Bayerische Staatsoper 2020-21 Review: ‘Die Walküre,’ Act I
Jonas Kaufmann, Lise Davidsen & Georg Zeppenfeld Shine in Stripped Down PerformanceBy Lois Silverstein
The first Act of “Die Walküre” is undeniably a grand love song.
Wagner’s dramatization of the encounter between Siegmund and Sieglinde—the Walsüng twins—is a remarkable and thrilling experience; even when it is an abridged concert version, performed in a faraway opera house with half a live audience, socially distanced, without the theatrical panoply of full-site production, full costumes and full make-up, and with the remaining audience sitting individually in their homes pressed to a cold, mechanical device. The exciting, passionate and powerful saga came home to us last week in the Bayerische Staatsoper production of Act One, streamed on our computer screens. In fact, the absence of all the conventional production aspects perhaps intensified the experience even more than we could have expected.
Jonas Kaufmann, Lise Davidsen and Georg Zeppenfeld, under the masterful conducting of Asher Fisch of the Staatsoper Orchestra, brought us this gift, as well as the renewal of live music in an opera house. Hallelujah! The full hour and a half performance, including three encores by the singers, ratified this three times over. Finally, we have some proof that opera will go on; and we will too.
From the Outset
From the opening bars Fisch set the mood with deliberate clarity and charge while the eerie heartbeat of the percussion, strings and brass thrust us into the danger and drama of the world. Kaufmann and Davidsen quietly entered and established the scene, taking their places on either side of the conductor. Though without sets or costumes, they immediately inhabited the cottage of the distant forest world and began the process of mingling life and magic, seemingly without effort. Not only was it their artistry creating this effect, but the sheer beauty of the music. In fact, it was the music that was the downbeat of the entire performance. As Siegmund declares, moments before Sieglinde enters, “This hearth I must rest in.” In other words, this is the world where we will live for this time: Wagner’s Walsüng world, his mythical planet, the land he bound us to for his Ring and for its tapestry of relationships, history, and reflections on time and meaning.
In this performance we had an opportunity to experience the developing romantic recognition of the brother and sister duo, even at a distance, and how they succeeded in depicting their growing intimacy, at once in the present as well as what they carried forth from the past. Subtle facial expression, a quasi-smile, a full one, an intense look of the eye, a tilt of the head, maybe a hand gesture or a simple step forward, conveyed this shimmering set of echoes. It was more than effective. Once the voices enlarged the field, we were flooded with depth. Layers of feeling were suggested and unfurled. Wagner knew what he was doing when he presented love in boundaries crossed and forbidden doors opened; through his unique leitmotif technique and alternate music associative harmonies and tonalities, we encountered a wealth of experience across the divide.
Bringing Necessary Richness
Each of the singers brought the necessary richness. Kaufmann with his aching trials endured; Davidsen with her buried beauty aiming to be free; Zeppenfeld with his defiant tyranny. The pacing was exquisite. Fisch never rushed over any of the exposition and the singers followed suit. Fisch laid out one color after another with orchestral suppleness, from winds to percussion, brass and strings, and back again. Increasing lines of darkness and danger were articulated as the tides of fear heightened.
The contrast of voices satisfied in the extreme. Kaufmann’s voice was rich and resonant as Siegmund strove to survive, Davidsen’s voice told of a power slowly and carefully unleashed, Zeppenfeld’s voice was that of dedicated authority.
As Hunding, Zeppenfeld remained at once an enemy and a leader, tightening the noose of violence and power, although his characterization remained happily ungangster-like.
Fisch’s orchestra bound all these threads together into an exquisite tapestry, underscoring distinctly the arc of the emotions conveyed. Never were we outside of the emotions either. The doors of trespass and eroticism were opened and we were swept up in a parallel drama of souls. Throughout, the pacing allowed for excellent silences as well. Dramatic action unfolded on musical currents and allowed us weighted moments of reflection. When Siegmund took a couple of steps and then was repelled by Hunding, we too did not mistake how danger lurked in the thoughts of tomorrow.
By quietly taking up their positions on either side of the conductor, Kaufmann and Davidsen immediately established the locale to express passion without contact, costumes, or closeness. Right away they became Siegmund and Sieglinde. What a skillful translation of life, story and drama! The artistry was impeccable. With only the music and the text to concentrate on, we found ourselves in the middle of a reality that sustained vitality without any conventional accoutrements. We heard Wagner’s declaration loud and clear: see what love brings! See what carefully inscribed music and text does to a listener!
The leitmotif remained clear and luminous as Wagner wove it into his unfolding narrative. Exceptional oboe and clarinet solos accented the meticulous rise and fall of the voices, as did those of the bassoons and gallery of French horns. Father Wolf, the oak tree, the sword Nothung in its trunk, retained their distinct identity and contributed to the escalating drama. Words and music retained unity. One seemed never more than another. Communication and expression remained one.
Kaufmann’s masterful articulation continued throughout his performance, exquisite and precise. He articulated each vowel and retained precision in each consonant. How satisfying! Tonally he was in good form, especially in the middle and lower range. Here there was even more than usual depth and wisdom. Instead of the young hero with ardent desire, he appeared as a man tried and true, rich with experience and maybe a touch of wistfulness. Some of his top notes came across less round than we may have liked, but his “Wälse! Wälse!” were rich and vigorous, sustained for almost a half-minute each. The cello preceding this cri de Coeur strengthened his identification with the family he sprang from and his pride and perhaps fascination with it still. As he sang, the weight of his meaning submerged us in his world, and for a moment we believed that this was all there was. The careful narration heightened that experience too. Nothing was left unsaid and yet nuance and resonance resounded. This artfulness allowed his Siegmund to plead his case, perhaps without intending to.
Sieglinde—Davidsen—stood between the two men, listening to their declarations and arriving at a plan of her own. She announced it with confidence rather than fear; an emotion she channeled more and more as she moved away from the Act’s opening. With rich, round and sumptuous tones she began to lead the way, drugging Hunding and pointing the way past him. Like Kaufmann, Davidsen never sacrificed verbal clarity or used emotion for display. She meticulously reigned in volume too. Her singing remained luminous and voluptuous throughout, soaring and climbing as did her point of view. Sieglinde rose beyond her pain in her wish to bring down her violent husband and to aid Siegmund in survival. She allowed her anger towards Hunding during his diatribe to show in subtle ways as well, with facial expression and subtle movements; she was never heavy-handed or crude.
Both Siegmund and Sieglinde matched their passion with elegance and carefulness, never begging or posturing with false heroics. They believed in each other as well as themselves. Throughout it all we heard the honest admission of feeling and the irresistible truth deriving from growing recognition. When Sieglinde admitted she even recognized her brother’s voice from the past, she was proud and triumphant: “You are Siegmunde. I am Sieglinde.” There was no rehash in this; it was discovery then and there. The trumpets and trombones came together as she revealed the story of the sword Nothung, and we triumphed with them as they united over this. Theirs was a love heightened by the bond of blood.
Georg Zeppenfeld injected his Hundig with dark anger and deliberateness. Fact and feeling were artfully conveyed. Bass and clarinet and oboes graced the fierce defiance he projected and kept these alive throughout his declaration. His voice resounded as if from the bottom of the earth.
By the time we came to Siegmund’s “Wintersturm und Glimmershein,” Kaufmann caressing the words—perhaps in preparation for his Tristan—the round tones and the alliteration allowed the exaltation of spring love almost to glide between the couple. They came toward each other without moving a step. Ardent and devoted, they displayed the sheer beauty of what Wagner wanted to convey. They were everything to each other. They were one and the other. “Liebe und Lenz,” love and spring united them, brother and sister and imminent lovers, showing complete and positive union. French horns highlighted the emotional excitement and the blend that revealed the wish and the apparent necessity of matching the right instrument with the weight of the words, as they did with each other.
After the conclusion of the recognition scene, we were gifted with three encores, the grand piano silently stealing onto the stage while the orchestra departed behind the closed curtain. Asher Fisch played for each performer.
Kaufman gave us Wagner’s gorgeous “Traume,“ sung with as much tenderness and longing as he had sung with passion till now. Davidsen sang Edvard Grieg’s “Våren“—The Last Spring—in Norwegian with sweetness and poignancy. Zeppenfeld’s sonorous and resonant voice treated us to Strauss’ “Wie schön ist doch die Musik.“ The conclusion came then after a glorious hour and a half that we will hopefully revisit again and again.