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In Review > International

Die Walküre

SALZBURG
Salzburg Easter Festival
4/17/17

In Review Salzburg Walkure hdl 717
Salzburg’s Walküre, with Peter Seiffert, Anja Harteros and Anja Kampe
© OFS/Forster

1967 WAS ONE hell of a year. In America, the movement against the Vietnam War was nearing its crescendo; the Six-Day War reshaped the borders of the Middle East; meanwhile, upwards of 100,000 people converged on Haight-Ashbury for “The Summer of Love.” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released by the Beatles on the same day as a self-titled debut album by an unknown named David Bowie. The Saturn V rocket—later used for the Apollo moon landing—made its maiden voyage, and moviegoers had their minds blown when the trailer of 2001: A Space Odyssey was shown in theaters. 

Against the background of all these social, cultural and scientific upheavals, Herbert von Karajan founded the Salzburg Easter Festival. Acting as intendant, conductor and stage director, he launched the festival with a boldly abstract Walküre, the first installment of a celebrated Ring cycle that traveled to the Metropolitan Opera between 1967 and 1972. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, the Easter Festival mounted a reconstruction of that epochal staging (seen April 17), with recreations of the imposing original sets by Günther Schneider-Siemssen (rendered by Jens Kilian) and a few mostly forgettable new touches from director Vera Nemirova, whose Frankfurt Ring of several years back took a page from that earlier cycle. Along with Alvis Hermanis’s recent Parsifal in Vienna, this Walküre was the undisputed Wagnerian highlight of the European opera season. Expectations ran ridiculously high for this lavish production, which boasted one of the most enviable casts imaginable today. 

Two Anjas—both making role debuts—stood firmly at the center of this memorably elliptical Walküre: the luxurious and plush-sounding soprano Anja Harteros sang a bold, uncommonly sexual Sieglinde, while Anja Kampe, a thrilling Kundry and searing Tosca in Berlin, was both brazen and affecting as Brünnhilde. Harteros sang with her signature blend of penetrating force and vulnerability. Kampe wielded her full, beautifully rounded voice to channel her character’s pride and moral resolve, as well as the anguish of her fateful choice. Rounding out the main female cast, Christa Mayer was a piercing, magnificently imperious Fricka.

Among the men, the standout was Vitalij Kowaljow’s subdued and soulful Wotan. The Swiss–Ukrainian bass sang the majestic role with innate musicality and careful diction. Whenever he was onstage, he kept the audience spellbound with his earthy tones and emotional honesty. Georg Zeppenfeld, Bayreuth’s current Gurnemanz, made a thrillingly menacing Hunding, his crepuscular voice bringing uncommon violence to his exchanges with Harteros. One of the least likely and most exciting developments in recent years has been the late-career flowering of Peter Seiffert as a Wagnerian tenor par excellence. Over the past few seasons, I’ve been bowled over by his muscular accounts of Tristan, Siegmund, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin in Berlin. In the vast expanse of the Grosses Festspielhaus, the sixty-three-year-old wasn’t always quite so resounding. (His long-held cries of “Wälse” rang out with far more force in Berlin.) He still cut a fine figure as Siegmund and had more than enough stamina to get him through the role intact, but he sang with noticeably less polish and finesse than his costars.  

Christian Thielemann, the Salzburg Easter Festival’s artistic director since 2013 (when the Berlin Philharmonic decamped for a more lucrative offer in Baden-Baden) led the stellar forces of the Staatskapelle Dresden in a dramatically charged performance that was highly attuned to the soloists. His only misstep as conductor was a curiously muted Act I, perhaps designed to highlight the chamber-like intimacy of what is essentially a three-character conversation piece. Throughout the evening, Thielemann, current music director both in Dresden and at Bayreuth, elicited exciting and precise playing from this estimable band.  

It was dazzling to experience musicianship of such a high order among Schneider-Siemssen’s cosmic sets, dominated by a giant ellipse, on the ultra-wide aperture of the Festspielhaus stage. The late designer, who died in 2015, had no fewer than five Rings to his credit, including Otto Schenk’s famed Met production, and his sets for the Salzburg Ring burrowed back into the mythological past while invoking the space age through moody swirling projections, retooled here by Rocafilm with mixed results. (A fascinating exhibit on this Walküre reconstruction was on view at the Salzburg Museum during the festival’s duration.) His evocative designs were elegant and abstract, recalling the austere New Bayreuth style of the late ’50s and early ’60s in its desolate beauty. The Act I set was arguably the most impressive. The gargantuan arboreal design came to Schneider-Siemssen after a visit to Sequoia National Park in California, back when drawing artistic inspiration from nature wasn’t considered reactionary or passé.  —A. J. Goldmann 



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