The Chéreau Ring Cycle — Die Walküre 

(published first at ionarts)

available at Amazon
Centennial Ring, Die Walküre, Chéreau / Boulez
The second leg of The RingDie Walküre — is widely regarded as the most popular of the four operas. I know why, but I don’t quite follow… it is perhaps the one I care the least for, assuming the others are done well. As part of an integral cycle, such preferences don’t really matter, as you wouldn’t skip any of them, just because you prefer another. In the overture, Boulez’s touch is apparent through a fluid and wide range of dynamics. American Jeanine Altmeyer is what turns out to be a formidable Sieglinde, with good (but nothing more than that) pronunciation, who only gets stronger from Act I on. Rock star/actor/Heldentenor/Parkinson's victim Peter Hofmann is Siegmund (we know someone who particularly takes note of his bare-chested performances) stars alongside her.

Chez Hunding is a mid-19th-century industrial building in less-than-inviting grays. Matti Salminen’s Hunding booms the second he comes on stage. He already made a premature exit in Rheingold, courtesy of Fafner; it’s a shame that his vocal contribution is once more cut short, this time by Wotan. His (Hunding’s) men are with him – minor industrial captains or his managers (just what did you call a ‘manager’ back then?) around Hunding’s ermine-clad industrial baron, all with perfect faces, like period photographs come to life. Hunding, meanwhile, is really not that bad a guy – given that it is his duty to take care of this feckless rival, troublemaker and convention-breaker Wehwalt (Siegmund) who threatens the way of life and public order that Hunding and his like depend on. (Never mind ogling his wife right upon arrival.)

Also on Ionarts:

Patrice Chéreau's New Film at the Mostra (September 8, 2005)

The Chéreau Ring Cycle — Das Rheingold (September 7, 2005)

Boulez Comes Down from the Green Hill for Good (September 5, 2005)

The Chéreau Ring Cycle - The Making of... (September 2, 2005)
Donald McIntyre’s Wotan is somewhat domesticated in Die Walküre, his hair less wild, his dress the railroad tycoon’s or a banker’s. Fricka, his 19th-century upper-class wife, is sung by Hannah Schwarz. Fricka’s legitimate moral concerns and Wotan’s freewheeling liberalism regarding the institution of marriage (both as regards himself, his incestuous kids, and Sieglinde’s marriage cum white-slavery to Hunding) is portrayed well, although I can imagine more impressive vocal and dramatic contributions. Mme. Schwarz warms up to the role, though, as she represents the most realistic character in the immoral world of opera: the wife of a philandering husband who tries to instill at least a basic sense of morality and adherence to rule in Wotan. Even if Schwarz is not as convincingly the moral conscience as Elena Zaremba was in the WNO’s Walküre it is a role that should elicit far more sympathy and understanding than thinking of her as a party-spoiling nagging hag. Come to think of it... Fricka actually succeeds in making her husband reconsider and retract at least some of his plans at least once... and as such she is perhaps a highly unrealistic character, after all, in the world of opera, where faithfulness and marital and ethical virtue are rarer to be found than in any other profession, including the oldest.

Jeanine Altmeyer rises to top form in Scene III of Act II. Because of their looks and physique, Hofmann and Altmeyer don’t require any suspension of disbelief, either. If Hofmann seems a little weak in the high notes (though not terribly so), it is exacerbated by Sieglinde’s vocal excellence and covered up by fine acting. His “Winterstürme, weichet dem Wonnemond” is heart-wrenchingly delivered over beautiful orchestral playing.

Act III shows McIntyre a little on the vocally shy side next to Gwyneth Jones, who doesn’t produce the prettiest sound and varies between very impressive moments and the sound of effort (though not yet strain). Again, watching the opera takes the edge off these possible shortcomings. Subtitles, too, help immensely where the diction is not great in the already hard-to-understand Walküre scenes. Jones certainly looks fairly convincing as Brünnhilde, even if 1980 saw her a few years older than the playful hero-collecting girl in Chéreau’s production would have been. Still, a non-obese Brünnhilde with pleasant features makes this Walküre very pleasant to watch, even if it does not quite match the qualities of Das Rheingold. The orchestral elements under Boulez are above criticism... at least above mine. Even if his is not one’s favorite way of conducting Wagner, the mere quality and drama of it must be acknowledged and convince on some level. To my ears it is among the finest orchestral contributions to The Ring – certainly in modern sound, where I only find the two very different approaches of Barenboim (caring, with attention to detail, broad and muscular) and Sawallisch (self-effacing almost, loving no-nonsense crispness) equally convincing.

Dramatically, “Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind” – Wotan’s last aria in The Ring (before he becomes the “Wanderer”) does indeed become a family affair under the directing hand of Chéreau. With intensely moving (yes, I cried) portrays of Brünnhilde’s frailty and childlikeness that makes her character in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung all the more believable, she and Wotan say their last goodbyes. The curtain falls upon the misty eyes of the viewer and a second installment in the centennial Ring that does not match the first but is convincing and enjoyable all the same.

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