> Opera and Oratorio
Lang, Melton, DeYoung; Skelton, Goerne, Struckmann; Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, van Zweden. Naxos 8.660394-97 (4)
JAAP VAN ZWEDEN'S approach to Sieglinde’s “Du bist der Lenz” offers an index of his reading of Die Walküre. Some conductors rev up the aria’s intensity, making it the passionate climax of the three-aria sequence that starts with “Der Männer Sippe.” But that can turn the subsequent duet, “O süsseste Wonne,” into an anticlimax—a lull before the act’s culmination several minutes later. Van Zweden avoids that trap by pulling back, turning the aria into a moment of tender reverie—a mood carried forward in the dialogue that follows. The whole of Act I, Scene 3, emerges as a single arc, the climax placed exactly when Siegmund draws the sword from the tree and the twins acknowledge each other as siblings and lovers.
The sense of proportion that the conductor brings to the passage carries through the entire release, drawn from January 2016 Hong Kong concert performances. The big moments may pack less wallop than in other readings, but the musical throughline of the three acts emerges lucidly and lyrically. The texture of the Hong Kong Philharmonic is in general less weighty than that of a Central European orchestra—the lower strings depicting Siegmund’s trek through the storm are particularly papery—but its attention to timbral balance could be that of a chamber ensemble. Due perhaps to Naxos’s engineering, or to the acoustics of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, the orchestral sound is recessed in a way seldom heard in this music; at times, the voices seem all too far forward. But the band consistently offers the singers a luminous frame for their work—never more so than in Wotan’s monologue, in which the brass create a delicate web of sound to support Matthias Goerne’s exquisite singing.
As he was in last year’s Rheingold with the same forces, Goerne is a revelation. His beauty of tone and vivid projection of text will be no surprise to listeners who know his work in lieder; what’s astonishing is his ability to sustain these virtues throughout the long role, even in its most strenuous passages. I cannot guess whether Goerne would be able to achieve this level of distinction in a staged performance, but in the present circumstances he is ideal—a Hans Hotter for our time.
The Brünnhilde, Petra Lang, is unlikely to erase anyone’s memories of Flagstad or Nilsson, but she’s affecting. As might be expected of a former mezzo, her top is not her glory, making the opening battle cry rather rough. Lower down, her sound has an odd “bottled” quality—interesting to hear, if not remotely youthful. But her voice has the proper weight for the role, and her work is engaged and committed, with an attention to text rivaling Goerne’s. Lang made me attend to the warrior maiden’s plight as if I were encountering it for the first time.
Stuart Skelton, the Siegmund, has the thrust of a true Wagnerian tenor—as anyone who heard his recent Met Tristan could attest. But here I was struck by the voice’s sweetness. His Siegmund is as much lover as martial hero, thoroughly in line with van Zweden’s lyrical conception of the work. Heidi Melton, the Sieglinde, matches Skelton in tender beauty in her lower range. If she were able to bring commensurate warmth and fullness to her top notes, Melton would be a Wagnerian for the ages. But her voice unfortunately loses its center above the staff, which makes her singing least effective just when it should make its biggest impact.
The toughness of Michelle DeYoung’s tone allows her to portray Fricka’s anger vividly. But it’s a one-note performance, offering little sense of the goddess’s wounded pride or her thwarted affection for her wandering husband. Falk Struckmann, moving downward from the baritone repertory where he first made his mark, here sings Hunding. The traces of grit in his tone fit the warrior’s pitiless character; the veteran singer’s interpretive stance is solid. The Valkyries are somewhat less noisy than usual, their concerted bursts of laughter remarkably well-calibrated, very much in keeping with the character of this unusual—and unusually satisfying—Walküre. —Fred Cohn