Opera Britannia, 8 February 2013
Mark Pullinger
Die Walküre (Mariinsky) *****
Let’s play fantasy opera casting! You’re commissioning a recording of Die Walküre, the first release in a projected Ring cycle to mark Wagner’s bicentenary. Money is no object. Assemble the finest cast you can. Pencils poised? Go!

When EMI recorded its Tristan und Isolde in 2004-5, with Antonio Pappano conducting, it was widely heralded as the last major studio recording of an opera. There have been examples since, of course, but the giants of yore – DG, Decca, EMI – have largely given up the ghost when it comes to big opera recordings. It’s cheaper to capture them live in concert or to release recordings of productions from opera houses. If you miss a cinema screening of a production from the Metropolitan Opera, rest assured that DG will be along to issue it on DVD within a year. Some orchestras and institutions have their own labels specifically to distribute their performances to a wider audience. LSO Live was one of the first (and most successful), while the Mariinsky hails from the same stable.

Valery Gergiev, in a characteristically ambitious move, is now at the helm launching a recorded cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen. He has a long association with Wagner, although not one that has been met with universal adoration. His detractors are quick to point to the quality of productions with which he’s been (personally) associated – derisory, according to some, regarding his vision of the Ring – while his casting of Mariinsky-based singers who are less than idiomatic in Wagner has not always paid off. His recording of Parsifal won praise largely because of its luxury casting of Gurnemanz. For Die Walküre, however, there is a noticeable difference. A booklet and slipcase box credit thanks Yoko Ceschina ‘for her generous support’. I can’t begin to speculate on the size of her financial donation, but it has helped gather a pretty fine cast, the like of which any opera house would be drooling over. Recorded in concert and studio sessions from 2011 and 2012, it will also be the envy of the major labels.

How is your fantasy cast list shaping up? You’ll want a first-rate Wotan, of course. Bryn Terfel would be at the top of many lists, having recently performed in cycles at the Met and Covent Garden. He inhabits the role like few others, but for an audio only account his vivid characterization, with shouts and snarls, might be considered too much. No, for a bass voice of sheer beauty, step forward René Pape, the Gurnemanz from that Parsifal recording. I have rarely heard such an eloquent Wotan. His Act II narration adopts a hushed, confidential manner, while his second ‘Geh!’ could fell a stronger man than Hunding. Pape’s rich tone is most welcome in Wotan’s Farewell, especially in the long lines of ‘Der Augen leuchtendes Paar’ through to the god’s tender kiss upon Brünnhilde’s eyes. Pape is not an extrovert vocal actor, but everything is done tastefully, without a single ugly sound produced.

Brünnhilde is an even harder role to cast, a challenge rarely met if the standards heard on recent London and New York broadcasts are anything to go by, which occasionally plummeted to a level marked ‘lamentable’. So, which Wagner soprano would top your list? Nina Stemme? Certainly. No problem. The performance of this great Swedish soprano can stand comparison with her compatriot Birgit Nilsson; rock solid throughout her range, with gleaming top notes without any great wobble or sense of blasting the speakers. She interacts with Pape extremely well. I sincerely hope she will be cast across the cycle. Anyone enraptured by her Isolde at Covent Garden in 2009 will want to hear Stemme’s Brünnhilde.

I imagine just about every Wagnerian would put Jonas Kaufmann at the head of their wish-list casting for Siegmund and – rather wonderfully – that’s what the Mariinsky has done here. ‘A voice as soft as wild honey dripping from a tree’ – Kipling describing Bagheera, the black panther in The Jungle Book; it could equally be applied to Kaufmann, whose baritonal timbre and almost smoky half tones make his Siegmund intensely masculine. His ‘Winterstürme’ is softly ardent, immediately answered by a beautiful ‘Du bist der Lenz’ from our Sieglinde. Anja Kampe might be a surprise choice for some – her Wagner hasn’t always been ecstatically received – but she sings all the notes with a good deal of control. She is possibly less warm than Eva-Maria Westbroek, but she sings tenderly when required and opens into a marvellous ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’ in Act III. Kaufmann and Kampe are simply thrilling at the end of Act I, so much so that it elicited a cheer from this armchair listener.

Hunding and Fricka are cast from Gergiev’s Russian roster, but two impressive singers who have very decent careers ahead of them. Mikhail Petrenko’s Hunding isn’t the grizzled hunter, but a plausibly young husband of Sieglinde and more of a threat as a result. Ekaterina Gubanova sings a very fine Fricka, firm-toned, without the haranguing tone sometimes associated with ageing mezzos taking on the role. In most Walküre recordings of the past couple of decades, there has been at least one serious vocal drawback in the main casting. No such fault can be applied here.

The Valkyries are drawn from Mariinsky forces and they’re a decent team. In a nice touch, for those listening in 5.0 surround sound, they approach from different directions in the infamous ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, so that Helmwige, for example, calls over your left shoulder on her first appearance, lending a sense of theatre to proceedings.

And so to Gergiev. While criticisms of his productions and his casting may have been deserved, he is now an experienced Wagner conductor. His Parsifal on disc and in the concert hall suits the darker timbre of his orchestra and in Walküre he maintains narrative momentum well, without the rather excitable, fitful approach of someone like Pappano. It’s sometimes a bit of a slow burn – nothing like as slow as Levine (who is?) – but it burns with an intensity which is welcome and well sustained. The orchestral playing is excellent, especially lower woodwinds in solo passages, while the brass is superb. The recording, from the fine acoustic of the Mariinsky Concert Hall, is sumptuous. It is not possible to tell how much was recorded in concert and how much from ‘studio conditions’; there were times when I felt aware of an audience, although no applause is retained.

Das Rheingold is scheduled for release later this bicentenary year, but Siegfried and Götterdämmerung have to wait until 2014. It is to be fervently hoped that Gergiev’s luxury casting stretches to the whole cycle.

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