Once again, Valery Gergiev is in Rotterdam. Here, they traditionally give ovation after ovation to their beloved charismatic former chief conductor. Last night, it was even more well-deserved than usual. Gerviev has returned for the traditional September Gergiev festival, where he will be conducting a concert with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as his Marinsky Orchestra (Mahler 6).
Gergiev selected Wagner for his programme with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, a choice most befitting the deep, romantic, mellow sound of the orchestra. In addition to a show of Wagner’s most exciting works, Gergiev managed to lure some star soloists to Rotterdam, with Mikhail Petrenko singing Hunding, Mikhail Vekua singing Siegmund and world-renowned star soprano Anja Kampe as Sieglinde. They would be the stars of the first act of Die Walküre.
But first, Gergiev and his musicians tackled the famous Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Maestro Gergiev, ever the workaholic, only arrived in Rotterdam two days ago for rehearsals, and henceforth one might assert that the Tristan Prelude may not have been as thoroughly rehearsed as the Walküre. While it was clear that Gergiev used a faster, slightly rocking tempo, the string groups did not coordinate as well in the prelude and the woodwinds were not as clearly and expertly handled as in the Liebestod and Walküre. Out of all the scores on the programme tonight, the Tristan prelude will undoubtedly come back to bite you hardest when not rehearsed to perfection. In exchange however, we got an ever more exciting Liebestod and Walküre afterwards.
Gergiev’s Liebestod-Tempi were simply spectacular: The whole thing a grand, lento, holy procession. The woodwinds in the orchestra had exceptional chances to shine, as Gergiev retrieved deep emotions out of the music’s slowness. Here, Gergiev expertly mixes a beautifully dangerous Wagner cocktail. Glittering orchestral colours make this an active, yet mellow Liebestod. Gergiev’s affinity to this music is undeniable, which bodes well for next year, when he mounts the podium to conduct the Bayreuth festival’s flagship new production of Tannhäuser.
Finally, the first act of Die Walküre. While only the first act of a larger opera, it really is an opera unto itself, a climax of eroticism. Siegmund and Sieglinde meet and fall in love in the shadow of her abusive husband Hunding, with (in Wagner’s own words) “the most beautiful music ever written” to accompany them along the way. The Ring is perhaps Wagner’s brightest showcase of his Leitmotif-structure, with famous passages such as the Sword-motif and Wotan-motif continuously popping up in this act.
Gergiev’s tempi are interesting here too. His Walküre is somehow reminiscent of his greatest teacher’s interpretation, Herbert von Karajan. The tempi are, in the best sense, grand. Gergiev operates on sound, on the breadth of Wagnerian suspense, that can sometimes hold throughout an entire act, to come crashing down onto the listener as the curtain falls. Gergiev will have had this in mind, as he constructed this Walküre-interpretation in Rotterdam. Indeed, Gergiev’s legato-tempi are fantastic in Walküre, as the world of Wagnerian motifs unfolds with the beautiful guidance of the orchestra’s woodwinds section. Siegmund’s chase through the forest rumbles through the orchestra’s massive bass and cello section, mustering impressive force. The moment of tenderness between Siegmund and Sieglinde features a stunning cello solo, with deserved ovations at the end for the principal, as well as a triumph in the woodwind section. Hunding enters accompanied by the brass, which generally has a perfect night tonight, from trumpet to contra-tuba.
Anja Kampe is perhaps the very best Sieglinde in the world at the moment. I could not think of a better singer and a general better performance for this role. In the past few months she has sung this role in Bayreuth (under Domingo) and in Munich (under Petrenko). Her diction is crystal-clear, her accentuations are perfect, her Sieglinde is active and courageously takes matters into her own hands. Having sung most of the big female Wagner roles (Isolde, Kundry, Senta, Brünnhilde, Sieglinde), she knows exactly how to regulate the use of her voice, to shine in the strongest passages, as well as feature some stunning pianissimi when it gets quieter, such as in Die Männer Sippe. Her passion in Siegmund nenn ich dich! was perhaps last seen in this role with Waltraud Meyer. Kampe’s passionate soprano was a stunning piece of the puzzle for a great Wagner performance. I am very glad to have witnessed this stunning performance, I doubt you can hear a better Sieglinde anywhere in the world at the moment, and I am looking forward to hearing Kampe again as Isolde with Barenboim in Berlin next year.
Mikhail Petrenko is a stunning presence as Hunding. Not only is he roughly 2 meters tall and hence taller than both of the lovers on stage with him, but his vocal presence and intonation of the role, which he has sung many times in the past, is that of an experienced veteran who is always eager to discover new things in well-known roles. He will start a passage in a whispering piano, to then whip his voice into such an astounding accent in the next sentence that a shocked murmur spreads through the audience. His final words Mein Wort hörtest du, hüte dich wohl have the audience on the edge of their seats, with Petrenko giving a seasoned and yet new and exciting portrayal of one of Wagner’s darkest villains.
Finally, the (as of yet) unknown quantity of Mikhail Vekua. There is often a disappointed murmur of a tenor-shortage in the Wagner-community, with Wagner-lovers complaining that besides the international stars of Kaufmann, Seiffert and Gould (for example) there are no great Siegmunds left in the world. And yet, if they were to rear their head and have a closer look, they would see that there is a lot of precious tenor talent to be found in the great theatres of the world. Vekua is one stunning example of this. He is a member of the Marinsky theatre ensemble, where he has sung all the great tenor roles of the repertoire: Tristan, Siegfried, Don Carlos, Faust, José, Radames. As far as I could research, this was his first Siegmund. Next to the two seasoned Wagnerians Kampe and Petrenko, Vekua still sings with a score. His Siegmund undergoes a point of change, where he transitions from slightly lacking pronounciation and tonal inaccuracies to a true Wagnerian hero: The Wälse-calls, a test for any tenor. Here, Vekua manages to pull the audience to his side as any performer might after a particular climax in their routine. The Wälse-calls are filled with such stunning force and show Vekua’s Heldentenor skill, that they galvanise the audience. Vekua becomes something of the hero of the night. From then on, his Siegmund is filled with strength and emotion, and Vekua is not all about Heldentenorian force. His voice also features lower, mellow tones, the tenor clearly comes from a slightly more baritonal foundation. He indeed wins Kampe’s Sieglinde for himself in the end, with a Siegmund that is bursting with force and (after some more experience with the role) will become a nuanced portrayal that features both high points of anger, despair and love as well as tender, nuanced singing in the Winterstürme. Vekua marks his performance as one to watch, I would be glad to encounter him in any Wagner role in the future.
Gergiev’s tempi may get slightly faster throughout the act, with the final joy of the Wälsungen being over all too quickly (and beautifully). He serves his reputation as a magician at the podium very well indeed, with a Walküre that wanders between traditional and faster tempi, but never loses the emotional core component of Wagner’s music. He is accompanied by a spectacular orchestra and a world-class singing ensemble for a great first night of Wagner at the Gergiev Festival 2019.
Yannik Eisenaecher, 14th September 2018
Yannik Eisenaecher is the publisher of the blog FreshEarsClassics