Of the Ring Cycle’s four constituent parts, Die Walküre is the best standalone. Despite the mythical dimension and the considerable backstory of Das Rheingold, with a human love story and its impact of a father/daughter relationship at its heart, the second instalment in Wagner’s epic tetralogy never fails to make an immediate and considerable impact. And so it does in this 2018 staging from the Royal Opera House, thanks to an outstanding cast of singing actors, sure and impassioned musical leadership from Antonio Pappano, and the experienced directorial hand of Keith Warner who draws out acting performances of visceral intensity.
The essentially Freudian approach here is manifested most clearly in the incestuous relationship between Siegmund and Sieglinde, but also, notably, in the psychosexual goings on between Wotan and all three of his children. The former is par for the course. Wagner’s great achievement is to build up the erotic pressure between brother and sister, holding the reveal until his audience cannot but support the transgressive nature of their bond. The latter, however, is more overt than is often the case. Wotan prowls and broods, a shadowy figure watching over the lives of his human offspring. And from the outset, there’s a sexual tension between Wotan and Brünnhilde, and when the floodgates burst in Act III, I defy you not to be moved, despite the shock of what feels like a far more serious shattering of a social taboo.
It’s not all easy to follow, mind. Stefanos Lazaridis’s set is an overly complex, rather brutalist mish mash of shreds and symbols. There’s a broken window, a ruined wardrobe, even a Victorian-looking psychiatrist’s couch complete with a pair of libidinous ram’s horns. Some of this is a hangover from the staging of Das Rheingold – not so useful in a standalone release – but other elements are simply baffling. None of it really gets in the way of the storytelling, but it doesn’t really enrich it either.
The cast here would be hard to beat these days. Stuart Skelton’s Siegmund is pretty definite and here he delivers a heroic account, pulling back magically for a lovely lyrical “Winterstürme”. Emily Magee is a radiant Sieglinde, effortless at the top, deeply connected to the text, and building to a potently affecting scene with Brünnhilde in Act III. No mere thug, Ain Anger’s Hunding is cruel and calculating and warmly sung. Between the three of them and Warner they build a nuanced first act with plenty of powerful and original emotional touches.
As Brünnhilde, Nina Stemme is on top form, her assumption of the role complete, the voice firm and ringing. Despite her years of experience, she is entirely convincing in her young woman’s passage from innocence to experience. John Lundgren’s anguished Wotan is a highly original creation, wilful and tormented, and with an affecting line in contemptuous scorn – both for others, but also for himself. The voice is firm and strong with some daringly hushed and lyrical singing in Act III that should not be mistaken for fatigue. Sarah Connolly’s palpably suffering Fricka is not just beautifully sung, it’s a believable and sympathetic portrayal of a character too often simply reduced to haughty harridan. The Valkyries are a magnificent bunch with star names like Lise Davidsen, Alwyn Mellor, and Catherine Carby among them. The “Ride” may be a dramatic misfire, but a thrilling musical charge runs from the opening of Act III to the arrival of Wotan like an electric shock.
That, of course, is partially down to the sumptuous sound of the Covent Garden orchestra under Music Director Pappano. Everything about this feels right – from the dramatic pacing, through the reading’s ideal blend of power and delicacy, and the subtle illumination of text through detailed musical support. Well filmed and with excellent sound, let’s hope the rest of the cycle is to follow.