Cher Public

A fjord in her future

Anja Silja staked a claim as a leading Senta of her era with a series of searing performances of Der Fliegende Holländer while in her early twenties, including a much-praised 1961 Bayreuth outing opposite Franz Crass conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch. Now, Andromeda is offering an intriguing side-by-side comparison with a performance from that run featuring an identical cast, save for George London in the title role.
 

While the sound is variable and London displays some early signs of vocal decline, it’s an emotionally involving show that never lags, despite the then-common practice of breaking up the action into three acts and going to intermission just after the rapturous Act 2 love duet. Sawallisch’s gripping, brisk approach juxtaposes Wagner’s vivid depictions of the sea, sailors and earthy townspeople with the fable’s supernatural elements and theme of redemptive love.

Silja’s imposing stage presence is evident even decades later, with edgy, almost reckless upward attacks suggesting a repressed, utterly possessed small town maiden. She tackles the almost two-octave span of the Act 2 ballad without breaking a sweat and saves enough at the end of the third act for a pyrotechnical “Hier steh’ ich, treu dir bis zum Tod!” before throwing herself into the sea.

The middle act encounter with London in her chamber is less spontaneous and not as dramatically convincing as on the recording with Crass, with the characters’ overlapping lines spilling out a bit haphazardly, as if they were politicians talking past each other. The final act’s confrontation with Erik, sung by Fritz Uhl, is cleaner and more focused, a study in frantic obsession worthy of a Gothic horror story that matches Silja’s other recorded accounts.

London is also a dramatic force, sounding almost too high strung grappling with his isolation and pain in the opening monologue, “Die Frist ist Um.”  Act 2’s “Wie aus der Ferne längst vergang’ner Zeiten” shows off more variety of tone and portamento, the yearning for salvation bursting through his character’s otherwordly mien.

Admirers of the bass-baritone’s early work will notice the familar mezza voce and a somewhat thinner tone in the louder passages. If the overall effect isn’t as nuanced as Crass’, it’s still a savvy, convincing performance that elicits a big response from the Bayreuth audience.

Uhl holds his own dramatically in such distinguished company, bringing an impulsive somewhat desperate quality to Erik, who as a hunter in a maritime village is himself something of an outsider. Josef Greindl injects some humanity into the proceedings as an earthy, even comedic Daland, complete with a noticeable wobble. Rounding out the principals are Georg Paskuda as the steersman and Res Fischer as Mary.

The remastered, 24-bit sound is variable, with a great deal of distortion at the raucous opening of the third act that’s exacerbated by foot stomping on stage. The stage-pit balance is adequate, and the depth and precision of the Bayreuth chorus comes through, especially as the tormented seafarer’s ghostly crew. London and other principals drop out in places, presumably due to the stage blocking.

Remastered sound quality is the main appeal of a Farao audio Blu-ray Die Walküre from the Bavarian State Opera with John Tomlinson, Waltraud Meier, Gabriele Schnaut and Peter Seiffert under the baton of Zubin Mehta.

The live 2002 performance is of the semi-finished production Herbert Wernicke conceived before he died and reveals the Munich orchestral forces to be in particularly fine shape. Mehta draws some lovely, balanced playing in a traditional Romantic interpretation that’s easy on the ears but fails to mine the music’s deeper meaning or distill the essence of critical moments such as Brünnhilde’s Act 3 capitulation to Wotan. The opening storm sequence is nevertheless quite thrilling, and leaves a listener feeling like an extra in the orchestra pit.

In the familiar role of Wotan, Tomlinson’s dark, distinctive voice still rings with power but starts to lose its edge after the scene with Fricka and shows wear in higher passages by the time the Farewell rolls around. Schnaut brings equal parts intensity and stridency to Brünnhilde, slicing through the orchestral textures with a keen sense of her character’s plight.

Seiffert is a pleasingly lyrical Siegmund, crafting an expressive “Winterstürme” but elsewhere sounding a bit stiff and lacking authority. Mihoko Fujimura is an indignant Fricka and Kurt Rydl a menacing, unsteady Hunding.

Meier’s dramatic outbursts and lyrical passages capture a repressed Sieglinde gradually stirring to love in the opening act. In Act 3, she soars over the rapturous accompaniment in “Oh hehrstes Wunder!”—that ecstatic and dramatically important outburst that introduces the leitmotif associated with redemption and reappears at the very end of Götterdämmerung.

It’s the most spontaneous moment in a release that’s too paint-by-the-numbers to rank anywhere near the top tier of recorded Walküres but may encourage audiophiles and gadget heads explore the limits of their sound systems.