Director: Don Kent
Singers: Sir Willard White, Robert Gambill, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Eva Johansson, Mikhail Petrenko
Studio: Belair Classiques BAC434 (Dist. by Harmonia mundi)
Video: 1.78:1 for 16:9 color, 1080i HD
Audio: DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, LPCM Stereo
Subtitles: French, English, German, Spanish, Italian
Length: 240 minutes
This Blu-ray disc from Belair Classiques arrived as a companion to their Tchaikovsky Gala release, and these two excellent discs offer an auspicious debut in the hi-def video arena for the French label. Part of the 2007 Aix-en-Provence Festival, this presentation of Wagner’s second entry in the Ring saga follows the recent trend in Wagner stagings and gives us an uber-modern and highly stylized vision of Die Walkure. Actually, when I say “highly stylized” I should qualify that – this is a minimalist performance, with nearly bare sets and few props, with much of the set change action conveyed via video-enhanced backdrops. Regardless, as in all of Wagner’s works, the real drama is conveyed by the singers; the sets and costumes are all incidental to the action, and in this excellent performance, the singers are nothing short of magnificent!
To recount the action taking place, Siegmund (Robert Gambill) and Sieglinde (Eva-Maria Westbroek) have consummated their love, and flee from Sieglinde’s husband, Hunding (Mikhail Petrenko), who pursues them bent on revenge. Wotan (Sir Willard White), in a ploy to recapture the ring from the giant Fafner, commands his Valkyrie daughter Brunnhilde (Eva Johansson) to protect Siegmund, who he believes is the mortal hero who will defeat Fafner and return the ring to Valhalla. Wotan’s wife Fricka (Lilli Paasikivi) intercedes, and shows Wotan that Siegmund is not the hero he’s seeking, and Wotan commands Brunnhilde to allow Hunding to kill Siegmund. Brunnhilde defies her father, but Siegmund is nonetheless slain, and Brunnhilde flees with the pregnant Sieglinde, with an angry Wotan following closely behind. She finds her Valkyrie sisters, who refuse to help her, and she sends Sieglinde away, but not before revealing to her that she’s pregnant with a son who will be named Siegfried. She then presents herself to face the wrath of her father. Wotan places Brunnhilde in a deep sleep, and then surrounds her with a magic fire which can only be penetrated by a true hero, setting up the action for the sequel, Siegfried.
While the sets and costuming are quite austere, the singing is phenomenal, especially Sir Willard White as Wotan, Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde and Eva Johansson as Brunnhilde. The singers are also excellent actors, and their on stage actions offer the necessary nuance and shadings to fully flesh out the performances. And some of the scenes are just remarkable; the classic opening of Act III, in which we witness the famous Ride of the Valkyries, is quite unusual, and takes place on a broad staircase landing, with the Valkyries on foot, dragging and carrying the fallen heroes (dressed in full modern combat gear) to Valhalla. It’s totally bizarre, and yet really rather striking at the same time! And of course, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic are intimately familiar with this most German of operas, and the musical accompaniment was little short of magnificent.
Visually, the Blu-ray get very high marks for its technical presentation, with sharp and crisp images and superb representation of color and contrast, despite the very dark visual direction taken by this production. The DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack was also excellent, although I had to fiddle about with the center channel and surround levels a bit to achieve the proper balance. My center channel setting is typically set at 0 db, but I had to increase it by 6 db to attain what felt like the proper level of vocals versus the orchestra, which seemed extreme, but ultimately yielded satisfactory results.
Despite its massive four-hour length, I found myself surfing back and forth revisiting many of the highlights that are just too numerous to list. I can’t begin to tell you how very entertaining I found this disc – hopefully there’ll be plenty more to come from Belair Classiques. Very highly recommended!
— Tom Gibbs