Wagner – Die Walküre

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, Sunday November 5 2005

Siegmund: Peter Seiffert. Hunding: Stephen Milling. Wotan: Jukka Rasilainen. Sieglinde:Petra-Maria Schnitzer. Brünnhilde: Olga Sergeyeva. Fricka: Mihoko Fujimura. Helmwige: Jennifer Wilson. Ortlinde: Annalena Person. Gerhilde: Eszter Sümegi. Waltraute: Priti Gandhi. Siegrune: Marie Lenormand. Rossweise: Deanne Meek. Grimgerde: Daniela Denschlag. Schwertleite: Annette Jahns. Orchestre de Paris. Christophe Eschenbach.

Am I becoming reasonable in my old age? For a start, it isn’t normal to begin the season with five successes in a row. And then, the wars of words are still raging on the web over this Ring, which at least one person has declared the worst thing he has ever seen or heard in his opera-going life. Yet, as far as I’m concerned, episode two was just as good, musically and visually, as the first instalment and once again the cast was remarkably and unexpectedly strong and even.

The last time I saw Peter Seiffert was in Tannhäuser in the spring of 2004. What I said then is still true: he is “that rarity, a real Wagnerian tenor, with breath, volume, nuance, drama and stamina - and all the notes, no problem.” He must be one of the best Siegmunds available today.

His wife, Petra-Maria Schnitzer, who was a very fair Elisabeth back then, was even better as Sieglinde. In fact, to me, she was the most impressive of all the cast on Sunday: as you know, I give extra marks for commitment and she really threw herself into the part. Her voice is strong and silvery, even a touch hard at the top, and possibly lacks the morbidezza you might expect the character to have, but this was real, involved singing, and her final outpouring in Act 3 – when there’s nothing to lose, after all - was exhilarating.

I mentioned, when reviewing Rheingold, Jukka Rasilainen’s “unsteadiness and lack of volume at the very bottom.” Seeing Walküre, I could perhaps better understand why some people were so hard on him. He’s probably not a singer everyone would cast in the part. In reality, his is a clearer voice than you might expect (chosen maybe because Eschenbach had announced his would be a “chamber” approach to the score), more comfortable by far in the baritone region, where it rings out, than the bass. At the bottom, he resorts to a kind of vibrato-less Sprechgesang, quite often bringing it off as characterisation, but it’s true that the opening of his long account to Brünnhilde called on this lower range a little too much. But apart from that, as I say, in the baritone the voice continued to ring out, and was only occasionally covered by the orchestra in what is in any case a noisier piece than Rheingold.

Sunday’s Brünnhilde was, for one performance, Olga Sergeyeva. The simplest way to describe her voice is to say, well… it was Russian. A big, round, mezzo-sounding soprano with a generous vibrato at the top, a kind of anti-Nilsson. But all the notes were there, from the killing entry to the end. A fairly placid actress with a broad, Slav face (and a touch of Russian in the pronunciation too: that strangled “gl” sound each time she sang “Sieglinde”…) – but placidity is hardly a problem in a Wilson production, and in fact she livened up a good deal in Act 3 and ended with enough applause to go down on one knee to bow.

As Hunding, Stephen Milling turned out to have one of those amazing voices that are audible even as a menacing whisper, anywhere in the house, yet able to open out into huge, cavernous sound with plenty of personality. Diminutive Mihoko Fujimura, the critics’ favourite, turned out to be a proper little Fricka. Small but tough.

Eschenbach seemed to have forgotten his “chamber” claims by now and unleashed a great deal of force. There were some wrong notes from the horns and brass (and an ambiguous gesture brought Seiffert in, briefly, a bar early at one point) but I’ve certainly heard more chaos from the supposedly superior Orchestre National and the woodwind section was on great form (with Eschenbach calling for some lovingly meticulous playing) so the current furious complaints on the web are a mystery to me.

The production used only two sets. Hunding’s house was reminiscent, for those who know it, of the art déco Palais du Trocadéro in Paris: a row of tall, narrow, backlit windows. The room was split in two by a long, very narrow, black table, and the tree and sword were at the back. Acts 2 and 3 took place on a sloping, broken rock (with or without dry ice) rectangular sections of which sometimes rose up like crooked tombstones to serve as couches for Wotan and Brünnhilde or pedestals for the Valkyries.

At the end there were some real flames – just like the Paris suburbs - and the whole rear right corner of the rock rose up to present Brünnhilde to the audience on her bed as the music died away. As in Rheingold, there were some very fine visual moments, one of the most striking being the bright light picking out Sieglinde’s hand as she held out the water to Siegmund.

The little old lady next to me showed no more signs of lumbago. “So you know the cure is working,” as Anna Russell nearly said.

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