Die Walküre in Leipzig

Evening Two of the Leipzig Ring – or, if one is to be pedantic, in Wagnerian terms the First Evening, following the Prologue (Rheingold). Die Walküre is certainly the most popular part of the cycle, perhaps because of its glorious purple patches: the ecstatic love scene of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Act One; the Todesverkündigung in Act Two; and the Ride of the Valkyries and Wotan’s Farewell in Act Three. But it has other notable qualities, including the psychological drama which Wotan experiences both within himself and in his debates with Brünnhilde and Fricka. To communicate this to his audience, Wagner takes his time, allowing the protagonists, with the help of the leitmotifs, to reflect (with what non-Wagnerites may regard as undue repetition) on the sequence of past events and their significance. Die Walküre should not be hurried dramatically or musically. Sensitivity to pace and space is essential and it is good to report that, at the Leipzig performance, both Ulf Schirmer’s conducting and Rosamund Gilmore’s direction scored highly in this respect.

Again Gilmore uses dancers most effectively to explore the relationship between the power struggles of the Ring and nature through the eyes, as it were, of the animal world. Wotan’s ravens observe his efforts to win back what he has lost, flapping their wings at crucial moments. Fricka’s rams prance as conventional morality is flouted. Grane, Brünnhilde’s horse, resolutely follows her through thick and thin. But the production is also strong on what the Germans refer to as Personenregie, inducing the singers to communicate their plight through gesture and facial expression as well as text and music.

The scenic designs are in parts impressive, in parts less so. Hunding’s abode is perhaps too conventional, but then in Act Two there is an intriguing stylised Walhalla interior with Wotan at his desk, surrounded by dead warriors, the stage subsequently opening up in an eerie bluish light for Siegmund’s encounter with Brünnhilde and then the battle scene. In Act Three we are offered a different perspective on Walhalla, as one side of a mansion is set at a crazy angle, threatening to fall. The Valkyries, after their exhilarating ride, resort to galleries there to hear Wotan’s judgement on his disobedient daughter. A pity that the final tableau, when she is laid to rest on a mound outside the mansion encircled by some rather feeble flames, is somewhat low-key.

There was much to be admired in the performance of the soloists. Nikolai Schukoff with his steely tenor and wiry physique was ideal as the sword-wielding Siegmund.  Daniela Köhler, a homely Sieglinde was hardly his twin in appearance but she won all hearts with her radiant face and radiant singing. Kathrin Göring was an imperious, no-nonsense Fricka. The soprano of Edith Haller has, with its full silvery top and warm lower register, all that is necessary for the role of Brünnhilde, but I have to confess that though she was alert dramatically, she unexpectedly failed to arouse my emotions, perhaps because she was too cool in expression and demeanour. As Wotan, Thomas J. Mayer drew on his considerable Wagnerian experience not only to husband his vocal resources throughout and thereby preserve an untiring quality of tone but also to communicate the contradictions in his inner being through pointed articulation of the text and vocal colouring.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra was again in top form. Ulf Schirmer’s interpretation of the score predictably had the sweep and drive necessary for the dramatically extrovert passages. Even more impressive was his ability to illuminate the internal, psychological dimensions to the work through an attention to the detail of the musical commentary provided in Wagner’s extraordinary score.