If the staging of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen is a colossal task for any opera company, the cycle directed in the late 1990s by Pierre Audi was without doubt a defining moment in Dutch National Opera’s ascent to international recognition. This acclaimed production was revived several times during this century, most recently during the 2013/2104 season in a run that the company advertised at the time as “final”. That Die Walküre, the second chapter of the cycle, is being revived more than five years later is therefore a most unexpected surprise. We will probably never know for sure what made the company change its mind. But we can safely assume that someone thought it unacceptable to turn the page on this piece of company history without casting native daughter Eva-Maria Westbroek, one of today’s leading interpreters of Sieglinde, at least once.

<i>Die Walküre</i> at Dutch National Opera © DNO 2019
Die Walküre at Dutch National Opera
© DNO 2019

So, now “really for the last time”, as the company’s promotional literature and website ironically claim, the monumental semi-circular wooden catwalk designed by George Tsypin was dusted off and reassembled. For the last time also, the gods’ luxuriously minimalist robes and the valkyries’ shiny wings designed by the late Eiko Ishioka were pressed and polished. These tasks set to revive a production which is over 20 years old might sound mundane but the result remains a visual spectacle that has not aged at all. The catwalk embraces the orchestra that sits literally on the stage, in full view of the public. Lit by Wolfgang Göbbel and Cor van den Brink, this unique set is transformed into an atemporal mythical world. What is more, the way it slants over the edge of the proscenium brings the singers strikingly close to the public and creates an unusually intimate musical theatre experience.

The Valkyries © Ruth Walz
The Valkyries
© Ruth Walz

“Intimate” is not the first adjective that comes to mind when talking about Wagner’s music in general, or Walküre in particular. Yet next to the famously rousing Ride of the Valkyries, the opera is packed with intimate scenes, like the first encounter between the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, or Wotan’s heartbreaking farewell to his favourite valkyrie daughter, Brünnhilde, as he induces the magical sleep that will hold her captive. The Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, securely led by Marc Albrecht with admirable precision, navigated this string of musical contrasts, from tender cello solos to staggering orchestral outbursts, in a performance that never fell short of engrossing.

Iain Paterson (Wotan) and Martina Serafin (Brünnhilde) © DNO 2019
Iain Paterson (Wotan) and Martina Serafin (Brünnhilde)
© DNO 2019

Vocally, things were just as thrilling. The team of soloists gathered for this revival is arguably the strongest in this production’s history. The other eight valkyries, Brünnhilde’s sisters, showed off an array of timbres that contrasted with the most pleasing effect. Tackling the summit of the dramatic soprano repertoire that is Brünnhilde, Martina Serafin’s soprano displayed the required heft for the valkyrie’s valiant call to battle, whilst the warmth of her timbre and her innate way with the text made for a convincingly compassionate deity. Scottish bass-baritone Iain Paterson proved equally articulate and eloquent as her father, Wotan. While his instrument is not naturally the most multicoloured, he summoned all the shades to portray the god’s slow descent into moral and emotional decay in the most vivid manner. His confrontation with Okka von der Damerau’s regal Fricka was captivating. Stephan Milling’s towering bass made for a truly menacing Hunding. Michael König’s tenor, handsome in timbre and dark in colour, sounded a fine fit for Siegmund’s low-lying tessitura.

Michael König (Siegmund) and Eva-Maria Westbroek (Sieglinde) © DNO 2019
Michael König (Siegmund) and Eva-Maria Westbroek (Sieglinde)
© DNO 2019

As Sieglinde, Eva-Maria Westbroek was simply riveting, giving one of the most memorable performances to have graced this house. Her portrayal encompassed all the contradictory facets of this complex character, in turns defiant and vulnerable. She sounded in top vocal form. Her cry “O hehrstes Wunder” as she received Siegmund’s sword from Brünnhilde, sung with beautiful tone, raised the roof of the theatre. A consummate actress, her character seemed to inhabit her every gesture and facial expression and when she told Siegmund “You cannot bring misfortune where misfortune dwells already”, I swear I could see tears in her eyes, but perhaps it was just mine.

*****