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Wagner: Die Walküre

The Opera Critic (New Zealand)
Michael Sinclair

The State Opera of South Australia’s much anticipated production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen was received with unanimous critical acclaim when it was presented in Adelaide in November and December 2004. Elke Neidhardt’s intensely dramatic production cried out for a DVD recording, but financial and time constraints made this impossible. Thankfully though the performances were recorded by Melba Recordings with substantial assistance from the Australian Government, and the first opera, Die Walküre, has now been released. An added interest in this recording is that it is the first Ring cycle in SACD (super audio / surround sound) format.

Even when listening on a standard CD player the first thing that strikes you is the superb quality of the sound. The clarity and warmth of the orchestra and the immediacy of the voices make this a performance that commands attention.

From the opening prelude with its brooding relentless intensity Asher Fisch guides the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra through Wagner’s score in a reading that is infused with passion from beginning to end. The orchestra play superbly throughout, culminating in a rendition of the magic fire music that is utterly heartbreaking in its beauty ...

An interesting aspect of this production was that the majority of the roles were taken by Australians and New Zealanders. While many of the names may be unfamiliar there is certainly no feeling that the vocal performances are second rate.

For many it will be Lisa Gasteen’s Brünnhilde that will be the main attraction of this new recording, a role that she is now singing worldwide to critical acclaim.

In the final analysis this CD confirms the strengths and weaknesses of her portrayal of the warrior maiden. She is dramatically first rate and excels where she can use her luxurious middle and lower registers to great effect, particularly here in the Todesverkundigung scene … much to enjoy … she combines brilliantly and most movingly with John Bröcheler as Wotan in Acts 2 and 3.

John Bröcheler’s Wotan was a tour-de-force on stage and much of this comes across in this recording. He sings expressively with great attention to the text, using a dynamic range that can take him from all-powerful God to grieving father. You feel for this Wotan, with the heartbreak at the end of the opera as evident on the recording as it was on stage.
It is Stuart Skelton who gives the stand out vocal performance, his youthful, ardent voice with its rich baritone quality making him an ideal Siegmund. His voice has been caught beautifully and is a constant joy to listen to … a performance of world-class standards, and one that stands up extremely favourably to many of his recorded counterparts.

Deborah Riedel’s Sieglinde is good … her dark timbre is appealing …

New Zealander Richard Green’s uses his cultured bass voice to create a portrayal of Hunding that is evil and menacing without having to resort to ugly sounds to do so.

The Valkyries are well portrayed and the SACD recording is particularly effective here, capturing their offstage calls quite realistically … plenty of visceral excitement.

For those who saw the production in Adelaide this recording of Die Walküre it is probably a must, and for those wanting a Ring in SACD format it is equally as essential. For the rest there are still compelling reasons for purchasing this version - vibrant playing, superlative sound and a uniformly excellent cast that makes a great case for the work.

The four CD set is lavishly bound with a hardback booklet that contains the usual essays, biographies and the text in German and English (a French translation can be found on the Melba Recordings website) ...