When a conductor appears with an orchestra that he has led on literally hundreds of occasions, there is a reasonable presumption that the music will be in safe hands. Such was the case when 78-year-old Peter Schneider took the podium for his 20th performance of Die Walküre at the Wiener Staatsoper and his 426th appearance in Das Haus am Ring.

Jongmin Park (Hunding) © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Michael Pohn
Jongmin Park (Hunding)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Michael Pohn

Age and walking impediments have in no way dinted the fervour of this former Vienna Boys’ Chorister, and the legendary Wiener Staatsoper Orchester revelled in his expansive tempi and willingness to let the orchestra dominate the performance. From the first fiercely marcato measures, the celebrated Vienna strings justified their preëminent reputation. While trumpets and trombones were decibel-shattering and the former slightly over-strident in the Nothung motif, horns displayed more restraint and the honky Wagner tuba plunged the depths of the score’s sonority. There was some exceptionally fine solo cello playing by Tamás Varga in the “Wälsung trauer” motif and Daniel Ottensamer’s clarinet solos were beautifully phrased with deliciously nuanced dynamic graduations.

Unlike Simon Rattle’s more rhapsodic reading two years ago, Schneider’s tempi tended to be more Knappertsbusch-languorous, although there was plenty of Solti-esque fire as well. Regrettably, Schneider permitted Siegmund a self-indulgent fermata on “Walse, Walse!” which was far more verismo than Wagner.

In his role debut, Korean bass Jongmin Park was an impressive Hunding, with a lustrous low register and outstanding projection. Despite an unnecessary portamento on “Du labtest ihn?”, this was a dramatically convincing and musically eloquent interpretation. Draped in a peacock-feathered cloak, Mihoko Fujimura’s Fricka could have stepped out of Turandot, but like the inscrutable oriental princess, she brought ruthless determination to the role of Wotan’s pestiferous partner. There was Fassbaender-ish metal to the middle voice, with a particularly pleasing, plummy low register. It was clear who wore the pants in Valhalla. Swedish soprano Camilla Nylund sang a sympathetic, sensitive Sieglinde and although there was occasionally too much vibrato in the upper register, this was a convincing and dramatically committed performance. Nylund’s articulation of the Redemption motif was serenely lyrical and “O deckte mich Tod” deeply moving.

Robert Dean Smith (Siegmund) and Camilla Nylund (Sieglinde) © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Michael Pohn
Robert Dean Smith (Siegmund) and Camilla Nylund (Sieglinde)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Michael Pohn

As the wehwalt wandering hero, Robert Dean Smith’s Siegmund was disappointing. The voice has lost its sheen in the upper register and the lower range was barely audible. Only the middle range has retained a degree of lyric limpidness, but “Winterstürme” lacked legato, poetry, and even minimally acceptable phrasing. The stentorian “Nothung” acclamation was almost a bleat. Smith’s characterization was so bland that any semblance to “helden” tenor was in role description only. Following regular Staatsoper Wotan Tomasz Konieczny, Thomas Johannes Mayer sang the duplicitous deity with commendable psychological insight if not commanding vocalism. The top E and F naturals, such as “Spitze fürchtet”, had none of Konieczny’s clarion assurance and the lower range often lacked resonance. Conversely, textual nuances were excellent with a contemptuous “Geh' hin, Knecht!” snarl closing Act II. With a stage gravitas not unlike Donald McIntyre, Mayer could well develop into a first-rate Wotan.

Following such great Staatsoper Brünnhildes, Petra Lang had hard acts to follow. Due to her former life as a mezzo, Lang relished the lower range of the tessitura, although there was nothing shabby about her top B naturals either. Despite a slightly hysterical whoop on the fearfully exposed high B and C natural “Hojotohos!” the voice rarely lost focus at the top and chest notes were hefty. While the extended tessitura was competently managed, Lang’s characterization was less convincing, although “Nicht weise bin ich” was moving in its disingenuousness.

Thomas Johannes Mayer (Wotan) © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Michael Pohn
Thomas Johannes Mayer (Wotan)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Michael Pohn

Of multiple shapes and sizes, the Walküre produced a formidable homogenous sound which easily overrode the shattering tsunami of the orchestration. In a curious piece of direction opening Act 3, they chased terrified heroes around the stage. According to Wagner, warriors dispatched to Valhalla are already dead.

In comparison to many scandal-ridden Ring cycles, Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s Walküre from 2007, with Rolf Glittenberg’s stage designs, was relatively inoffensive and technically uncomplicated (aka cheap). Prowling wolf projections were about as scary as a cartoon and Wotan’s cradling a dead wolf in his arms, presumably presaging the demise of the “Wölfing”, was morbid and distracting. Hunding’s house was a few laminated tables with a spindly tree though the middle; the Act 2 rocky wilderness had chalky coffin-like slabs resembling a passing ice-flow run aground, and the craggy mountaintop in Act 3 was a featureless tundra dominated by several life-size horse statues. Brünnhilde didn’t get an impenetrable rock for her “fesselnder Schlaf” but was left snoozing on the floor as the all-consuming fire projections engulfed the minimalist stage-set.  

Presumably immolation of the Walküre’s horses in Loge’s inferno meant that Grimgerde and the girls had to walk back to Valhalla.

***11