Die Walküre

Asher Fisch
Adelaide Symphony Orchestra
November/December 2004
Festival Theatre Adelaide
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegmundStuart Skelton
HundingRichard Green
WotanJohn Bröcheler
SieglindeDeborah Riedel
BrünnhildeLisa Gasteen
FrickaElizabeth Campbell
HelmwigeKate Ladner
GerhildeElizabeth Stannard
OrtlindeLisa Harper-Brown
WaltrauteLiane Keegan
SiegruneGaye MacFarlane
GrimgerdeJennifer Barnes
SchwertleiteZan McKendree-Wright
RoßweißeDonna-Maree Dunlop

Right from the beginning of the stormy prelude we get a feeling that this is to be an exceptional performance – and so it turns out to be. We are, so to speak, drawn into the music, the drama, and surrounded by it – even literally, since this is the first instalment of what is to be the first SACD Ring cycle. There are no gimmicks about the recording, it just mediates a live event as truthfully as possible, giving the impression of a spacious venue with pinpoint precision and definition of the sound. There is no highlighting of individual instruments; everything is so well integrated. It is a big bold sound with impressive dynamic range. It says much for the recording team that even the most explosive climaxes are homogenous, well blended. The balance between pit and stage also seems ideal, voices always audible though at a healthy distance. My listening room is fairly modest in size and my audio equipment is also fairly modest, but I got an impressive sound of a size and a quality that made me thank my lucky stars that my house is well insulated and my next-door neighbours live at some distance.

Those opening bars of the prelude set the seal on the performance with their menacing ruggedness. No, don’t misread me: there is not a trace of ruggedness about the actual playing. On the contrary the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra is an impressive band with silken strings and excellently balanced wind. The ruggedness is in the music, and so it should be since we come into the action in the midst of a ferocious hunt where Siegmund is running for dear life. This is caught to perfection by Asher Fisch, who all through the performance has a firm grip on the proceedings, never lets the tension slacken. At the same time he is careful to show Wagner’s exquisite chamber music qualities in the many lyrical moments of this remarkable score. The first Siegmund – Sieglinde scene, to give just one example, has an intimacy to challenge even Karajan’s. Without making direct comparisons with existing recordings from the last half-century I would gladly place Asher Fisch among the top contenders – and I have taken Solti, Karajan, Boulez and Barenboim into the reckoning. If there is a hero on this recording it is Asher Fisch.

But there are other heroes as well. There is not a weak link among the soloists and it seems that each and every one of the eight Valkyries could have taken on any of the main female roles. The first of them to be heard, Elizabeth Stannard’s Gerhilde, displays a glorious voice, but so do they all. I complained about ‘wobblers’ when reviewing parts of the Haenchen/Amsterdam cycle on DVD recently but this mainly Australian team is remarkable for the steadiness of the singing. The first voice to be heard after the prelude, Stuart Skelton’s Siegmund, is a major find. I heard him four years ago in Vienna when he stepped in at very short notice for Gösta Winbergh who died suddenly in his sleep. As Florestan in Fidelio he showed himself a Heldentenor. Two and a half years later, when this Walküre was recorded he was already a fully fledged dramatic tenor with tremendous power and expressiveness and also capable of much sensitive lyrical singing. Just listen to Den Vater fand ich nicht (CD1 track 9). His voice reminds me of the great James King: it is beautiful, manly and steady and seemingly with inexhaustible lung capacity. His cries Wälse! Wälse! In the “aria” Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater (CD1 track 13) seem to last forever. With Ben Heppner still in healthy voice and Torsten Kerl steadily making himself a name in the same repertoire this Fach seems well supported at the moment.

Deborah Riedel is an impassioned Sieglinde and matches Skelton excellently. Hers is also a large voice, vibrant and beautiful and her glowing Du bist der Lenz (CD1 track 17) gives you goose-pimples. She has a whole array of nuances at her disposal, as witnessed in act II, Hinweg! Hinweg! (CD3 track 3). Richard Green impresses greatly with his black bass; his declamation is excellent. I have heard few better Hundings.

Elizabeth Campbell is a youngish-sounding Fricka, something to be grateful for when this role so often is taken by elderly mezzos on their way to retirement. A lot has been written about Lisa Gasteen lately and it is easy to understand why when hearing her impressive Brünnhilde. She delivers a high-octane Hoyotoho! (CD2 track 2-3) and also sings with great feeling and understanding of the role. The long final scene with Wotan reveals that she may well be the Brünnhilde of this decade and the next. I am already looking forward to Götterdämmerung which is due for release next year.

All of these singers impress greatly but the question is if John Bröcheler’s Wotan isn’t the performance to overtrump all the others. He is the Wotan of the Amsterdam Ring which I have reviewed recently and excellent as he was there he is even finer here. He makes a furious God, snarling, shouting, menacing and so expressive that he is almost visibly tangible even in this sound-only recording. And in the final scene he is so fatherly warm, so touching … singing more or less to himself. Not even Hans Hotter at the height of his powers was more human. If I were asked to point out the best selling-point of this set I would play Der Augen leuchtendes Paar (CD4 track 16). I wonder who can resist his singing there.

This Walküre was recorded during performances but with a very well-behaved audience. Only the applause after each act reveals that they were there. The discs come in an elegant hardback book with excellent documentation and texts and translations. In every respect this is a high quality product that will have an honoured place in my collection.

Göran Forsling | 6 June 2006

Opera Today

One of the glories of a well-executed performance of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle is the sonic dimension of the work, with the dramatic contrasts between the larger musical canvasses and the more intimate ensembles that occur between several voices and within the orchestra itself.

This recording of Die Walküre meets those challenges in a recording that is sonically responsive to Wagner’s score. Celebrating the accomplishments of the State Opera of South Australia, this performance is led by Ascher Fisch, whose leadership and vision is apparent throughout the work. His tempos and pacing are convincing and allow the vocal line to emerge clearly throughout the work.

The first act is notable on various counts, with the telling opening having a fine sense of urgency that propels the drama forward. With the entrance of Siegmund, the tenor Stuart Skelton (who may be familiar from his performance on the recent CD of Albeniz’s opera Merlin) offers a fine interpretation that stands out for the elegant phrasing and diction that brings together the text and the music. Skelton’s scenes are compelling, and this recording shows his voice well. The well-known passages in the first act show a Siegmund who is attentive to the conventions of the role and also makes it personally expressive. Skelton’s sustaining of certain syllables reinforces the text, while not distorting the rhythm, and it demonstrates his individual stamp on the role. Richard Green is necessarily assertive as Hunding, who creates his role admirably, and his scene with Siegmund at the end of the second act is quite solid.

Deborah Riedel is also fine in interpreting the role of Sieglinde in her spirited performance. The “Winterstürme” scene is well played, with the requisite emotion matched by their musical involvement that culminates with Sieglinde’s “Siegmund, so nenn ich dich!” While there is nothing visual to suggest their demeanor on stage, the performance itself suggests that Skelton and Riedel work well together, a crucial element for this demanding act.

The second act involves the soprano Lisa Gasteen (a winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World competition) as Brünnhilde and John Bröcheler as Wotan, and their efforts are shaped by Ascher Fisch. The vocal line is always present and Fisch is careful to allow the orchestra to accompany and never dominate. Because of the attention given to this aspect of the work, the diction could be clearer and more pointed. Yet the interchanges between those two individuals, later joined by Elizabeth Campbell in the role of Fricka, is engaging and contributes to this recording.

The third act exhibits the dramatic tension that must occur in the opera. This is evident in the opening “Ride of the Valkyries,” always a popular scene not matter how it may be staged, and yet the urgency among the singers in this production is evident. The resolve that Gasteen delivers as Brünnhilde is effective, and it intensifies when she is paired with Bröcheler. Moving between the more extroverted gestures of the opening scene to the intimacy of the ones that follow it, the fine sound quality of this hybrid SACD helps in delivering the nuances of the performances. As a live performance, though, the recording has minimal audience noise or other background sounds, with the sound quality chosen being full without sounding artificially enhanced. The stage sounds that occur from time to time serve to remind the listener that this CD is derived from live performances (between 16 November and 12 December 2004), rather than the result of studio performances, and that may account for the exciting that colors much of the recording.

This performance represents some fine Australian music-making, and the celebratory nature of the release is evident in various ways. For one, the packaging differs from conventional opera recordings in having the liner notes, libretto, and CDs bound together with a sewn signature that keeps the materials together neatly and unobtrusively. All in all, it resembles a small book, and in concept it prevents the various components from from becoming lost as they are used. Thus, the libretto is never far from the CDs, and the liner notes conveniently include detailed track listings that refer back to the pages of the text that follow.

This is an exciting peformance of Die Walküre with a young cast, whose enthusiasm is one of its assets. The direction that Ascher Fisch offers is notable, and those who may not have yet experienced his work in the opera house can gain a sense of it from this recording. This is a remarkable effort from the State Opera of South Australia, and the company deserves credit for mounting what must have been an exemplary production and bringing it to the wider public in such a laudable manner.

James L. Zychowicz | 16 Sep 2007


The first production of a complete Ring cycle in Australia, in November 2004, was by all accounts a thrilling occasion in the theatre and a remarkable achievement for the State Opera of South Australia, based in Adelaide. While the exact provenance of this recording is not clear – all we’re told is that the ‘recording location’ was the Adelaide Festival Theatre, November 16 – December 12, 2004 – it gives clear indications of what the musical qualities were, and there is much that is positive to report.

Although the SACD recording (I was listening on normal stereo equipment) brings the voices well forward to the occasional detriment of orchestral presence and impact, Asher Fisch reveals his extensive experience as a Wagner conductor in an account that, once past a rather deliberate Act 1 introduction, is well paced and effectively balanced between dramatic immediacy and longer-term formal goals. As for the voices: the best known name here is that of Lisa Gasteen, Covent Garden’s current Brünnhilde, who displays particular power and beauty in the lower-lying passages of her encounter with Siegmund in Act 2. The upper register is less commanding but used effectively, despite an occasional tendency for the tone to spread under pressure. The Volsung twins are an impressive pair, too. Stuart Skelton might not convey much of Siegmund’s vulnerability in the early stages, or of tenderness in his burgeoning love for Sieglinde, but he has reserves of intensity which – apart from excessively protracted cries of ‘Wälse!’ – are used to genuinely thrilling effect. Deborah Riedel is even finer, with a richness and radiance that brings to mind – not a comparison to be made lightly – Birgit Nilsson in her prime.

Dutch bass-baritone John Bröcheler has the task of conveying Wotan’s transformation from aggressive warlord to sorrowful father. The predominant effect is harsh, with so much hectoring bluster that any sense of nobility or divinity is lost, and there’s little eloquence or pathos in a distinctly melodramatic account of the great Act 2 narration. Then, in the final scene of Act 3, some of the most sublimely tender phrases are half crooned, the voice not completely under the control that we take for granted in the greatest Wotans to be heard on disc. I’ve not seen Bröcheler in the theatre and it might well be that his physical presence compensates for some of these purely musical weaknesses. As a recording, then, this one is flawed, though it also has considerable virtues: it will certainly be good to hear other parts of the Adelaide Ring cycle in due course.

Arnold Whittall | Issue 8/2006

Sydney Morning Herald

The new Adelaide production of Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung gets better and better – and also, where appropriate, entertainingly outrageous. With Die Walkure (The Valkyrie), the first of the cycle’s major dramas, has come consistently memorable singing from a cast without a weak link, opportunities for more trenchantly varied musical direction convincingly taken by Asher Fisch, and a staging so technically dazzling that it is important to emphasise its balancing qualities of insight, sensitivity and emotional directness.

At this point of the first cycle it is already possible to declare that this is a Ring that deserves to travel. I hope that the director, Elke Neidhardt, and her scenic colleagues will be besieged by invitations from international houses to restage or further develop this brilliant event, with its piquantly reassuring mixture of reverence and irreverence.

At the very least we should expect the ABC to telecast it at a later date and the eventual release of DVDs. To say that the staging surpasses the previous Adelaide Ring, which imported sets and costumes from the Chatelet Theatre, Paris, is tepid praise. That was an important first step in the process leading to the present venture and was particularly worthwhile for its musical interpretation; but in visual and dramatic terms it was, by comparison, a lifeless effort.

In this production Valhalla rolls forward overwhelmingly as a chessboard on which the pieces are the clear and sparkling plastic shells of warrior heroes; metal-coloured aerials rise through the stage floor to enclose forest thickets and a hearth in Act 1; the fiery circle enclosing the sleeping Brunnhilde is threateningly volatile as her platform carries her upwards. The vulgarity inherent in the Valkyries’ famous ride music – a vulgarity without which the score would be poorer – is signalled by their collective and lively assembly as punk-outfitted girls at a brassy Wunder Bar decorated with German wings insignia, giant drink dispensers, bar stools and topical TV sets.

The casting of the Valkyrie brings so many pleasures that it is hard to place the principal singers in any meaningful order. It would be easy, for example, to underestimate the talent represented in the scene in which Fricka (Elizabeth Campbell) champions family values in demanding that Wotan (John Brocheler) should punish his by-blow son for running off with another man’s wife and should terminate Siegmund and Sieglinde’s incestuous union as twin brother and sister.

Campbell’s extravagantly coiffured and spotless matron uses relentless coolness of tone and manner as she defeats her hunched, unkempt husband, a battered survivor from a more heroic age, on Valhalla’s precise chessboard.

Brocheler’s reticence in Das Rheingold now reveals itself as a strategic indication of his increasing alienation from his time in preparation for the tormented wrath of his great scenes in The Valkyrie, the last explosion of a cornered, ageing bull. Nor should we undervalue the vividly maintained rigidity and deep, even bass timbre of Richard Green’s Hunding.

Siegmund and Sieglinde happen in this production to look like credible twins. They sing splendidly. Stuart Skelton, an Australian, has the kind of baritonal tenor ideal for Siegmund and for Wagner in general and must expect to be sought after on the grandest stages for years to come. Deborah Riedel, after a period in which she has been known to seem vocally tired and dramatically uncommitted, has reinvented her career with this vitally sung and tonally fulfilled Sieglinde, her voice rising to a superb climax in Act 1’s scene of spring love.

Lisa Gasteen’s Brunnhilde, physically impetuous to the point of bumping into the furniture, has a scythe-edged clarity of utterance that cuts through the strongest orchestral surge and recalls the tone (though not yet quite the accuracy) of Birgit Nilsson at her best. Gasteen’s annunciation of death to the doomed Siegmund (and the defiant nobility of his response) and her father-and-daughter farewell with Wotan were moving beyond words.

These scenes of loss and acceptance also exemplified the personal direction of Neidhardt at its best, using powerful physical images of love and despair. She invents group movements for the threatening encirclement of Sieglinde and the death of Hunding that deserve to be remembered as classic moments of theatre.

November 19, 2004


La revanche de Siegmund

En novembre 2004, à l’issue des représentations de Der Ring des Nibelungen à l’Opéra d’Adelaide, les ovations du public poursuivirent Lisa Gasteen en dehors du théâtre, jusque dans l’aéroport alors qu’elle tentait de regagner incognito sa ville natale. Le quotidien The Australian la sacra dans la foulée l’une des plus fameuses walkyries de sa génération. C’est dire, deux ans après, la curiosité gourmande qui accompagne l’enregistrement public de la première journée du cycle, celle justement qui fait la part belle à Brünnhilde, le personnage interprété par Lisa Gasteen.

Hélas, force est de constater une fois de plus le décalage entre la scène et le disque. Le son privé de l’image ne produit plus le même effet. Disparus l’engagement, le charisme, la magie qui apparemment enveloppait la cantatrice au point de faire prendre le boitement causé par une mauvaise chute pour un geste scénographique. Brünnhilde se dessine ici sans charme, lourde, massive, privée de féminité. La charpente, du grave au medium, demeure solide mais l’aigu vacille. On regrette alors l’absence de ces flêches dardées qui frappent en plein coeur ; non pas tant l’ « Hoïotoho ! » dont le contre-ut relève de l’anecdote – peu importe qu’il soit ici comme souvent lancé un peu trop bas – mais les traits sauvage du duo final, quand la vierge, à bout d’arguments, abat ses notes les plus hautes comme un joueur de poker son carré d’as. Lisa Gasteen se montre guerrière plutôt que femme, barbare finalement, à l’image du Wotan de John Bröcheler dont le chant fruste ne rend pas mieux justice au roi des dieux. Tel père, telle fille ; la silhouette semble là aussi monolithique, l’instrument également instable. Le baryton néerlandais pousse même le bouchon un peu plus loin en utilisant, pour tout effort de caractérisation, une espèce de Sprechgesang qui n’a pas grand chose à voir avec Wagner. Dans le même (mauvais) esprit, Elizabeth Campbell, affublée elle aussi d’un large vibrato, propose une Fricka conforme à la tradition, mégère aux traits ingrats que rien ne peut apprivoiser. On est loin de la séduction vénéneuse distillée par Mihoko Fujimura au Théâtre du Châtelet un an auparavant. Mais le Walhalla n’est pas seul en mauvais état. Sieglinde, rôle à l’exigence moindre – un soprano intensément lyrique suffit à l’habiter – succombe à son tour sous les coups de Deborah Riedel. La chair de la voix semble flasque et épaisse, dénuée de l’ardent frémissement qui nimbe le personnage.

Que reste-t-il alors pour éviter le naufrage ? Le principal d’abord dans un opéra wagnérien, à savoir l’orchestre dirigé par Asher Fish dans la droite ligne de Sir Georg Solti, sans introspection, épique et passionné avant tout, servi par des cuivres dont l’éclat éclaire sans aveugler, des cordes soyeuses qui tendent le récit sans le rompre, une meute de walkyries qui ne hurlent pas et mieux, chantent en mesure.

Le Siegmund de Stuart Skelton ensuite ; du héros, il possède le timbre particulier, cet alliage d’or fondu et de bronze, la clarté du ténor ombré de teintes barytonales, le souffle inépuisable – ah ! ces « wälse » qui n’en finissent pas – la vaillance et la jeunesse. Mais l’interprétation ne se satisfait pas d’hédonisme vocal ; elle sait aussi traduire le poids du sort qui s’acharne. Et plus encore qu’à la poésie du printemps, on s’abandonne au désespoir du duo du deuxième acte, l’annonce de la mort accueillie avec une douleur résignée que la noblesse de l’accent transcende.

Il est intéressant de constater comment alors le centre de gravité de l’oeuvre se déporte, le poids que prend soudain le premier acte au détriment du dernier, le transfert de la charge émotionnelle des adieux de Wotan vers l’ultime combat de son fils. Le héros amorce avant l’heure le crépuscule des dieux. Et si, à Adelaide, en 2004, le public avait pour Brunnhilde les yeux de Wotan, on a plutôt, en écoutant cet enregistrement, pour Siegmund les oreilles de Sieglinde.

Christophe RIZOUD | 04 Octobre 2006

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
192 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 306 MByte (MP3)
A production by Elke Neidhardt (2004)
Possible dates: 17, 27 November, 7 December 2004
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.