by Tim Pfaff
The last thing I expected from the Wagner Year now upon us was a new recording of Die Walkuere that would actually muscle its way into the competition, but right out of the gate, here it is. The new Valery Gergiev-conducted, (mostly) live Die Walkuere, on the Mariinsky Theatre's house label, is essential listening no matter how many other Valkyries ride over your CD shelves (I count 25). At the front of the best cast that could be assembled today is Nina Stemme, the glory of SF Opera's recent Ring, as a commanding Bruennhilde. (She's also the Isolde on Pentatone's much-praised new live recording of Tristan .) Even better, it's not a one-off. Over the next year the label will release the full cycle (edited from performances that have already taken place), with Stemme as Bruennhilde throughout.
Recently, Amazon has trotted out that tired old The Ring Without Words set, making it all the more tempting to call this the Walkuere with words. It's hardly that the great Wagnerians of the past couldn't just pulverize you with Wagner's poems, but one of the consistent amazements of this new Walkuere is the way the cast savors the words. You'd expect as much from the native Germans – Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund, and Anja Kampe as Sieglinde – but the whole cast sings the words so acutely that you could almost excuse the label's not including a libretto. Rene Pape's Wotan renders consonants as if they were, in the words of the late Leonie Rysanek, "wowels," making his second-act monologue particularly transfixing and chilling.
Alert to both the music's long line and the urgency of the moment, Gergiev partners as well as leads the performance. Just when he seems to be passing over a detail of the score you love, he brings a handful more to the fore in fresh perspective. He merely makes you mindful of how inexhaustible this score is.
It's strange that he could not turn up one of those legendary Russian "black basses" for Hunding, but Mikhail Petrenko is fine, and the other Russian principal, Ekaterina Gubanova, nails Fricka in a rich characterization that puts her among the greats in one of the trickiest roles in the Ring. She exudes such authority that you bend to her judgment before Wotan does.
Stemme's Bruennhilde is an individual creation from her first Hoyotohos, sliced out of the air with a sculptor's precision, and keeps growing in stature and sympathy throughout the opera. Her solid low range anchors her interpretation, but what's more important is that the singing is so good you stop paying attention to it and follow Bruennhilde right into the fire.
Kampe's febrile, multifaceted Sieglinde is the first to put me entirely out of mind of Rysanek, and Kaufmann's Siegmund leaves no doubt that the character is the Ring's true hero. The Met's vile Ring, newly out on DVD (DG), which showed everyone but the indomitable Waltraut Meier to less than their best advantage, made some wonder whether Siegmund was even the right role for Kaufmann. His incandescent performance in St. Petersburg, which predates the Met's, quells any such doubt.
Siegmund's outcry to his clan-father, "Waelse, Waelse," is one of those Ring moments audiences wait for and tenors dread. In the Mariinsky performance, Kaufmann's is primal and perfectly proportioned. His new solo CD, Kaufmann Wagner (Decca), opens with the same scene capped by a window-rattling "Waelse, Waelse" more than twice as "big" as the live one – and, at 10 seconds per "Waelse," surely one of the largest in captivity on disc – which, impressive as it is, may be this extraordinary disc's single lapse in taste.
If live performances didn't prove that Kaufmann is exactly this good, you'd be right to question whether this overwhelmingly beautiful recording were just the product of great engineering. Instead, the greatest operatic voice of our century has been ideally recorded in repertoire he was born to sing. As if he didn't already own the role of Lohengrin, here he offers the original, two-stanza version of "In fernem Land" (his "Nessun dorma"), which you'll never hear elsewhere, let alone sung with such ardor. And in the music he hasn't already taken onstage, supporting him masterfully is the Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin under Donald Runnicles, who has. To hear the magic they work together, try the repeated notes in the Tannhaeuser "Rome Narration," not one of which is alike, not one of which doesn't metamorphose while it's being sung, and not one of which breaks the sustained musical line.
Still, the marvel is the Tristan -drenched Wesendonck Lieder in a rare outing for tenor. What's clear is that all the ingredients are in place for the Tristan of our lifetimes. As we wait, there's the new Met Parsifal with Kaufmann in live HD telecast on Sat., March 2.