Will we ever hear their like again? Hildegard Behrens, Jessye Norman, and Christa Ludwig in a 1989 Met Die Walküre

Hildegard Behrens (Brünnhilde) and James Morris (Wotan)

United StatesUnited States Wagner, Die Walküre: Soloists, Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera House, New York / James Levine (conductor). 8.4.1989 performance reviewed as a Nightly Met Opera Stream on 1.7.2020. (JPr)

Production – Otto Schenk
Stage Director – Phebe Berkowitz
Set designer – Günther Schneider-Siemssen
Costume designer – Rolf Langenfass
Lighting designer – Gil Wechsler
TV Director – Brian Large

Brünnhilde – Hildegard Behrens
Siegmund – Gary Lakes
Sieglinde – Jessye Norman
Wotan – James Morris
Fricka – Christa Ludwig
Hunding – Kurt Moll
Gerhilde – Pyramid Sellers
Grimgerde – Wendy Hillhouse
Helmwige – Katarina Ikonomu
Ortlinde – Martha Thigpen
Rossweisse – Jacalyn Bower
Schwertleite – Sondra Kelly
Siegrune – Diane Kesling
Waltraute – Joyce Castle

Otto Schenk and Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s Met Ring is spoken of in hushed reverential tones by Wagnerians who saw it and is the stuff of – you just had to be there – legend. It was created in the late 1980s and lasted until 2009, it was handsome, romantic, and uber-traditional, eschewing any faddish revisionism or new psychological interpretation that the composer himself would have disapproved. Though I have only ever seen this Die Walküre thanks to this Nightly Met Opera Stream it was clearly designed to give life to Arthur Rackham’s Ring cycle illustrations and it is epic in scale; swords-and-sandals, beards-and-breastplates, spears-and-winged helmets, drinking horn-and-magic fire. Die Walküre’s three acts demand a large dwelling with a huge central ash tree (check!); a rocky ridge (check!); the top of a mountain (check!).

Obviously, 1989 was years before high-definition and the video – as fascinating as it was – has not aged well and makes this Die Walküre staging looks a bit threadbare (even though it was only a few years old). There are no fancy tricks in Brian Large’s TV direction and he just alternated closeups with widescreen group shots. It is clear there has been some editing such as when Wotan sings his farewell to Brünnhilde (‘Der Augen leuchtendes Paar’) and there are additional overhead shots to give these moments greater intimacy.

What this Nightly Met Opera Stream did was allow viewers of a younger generation to see and hear some legendary singers of years gone by. This Die Walküre cast was one that probably could not have been improved upon in 1989 and – more significantly – would be impossible to equal in 2020! Sadly, three of the leading singing actors in this performance – none of whom I ever saw sing their roles ‘live – Hildegard Behrens (Brünnhilde), Jessye Norman (Sieglinde) and Kurt Moll (Hunding) – are no longer with us, though Christa Ludwig (Fricka) is 92 years young now and James Morris (Wotan) was still singing recently at 73. (A recording such as this does not give any impression of the amplitude of their voices and I can only comment on what I heard through good laptop speakers.) The following year Behrens would be quite badly injured by a peace of falling scenery (canvas and foam over wood) during the final scene of Götterdämmerung and it has been suggested that this trauma hastened her vocal decline in the later years of her career. However, in 1989 Behrens was at the height of her powers and she thrusts her head back and launches into her opening ‘Hojotoho!’ fearlessly and with remarkable technical assurance. I cannot recall hearing anyone sing this better, not even Petra Lang who is one of today’s best Brünnhildes. Clearly a highly intense performer, Behrens sang throughout with great musicality and total dramatic conviction.

I read that Jessye Norman was singing Sieglinde for the first time at the Met and it is difficult to put adequately into words the impression she achieved with her voluptuous full-throated soprano sound. However, Norman often attempted to make time stand still at some climaxes and, for instance, with ‘Rettet die Mutter!’ (‘Save the mother!’) near the end of her involvement in Act III her ‘rettet’ was consequently rather overblown. Perhaps Sieglinde was not a character Norman felt entirely comfortable with because she appeared too regal and too imperious. Of course, these characteristics were exactly right for Christa Ludwig’s domineering Fricka who gave the henpecked Wotan no hope of winning their domestic argument. The authoritative Ludwig was totally credible with all her enraged utterances and quickly browbeat the chief of the gods into submission.

The three leading men – Gary Lakes (Siegmund), Kurt Moll (Hunding) and James Morris (Wotan) – were equally as good vocally and each brought a commanding physicality to their performance. Lakes was a big burly Siegmund but with a sturdy, yet surprisingly supple and pleasant sounding, lyrical tenor voice with shadings of the late great Alberto Remedios. I enjoyed elements of his guilelessness such as when Sieglinde indicates there was a sword in the tree and Siegmund just stares blankly with the merest hint of a shrug. Lakes began ‘Winterstürme’ very poetically and was in splendid voice throughout with some impressive heroic moments. For this ‘Spring Song’ massive barn-like doors flew open to reveal a scene dotted with what resembled artist Bob Ross’s ‘happy little trees’. The late Kurt Moll was an imposing Hunding singing with baleful darkly-resonant tones such that each and every word he uttered carried its own potent threat.

James Morris was in his early 40s in 1989 and setting off on the path to becoming one of the great Wotans. The range of colours in his voice was astonishing. Anger blazes out fiercely in Act II as Fricka departs, and he begins his long scene with Brünnhilde quietly and it all builds before the giving full value to his despair at ‘das Ende’. At the end of Act II he dismisses Hunding with a chillingly hushed ‘Geh!’. In Act III Morris is able to bring out the tender musical beauty, as well as, the sternness and sadness of Wotan’s banishment of Brünnhilde. There had been some occasional outbursts where Morris’s Wotan threw his arms wide and – with spear in hand – appeared like Moses ready to part the Red Sea. However, very often, as in the latter part of the third act, Morris sang the role reflectively and conversationally. He ended up by clearly expressing better than most with ‘der freier als ich, der Gott!’ the sadness of the hole Wotan has dug for himself.

Before winding this review up, I must add how the eight spear-wielding Valkyries didn’t sound the best I have heard, though I liked the way – once they finished rolling around – how they successively turned their backs on Brünnhilde, their errant sister. James Levine galvanised his superb Metropolitan Opera orchestra and it all sounded as if he emphasised the opera’s highpoints at the expense of letting the tempos drift when the music doesn’t have its own intrinsic forward momentum, such as, in the dialogue scenes between Wotan and Brünnhilde, and Brünnhilde and Siegmund in the second act (which actually seemed as if it was never going to end). I think I am right when I finish with how Wagner, himself, was aware of this danger and didn’t want conductors of his music to linger more than necessary.

Jim Pritchard

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1 thought on “Will we ever hear their like again? Hildegard Behrens, Jessye Norman, and Christa Ludwig in a 1989 Met <i>Die Walküre</i>”

  1. From Jeremy Holmes

    Even many months down the line I am mourning the loss of Jessye Norman. Her recording of the role of Sieglinde with Janowski on his early ‘Ring’ cycle has yet to be surpassed by anyone in my book (although I will acknowledge that this cycle has some weaknesses in other cast members). She invests everything with such inner meaning – the most outstanding example for me being early on in Act I where she replies to Siegmund saying ‘you cannot bring unhappiness into a house where happiness is already present’ (my translation). I saw her many times in concert but never on the opera stage, sadly.

    Anyway, I love the reviews on S&H, and yours are some of the best, so keep them coming!!


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