Wagner: Die Walküre

COMPOSERS: Wagner
LABELS: DG
ALBUM TITLE: Wagner
WORKS: Die Walküre
PERFORMER: Metropolitan Opera/Levine; dir. Schenk
CATALOGUE NO: 073 011-9
It’s symptomatic of the way the classical DVD market is shaping up that the first appearance of an episode of Wagner’s Ring cycle on the new medium should be from the least visually stimulating of the four that came to video in the Eighties and Nineties. Otto Schenk’s Met production of Die Walküre is the epitome of bland naturalism; indeed, the DVD only highlights the very unnatural, ‘plastic’ nature of the sets. Not even the Magic Fire does much to enliven its sombre browns and greys, and there is no suggestion of thought-provoking interaction of character – it might nonetheless suit those who shy away from ‘conceptual’ interpretations of Wagner’s dramas. The cast at least is as good as there was in the early Nineties, with Gary Lakes and Jessye Norman well-matched as the Walsung twins, the vocally variable Hildegard Behrens caught on one of her more secure nights as Briinnhilde and James Morris as a musical if dramatically dull Wotan. For true music drama, intellectually as well as musically satisfying, we’ll just have to wait for the more stimulating visions of Chereau (Bayreuth), Lehnhoff (Munich) and Kupfer (Bayreuth again) to transfer from video.

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The other Met production among recent releases is a 1994 ARABELLA, which puts Schenk’s naturalistic approach to more fruitful use in sets by Günther Schneider-Siemssen dripping with Habsburg-Viennese grandeur. In the title role, Kiri Te Kanawa is still in her vocal prime here — her phrasing and characterisation are exemplary — but is physically probably not what Hofmannsthal had in mind when he described the character as ‘a thoroughly mature, wide awake young girl’. The opposite is the case with Wolfgang Brendel’s Mandryka: he is the epitome of the dashing Balkan aristo, but vocally he seems to have been caught on a rather gruff, out-of-sorts night. Helga Dernesch and Donald Mclntyre are luxury casting as the grasping parents and Marie McLaughlin is an endearing Zdenka. Christian Thielemann sometimes weighs down the lightness of the Viennese comedy with his conducting, but can whip up some incandescent playing from the Met orchestra, most notably in the Act III Prelude.

Arthaus’s ARIADNE AUF NAXOS was filmed only last year in Dresden and captures a production by Swiss director Marco Arturo Marelli that really takes this particular Strauss/ Hofmannsthal confection on to a new plane. Updating it to the present day, the work becomes an indictment of corporate hospitality, private patronage, the lot. Running through from the Prologue to the Opera without a break, this Ariadne – strongly cast with several little-known American and antipodean singers – is presented as a kind of installation in an art exhibition’s opening-night party, with the trendy partygoers wandering past while swilling champagne and often barely acknowledging the performance’s presence — in the best tradition of corporate sponsors.

Ironically, this happens for real on another Arthaus release, a gala NEW YEAR CONCERT from the Berlin Staatsoper in which the cameras catch audience members more engrossed in magicians’ party tricks at their tables than in stars of the calibre of Rene Pape singing Mozart with Barenboim and his orchestra. Dresden itself is the scene for a more worthwhile gala, CLASSICS ON A

SUMMER’S EVENING, with the Alagna-Gheorghiu double-act guesting m a programme of Verdi, Puccini and Bizet favourites conducted by Giuseppe Smopoli in the square outside the Semper Opera — it’s a pity that the sound is so flat, though. Meanwhile, a young-looking PLACIDO DOMINCO graces a gloomily filmed concert of lightweight material recorded at Wembley in 1987 — it’s musically bland and unfocused ( The Merry Widmvsung m Spanish?) with documentation to match, and a ‘free’ bonus CD docs not compensate for the lack of on-screen subtitles.

Of far more interest are three Glyndeboume performances newly transferred to the new medium. The Touring Opera production of Britten’s DEATH IN VENICE by Stephen Lawless works better on screen than I remember it doing in the theatre. This ‘live’ but made-for- IV recording makes much use of to-camera shots for Aschenbach’s confessional monologues and by rarely panning out to show us the full stage helps convey the stifling, hot-house claustrophobia of the drama. It documents Robert Tear’s finest hour as a singer-actor — a totally convincing portrayal of the tragic, lovelorn writer – with Alan Opie a master of disguise as the multi-character tempter.

Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s 1988 staging of Janacek’s KATYA KABANOVA also transfers well to the small screen -stifling claustrophobia is again vital to the effectiveness of the drama. The performance is dominated by Felicity Palmer’s monstrous bigot of a Kabanicha, and Nancy Gustafson is a lustrous Katya.

PORCY AND BESS comes courtesy of the 1993 BBC studio-made film dubbed (surprisingly successfully) on to the acclaimed Rattle/ Glyndebourne recording with largely the same cast. As such, it is the only opera I’ve come across with a PG video rating, which goes some way to emphasise the gritty realism of Trevor Nunn’s production, dominated by Willard White’s unmatched Porgy.

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While opera (and ballet) obviously dominate the DVD releases, there’s also a handful of concerts out this month. Most notable among them is the latest in TDK’s admirable concert series, a marvellous Bach ST JOHN PASSION from Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach Collegium Japan. By way of a complete contrast there’s the Video’ of Nigel Kennedy torturing Vivaldi’s FOUR SEASONS. This is one for devotees only; I certainly don’t think I could bear to sit through his linking interviews with that heavyweight cultural commentator Mariella Frostrup a second time… like. But at least he deigned to shave for the filmed performance.