Die Walküre in Leipzig – outstanding singers make up for odd moments

GermanyGermany Wagner, Die Walküre: Leipzig Opera Soloists and Dancers, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig / Ulf Schirmer (conductor). Leipzig Opera, 13.1.2024. (DMD)

Brünnhilde and Wotan in the foreground, Valkyries and soldiers in the arches of the leaning tower (photo from the 2013 production) © Tom Schulze

Director – Rosamund Gilmore
Stage design – Carl Friedrich Oberle
Costume design – Nicola Reichert
Lighting design – Michael Röger
Dramaturgy – Christian Geltinger

Sieglinde – Simone Schneider
Siegmund – Brenden Gunnell
Hunding –  Yorck Felix Speer
Wotan – Tomasz Konieczny
Brünnhilde – Sabine Hogrefe
Fricka – Kathrin Göring
Gerhilde – Kelly God
Ortlinde – Merit Nath-Göbl
Waltraute – Maria Hilmes
Schwertleite – Sandra Fechner
Helmwige – Sarah Traubel
Siegrune – Sandra Maxheimer
Grimgerde – Marta Herman
Rossweisse – Nora Steuerwald
Grane – Ziv Frenkel

Ulf Schirmer was Leipzig Opera’s general music director from 2009 and additionally managing director from 2011, both until the end of 2022. Wagner had become a special emphasis of his work, with a festival of all of Wagner’s operas in the summer of 2022. He now returned to the house for three performances of a revival of the 2013 production of Die Walküre. The strong level of rapport between conductor and orchestra was evident throughout, creating a robust reading of the score, even in passages other conductors might use to bring out feelings of longing (Siegmund, Sieglinde) or loss and sadness (Wotan, Brünnhilde). A notable exception was the gentle accompaniment of Brünnhilde’s ‘Sieh, Brünnhilde bittet’. His orchestra joyfully pushed the singers to their limits but never drowned them out.

Rosamund Gilmore’s production places the story within a world that gently combines gods, creatures from their realm and humans. In the set by Carl Friedrich Oberle, Hunding’s home is a kind of modern bungalow in the countryside with barbed wire on the roof and several rifle stands inside the house. Sieglinde is used to handling the rifles, obediently collecting them from her huntsman husband when he returns or handing them to him when he leaves for work. Dancers, choreographed by the director, dressed as fairy tale creatures with half-masks and one (not two!) curling ram horn also inhabit the bungalow and its surroundings, unseen by the humans. For Act II, Wotan’s abode is a rundown mansion, once grand, now in need for refurbishment. Blankets cover something on the floor, bodies perhaps, and they move about almost imperceptibly. Brünnhilde’s horse, Grane, is represented by a dancer (Ziv Frenkel). A different perspective of that home, Valhalla, is at the centre of the final act: in the background a leaning tower looms, perhaps inspired by the leaning tower of Pisa. The Valkyries and the dancers, now representing the soldiers for whom Valhalla has become their home after death, ascend and descend that tower, appearing in the arches one by one. The foreground is covered with pairs of boots. The lighting not only illuminates the obvious parts of the scenery but creates varying spaces with bold swathes of light, making use of the vast expanse of the stage to its full height. Nicola Reichert’s costumes imaginatively create the worlds of the opera.

Brünnhilde and her horse, Grane (photo from the 2013 production) © Tom Schulze

Character interaction is not elaborate, apart from the relationship of Brünnhilde and her horse Grane. They tend to be quite close, while the other characters usually remain at a distance, even in more intimate scenes. At times the positioning of the singers on stage comes across as unnecessarily awkward, even clumsy, and in one instance almost amusing: after uttering his first line, Siegmund collapses into a foetal position, completely covered by the thick fur coat he is wearing. What could possibly make Sieglinde think that this heap on the floor is a courageous man? Wotan has to sing a large part of his second act monologue sideways so as to address it to Brünnhilde at the back of the stage. Some singers are perilously close to the pit with their backs to us, facing other singers at the far end of the stage. Perhaps too little time was given to the revival rehearsals, for which the programme does not credit a specific revival director. Apart from Kathrin Göring as Fricka (already in the premiere performances of this production in 2013), and Göring as Fricka and Sandra Maxheimer as Siegrune in a 2018 revival reviewed in Seen and Heard (click here) and Göring again in the 2022 revival, the cast are new to the production though not to their roles.

Göring’s Fricka is beautifully sung, even if the production leaves her character pale. The voice is rich and full, and she demonstrates an alert awareness of the arcs so characteristic of Wagner’s music. Simone Schneider’s voice is both quietly intense and exuberantly radiant as Sieglinde. Her ‘O hehrstes Wunder’ in Act III must surely be among the best currently on offer. She is able to differentiate the notes rather than sliding them vaguely into each other, with admirable breath control, not spoiling the flow of the music by having to catch her breath. Brenden Gunnell is growing into a notable Heldentenor as a member of the Leipzig company. He sings rather than recites the longer passages about his past, renders ‘Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond’ very movingly and his ‘Wälse!’ compares well to that of his peers. Yorck Felix Speer has a very dark bass voice, suitable for Hunding. He is one of the few singers I have heard who can deliver the beautiful ‘Mein Haus hütet, Wölfing, dich heut; für die Nacht nahm ich dich auf’ while breathing only once at the end of the first line. Sabine Hogrefe (Brünnhilde) is a true dramatic soprano. She is equally at ease with ringing top notes, a sustained, controlled vibrato without a trace of wobble and a powerful lower range. She enjoyed riding above the orchestra when at full blast and was very moving in her more personal exchanges with Wotan, both when she seeks to comfort him in Act II and when she realises the full extent of his punishment in Act III. Tomasz Konieczny is among today’s finest Wotans and he was in great form on this occasion. His singing is polished, powerful and very nuanced. The eight Valkyries rounded off an impressive cast, above all Kelly God as Gerhilde.

Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe

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