Two things about this DVD make it a must-have: first is the extraordinarily good ensemble assembled for this live recording of a Salzburg performance last year. The second is the fact that this a revival of the1967 production designed by Günther Schneider-Simssen.
First things first: the men in the cast stand out. Vitalij Kowaljov is vocally and dramatically a magnificent Wotan: sullen, henpecked by Fricka, heartbroken by Brunhilde’s disobedience, prescient of what awaits him, at times taciturn, at others towering with rage. The Ukrainian bass gives a memorable performance in a role with a long history of interpreters.
Georg Zeppenfeld impresses in the role of Hunding – a potentially thankless part that appears and vanishes in the first act of the opera, but which this German bass turns into a key player, excelling with solid vocalism and intelligent acting.
Tenor Peter Zeiffert is a very fine Siegmund – moving in his Winterstürme, stentorian when extricating the magic Nothung from the tree, oozing carnal desire in his O süsseste Wonne, loving and tender with Sieglinde at all times, and dramatically and visually convincing throughout.
Anja Harteros is lovely to look at and listen to. But beyond that Harteros is a superb singing actress playing Sieglinde as a woman abused by a brute, swept off her feet by a stranger who walks into her life one fateful night and absolutely convinces her that the only way out of her loveless marriage lies in fleeing with him even after revealing that he is her long lost brother.
Anja Kampe plays Brunhilde as a coltish and spoiled young girl fond of talking back to her elders and ever ready to make her own decisions. Kampe is an extremely fine singer who here leaves no doubt as to her inexhaustible vocal resources, never better than in the Ride of the Valkyries.
Christa Mayer makes a strong impression as an aging, manipulative Fricka, fully aware that all she has let from her failed marriage is power over lesser mortals.
Johanna Winkel, Brit-Tone Müllerts, Christina Bock, Katherine Magiera, Alexandra Petersamer, Stepanka Pucelkova, Katrin Wundsam, and Simone Schröder are the Valkyries and all eight are very good singing actresses.
The 1967 production designed by Schneider-Simssen has been revived and largely respected by its current team: Vera Nemirova, its director and Jens Kilian, its costume designer.
The good news (first) is that the expansive vision of Schneider-Simssen is still evident in the “eye of God” image, the gigantic tree that functions as Hunding’s hut, the magic fire depicted as torches hand-held by a body of guards, and the circular ring upon which most of the action is played. The rear-projections and the appropriately murky lighting by Olaf Freese enhance the production’s wintery look.
The not-so-good news is the come-as-you-are look of the costumes, a Regietheater cliché that robs the characters of their dignity: Fricka’s fake-fur schmatte being but one case in point. Brunhilde’s helmet and those of her sisters look Aztec rather than Nordic. Wotan’s black eye is no substitute for the eyepatch he should have, making the singer look like he was involved in a bar brawl the night before. What gives?
The choice of some of the props is strange, or just plain tacky. Wotan’s throne looks like a plastic armchair his wife found on sale at Ikea. Then there’s Siegmund, who carries a nice Land’s End blanket which he struggles to get out of a backpack he could have bought at any sporting goods store. Nitpicking, I know, but the devil’s in the details.
Christian Thielemann conducts the Staatskapelle Dresden with forward sweep and precision, always supporting the singers, ever attentive to the minutest detail of orchestration. His musicians respond in kind, delivering a superb performance.
It is a gift to see and hear a Wagner opera staged largely devoid of the gimmickry that ruins so many Wagnerian productions these days. And, of course, it is immensely gratifying to be reminded that there are a good number of singing actors out there with Wagnerian voices and capable of delivering extraordinary performances. Just watch this Unitel C Major DVD and you will surely agree.
Rafael de Acha