A World Class performance of Die Walküre at Teatro di San Carlo

22/05/2019

Wagner, Die Walküre: Soloists, Dancers, Orchestra of San Carlo Theatre / Juraj Valčuha (conductor), Teatro di San Carlo, Naples, 18.5.2019. (GT)

Act III (opening scene) of Die Walküre (c) Luciano Romano

Production:

Director – Federico Tiezzi
Set Director – Giulio Paolini
Costumes – Giovanna Buzzi
Lighting Director – Gianni Pollini
Costume assistant – Maria Antonietta Lucarelli

Cast:

Siegmund – Robert Dean Smith
Hunding – Liang Li
Wotan – Egils Silins
Sieglinde – Manuela Uhl
Brünnhilde – Iréne Theorin
Fricka – Ekaterina Gubanova
Gerhilde – Raffaela Lintl
Ortlinde – Pia-Marie Nilsson
Waltraute – Ursula Hesse von den Steinen
Schwertleite – Julia Gertseva
Helmwige – Robyn Allegra Parton
Siegrune – Ivonne Fuchs
Grimgerde – Niina Keitel
Rossweisse – Alexandra Ionis

The music of Richard Wagner enjoys a special association with Italy. The Milan publishers Ricordi published his scores and it was at Ravello on the Amalfi Coast near Naples that he was inspired to write the second act of his final opera Parsifal, and lastly where he died in Venice in 1883. There is also a link with Naples’s Teatro di San Carlo, for Wagner’s operas have been regularly performed here since Die Walküre was staged here on 28 December 1895 leading to a run of eleven performances. The second staging followed in 1910 with eight performances under the direction of Vittorio Gui, and Giovanni Bossa. Hina Spani was Sieglinde in the third staging at San Carlo in 1921 which ran for eight nights, and as many performances were given for the fourth staging in 1926 in which Iva Pacetti was Brünnhilde. The last pre-war production – in 1935 – Lotte Burcke was the Brünnhilde, and the production ran for just four evenings, twice more than the 1941 production – as many performances as were given for the 1945 staging. Martha Mödl and Leoni Rysanek shared the role of Brünnhilde in the 1952 presentation directed by Wieland Wagner. Seven years later, Bernd Aldenhoff was Siegmund, and Lovro von Matačić conducted the three performances, notably, the young Marilyn Horne sang the part of Gerhilde. In the 1963 production by Wieland Wagner (he also designed the costumes) Anja Silja, Gré Brouwenstijn, Wolfgang Windgassen, Hans Hotter and Joseph Griendl sang under direction of von Matačić. David Ward was Wotan in the 1968 staging, which also featured Amy Shuard in the three performances scheduled. Since which the opera has been presented in 1972, with Claire Watson as Sieglinde, again in 1976, and four years later in 1980, Jeannine Altmeyer was Sieglinde, and Matti Salminen as Wotan. It was not for another twenty-five years that Die Walküre was produced at the Teatro di San Carlo, and it is this production which has been revived in 2019. For the premiere, Petra Lang and Nina Stemme shared the role of Sieglinde with Jeffrey Tate conducting the five performances.

In the revived staging, Federico Tiezza makes references to Sophocles and Pasolini as much as to Schnitzler and Pirandello. From my viewpoint, this was reflected in the costumes and sets which frankly were dull and uninspiring, but perhaps less adventurous than other contemporary stagings of Wagner. This revival of the 2005 production was dominant in light and dark greys, with yellow and red for the last two acts. The opening bars are among the most dramatic in the opera literature offering the listener some of the finest dramatic music ever written. The Slovak conductor Juraj Valčuha imparted a deeply thoughtful and characterful performance receiving eloquent and darkly powerful playing from his strings. At the centre of the stage throughout was a cube-like metal frame-like structure with great rocks strewn around the stage with several chairs at opposite sides for the principal characters. Great tall lengths of wood formed the tree from which Nothung would emerge in a gleam of light.

The Sieglinde of the German Manuela Uhl was one of the highlights of the evening both for her acting and singing. I have not heard this singer before but her transformation expressed through every glance of her eyes and body movements – from the dutiful wife of Hunding in ‘Dies Haus und dies Weib’  and ‘Schläfst du, gast?’ and her becoming the lover of her brother Siegmund in ‘Du bist der Lenz’ – was masterly portrayed. The emotional and endearing characterisation was stunning to behold as it developed. Her partner in the experienced Robert Dean Smith was impressive both in acting and voice; the presentation of the ‘Winterstürme’ passage was revelatory, and later his ‘Du bist das Bild’ breathtakingly presented at the maximum of emotional power. The love scene was marvellously supported by Valčuha’s musicians with some luminous playing, again especially from the strings. The most startling presentation of all in the opening act was that of the Chinese baritone Liang Li as Hunding and I have never heard such a brilliant performance of this part, his darkly acerbic voice instantly sets him apart from the others on stage and this was truly singing and acting of world class.

In Act II, the setting was simple with only two chairs at opposite ends of a long table decorated by ornate candle stick holders. If this was plain at least the drama and music-making made up for the lack of imagination in the set design. From the first cry of ‘Hojotoho’ the stunning Brünnhilde of Iréne Theorin enthralled the audience with her dramatically forceful singing and – in truth – she was Brünnhilde.  The Wotan of the Latvian Egils Silins is a fine Wagnerian, finding the right blend of evil mixed with regal nobility. A weakness, however, was his lack of dramatic characterisation, one would have difficulty in understanding his monologue, if not for the surtitles. His ‘Der alte Sturm, die alte Muh!’ was quite lacking in portraying genuine sensitivity. The Fricka of the Russian Ekaterina Gubanova is a genuine star and an equal to her maleficent step-daughter Brünnhilde. The disparaging of her unfaithful husband ‘Wie töricht und taub du dich stellst,’ and her powerfully entreating Wotan – in ‘Lass von dem Wälsung!’ – to kill Siegmund consummated her whole portrayal. In the third scene with Siegmund and Sieglinde, the background was transformed presenting the universe with the planets displayed in a monochrome imagery akin to those pictures retailed by IKEA and out of touch with Wagner’s vision.

In Act III, several picture frames with body parts cast in stone decorated the central scene against a yellow setting. With the opening chant of ‘Hojotoho! Hojotoho! Heiaha!’ from Gerhilde, the Valkyries were joined by four dancers to enhance the dramatic opening scene in which bodies of dead heroes arranged across the stage were slowly removed, leaving a solitary lifeless hero on a plinth in the central framework. The arrival of Brünnhilde carrying Sieglinde (Grane was in the form of a decorative piece of stonework) emerged from the wings. Brünnhilde’s marvellous ‘Was es so schmählich’ – in entreaty to Wotan – was juxtaposed by the mannered Egils Silins as Wotan. Regardless of his fine voice, his acting was out of character most of the evening. However, in the final scene, suddenly Wotan found depth of emotion in his voice in ‘Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!’ for his final monologue and the setting slowly transformed into a bright red colour invoking Loge with the shield of fire enshrouding Brünnhilde, enclosed in the centre of the framework engulfed in the fire. All of which was supported with superb playing by the San Carlo Orchestra bringing this outstanding performance to a beautifully fluent close.

As with many other contemporary productions, it is the narrative and the singing which is at the heart of the music-making and this cast shone brightly with world-class standards ably backed by Juraj Valčuha’s marvellously gifted orchestra. The music director has been in his post for two seasons and he certainly has brought a wonderful discipline and fluency in articulation to their playing. A particular facet in the gift of the Slovak conductor was his control of the orchestra’s dynamics allowing the singers full opportunity to perform without an over brash portrayal of Wagner’s magnificent score – as some conductors are encouraged to do – and his direction was almost that of a chamber orchestra. This often had a velvety soft ambience that gave a more intimate picture of the opera, to the benefit of the entire performance and allowed the score to be heard in the beautiful acoustic of this theatre. The low strings and basses were on particularly fine form and the woodwind were world class in assisting portrayal of the narrative. In all, with this revival, the plaudits go to the superb singing by several world-class vocalists, a magnificent orchestra and conductor and will be remembered by many for a great interpretation of Wagner’s masterpiece – the only opera from Der Ring des Nibelungen fully able to stand on its own as a great opera.

Gregor Tassie

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