Die Walküre, Mariinsky Orchestra, conducted by Valery Gergiev, Richard Wagner, Die Walküre (complete); Mariinsky MAR0527, recorded in the Mariinsky Concert Hall, St. Petersburg, Russia; four SACDs w/insert booklet including articles, track listings and complete libretto; TT: 3:56:36.
For Wagner enthusiasts in the Old North State, the recent production of Act I of Wagner's Die Walküre by North Carolina Opera was just the tip of the iceberg. This bicentennial year of celebrating the birth of Richard Wagner (May 22, 1813) and Giuseppe Verdi (October 10, 1813) has already seen a treasure chest of performances, articles, books, and recordings, to the delight opera lovers of both camps. This performance of Wagner's Die Walküre on the Mariinsky label was recorded in the Mariinsky Concert Hall, St. Petersburg, Russia. The second of the four operas that make up the monumental Ring cycle, it has always led the pack in popularity and frequency of performances. On Classical Arkiv there are currently 110 recordings of the complete opera with Solti's 1961 effort still the undisputed benchmark.
Recorded in hybrid super audio, Gergiev's reading, with world-class Wagnerian singers is a superlative addition that should go the top ten in the list very quickly. If the other Ring operas (scheduled to be released on the Mariinsky label later in 2013 and 2014) measure up to this one, we will have a phenomenal treasure for casual as well as hardcore Wagnerites.
As NC readers who heard the ensemble perform during its visit to Chapel Hill know, the Mariinsky Orchestra is rich with outstanding woodwinds, brass that are mellow and heroic, and shimmering strings; all which in this recording project the meaning of leitmotifs and story-telling to the fullest. Gergiev's reading seems right in tempo and interpretation and offers some stunning moments. It sags a little in the second act which is always a challenge to sustain. But between a stunningly stormy opening and René Pape's heart-rending "Leb' wohl" there is little else not to be thrilled with.
The vocal forces are outstanding including world class singers in major roles and the Mariinsky house staff Valkyries. Jonas Kaufmann is the finest Wagnerian tenor I recall in my lifetime and that covers a lot of territory. The darker quality of his voice is most pleasing and provides a silken texture to his high tessitura. He is also young and good looking, he knows how to enunciate his native German, and he is a pretty good actor. His Sigmund in this recording is glorious; his is a "Winterstürme" to be cherished.
Anja Kampe, widely known for her stunning portrayal of Senta in Der fliegende Hollander, is at her best in the rapturous scenes between Sieglinde and Siegmund. The Mariinsky's own Mikhail Petrenko as Hunding delivers a menacing and powerful vocal portrayal, and Ekaterina Gubanova as Fricka lives up to the other names on the marque of this recording.
Nina Stemme is the finest Wagnerian soprano since Nilsson. In every Wagner role she sings, she sets new standards of artistic excellence. She also is one of a few who can appear as and sing Isolde convincingly. Her Brünnhilde is captivating from war-loving Valkyrie to humbled, disobedient human daughter. René Pape just seems to get better with each appearance. His vocal maturity, his stage presence, his mastery of roles has been astonishing.
Die Walküre is an opera of intimate scenes: Sigmund and Siglinde, Wotan and Fricka, Wotan and Brünnhilde, Brünnhilde and Siegmund ("Siegmund, Sieh auf mich!"), and, in the final scene, Brünnhilde and Wotan again. And these scenes are where this recording excels. However, I have a minor disagreement with the recording engineers regarding the microphone placement. In the intimate and tender scenes the balance is fine, but when the orchestra is playing at the full, it becomes difficult to follow the libretto because the vocal lines are drowned out. Even in the quieter scenes it sounds like the microphones are about ten feet from the singers. Others may disagree; this hesitancy on my part does not lessen my enthusiasm for the superb performance captured on this CD set or my recommendation of adding it to your collection.