Nina Stemme: "Wiener Staatsoper Live"
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Nina Stemme: "Wiener Staatsoper Live"

CD Button Ungureanu, Baechle; Kerl, Struckmann, Hawlata, Botha, Gould; Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, Ozawa, Welser-Möst. No texts or translations. Orfeo C937 171 B

Recordings Nina Stemme Cover 518
Critics Choice Button 1015 

THE ALWAYS WELCOME Wiener Staatsoper Live series, which features a particular artist performing various scenes in radio broadcasts from the theater, turns its spotlight on Swedish soprano Nina Stemme. She’s heard in four of the Wagner roles she prominently played at the Staatsoper over a decade—Senta (2003), Sieglinde (2007), the Siegfried Brünnhilde (2008) and Isolde (2013). It’s a great pleasure to hear how she interacts with scene partners; in addition, the development of her voice during these ten prime years is fascinating to follow.

The first selection is Senta’s ballad from Christine Mielitz’s production of The Flying Dutchman, from 2003, and it sets a high bar. The lyrical brightness of Stemme’s voice lends an almost girlish quality to the character, though she retains the requisite power. Led by Seiji Ozawa, Stemme presents a psychologically complex Senta, utilizing an unusual range of vocal colors with thrilling shifts in volume to express shifting emotions. In the final scene, Stemme pairs with Falk Struckmann, as the Dutchman, and Franz Hawlata, as Daland; again, the emotional landscape is finely realized by Ozawa, who maintains tension as Stemme unleashes clarion high notes with admirable ease; the singing remains lyrical and tonally pure.

Next is the Siegmund–Sieglinde scene from Act II of the 2007 production of Die Walküre, with Stemme, as Sieglinde, paired with the late Johan Botha (who was the posthumous subject of an earlier Staatsoper Live disc), as Siegmund. Franz Welser-Möst conducts masterfully. As the frantic Sieglinde awakens in the woods, Stemme remarkably expresses powerful emotion with her voice without shrieks or gulps. Her voice has matured and gained considerable power in the four years since Senta; Stemme moves seamlessly from angst to fear, quiet suffering and acceptance with a glowing, bronze-tinged voice. Her Sieglinde is distinctly warm and womanly, pairing beautifully with Botha’s burnished Siegmund.

A few months later, in early 2008, Stemme took on the Siegfried Brünnhilde, again under Welser-Möst. This disc includes the last scene, starting from Brünnhilde’s awakening “Heil dir, Sonne!” You usually feel sorry for the Siegfried in this scene, since he’s been singing for almost four hours, while his Brünnhilde is fresh. Stephen Gould shows some wear and tear, and he lunges at his high notes. Stemme is simply radiant, contrasting bel canto-like softness with laser-beam high notes tossed off with beauty and ease. There’s also admirable vulnerability in this Brünnhilde, more woman than valkyrie. The character’s emotional journey through this scene has never been more vivid. 

The disc ends with two selections from David McVicar’s 2013 production of Tristan und Isolde; Welser-Möst again conducts. Stemme’s voice has deepened and turned darker in the five years since Siegfried without losing its radiance or purity of tone. Her rendition of Isolde’s Act I narrative and curse is powerful, filled with irony and the slowly seething anger that should reach its peak for the curse. But Stemme stumbles, lacking ferocity for her final “Rache! Tod! Tod uns beiden!,” making it an almost introspective moment in which Isolde blames herself as much as she does Tristan. By contrast, she delivers a masterful, deeply moving Liebestod, sung with great delicacy conveying every nuance of Isolde’s spiritual transformation. It’s a pleasure to hear the frenzied audience response after the final note ends. This disc is a master class in singing Wagner with great tonal beauty and lyricism, never sacrificing dramatic power. —Henson Keys 

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