Melba Recordings

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Wagner: Die Walküre

Fanfare (US)
Andrew Quint

The performance offered here from The State Opera of South Australia, recorded in November and December of 2004, is far from inconsiderable. But the lead story is the recording’s technical execution.

This Walküre, which initiates a Ring that will be released in full within the year, is the first complete Wagner opera to appear on SACD.

Mind you, there’s plenty of Wagner in surround sound—dozens of DVDs with multichannel options on their audio menus. But DVDs sport either DTS or Dolby Digital (or both) as their surround choices. If you do the math, the level of resolution with either of these formats is far lower than Red Book CD, and it sounds it. I’m a multichannel partisan, but almost always prefer the PCM stereo option on an opera DVD: the more detailed, accurate characterization of voices and instruments is much more important to me than the extra dimensionality that a competently engineered multichannel recording can provide.

Melba’s Adelaide Ring has been recorded with Direct Stream Digital technology and the resulting hybrid multichannel SACD—the only way you can buy this release — has, on the DSD programs, superior resolution to standard CD (an option provided, of course, on this hybrid disc.) Tonally, the recording is exquisite with voices richly characterized and, in surround, the orchestral fabric naturally enveloping. You hear everything — this is a great recording with which to follow the score.

It’s not analytical, but what you might hope to hear from a great location (maybe the conductor’s) in a good hall. Direct surround effects are used sparingly, with fealty to the score. For example, when Helmwige arrives at the beginning of act III to join her sisters, in order to give the impression of her voice coming from a distance, Wagner has her singing “durch ein Sprachrohr”—into a “speaking tube” or “language pipe” that’s akin to a megaphone. Melba’s engineers accomplish this much more effectively by placing the singer in the right rear channel. The DSD stereo mix is also warmly appealing, with suitable vocal/instrumental balances.

As for the performance itself, this Walküre gets better as it goes along. Much of the reason for this is that the two strongest singers among the mostly Australian cast are the German bass-baritone John Bröcheler and Lisa Gasteen (who is an Aussie.) Whenever Brünnhilde or Wotan is on stage, things are taken up a notch. Gasteen is brimming with confidence and youthful energy at her first entrance in act II and her voice in its lower register is a devastatingly powerful dramatic vehicle, as when she solemnly reveals to Siegmund what the future holds for him. Bröcheler’s singing is animated; he’s an excellent vocal actor … Bröcheler’s voice isn’t huge or plush but it’s suitably regal and the artist is attuned to the expressive needs of the moment. The Act II monologue is nicely paced, a well-told story. In Act III, Wotan’s rage softens all right, but he doesn’t go all gooey. He’s exultant because, at least for the moment, he’s found a solution to his dilemma—but he’s not abandoning his firm parenting style ... 

… Stuart Skelton’s portrayal of Siegmund does grow on one with multiple hearings … it does have a rewarding baritonal quality and the most lyrical passages are beautiful to hear …. As Sieglinde, Deborah Reidel does a good job of communicating the baseline misery and hopelessness of her existence so that her flashes of passion and hope for the future seem to exemplify the resiliency of the human spirit … Asher Fisch leads idiomatically and assures we hear every leitmotif, thanks to the excellent blend and balances he achieves with his superbly prepared orchestra. The Valkyries’ ensemble work is equally impressive. The Israeli-born Fisch is currently Music Director of the New Israeli Opera, an interesting job for someone who’s something of a Wagner specialist, having conducted the composer’s music dramas all over, notably in Seattle and Vienna …

The packaging is sumptuous, thanks to the substantial financial support of the Melba Foundation, led for this project by Dr. Douglas G. Mitchell, a spiritedly opinionated and devoted Wagnerian I had the pleasure of meeting at Bayreuth a few summers ago. Texts are in German and English.

A very good Die Walküre and essential, I’d say, for any Wagner-lover who values the aural experience of the composer’s art.