, “those noisy girls” as comedienne Anna Russell called them during her famous tongue-in-cheek analysis of the Ring Cycle. Here they were gloriously noisy, mainly due, I think, to their forward placement on the platform, in a “stand-and-deliver” line singing directly at the audience (again, a stage director would have almost certainly effected a more interesting configuration), as opposed to their usual deployment in places around the stage. It was all extremely visceral and thrilling!

Again, the “evening dress” made initially for an incongruous effect (what today’s young Valkyrie is wearing when she rides into battle…), which was soon forgotten in the cut-and-thrust of the singers’ exchanges with one another and with the orchestra. I liked the differentiations between the individual voices, some stronger than others, some differently focused – just like any average group of people – but no-one should be singled out, because each voice played its part in giving the scene its astonishing impact.

I’ve already mentioned the “semi-staged” aspect of the performance – the singers were able to use a narrow space in front of the orchestra and conductor, with entrances and exits on each side. There were no costumes as such, and no props at all, so what was mentioned in the libretto – a sword, a spear, a drink – had to be mimed (Wotan’s plastic drink-bottle which he discreetly brought on during Act Three hardly counted – and it was certainly no drinking-horn!). It all worked sufficiently well to further the drama, even if some of the movements, particularly from both Siegmund and his enemy Hunding seemed too stilted and contrived.

The women, I thought, were at an advantage over the men in the matter of “concert attire”, because they were at least able to dress colourfully and suggest different personalities, while the men were confined to their very formalised tuxedos. This seemed to work against whatever theatricality the singers were trying to generate – Siegmund at the very start looked as if he had just come home from an all-night party somewhat the worse for wear, for example. However, as the work progressed we were able to shift our focus away from what people were wearing, and instead concentrate on what they were doing with their faces, bodies, and, of course, voices.

The other thing I thought could have been given more thought, to the work’s overall advantage as a piece of music-drama, was the lighting. Nothing needed to be distractingly over-the-top – just subtle touches letting the music give the cues, would have, I think, enhanced the feeling of a story being enacted. Who would possibly want to insist that a “concert version” of an opera has nothing that suggests the theatre? I thought the red glow which grew out of the opening strains of the Magic Fire music at the opera’s end was entirely apposite, and thought that there were other places throughout the work where changes of ambient light would have added to the sense of dramatic action initiated by the music.

These criticisms are like thistledown planted on the wind, as Denis Glover’s Harry might say, blown away by the staggering achievement of singers, players and conductor with this presentation of one of the world’s mightiest music-dramas. It joins a small, but significant and ever-promising group of Wagner productions in this country, each of which represented for its time hitherto undreamed-of heights of local performance achievement, and has since become legendary. The NZSO and Pietari Inkinen can be justly proud of what they have done to add to that list of legends.

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