Impressive historically informed concert performance of Die Walküre in Hamburg

GermanyGermany Wagner, Die Walküre (concert performance): Dresdener Festspielorchester, Concerto Köln / Kent Nagano (conductor). Internationales Musikfest Hamburg, Elbphilharmonie, 1.5.2024. (DMD)

The concert performance of Die Walküre at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie © Sebastian Madej

Sieglinde – Sarah Wegener
Siegmund – Maximilian Schmitt
Hunding – Patrick Zielke
Wotan – Derek Welton
Brünnhilde – Åsa Jäger
Fricka – Claude Eichenberger
Gerhilde – Chelsea Zurflüh
Ortlinde – Karola Schmid
Waltraute – Ulrike Malotta
Schwertleite – Jasmin Etminan
Helmwige – Natalie Karl
Siegrune – Ida Aldrian
Grimgerde – Eva Vogel
Rossweisse – Marie-Luise Dressen

This concert performance of Die Walküre marks the second stage of four in the project in which musicians (instrumentalists, singers, conductor) work with musicologists in their attempt at creating an auditory experience of what Wagner’s operas would have sounded like when they were first performed – what did the orchestra sound like, what did the singers sound like, then compared with now. For that purpose, theorists and practitioners worked together, sought to understand each other’s ways of thinking and to learn from and in relation to each other. The Dresdener Festspielorchester and Concerto Köln collaborated under the baton of Kent Nagano. They played on period instruments, with a concert pitch at 435 hertz (the current international standard is 440 hertz), gut strings were predominant and some of the period brass instruments allowed for playing at a much lower pitch than contemporary instruments. The music certainly sounded different – difficult to describe, perhaps ‘earthier’ captures it best. That seems more accurate than ‘darker’ or ‘rougher’, which might carry connotations that do not apply in this context.

In the process of developing the performance, singers would first sit together to read the libretto – only the text, without the score, to discuss their characters, much like stage actors in rehearsal, with the support of linguists and phonetics experts who had studied Wagner’s expectations as to his singers’ pronunciation. The singers would then read the libretto to the orchestra, thus bringing them up to the same level of understanding of the plot and the character interpretation. So the musicians not only read the libretto, they were also made aware of the textual work the singers had engaged in and knew where language had an impact on aspects of rhythm and tempo. It is important to note that this approach fully acknowledges that thanks to the leitmotif moving forward and back through the flow of the narrative, the orchestra always knows more than the characters.

Kent Nagano led the combined orchestra with a level of intensity and alertness that I missed in some of his recent, more routine work at Hamburg State Opera. His cast was recruited from the next generation of the world’s finest Wagner singers – artists at earlier stages in their careers with many very promising years ahead for them and for us. Sarah Wegener as Sieglinde impressed with radiant tones, secure and well-focused; she is successfully developing the lower registers of her voice and will grow into the long arcs of Wagner’s music to make them even more striking. As Siegmund, Maximilian Schmitt proved that he is a most reliable singer, who will develop more strength in the middle of his voice to support both lower and higher registers. A high level of musicality was clearly in evidence, and his cries of ‘Wälse!’ showed much promise for his further development in the Wagner repertory. Patrick Zielke is also impressively developing his career: his Hunding’s darkness of voice corresponded well to the earthy sound of the orchestra for the Hunding motif.

Asa Jäger (Brünnhilde) and Derek Welton (Wotan) © Sebastian Madej

Derek Welton has a strong, well-focused voice for Wotan, untiring, with plenty of reserves to draw upon for a splendid Farewell, without having to save up his energy. The voice works with ease, enabling many nuances, and is not overshadowed by its own sheer weight. Claude Eichenberger as Fricka has the flexibility across the range of her voice that will allow her to develop higher mezzo or lower soprano roles in equal measure of success. Her considerable breath control enabled her to savour the long phrases composed for Fricka. As a result, Fricka’s argument becomes much more powerful than when a singer’s breathing obliges her to shorten her phrases. Åsa Jäger was simply stunning as Brünnhilde. She gave her role debut in 2022. The voice is very strong, projected with ease, firm across registers, with a more than solid basis that allows her to soar and float in the top notes. The timbre is warm overall, which allows her to open out to more metallic sounds at the top of the voice without ever sounding shrill or narrow. The eight singers of the Valkyries were all very good, rounding off the impressive cast. In 2025 and 2026, we will see the results of ongoing work on Siegfried and Götterdämmerung – I am looking forward to those.

Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe

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