Stuart Skelton, Siegmund
Deborah Riedel, Sieglinde
Richard Green, Hunding
John Bröcheler, Wotan
Lisa Gasteen, Brünnhilde
Elizabeth Campbell, Fricka
This beautifully-recorded, handsomely-packaged album marks the very first SACD release of a complete opera in Wagner’s famed Ring Cycle. Die Walküre was selected because it is the most popular of the quartet comprising the Ring Cycle. If any opera composer of the past seems appropriate to surround sound reproduction it would certainly be Wagner. It’s not the label’s first SACD – they earlier released a ballet by Hérold, conducted by Richard Bonynge, La somnambule. The Melba Foundation is named after Dame Nellie Melba, the Australian diva who along with Caruso really created the whole classical recording industry. Among its patrons are Bonynge and Joan Sutherland. The immense recording project of Die Walküre was supported by the Australia Council, the Arts Funding Body of the government, Melba Foundation patrons, and Dr. Douglas G. Mitchell. It involved 129 orchestral musicians, a chorus of 70, 27 principal singers and a crew of 75.
I misconstrued the quote on the back of the small bound book package with the discs and libretto. It said “one of the greatest triumphs of this Ring was its capacity to speak the language of its audience.” I naturally assumed this was an opera-in-English production, since I wasn’t aware all Australians spoke German. I stand corrected.
Although my interest level was somewhat reduced by that revelation (I happen to think Wagner works really well in English – Seattle opera fans think so) I found this a top-quality production. The singers sound uniformly good to me (though I am far from a Wagner expert), the Adelaide Symphony plays it’s heart out – the Ride of the Valkyries section is truly exciting – and the hi-res surround prevention makes suitable use of the spatial choreography now possible in this format. The brass section of the orchestra seems to be more in the surround channels than the frontal ones, although the singers are usually kept to the front stage areas. I was reminded of the surround placement on the Tacet label, which puts players completely around the listeners. The effects of offstage singers works so much better than with simple two-channel reproduction. There is a great clarity to the sound although it is some distance away – not muffled and echoey. Perhaps it was just getting into the imagined stage action, but during Wotan’s entrance on horseback I thought I placed him vertically above the Valkyries.
The clarity of both the hi-res audio and the surround presentation allows for some of the voices to be quite distant from the listener and still not sound off-mike, as do many singers on some opera recordings.
I thought I should also bounce this off one of our resident Wagnerians, so I sent the package on to Peter Bates. (By the way, he didn’t see my comments first.) The following are his:
Is it surprising that the high point of this Die Walkure SACD is The Ride of the Valkyries? Asher Fisch’s use of his ensemble is dramatic and spot on regarding tempo and singer placement. Its goblet-clear 5.1 sound is most impressive. If only the rest of this disc measured up. Brünnhilde’s death announcement to Siegmund in II:4 occurs at a plodding pace, with Stuart Skelton’s Siegmund not even expressing anger or astonishment over the arrangement. Deborah Riedel is an adequate, if somewhat old-fashioned, round-voiced Sieglinde. A couple of times she flats out in the upper register. I found Josh Bröcheler’s Wotan hard to listen to, not because his voice wasn’t powerful or accurate, but because it lacked a pleasing timbre. Lisa Gasteen’s Brünnhilde is the most attractive singer of the troupe, but she seems confined in this production, pressed like an autumn leaf in cellophane. True, great sound reproduction abounds. However, imagination is in short supply.
– John Sunier & Peter Bates