Wagner: Die Walküre

Jenny Dawson
4MBS Program Guide (Australia)

It’s six months short of a century since the first Australian performance of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, and nearly that since the first Australian Ring (the latter sung, as Wagner would have approved, in English). Not to take anything away from the earlier achievements, Adelaide’s 2004 Ring was rather different.

It’s not only a matter of presentation; Thomas Quinlan’s 1913 Ring productions were spectacularly lavish for their time and for a travelling company, although doubtless cheaper than Adelaide’s $15.3 million. The most fascinating difference is the issue of nationality. Quinlan’s company, which included most of the orchestra and chorus, was an imported one, with mainly British performers. For its season of Der Ring des Nibelungen in 2004, the State Opera of South Australia was able to assemble a cast that was almost entirely–all but three of the twenty-seven principals–Australian.

Two years after the event, memories of it may be fading–or they may not. Certainly, critical acclaim at the time was unbridled: “an extraordinary triumph”, “has set an almost impossibly high standard for all future operatic performances in this country”, “one of the finest occasions in the history of Australian music”, “an event without parallel in Australia’s modern history”, and the clincher: “the audience leapt to its feet and howled like a football crowd”.

Well, if–like most of the country’s music lovers–you missed it, you’ll get a second chance to experience at least the audio part of it. The Melba Foundation has fired the first shot in a musical campaign possibly even bigger than the original production: to bring out recordings of all four operas.

Let’s be clear about this: these are “live” recordings … made at the Adelaide Festival Centre during the staged performances, with a real (but admirably well-behaved) audience holding its collective breath until each act’s end. “Live recording” generally translates as “erratic sound coming and going, footsteps, bangings and thumpings, audience coughing, missed notes immortalized for all time”. Not on these ones.

A combination of sixty-five microphones, sixty hours of recording to get sixteen, and technical wizardry in the studio using something called a “SADiE H64 multi track editing work station”, if this means anything to you, adds up to a recording that has virtually the accuracy and sound quality of a studio one, but with all the excitement and immediacy of the live theatrical experience.

Regarding the sound … the recording is on SACD, Super Audio Compact Disc ... For most listeners with ordinary CD players, this won’t mean much except that the sound quality is very, VERY good. However, should you happen to have a SACD player, or a flash DVD player that can handle SACD sound, you’re in for a treat. This could well be the sound of the future.

Meanwhile, the Melba Foundation is releasing the Adelaide Ring opera by opera: Die Walküre [now], with Das Rheingold scheduled for October, Siegfried in February 2007, Götterdämmerung in June 2007, and the whole set in October 2007.

Die Walküre–The Valkyrie–manages to achieve the near-impossible for a work presented by fourteen characters and an orchestra of 129 players: a sense of claustrophobic self-absorption. These people are just all too close to each other–literally, since eleven of the fourteen are Wotan’s offspring, one is his wife, and the other his son-in-law.

To maintain this fervid familial tension (incestuous, in the case of Siegmund and Sieglinde) over nearly four hours requires immense control on the part of the conductor and commitment on the part of the musicians. It’s a physical and emotional marathon, and this cast rises to the challenge splendidly…

One would expect the State Opera of South Australia to have chosen its principals with care, and indeed it has. Our “own” Lisa Gasteen has pretty much made Wagner her playground, and it’s wonderful that Australia occasionally gets the opportunity to enjoy what the rest of the world does. Deborah Riedel is a lovely Sieglinde, managing the rare feat of making a Wagner heroine sound vulnerable. Elizabeth Campbell, too, sounds so warm you really wonder why Wotan would want to cheat on her. A rather unexpected delight is the evenness of the other eight Valkyries; these aren’t assorted comprimaria hacks thrown in to do the job, they’re very competent soloists indeed, excellent in ensemble. Watch for them in the future! … Overall, the cast is admirable. And the orchestra, augmented with instruments it may never have seen before, is quite splendid. Put all of this in a very neat package–fat hard-cover booklet, CDs inserted in the back, full libretto in German and English (French, if you want it, available on the Internet)–and what’s not to like?
Bravi, to all concerned!