Wagner: Die Walküre

Robert Murray
The Australian Financial Review Magazine (Australia)

Album of the month

Stripped of its dazzling retro-futuristic settings, the State Opera of South Australia’s landmark 2004 production of Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), the second part of Wagner’s 16-hour epic, The Ring of the Nibelungen, sounds very good indeed. Partly this is to do with the top-notch ‘super audio’ surround-sound format it was recorded in, but mostly it’s to do with the incredible talent on stage. The hyperbole attending this first completely Australian production of The Ring was particularly intense: it was hailed as one of the most important events in Australian music, theatre and opera. If the rest of the Cycle, to be released over 18 months, matches the Valkyrie for passion, commitment and the tightrope-walk excitement of a live performance, the hype will be deserved.

The Ring is populated by gods, giants, dragons, dwarves, heroes and formidable warrior maidens – a big call for a cast of mortals, even if they are opera singers. Central to the drama of The Valkyrie are the roles of Wotan – chief of the gods who is part-judge, part-CEO of Valhalla and its uncooperative family of lesser gods - and his daughter, the valkyrie, Brünnhilde. Valkyrie are Nordic angels of death who scour the battlefields for souls to constitute Wotan’s army. Soprano Lisa Gasteen’s Brünnhilde is simply magnificent. She has a voice that recalls that of the century’s greatest Brunnhilde, Birgit Nilsson, in terms of colour and ardour, and her sure grasp of the character: defiant, intelligent but warm. There’s a tendency for some of Wagner’s characters to become ciphers caught in an allegory, but she is richly human.

The great arc of The Ring tells the story of the struggle to heal the imbalance of nature caused by the theft of the Rhine gold, which has been fashioned into an all-powerful weapon. The magical ring itself is absent for the bulk of the story – The Ring is not about the ring, it is about the redemptive power of love and the conflict between the head and the heart. This conflict is illustrated most clearly in the gut-wrenching scene where Wotan, the dark-toned John Bröcheler, must punish his favourite daughter for insubordination, revoking Brünnhilde’s divinity and sending her into a magical sleep. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra flickers brilliantly as Wotan surrounds Brünnhilde with a wall of fire.

Here and elsewhere, conductor Asher Fisch finds a balance between expansive majesty and momentum.

The Valkyrie is a soap opera – a drama of emotion, not action – so while very little happens on stage,
it is the music that relentlessly propels the story forward, giving voice to the characters’ true feelings. When Wotan tells of how he has brought about the downfall of the gods, the orchestra recalls the events that caused it, alludes to Wotan’s present despair and predicts the cataclysm to come.

This Valkyrie, like any good page-turner makes you impatient for that apocalypse.