Wagner’s Die Walküre by Patrice Chéreau and Harry Kupfer

This review is part of a four week collection of the Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle.


“It’s about incest and adultery, one is delighted,” said the German comedian Loriot about the plot of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre. The comic isn’t wrong about the opera he himself admired. Characters are either related or unhappily married to each other – there’s nothing in between, other than that a blood relationship does not actually exclude a romantic relationship. This tangle of emotional complexities between the characters usually renders it the spot where a production reveals its facets and details. Here in Patrice Chéreau’s 1976 Centenary Ring at the Bayreuth Festival, the pioneering director expands his production’s daring historical concept, and the singers adapt in an inventive fashion.

Peter Hofmann’s Siegmund is no hero – he’s full of deeply scared bravado from fleeing alone through the forest and forgetting his name. Hofmann looks painfully young before Hunding’s hulking, square-ish frame and bursts into fear and raging despair in the face of his death announcement. His “Wälse!” cries lack some vocal authority, but his voice demonstrates very sensitive phrasing and gorgeously sombre, melancholy colours when quiet. His sister Sieglinde (Jeannine Altmeyer) sounds fresh-voiced throughout with a very clear sound. In the first act, her German “ch” is an English “sh”, but the problem resolves itself later, allowing her comparatively vibratoless voice to shine. The look in her eyes, varying between forcibly matured by disturbing experiences and a fierce hope that both twins carry, makes the similarities between them both haunting and enchanting. Matti Salminen’s Hunding is a worthy antagonist, domineering without threatening immediate physical violence. His gaze indicates that he knows what will happen between his wife and the stranger when he leaves the room, so his final “Hüte dich wohl!”, sung in a rich, thick bass, is effectively quiet and exceptionally menacing. Donald McIntyre as Wotan provides the twins’ father with exciting top notes and otherwise tends towards whispering in his piani, especially in his low-lying Act II monologue. This Wotan fights strongly internalised battles, hidden behind a stoic, restrained manner, and he fits a capitalist’s cool personality at the expense of some excitement. He does well with his few emotional eruptions, both quiet and loud. A few more would do him good. Fricka (Hanna Schwarz), his wife, enjoys bursting the bubble of her husband’s schemes with a feminine, regal air and a politely poisonous tone that becomes biting in the final moments of their argument. Together, they’re the classic picture of a unhappy couple that will definitely stay together forever. Meanwhile, Gwyneth Jones as Brünnhilde, Wotan’s favourite battle-happy daughter, sings the superlative of blazing “Hojotoho!” entrances and reveals vocally astonishing depths in her death annunciation to Siegmund. This Walküre is a shining moment for Wotan’s children and she’s no exception: fearless with just a slight hint of naiveté, visibly growing up during her final argument with her father and even gaining some of his stoicism.

Siegmund’s demise is arguably the turning point where Die Walküre becomes truly wrenching, here because Peter Hofmann dies a brutally painful death. Wälsungs aside, Wotan monologues his earlier deeds to his own reflection in a mirror and takes off his eyepatch – is he finally being honest? Is it easier to look at himself, not his daughter, when confessing his mess of schemes? A pendulum in the middle of the room swings until Wotan stops it, perhaps to signify the so-far everlasting rule of the gods that can nonetheless be stopped by intervention. Though his opponents, the working-class Nibelungs, don’t appear personally, the opera is nonetheless a fascinating reflection on Wotan’s inclination to cheat and exploit others for personal gain, and by extension the gods’ rule that sustains itself through power-hungriness, arrogance, and ruthless disregard for others.

Pierre Boulez expands on the style he chose in Das Rheingold with a lyrical first act that rejects choppiness even in usually extremely staccato motifs like Hunding’s, transforming into more overwhelming sounds only later during Wotan’s farewell. Time doesn’t stand still for him; his tempi are less prone to slowdowns in dramatic moments. The death annunciation scene between Siegmund and Brünnhilde is where production and music converge to produce something entirely hypnotic, carried with great gravity by both orchestra and singers.

This Walküre is full of youth, although it doesn’t end well for the youth. Gwyneth Jones’ voice promises to unleash a positively flaming end of the world later, and the Wälsung twins are standout reinterpretations that emphasise vulnerability as opposed to heroic strength. Wotan is granted a humanity unique among post-war productions, where he previously was more of a stand-around. The implications of the gods’ capitalism cast a distinctly negative light on their exploits. Beware objects of power, be it money or rings, Chéreau warns and proves he’s understood Wagner well despite his radicalism; they entice you to view others as pawns.


Harry Kupfer is one to make promises and keep them. The East German director’s sparse Das Rheingold in Bayreuth promised the bare necessities onstage and a focus on his characters’ inner turmoil, which comes to life in Die Walküre with the burning focus of a magnifying glass. Arguably, there is no better Ring opera for this emphasis – absent multiple fantastical settings of Das Rheingold, a singular hero as in Siegfried, and the high stakes of Götterdämmerung, the characters’ close relations are a focal point of the sweeping, yet intimate tragedy.

It’s hard to believe that Poul Elming, who sings Siegmund, first trained as a baritone. His tenor is very well-controlled and evokes a metallic golden glow, as far as colour-voice comparisons go. Though he veers towards choppiness in his phrasing – more legato would be preferable – and his acting is rather exaggerated in the beginning, he’s very sweet with his sister. Sieglinde (Nadine Secunde) speaks very much through her eyes with a voice to match in intensity. With a voluminous sound, she manages the spectrum from distressed and scared to utterly fierce and enthralling. The Wälsungs fall for each other a bit too quickly – personally, I prefer slow-burn incest – but they steal hearts once they’re in love. By comparison Anne Evans’ Brünnhilde is vocally not as rich but instead bright and lithe. Granted, complaining about any aspect of Brünnhilde is complaining at the highest level, but in a way, she’s missing a youthful spark. Her “Hojotoho!” is sung with the expression of being afraid of the high C despite hitting it without fault, and were it not for her playfulness with Wotan, their father-daughter dynamic wouldn’t be too apparent at all. John Tomlinson as Wotan, on the other hand, provided a pillar of the production. His low notes are stunningly assured and the top soaring – the initial judgement on his voice from Das Rheingold gladly stands. He seems to honestly debate his wife in Act II rather than try to manipulate her. Is this just the guise of an uber-manipulator? Who knows! There’s no sharp edge in this Wotan and no venom in his “Nimm’ den Eid!”, but rather weariness and defeat. He carries a melancholy air, bitter perhaps only towards himself as he sits on the ground in the final scene, although one never finds out because he turns his face away. Which isn’t to say he lacks a dark side – his caressing of Brünnhilde is beyond loving in the fatherly sense and as such, sinisterly casual. It doesn’t go unnoticed by his wife, Fricka (Linda Finnie). She’s fuelled by righteous anger, but gives off the air of wanting to actually persuade her husband instead of furiously fighting against his tricks. Therefore, her vocal measures aren’t as drastic as sometimes heard and seeing her and Wotan embrace before he promises to kill Siegmund was an interesting surprise. Overall, the relationships so far seem more salvageable rather than shattered in this Ring. This is not counting Hunding – Georg Zeppenfeld, who sang Hunding in Bayreuth in 2016, said that when performing the role, he tries to enter the stage with “as much negative energy as possible”. That idea must’ve transpired through time to Matthias Hölle because his Hunding does the same circa 25 years earlier. Hölle overdoes it occasionally and a bit of calm rage would do him well, but his singing is rightly terrifying.

Daniel Barenboim at the conductor’s stand creates a distinctive, if maddening, interpretation. The slow tempi reveal themselves anytime an orchestral Leitmotiv appears. Especially Loge’s motif at the end should be faster because its fiery, flickering nature becomes too subdued otherwise. Other parts worked out better, especially vocally, like Sieglinde’s “Oh hehrstes Wunder!”. Nonetheless, Barenboim balances the sound of the different instruments well.

Concerning the production, one is inclined to ask “what production?”. There’s barely anything on stage in the latter two acts. It works, though. For much of the most wrenching scenes, there’s little more than some blue light, yet the singers do so well with each other that they fill the stage with their own presence. (To be fair, this is largely owed to John Tomlinson, who much for of his long time onstage brings a natural, youthful liveliness with him, while the Wälsung twins carry a similar lively intensity.) Kupfer proves a keen eye for spontaneous tragic gestures, such as Siegmund opening his arms toward Wotan, who then pushes his own son into Hunding’s spear, which is positively horrifying to watch. This aside, the sparse stage effects are mesmerising, especially the sudden appearance of a pit in Act II after Wotan’s first proclamation of “Das Ende!”.

Harry Kupfer is clearly taking risks with his production here, but his singers rise to the challenge – some highly above the mere expectations. One is interested to see how this emphasis on physical acting will play out in Siegfried with its titular boisterous, overgrown child. Kupfer’s eschewing of a specific comparison and thus a sharply definitive thesis is seemingly a step backward compared to Chéreau’s ideas. Perhaps, though, leaving characters without any further contexts they must fulfil is a step forward in letting them be fully human – messy creatures full of dark and light in the middle of a swirling tragedy.

Lynn Sophie Guldin, October 2020

For more by Lynn, visit her blog at https://beckmessering.tumblr.com/

Lynn has also written:

Wagner’s Das Rheingold by Patrice Chéreau and Harry Kupfer

Wagner’s Siegfried by Patrice Chéreau and Harry Kupfer

Wagner’s Götterdämmerung by Patrice Chéreau and Harry Kupfer


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