Bachtrack, 14 Mai 2021
Von David Karlin
Wagner: Die Walküre, 1. Akt, Bayerische Staatsoper, 13. Mai 2021
A concert Walküre to remember: Kaufmann and Davidsen in Munich
It was always going to be a hot ticket and it turned out to be an emotional event, with a distinct quaver in Intendant Nikolaus Bachler’s voice as he welcomed a Bayerische Staatsoper audience – albeit a much reduced one – back to the Nationaltheater after an absence of six months. It was a cast list to send shivers up one’s spine: Jonas Kaufmann, still the world’s most sought-after tenor, Lise Davidsen, a soprano at the very pinnacle of Wagnernian voices, Georg Zeppenfeld, one of the very top basses of today. Could the reality match the paper?

On the programme was Act 1 of Die Walküre, a bite-sized chunk of the Ring Cycle that would make for a decently self-contained episode in a TV series. Seeing this performed in concert – evening dress, music stands – makes one focus on the music and especially on the voices: there are no distractions from trying to decode a stage director’s concept or even from assessing the protagonists' body language and acting ability.

A few years ago, Stuart Skelton (another great Siegmund), explained to me that the key to Wagner is to sing it as beautifully as possible, because when Wagner wrote his operas, there was only bel canto and that would have defined the singers he had available. Last night’s performance demonstrated the virtues of that viewpoint in no uncertain terms.

Kaufmann’s voice may have gone through a few wobbles in recent years, but he was back to his sensational best. His sheer beauty of timbre lit up the whole evening. His control of breath was exceptional – no one else does a messa di voce quite like him. His shaping and colouring of every phrase exuded both strength and delicacy. His diction was pin sharp (no surtitles needed). Siegmund’s two cries of “Wälse”, surely the biggest money notes in the whole of Wagner, were utterly thrilling, not overdone for length and with a perfectly judged progression of colour and volume.

But even Kaufmann in peak form can be upstaged by the kind of performance produced by Davidsen – a kind of love-child of bel canto and Lieder singing. Next to the screen in my living room is a large antique armchair: so clearly articulated and intense was Davidsen’s storytelling that I could imagine her sitting in that chair pouring out the woes of Sieglinde’s back story. Somehow, even when Wagner’s vocal line hits fever pitch in the high register, even when the mood turns angry, Davidsen’s tone never becomes anything other than bewitchingly beautiful – and yet the power and laser-like accuracy with which she hits every note is indisputable. With the concert format giving Kaufmann and Davidsen no need to act their own roles when not singing, it was instructive to watch their faces: each of these top singers was gazing at the other, rapt with admiration of the artistry they were hearing.

It’s rare for opera composers to give the bass villain the chance to put his voice on show to the same extent as the hero and heroine, and the part of Hunding is no exception. Within those confines, Georg Zeppenfeld showed that he’s in the same quality bracket as Kaufmann and Davidsen: his voice is noble, refined, authoritative. If your view of Hunding is a thug (as he is often played), you will need to readjust, because in Zeppenfeld’s portrayal, he is tough and uncompromising but in no way coarse.

In similar vein, the Bayerische Staatsorchester turned in a cultured performance. You will have heard Die Walküre played at higher octane, but not with more clarity or beauty of solos (the oboe solos were particularly notable) or with more depth of resonance of brass ensembles. Conductor Asher Fisch’s overall feel was brisk and he can be praised for not turning up the decibels too far: given that the orchestra were on stage rather than in the pit, the singers could easily have been swamped.

While curtain calls were made with a closed curtain, the orchestra departed and a piano appeared for Fisch to accompany each singer in an encore: Kaufmann singing Träume from Wesendonck-Lieder with heartfelt delicacy, Davidsen reminding us of her beauty of voice in Grieg's Våren (Spring) and Zeppenfeld capping it all with a gorgeous rendering of Richard Strauss’ “Wie schön ist doch die Musik” from Die schweigsame Frau. “How beautiful is the music!” Amen to that, Georg.

This performance was reviewed from the Bayerische Staatsoper TV live video stream.

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