Above: Dame Gwyneth Jones
A week-long RING Cycle invariably involves RHEINGOLD on Monday night followed immediately by WALKURE on Tuesday. This places heavy demands on the gentleman singing Wotan; he has a lot of singing to do on Monday and even more (much more) on Tuesday. Fricka also appears in both operas, but her role in RHEINGOLD - though major - is not especially demanding, and in WALKURE she has only one scene: quite a strenuous one vocally, but once it's over she is finished for the night. Fortunately the Wotan in my first Cycle, Hans Sotin, managed the back-to-back operas superbly. And Helga Dernesch's Fricka was a thrilling interpretation.
WALKURE brings four new characters to the drama: Brunnhilde, Sieglinde, Siegmund and Hunding. With Dame Gwyneth Jones's first appearance as Brunnhilde in Act II, this RING Cycle - already off to such an impressive start - soared into the stratosphere.
Here's my diary entry from the second night of the Cycle:
"WALKURE - excellent despite some audience distractions. Levine and the orchestra do wonders with this score. The cast was really fabulous, though I had mixed feelings about the Siegmund of Robert Schunk. He looked well, sang and phrased in a musicianly manner; he had the right feel for the role and - for the most part - more than enough volume. He tended, however, to sing just a shade flat much of the time. Too bad...he tried hard and he did have his moments.
Everyone else was on peak form. Matti Salminen gave a tremendous Hunding, rolling out the tone with tremendous force and simply smacking of evil...really menacing sound and thoroughly convincing as an actor: his long, deadly stare at Siegmund after man-handling his wife was such a provocation (Siegmund, weaponless at this point, is in no posotion to respond). Salminen continues my great line of Hundings - Rundgren, Haugland, Moll, Macurdy - and he's such a fascinating artist.
We have a wonderful new Wagnerian soprano in Mechthild Gessendorf (above) who, if this performance is any indication of her abilities, is a fine addition to the operatic gallery. Her bright, almost girlish tone has a clear middle range with top notes that can be clean-attacked or slightly scooped-up to: they are exciting! Oddly, she reminds me a bit of Mara Zampieri though I can't put my finger on why! She gave a glorious Sieglinde, full of feminine warmth and real emotional commitment; I look forward to her Kaiserin and Senta.
Helga Dernesch's Fricka proved spellbinding, sung with great authority and vocal power; the slight peril in the upper range was overcome by force and she simply did a magnificent job. The drama of her plea was put across with an awesome balance of of security and desperation: really engrossing. And she looked gorgeous...a splendid assumption of the role.
Hans Sotin's Wotan was given with great vocal command and heartrending dramatic sureness. He was in excellent voice, giving a truly impressive monolog and ending Act II with a furious "Geh!" to Hunding who crashed to the ground at the god's irate command. Singing gloriously, Sotin came thru with much moving and beautfully modulated vocalism in the third act, and he triumphantly sustained the top notes of his final phrase to majestc effect...bravississimo!!!!
It was a great pleasure to see Dame Gwyneth Jones on the Met stage again: still unsure of how she would sound, she nevertheless is an arresting physical presence. But as soon as she began to sing, it was clear we were in for a thrilling Brunnhilde: her great personal and vocal radiance set its stamp on the entire evening. She is a very different Brunnhilde from Behrens, more feminine and less complicated. She offered a spectacular battle cry, sustaining the clear-attack high-C and thereafter she simply went at it vocally all evening, with powerful and moving singing in the 'Todesverkundigung' where she well portrayed Brunnhilde's increasing embarrassment at the deceitful way Wotan has treated Siegmund. Jones's third act was wonderful in every regard, with a movingly intoned "War es so schmählich" and increasing desperation as she begs Wotan to spare her degradation. Her final plea - to surround her slumbering place with magic fire - literally tore at the heart. The sheer size of Dame Gwyneth's voice is such a treat at The Met, and her occassional wooziness and a couple of oddly pronounced words ("Siegfried" in her Act III address to Sieglinde somehow became "Augfried") were just trifles compared to the great flood of warm, emotional power she generates. Simply great!! And she looks marvelous...great legs! So, a really remarkable evening with huge ovations for all and a particular hurricane of applause for Dame Gwyneth. A grand night!!!"