Die Walküre, La Scala, Milan, December 2010

The mighty cathedral in Milan — the third largest in Europe after Seville and Rome — contains vast columns reaching up to an immense height. Nearby is La Scala with its four tiers of boxes ascending to two further tiers of row-seats, and during the final curtain calls the performers looked heavenwards to right and left, relishing the applause from the gods, while Daniel Barenboim, who conducted a magnificent Walküre, waved to the rafters.

Brünnhilde and Valkyries, La Scala photos, Brescia and Amisano

What a performance it was, in a new production by Guy Cassiers, with simple abstract sets by Enrico Bagnoli, and clever video projections by Arjen Klerkx and Kurt d’Haeseleer. La Scala has seen its share of Verdi operas with their powerful family relationships, but Wotan and his daughter Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walküre is the equal of anything in Verdi, and here we had a young and glorious Brünnhilde in Nina Stemme. In the final scene, embraced by her father, with warm reddish light falling on her bare shoulders, she was the perfect sleeping beauty to be surrounded by fire until woken by a mighty hero in the next opera of The Ring.

That hero has yet to be born, but at the end of Act II, Brünnhilde drags his mother Sieglinde — magnificently sung by Waltraud Meier — away from the fatally wounded body of her lover and brother Siegmund, powerfully sung here by Simon O’Neill. After they leave, Sieglinde’s abandoned husband Hunding thrusts his sword deep into Siegmund’s dying body. This is too much for Vitalij Kowaljow’s sympathetic Wotan, father to Siegmund and Sieglinde, and with the emphasis on the second Geh! he sweeps a hand sideways, and Hunding falls dead. But what a Hunding this was, with his rich dark tone — the best I have ever seen — sung by Britain’s very own John Tomlinson. Wotan, of course, threw the battle to Hunding after his wife Fricka demanded it. She was strongly sung by Ekaterina Gubanova, and after his argument with her, his declamation “In eigner Fessel fing ich mich, die unfreiester aller!” (In my own bonds I’m trapped, the least free of everyone!) was strongly delivered with perfect diction.

John Tomlinson as Hunding

The appearance of the nine Valkyries at the start of Act III, in voluminous black dresses by Tim Van Steenbergen, was very effective. At this point, Sieglinde yearns only for death, but suddenly comes to life after Brünnhilde foretells her pregnancy. Her “Rette mich Kühne! Rette mein Kind!” (Rescue me, brave one! Rescue my child!) filled the auditorium, and her final “O herhstes WunderHeiligste Maid!” sailed over the orchestra and up to gods.

This was more than a miracle, it was opera magic, and at the end of the final act as red lighting bespoke the fire that would encircle Brünnhilde, an asymmetrical collection of twenty-eight red lights — a mathematically perfect number — descended from above. All praise to the production team and singers, but to no one more so than Barenboim, whose nuanced conducting brought out the full depth and passion of Wagner’s music.

For a more concise version of this review see the Daily Telegraph on 24thDecember.

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