The prelude to Act I of Wagner's Die Walküre is one of his most
gripping passages of music, anticipating the arrival of Wotan's son Siegmund
in the evocation of a storm.
On this occasion, however, the music also
heralded the return of the King of Opera to the Covent Garden stage, for
Plácido Domingo is back in town to close the season in one of his greatest
roles - and pretty impressive he is, too.
Siegmund is a hugely taxing role, and one could have forgiven Domingo, well over sixty now, for taking things easy at first. On the contrary, his opening words were thrilling, secure in pitch and still full of that ringing tone which makes this a legendary voice.
Whereas Act I was a little flimsy when Keith Warner's production was new in March, this time it was as solid as the rest. Domingo is as always an engaging actor, looking (but not sounding) genuinely exhausted as he stumbles across the dwelling of his long-lost twin sister Sieglinde by accident. His chemistry with the latter was almost tangible, probably because Sieglinde was played by his long-time collaborator Waltraud Meier, also looking and sounding a dream.
As they moved to the climax of Act I, there was a shift onto even higher
level of sublimity. Siegmund's love song, Winterstürme, showed
Domingo's beautifully relaxed lyricism, to which Meier responded with a
heartfelt Du bist der Lenz. Given the tenor's self-confessed struggle with his top notes, I wondered with how much success Domingo would manage the difficult final words of the act, taking him to a high A. But even here he was indomitable, and the cheer that greeted the pair of singers as they took their bows at the interval was the most deafening during what has been an outstanding week of performances at the opera house.
Meier herself was phenomenal, surely unsurpassed as Sieglinde, and the fact she can stand up to a singer-actor of Domingo's weight in both aspects
demonstrates how special her talents are. Particularly heart-rending was her invocation of Brünnhilde's theme at the end of the first scene of Act III, when she calls the latter ‘most glorious of women' for her bravery in
One could easily apply this description to Lisa Gasteen's performance as
Brünnhilde on this occasion, which was even more satisfying than when she
sang the role earlier in the year. Gasteen was exceptionally sensitive
during Wotan's monologue, when she has to stand on stage without singing for
around twenty minutes while Wotan explains his actions to her, and later
showed her vocal prowess in Act III when she begs her father to forgive her. She will no doubt be unmissable in Siegfried in October, for which
booking has now opened.
Crowning a superb cast, and in the same if not a higher league even, was
Bryn Terfel's Wotan. Perhaps a little tentative in the first scene of Act II - saving his voice lest he should once more lose it, as in January and March, one wondered - Terfel gave a heart-stopping performance in Act III,
absolutely astounding in bringing out the subtleties of text and music.
Indeed, this was the overwhelming facet of all involved in this
Walküre - the amount of detail brought out of a very familiar opera.
Although Keith Warner's production was slated in some quarters in March, I stand by my positive assessment of its qualities. The direction is superb, captivating in every moment, and again the poignancy of the final
Brünnhilde/Wotan encounter was so great as to be almost upsetting.
In the other roles, Rosalind Plowright as Fricka stood up powerfully to
Terfel's Wotan, and Eric Halfvarson was chillingly sinister as Hunding. The
eight Valkyries were excellent as before. It seems like the company has kept the best members of the cast and brought new life to Act I with three new principals.
Antonio Pappano's reading of this score is unique. Avoiding too stodgily
Germanic an interpretation, he brings a youthful vigour, an almost Italiante
freshness to the music, while maintaining gravity and the stamina to hold
Wagner's long lines of melody. In almost every way, he outshone his efforts
in March, bringing more focus especially to Act I.
There are two more staged performances at Covent Garden, and on July 18 the cast moves to the BBC Proms, where Domingo will make his debut. Catch it if you can.