We’ve watched a second Met production of Die Walküre, during this, our second lockdown. I feel that I’ve seen this 1989 Otto Schenk / Günther Schneider-Siemssen production before and that it was amongst my very first introductions to Wagner and the Ring Cycle. How and when I have no idea; presumably television. I certainly didn’t see it at the Met!
The American bass-baritone James Morris is a tremendous Wotan. It helps that he’s handsome and very tall, but it’s his performance that really matters. He’s regal, fierce, poignant – as required. On the Met website we’re told ; Morris’s portrayal of Wotan is deservedly legendary. And I think it has influenced my responses to subsequent productions.
Hidegard Behrens is a wonderful Brünnhilde. I remember her vividly. And also Christa Ludwig as Fricka. It’s strange that I don’t remember so Jessye Norman as Sieglinde and Gary Lakes as Siegmund. They are both terrific.
This production was so much better than the more recent one I’ve talked about here. The staging gave the singers enough space in which to develop their characters and situations which made me realise how big an impediment to the narrative was the stage structure in the Lepage version.
This was evident right from the start, in Hunding’s hut which was just as you imagine it. Everyone had plenty of space to move around extract maximum meaning from their actions. The costumes were also perfect as was the lighting. I think it was as near to perfect a production that you’re likely to get. Watching these older productions confirms my view that modern designers clutter up the stage and the actions to the detriment of both music and narrative in more recent versions.
Here are some pictures for me to remember it by. Obviously, taken of the television screen, they are of terrible quality.
Below is Gary Lakes, a big bear of a man, with an incredibly powerful voice. Siegmund already has his sword in the picture below, so this is taken a bit later in the opera, when I could get a decent picture. He’s about to meet his doom in the fight with Hunding.
And below is Jessye Norman who looked and sounded magnificent. I was sometimes disconcerted by the close-ups of her face which trained the camera deep into her mouth! (Why I’m not so keen on filmed performances – they show you too clearly the effort involved in what the performers from a distance make look effortless). Norman was a deeply sympathetic Sieglinde.
In the picture below, you can see the hut. It was big enough for the performers to move around; heightening the tension with Hunding, and illustrating the growing attraction between the two lovers. It had, as required, but often missing, the proper tree trunk in which the sword is embedded. You can see it glinting beside Sieglinde here.
Both singers were compelling in their love duets. They complemented each other really well. Commentators agree it is a phenomenal achievement for Wagner to overcome audiences natural hostility to incest in showing this sibling passion. He does it through the music and making both of their stories so sad – woeful indeed.
One of the loveliest interludes in the whole cycle occurs when the Spring breeze blows the door open. In most productions you barely see that happen, here a very big door swung open to show beautifully lit Spring leaves. It let the warm breeze be seen as well as sung. Exquisite music.
So now their love can be declared. A love which, being incestuous, we should find repugnant, but the music ensures that we are entirely sympathetic to their situation. Beautiful acting.
Sieglind directs Siegmund to the sword in the tree which we have seen glinting in the background for a while. Lakes was magnificent, belting out this well known piece of music as though it was effortless. Stirring stuff.
Now we are back with the gods; meeting Brünnhilde for the first time; full of vigour and confidence. Everything about Hildegard Behren’s performance was perfect. I loved the costumes and she sang with power and passion, then tenderness as required and acted with great sensitivity throughout.
Then the big debate between husband and wife. How can Wotan abandon the treaties that he has chosen to live by? Christa Ludwig looked terrific, full of righteous rage striding around the hill top as she outwitted Wotan.
Whilst Wotan looked increasingly uncomfortable. James Morris was suitably regal and his different moods during this increasingly bitter debate were properly nuanced.
His costume was also terrific and he had his eye patch firmly in place. It’s an aggravation how many designers want to do away with that critical bit of his look. Its crucial to the story – why bury it behind greasy hair as poor old Bryn Terfel had to deal with more recently. Here he knows he’s losing the argument.
And Fricka she knew when she had him! The tenor of this dialogue is easy to understand and the staging here helped us to keep it clear in our heads, and hearts! The singers need to move!
It was compelling viewing as they strode around each other; gradually moving nearer as the denouement arrived. Wotan forced to concede that to be true to his rule of law and treaties he must support the institutions that he has built, including marriage.
And there he was – defeated and desolate; Siegmund must die.
Brünnhilde is given her new instructions – just as unpalatable to her as they are to Wotan, and to us. His narrative about how he got to this point is beautifully done. It’s one of the most poignant bits in the whole cycle and a masterpiece in recitative singing according to Roger Scruton.
Wotan’s retelling of his story makes Brünnhilde a part of him – as she says later, knowing his Will, she becomes his Will. Wotan’s anguish at his situation is powerfully portrayed.
Back we go to our lovers to find an exhausted Sieglinde and steadfast Siegmund. Norman is terrific in showing us Sieglinde’s state of mind – verging on hysteria. Finally collapsing on Siegmund’s lap.
Which is where Brünnhilde finds them when she comes to announce his death – she’s there to take him to Valhalla. Again, the staging and lighting is perfect. There is a proper distance between them as the sombre question and answer session is undertaken. So solemn, so moving.
Brünnhilde is clothed in all her formal regalia as a Valkyrie and doesn’t doubt he will follow her.
Of course he won’t leave Sieglinde; the woman with whom he is passionately in love.
Being told that she is pregnant, Brünnhilde has inherited Erda’s wisdom and ability to see into the future, Siegmund would rather kill her and her unborn child than leave her.
The cold-hearted Valkyrie, having never seen human love before is moved. Never fear, in the face of such devotion I shall save you!
So now, after the famous ride of the Valkyries and Sieglinde’s glorious hail to the hero to be born Brünnhilde faces Wotan’s wrath.
Hildegard Behrens stayed in this position for nearly the entire scene – a feat of physical endurance. At the same time she is pouring all of her emotion into her increasingly sophisticated defence. I am your Will, I did what you willed.
James Morris – now in full battle regalia – was wonderful; first in his implacable anger.
Which makes his eventual reconciliation with his daughter so moving.
And his anguish at what he is forced to do so palpable.
These scenes were so moving! He remembers her sparkling eyes as a child.
He remembers her in the great hall of Valhalla, bringing him heroes and cups of wine.
Beautiful memories. Beautiful music.
And now he kisses her godhead away.
And she falls asleep in his arms.
He lays her on the rock.
And summons Loge.
And the downfall of the gods has begun.
I cry just writing this blog!