Sir Simon Rattle conducts Wagner’s “Die Walküre”
Sir Simon Rattle
Eva-Maria Westbroek, Christian Elsner, Terje Stensvold, Evelyn Herlitzius
Die Walküre (concert performance): Act I (01:04:33)
Die Walküre (concert performance): Act II (01:29:58)
Die Walküre (concert performance): Act III (01:16:31)
Eva-Maria Westbroek Soprano (Sieglinde), Christian Elsner Tenor (Siegmund), Lilli Paasikivi Mezzo-Soprano (Fricka), Terje Stensvold Bass (Wotan), Heike Grötzinger Mezzo-Soprano (Siegrune), Mikhail Petrenko Bass (Hunding), Joanna Porackova Soprano (Gerhilde), Julianne Young Mezzo-Soprano (Waltraute), Andrea Baker Mezzo-Soprano (Schwertleite), Eva Vogel Mezzo-Soprano (Grimgerde), Evelyn Herlitzius Soprano (Brünnhilde), Anette Bod Mezzo-Soprano (Rossweisse), Anna Gabler Soprano (Ortlinde), Susan Foster Soprano (Helmwige)
Sir Simon Rattle on Wagner’s “Die Walküre” · Part 1 (10:31)
Sir Simon Rattle on Wagner’s “Die Walküre” · Part 2 (14:59)
When the Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by Simon Rattle, performed Wagner’s Die Walküre at the Festival of Aix-en-Provence in the summer of 2007, they had not played the work for four decades. “You do not know what an orchestra is until you have heard the Berliner Philharmoniker,” Le Monde wrote. “The brass astounded with their penetrating power and precision, strings and woodwinds left us speechless.” Luckily, you do not need to wait such a long time until the work is performed by the orchestra again. In a concert performance conducted by Simon Rattle, Die Walküre is once again to be heard at the Philharmonie.
Some of the singers from the Aix production also reprise their roles, including Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde. The critic of Libération wrote at that time, she was “in Olympic form: noble and powerful, with flexible, radiant top notes, a glorious low register and ideal characterization.” Appearing with her is Evelyn Herlitzius as Brünnhilde, one of the most renowned Wagnerian singers of our time who has performed the role several times at the Bayreuth Festival. Among the male performers, however, there are some new discoveries to the world of Wagner. In the role of Siegmund is Christian Elsner, who first sang this role at the Semperoper in Dresden in April 2010; he was described as the “perfect interpreter” (Der Tagesspiegel) of the title role in a performance of Parsifal in Berlin. As Wotan, we will hear Terje Stensvold who, after more than 25 years at the Norwegian National Opera in Oslo, has become much in demand all over the world, including appearances at the Vienna State Opera, Covent Garden in London and La Scala in Milan. In the course of this great development in his career, he has turned increasingly to the work of Wagner and today is considered one of the leading interpreters of Wotan.
Observations on Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre
“The Ring is a scenic epic; its source is the dislike of the previous histories that haunt the stage behind the scenes,” Thomas Mann wrote in his celebrated essay Leiden und Größe Richard Wagners [The Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner] (1933). That is true, and the long path to the tetralogy, during which Wagner, as librettist, gradually worked his way backwards chronologically from the first stage of the cycle, Siegfrieds Tod [Siegfried’s Death], which subsequently became Götterdämmerung [The Twilight of the Gods], seems to support it. The account of Siegfried’s death made it necessary to describe his youth (Siegfried). As a result, it was also essential to recount the history of his parents, Siegmund and Sieglinde (Die Walküre) [The Valkyrie], and finally, the background of this story – from Alberich’s theft of the gold, throwing the world into disorder, back to its original state, which Wagner in fact conceived as a kind of beginning of the world (Das Rheingold) [The Rhine Gold] – at least in his musical shaping of the E flat major prelude.
Wagner thus wrote the libretto of his tetralogy in reverse order but composed the music starting at the beginning. From his initial work with the Nibelung material in the mid-1840s to his exhausted entry at the end of Götterdämmerung (“Completed at Wahnfried on 21 November 1874. I will say no more!!”), he spent over 25 years on the vast subject matter, including a 12-year interruption beginning in 1857, after completing the second act of Siegfried. A “dislike of the previous histories” alone cannot have accelerated the progress of this – even for the 19th century – unparalleled creative feat. What led to the expanded structure may have been not only the need to explain what happened beforehand, what came from where, but also the desire to go into further detail. Although the fate of the hero Siegfried determines the course of the plot, it is put into a context that far exceeds the epic proportions of the Middle High German Nibelungenlied in its boldness. Wagner attempted no less than “a true cosmogony that was unique in the history of opera” (Ulrich Schreiber).
An inhospitable, primitive world
There is so much to tell, however, that it simply does not come off without the “previous histories that haunt the stage behind the scenes”, particularly during the transition from the tale of the theft of the gold in Rheingold, which is set among gods, giants, dwarfs and Rhine maidens, to the beginning of the actual story in Die Walküre – hence called the “first day” of the “festival play”. It is difficult to say how much time has passed since Wotan and the other gods crossed the rainbow bridge and entered Valhalla, while the Rhine maidens below bewailed the loss of the gold. At any rate, in an abrupt transition we are now among humans, in historical times, remote as the setting may seem. Hunding’s hut is in an inhospitable, primitive world, an earlier stage of civilisation, still close to nature, and Wagner the set designer provided a graphic description of it: “In the middle stands a mighty ash tree, whose prominent roots spread wide and lose themselves in the ground. The summit of the tree is cut off by a jointed roof, so pierced that the trunk and the boughs branching out on every side pass through it, through openings made exactly to fit. We assume that the top of the tree spreads out above the roof. Around the trunk of the ash, as central point, a room has been constructed. The walls are of rudely hewn wood, here and there hung with plaited and woven rugs.” One can see how it looks near Ludwig II’s Linderhof Palace; a Germanic hut modelled after Hunding’s dwelling has been erected there.
The world of early humans which we enter is a world of violence. The law of the strongest prevails. Women are possessions. Sieglinde experiences this, as does the stranger; for her, the homeless Wehwalt [Woeful] becomes embroiled in a feud with Hunding’s kinsmen. Hunding’s music sounds rough and archaic, quite different from the long passages during the first act, in which only gestures and above all looks speak on the stage. Anyone who is not thrilled by the first act of Walküre, in which Wagner the dramaturge leads the listener from the stormy opening to the nocturnal resting place in Siegmund’s monologue and from there heightens the dramatically charged events of recognition and realisation of love in a single tremendous crescendo to the final climax, probably cannot otherwise be moved by Wagner’s art of emotionalisation.
Resentment and resignation
The middle act displays another typical facet of the expanded possibilities of this new musical theatre: Wagner’s remarkable ability to make (perceived) time stand still. Take the second scene, for example. Fricka has just left the negotiations on Siegmund’s fate in triumph. Brünnhilde stands “anxiously before Wotan, who, … his head propped on his hand, is sunk in gloomy brooding”. For ten bars we hear an ominous timpani tremolo on E flat, above which trombones play the “curse motif”, then follows what leitmotif collectors call the “resentment motif”, with a distinctive appoggiatura figure in an endless downward movement. That is a gross understatement. In this passage the music opens up the mind of the god Wotan, quietly and with extreme transparency, and what we find there is not simply resentment but utter resignation.
It is the moment at which he foresees what he now sings about with increasing resoluteness, in seemingly boundless introspection, with the – for the most part – silent Brünnhilde as his witness: the end of his world. On the stage this lasts approximately 25 minutes. It is narration, not action. After the overwhelming passion of the first act, the music now comes to a standstill for long stretches as the important motifs are heard over a low pedal point. Much is repeated but appears in a somewhat altered form, in a different key or instrumentation or as a variation. Thus Wagner the musical dramatist proves to be a technician of the psyche; the music depicts the thought process itself. The orchestra, as restrained as it seems, knows more than Wotan says; it expresses what the stage direction only describes as “brooding”. This musical brooding has less to do with Beethoven’s symphonic treatment than Wagner alleged. Carl Dahlhaus called the technique “motivic association”, and it is fascinating to see not only the way action is transformed completely into reflection but also how this depiction of thought allows a new musical freedom of expression. The fact that a singer merely broods on the opera stage for nearly half an hour – that had never been seen before, but such music had never been heard before, either.
Anticipation of film music techniques
Anyone looking for a plot, for “action” and excitement, is well served in the first act of Walküre. The D minor storm at the beginning (whose striking lurching motifs are not used again) anticipates the mood-setting technique of film music, and Wagner is, of course, the inventor of cinema as well. That becomes clear in the finale, during the long, moving farewell scene and in the lighting and orchestration effects of the “Feuerzauber” [magic fire music] at the close. The second act begins as directly as the first, with the Valkyrie theme, but then, during the monologue of resignation, at the intersection of past and future, Wagner takes us from the previous history and premonition of the end to the other extreme, to square one of the action. For those who do not care to come along on this journey through Wotan’s thoughts, this monologue will last too long. For those who are able to become engrossed in it, time will stand still.
Christian Elsner received his initial vocal training in the Freiburger Domchor. Afterwards, he studied with Martin Gründler in Frankfurt. Further studies took him to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Neil Semer. A winner of many international competitions, Christian Elsner has appeared in opera houses in Heidelberg, Oslo, Munich, Paris and at the Salzburg Festival, to name but a few. His debut as Siegmund in Wagner’s Walküre at the Semperoper in Dresden in 2010 has now established him as a Wagnerian tenor. Christian Elsner is highly regarded both as an interpeter of lieder and as a performer on the concert stage. As a soloist with many leading orchestras all over the world, he has worked with conductors such as Carlo Maria Giulini, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons and Sir Neville Marriner. Christian Elsner sang with the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time in April 2004. He gives lieder recitals with his regular accompanist Burkhard Kehring in many European cities. He has also written several children’s books, most recently Lennie und der Ring des Nibelungen, and teaches at the University of Music in Würzburg.
Evelyn Herlitzius studied at the Academy of Music and Theatre in Hamburg, winning the Meistersinger Competition in Nuremberg in 1993. She joined the Dresden State Opera in 1997, having previously appeared as Leonore in Fidelio at the 1996 Bregenz Festival and in Hans Werner Henze’s Venus und Adonis at the Bavarian State Opera in May 1997. Among the roles that Evelyn Herlitzius sang in Dresden were Elisabeth and Venus in Tannhäuser, Sieglinde and Brünnhilde in the Ring, Kundry in Parsifal and the title roles in Jenůfa, Turandot, Salome and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and the Dyer’s Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten. She has appeared regularly with the Munich, Vienna, Berlin and Stuttgart State Opera, the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, La Scala, Milan, the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona and the opera houses in Monte Carlo and Bilbao. Between 2002 and 2004 Evelyn Herlitzius sang Brünnhilde at the Bayreuth Festival, returning in 2006 and 2007 as Kundry, in 2010 as Ortrud in Lohengrin. As a concert singer she has appeared both at home and abroad with the most prestigious orchestras and conductors. She made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in November 2009, performing Schoenberg’s Erwartung under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle. Evelyn Herlitzius is the recipient of the 1999 Christel Goltz Award. In 2002 she was appointed a Kammersängerin, and in 2006 she received the “Faust” German Theatre Award.
Lilli Paasikivi, born in Finnland, received her vocal training at the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in Stockholm. She was already successful in competitions while she was a student, winning for example second prize at the International Mirjam Helin Singing Competition in Helsinki. Since 1998, she has been an ensemble member of Finnish National Opera in Helsinki, where her roles have included Marina (Boris Godunov), Dorabella (Così fan tutte), Rosina (Il Barbiere di Siviglia), Marguerite (La Damnation de Faust) and as Carmen. As a concert soloist, Lilli Paasikivi has performed with, among others, the New York Philharmonic, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. Esa-Pekka Salonen, Lorin Maazel, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Maris Jansson are among the conductors she has worked with. In the symphonic repertoire, her special interest is in the works of Jean Sibelius and Gustav Mahler. Since her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in performances of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen in Aix-en-Provence, she has been much praised for her Wagner roles in particular. In the orchestra’s Berlin concerts, she performed most recently in mid September 2011 under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle, in three performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, the “Symphony of a Thousand”.