RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Das Rheingold—R. Pape (Wotan), A. Markov (Donner), S. Semishkur (Froh), S. Rügamer (Loge), E. Gubanova (Fricka), V. Yastrebova (Freia), Z. Bulycheva (Erda), N. Putilin (Alberich), A. Popov (Mime), E. Nikitin (Fasolt), M. Petrenko (Fafner), Z. Dombrovskaya (Woglinde), I. Vasilieva (Wellgunde), E. Sergeeva (Floßhilde); Mariinsky Orchestra; Valery Gergiev [Recorded in conjunction with concert performances in the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia, on 7 – 10 June 2010, 17 – 18 February and 10 April 2012; Mariinsky MAR0526; 2SACD, 147:42; Available on Amazon and iTunes]
Das Rheingold launches what is perhaps the single most ambitious project in opera, Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Equal parts self-perpetuating mythology, convention-defying musical thesis, and expression of an unfettered ego, the Ring forever changed the landscape of opera: whether composers of subsequent generations embraced or discarded the examples of Wagner’s monumental tetralogy, it is undeniable that their works could not avoid responding to the innovations of Bayreuth. In this year of honoring Wagner on the occasion of the bicentennial of his birth, his influence is more omnipresent than ever, both in the world’s opera houses and concert halls and in new releases by record labels large and small. This recording of Das Rheingold is the second installment in the complete Mariinsky Ring conducted by Valery Gergiev, and it upholds the high standards of performance values and state-of-the-art recording technology set in the previously-released recording of Die Walküre. Despite the presence of German singers in two of the most critical rôles in the opera, this Rheingold also continues the welcome exploration of Wagner interpretation and performance traditions beyond Bayreuth and established centers of Wagnerian history. The aftershocks of the Ring were felt strongly in Russia: elements of Wagner’s innovations invaded the scores of Russian composers, and Russia’s most celebrated composer of the 19th Century, Tchaikovsky, was of course present for the first complete performance of the Ring at Bayreuth in 1876. It was only after the fall of the Iron Curtain that the work of Russian singers in Wagner’s operas started to achieve recognition outside of Soviet theatres, however. For instance, Evgeny Nikitin, who sings Fasolt in this performance of Das Rheingold, has sung the same part, as well as Pogner in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Klingsor in the controversial new production of Parsifal by François Girard, at the Metropolitan Opera. Its other artistic merits notwithstanding, this Mariinsky recording preserves the singing of some of Russia’s best Wagnerians and, with its richly-balanced sonics, gives Wagner’s score an opportunity to fully reveal its wonders via one of the world’s great orchestras.
The players of the Mariinsky Orchestra indeed confirm their ensemble’s competitiveness with the best orchestras in the world, especially among those that regularly perform the music of Wagner, playing with attention to detail that proves especially useful in clearly delineating statements of Leitmotivs even when these are woven deeply into the musical fabric. The strings play with full-bodied tone and wonderfully reliable intonation, and the playing of the brass section is often appropriately ferocious. More so in Rheingold than in their performance of Walküre, orchestral sonorities are adapted to the rapidly-changing drama: the brutal sound world of the Nibelungen is adroitly contrasted with the more nuanced environs of the gods, and the primordial discord from which the Rhinemaidens emerge to introduce the Leitmotiv that will serve them throughout the Ring is viscerally conveyed. Perhaps owing to the circumstances of having recorded the opera during concert performances, some of Wagner’s most emblematic ‘special effects’ here are not quite special. The thunder summoned by Donner is decidedly earthbound, and the anvils at which the Nibelung dwarves work sound more like wind chimes, played with splendid rhythmic vitality though they are. Nonetheless, the Orchestra’s playing is never less than excellent and, in many passages, rises to genuine greatness.
Perhaps no other conductor in the storied history of music in Russia has made the music of Wagner his own, both in Russia and abroad, more than Valery Gergiev has done. His conducting of this performance of Das Rheingold exposes both the strengths and the weaknesses of Maestro Gergiev’s approach to conducting Wagner. He has a natural ear for orchestral colors, and his direction of the purely instrumental episodes in Das Rheingold is superb. The opera’s first pages, in which Wagner memorably captured the undulations of the Rhine in unsettled music, are shaped by Maestro Gergiev with expert command of the strange, sinister sonorities. When the Rhinemaidens ascend from the depths, reservations about Maestro Gergiev’s pacing of the performance start to rise to the surface, as well. The irony of the Rhinemaidens’ taunting of Alberich is present, but the playfulness of the scene is absent. As the performance progresses, moments of fantastic dramatic vibrancy alternate with passages that hang fire. Wotan’s and Loge’s descent to Nibelheim is depicted with power, but the preceding scene in which the giants Fafner and Fasolt take Freia hostage goes for little. Alberich’s curse lacks focus, and though the orchestral playing is sublime the famous Entry of the gods into Valhalla does not have the sense of wonder that it can—and should—possess. Maestro Gergiev is a musician of undoubted accomplishment, and there are stretches of this performance of Das Rheingold that suggest that he can be a memorably eloquent Wagnerian. Das Rheingold is the briefest of the Ring operas, however, and the one in which scenes progress with almost cinematic legerity. Though the duration of this performance suggests that Maestro Gergiev’s pacing is not dissimilar from the speeds at which some of the most illustrious Wagnerians of the 20th Century conducted Das Rheingold, there is a lack of momentum that robs the performance of dramatic impetus. Maestro Gergiev provides moments of exhilarating theatricality, but the performance as a whole is marred by patches of dullness.
Das Rheingold begins and ends with songs of the Rhinemaidens. All three Rhinemaidens in this performance—soprano Zhanna Dombrovskaya as Woglinde, soprano Irina Vasilieva as Wellgunde, and mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Sergeeva as Floßhilde, all of whom were also heard as Valkyries in the Mariinsky Walküre—sing well, with Ms. Dombrovskaya particularly impressing with her voicing of Woglinde’s high lines. The ladies do not prove quite so euphonious in trio as they are individually, but their voices are admirably secure.
The giants Fafner and Fasolt are sung with almost demonic relish by basses Mikhail Petrenko and Evgeny Nikitin. Mr. Petrenko, Hunding at the Metropolitan Opera in 2008 and in the Mariinsky recording of Die Walküre, here sings Fafner, the dark timbre of his voice again proving apt for his part. So nasty are the utterances of Mr. Petrenko’s Fafner that it is surprising neither that he murders his own brother in a jealous quarrel nor that he returns in Siegfried as a dragon: in Rheingold, he is already repulsively reptilian. Mr. Nikitin’s Fasolt is also a truly off-putting creation, the singer’s singular timbre filling Fasolt’s vocal lines with chilling effectiveness. The maddening arrogance with which both singers enact their characters’ interactions with their colleagues is enjoyably disturbing: that one brother should ultimately slay the other seems inevitable. Both gentlemen indulge in rather more snarling than is necessary to convey the sentiments of their parts, but their singing is firm and forceful.
Fricka’s trio of siblings is strongly cast. Singing Freia with a clear, bright voice, soprano Viktoria Yastrebova gives an expressive performance. Her Freia is appropriately unnerved by her abduction, and her pleas for Wotan’s assistance are voiced with suitable ardor. Ms. Yastrebova’s voice is occasionally strident when pressure is applied at the top of the range, but Freia’s dramatic situation is hardly conducive to smooth singing. Under siege by satyrs of the likes of Mr. Petrenko’s Fafner and Mr. Nikitin’s Fasolt, Freia’s terror is justified. It might be said that her brothers are not the most intellectually advanced residents of Valhalla, but they can be interesting when sung by attentive singers. Tenor Sergei Semishkur makes Froh a kindly presence whose concern for his sister is touching: words of comfort seem to come more naturally to him than threats, but there are flashes of masculine pride in his performance. Vocally, Mr. Semishkur has a narrow timbre and must occasionally push the voice in order to be heard. Donner is sung by baritone Alexei Markov, whose noble tone is often lovely. Like Mr. Semishkur, Mr. Markov is sometimes compelled to force his voice in order to make his intended effects, but he, too, proves convincing in his defense of Freia and summons the best of his vocal resources for a ringing account of Donner’s raising of the storm.
Tenor Andrei Popov, acclaimed in stratospheric tenore contraltino parts in Russian operas like the Astrologer in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel, is an animated, audibly disgruntled Mime: it is obvious in Mr. Popov’s singing that the seeds of Mime’s hatred for Alberich take root in Das Rheingold. Mr. Popov’s performances relies overmuch on Sprechstimme, but the voice—when deployed without distortion—is an instrument of quality. The repertory of German tenor Stephan Rügamer includes both lyric rôles and parts traditionally associated with larger voices. As Loge in this performance, Mr. Rügamer achieves with projection what several of his colleagues accomplish with effort. Expectedly, Mr. Rügamer’s diction is excellent, and his performance confirms the great extent to which an effective performance of Loge relies upon a sharp tongue. Mr. Rügamer’s Loge rides the crests of Wagner’s orchestra impressively, putting across every word with spontaneity and the appearance of legitimate cleverness. Mr. Rügamer’s Loge is a figure who knows too much in a world in which knowledge is dangerous. Singing suggestively but with dignity, it is apparent that from the entrance to Valhalla Mr. Rügamer’s Loge already sees the smoke of Siegfried’s funeral pyre rising on the horizon.
Mezzo-soprano Zlata Bulycheva, whose repertory at the Mariinsky contains an array of the most demanding rôles in the mezzo-soprano canon, is a dark-voiced Erda, her warnings to Wotan delivered with unerring accuracy of intonation. The part’s lowest notes challenge Ms. Bulycheva, but the upper extension of the rôle, so troubling to many singers, is delivered with energy and command. There is a slight grittiness in Ms. Bulycheva’s timbre that contributes to the credibility of her portrayal of the primeval earth goddess.
The most indelible portrayals of Alberich are those that inspire sympathy for the character’s hardships despite his savagery and inhumanity. It can be argued that all of his viciousness is born of an unfulfilled desire for acceptance. In his first encounter with the Rhinemaidens in Das Rheingold, his naïveté in failing to comprehend that any creatures could be so unkind as to mock him can be quite piteous, causing his devolution into sociopathic behavior to be all the more shocking. Unfortunately, there is little to pity in the Alberich of baritone Nikolai Putilin. Raging at the world from his first entrance, this is an Alberich who seems unhesitatingly resolved to take the Rhinemaidens by force were they not capable of eluding his grasp. His glee in torturing Mime whilst rendered invisible by the Tarnhelm borders on sadism, and his stupidity and impetuosity when confronted by Wotan and Loge deprive the character of any redeeming qualities. This is a defensible interpretation of the part, but it lessens the emotional impact of the individual-versus-society subtext that is central to the Ring. Vocally, Mr. Putilin is inclined to bark his lines, especially in heated exchanges, but he shows himself capable of singing handsomely and phrasing intelligently: were these qualities in greater supply, his performance could be more completely enjoyed.
Ekaterina Gubanova complements her performance of the Walküre Fricka with this depiction of the same character in Das Rheingold. In Walküre, she was already ‘inside’ the rôle, her vocal bearing regal but womanly. In Rheingold, where the subject of Fricka’s indignation is her husband’s self-serving use of her sister as a bargaining chip in his quest for omnipotence, Ms. Gubanova is even more palpably engaged as a singer and an artist. When this Fricka pleads with Wotan for justice for Freia, it is as an exceptionally insightful woman who loves her husband but is awakening to the depths of treachery of which he is capable. One of the most critical catalysts of the drama in the Ring is the fact that, in both Rheingold and Walküre, Fricka has the upper hand, wielding moral authority over Wotan. Few singers have conveyed this more perceptively than Ms. Gubanova, and her transformation from devoted spouse to protector of the values upon which her husband treads is perhaps the single most engrossing aspect of this performance. The Fricka who enters Valhalla at the end of Rheingold in this performance is already the justifiably implacable woman whose pursuit of moral rectitude changes the course of the Ring in Act Two of Walküre. Musically, Ms. Gubanova brings to her performance a tightly-constructed, warmly feminine voice with reserves of power for climaxes. She is unbothered by troubles at either end of her range, her lower register focused and well-supported and her top notes hurled out fearlessly. Fricka is a difficult to rôle to bring off without veering into caricature: Ms. Gubanova succeeds where many fine singers have failed.
Having fallen victim to some of the rôle’s dramatic and vocal pitfalls in the Mariinsky Walküre, René Pape here finds the Rheingold Wotan a more congenial assignment. The basic timbre remains quite beautiful, but in Rheingold Mr. Pape is spared the more arduous ascents into the upper register that Wotan faces in Walküre. In this performance, Mr. Pape’s Wotan is a subtle figure, and the nobility of his singing is unchanged. In a sense, Mr. Pape’s Wotan seems a sheltered character, his response to Alberich’s depravity and curse almost like the horror of an idealistic man encountering the mean vagaries of reality for the first time. There is in this Wotan’s obsession with the ring more of a sense of wounded pride than of lust for power. Still, there is a bluntness in Mr. Pape’s delivery that diminishes the cumulative force of his performance. There is little is his singing to differentiate Wotan’s attitudes in scenes with Alberich and Loge from his questioning of Erda or exchanges with Fricka: the largesse of the part is there, but the angst and fatalism have not yet entered into Mr. Pape’s concept of Wotan. Not surprisingly, his voicing of the greeting to Valhalla is expertly phrased and sustained with tremendous breath control, and the sheer impact of the sound of the voice cannot be denied. Not least because he is a bass in what is unquestionably a bass-baritone rôle, Wotan will never be an easy sing for Mr. Pape, but when he manages to ally a more complete identification with the dramatic profile of the part with his mahogany-hued singing of the music he will be an extraordinary Wotan.
Das Rheingold is the foundation upon which the Ring is built, and there is considerable logic evident in the fact that Wagner conceived Rheingold after Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung had taken shape. For all that it serves as an introduction to the events that shape the Ring in the next three operas, Rheingold is a spellbinding opera in its own right; one with musical and dramatic elements that create their own unique microcosm, both inextricably linked to what transpires in the later operas and fully functional without the context of the full Ring. Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky forces here offer a flawed but earnest performance of this endlessly alluring opera. With a perpetuation of the lofty standards of singing and orchestral playing almost certain, it will be interesting to hear how the famously passionate Maestro Gergiev responds to the more complicated architectures of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.