19 May 2013

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner—DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN (Complete) [A. Dohmen, L. Watson, K. Dalayman, S. Gould, J. Baechle, T. Konieczny; DGG 479 156 0]

Richard Wagner: DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN [Thielemann, DGG]

RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Der Ring des Nibelungen—Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper; Christian Thielemann [Recorded ‘live’ during performances at the Wiener Staatsoper, November 2011; DGG 479 156 0 – (14) Compact Discs plus (2) DVDs with Introductory Films]

  • Das Rheingold—A. Dohmen (Wotan), J. Baechle (Fricka), A. Reinprecht (Freia), A. Larsson (Erda), T. Konieczny (Alberich), M. Eiche (Donner), H. Lippert (Froh), A. Eröd (Loge), W. Schmidt (Mime), L. Woldt (Fasolt), A. Anger (Fafner), I. Tonca (Woglinde), U. Helzel (Wellgunde), Z. Kushpler (Flosshilde)
  • Die Walküre—K. Dalayman (Brünnhilde), W. Meier (Sieglinde), A. Dohmen (Wotan), C. Ventris (Siegmund), J. Baechle (Fricka), E. Halfvarson (Hunding), D. Ellen (Helmwige), I. Raimondi (Gerhilde), A. Reinprecht (Ortlinde), A. Twarowska (Waltraute), U. Helzel (Siegrune), M. Bohinec (Grimgerde), Z. Kushpler (Schwertliete), J. Mars (Roßweiße)
  • Siegfried—S. Gould (Siegfried), L. Watson (Brünnhilde), A. Dohmen (der Wanderer), W. Schmidt (Mime), T. Konieczny (Alberich), A. Larsson (Erda), A. Anger (Fafner), C. Reiss (Stimme des Waldvogels)
  • Götterdämmerung—S. Gould (Siegfried), L. Watson (Brünnhilde), A. Jun (Hagen), M. Eiche (Gunter), T. Konieczny (Alberich), C. Wenborne (Gutrune), J. Baechle (Waltraute), Z. Kushpler (1. Norn, Flosshilde), U. Helzel (2. Norn, Wellgunde), I. Raimondi (3. Norn), I. Tonca (Woglinde)

Recording Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is for a record label equivalent to a climber reaching the summit of Mount Everest: it is the zenith from which a label surveys its position among its rivals and appreciates an achievement that can define its reputation for a generation.  The label’s name and legendary yellow logo synonymous for many music lovers with top-quality recordings of Germanic repertory, Deutsche Grammophon’s catalogue already contains two studio-recorded Ring Cycles (those with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker and James Levine marshalling his Metropolitan Opera forces), as well as two of the most passionately-discussed Cycles in recent history (Patrice Chéreau’s ‘Centennial’ Bayreuth Ring, conducted by Pierre Boulez, and the Metropolitan Opera’s most recent production, directed by Cirque du Soleil alumnus Robert Lepage).  With these and other DGG versions readily available, alongside dozens of Ring recordings old and new, it is indicative of Deutsche Grammophon’s commitment to remaining at the epicenter of the operatic recording industry, even in a supposedly declining market, that precious resources were dedicated to recording, producing, and releasing this souvenir of Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, premièred at the Wiener Staatsoper in November 2011.  The Staatsoper’s ‘pit band,’ from the ranks of which the players of the Wiener Philharmoniker are extracted, has not been represented on authorized commercial recordings since the pioneering DECCA Ring conducted by Sir Georg Solti, and any opportunity to hear one of the world’s finest orchestras in the music of Wagner is especially welcome.  It is unfortunate that so many elements of this Staatsoper Ring are reproduced elsewhere, not least the combination of this Ring’s conductor, Wotan, Siegfried, and Siegfried and Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde, available on Opus Arte CD and DVD recordings of the 2008 Bayreuth Ring.  Nevertheless, any Ring, whether recorded anew or mined from forgotten archives, is a noteworthy release, and this Wiener Staatsoper Ring is a performance with many virtues, recorded with the superb clarity and natural but fastidiously-controlled sonic balance for which Deutsche Grammophon is celebrated.  Benefitting from the unique acoustical qualities of the Staatsoper, this recording is superior in terms of basic sound quality to virtually every other Ring recorded during staged performances, with several crucial scenes displaying the frisson of live performance but the sonic detail of studio recordings.

The Ring is a monumental challenge even for an opera company as storied as the Wiener Staatsoper, and one of the most interesting developments in the Classical recording industry during the past quarter-century has been the efforts of opera companies beyond the traditional ‘Wagner centers’ to mount and record their own Ring Cycles, often shattering the conventions of Wagnerian production values as derived from the stage directions in the composer’s scores.  Naturally, the degrees of success in these efforts have varied enormously, with both undisputed triumphs and spectacular failures.  Many listeners may be inclined to think it fortunate that, in the context of DGG’s new Wiener Staatsoper Ring, they encounter only the audio component of the production at hand.  The debatable merits of the stage production notwithstanding, DGG’s recording inarguably allows the listener’s attention to be focused solely on Wagner’s music, and close attention to this performance is rewarded with many felicities.  One of the most significant of these is the singing of the Staatsoper Chorus, which by Wagner’s design is heard only in Götterdämmerung.  As the vassals who assemble in the Gibichung Hall when summoned by Hagen, the gentlemen of the chorus sing with great power and command of the demanding tessitura of their music.  In the scene by the Rhine in which Siegfried recounts episodes from his youth to his hunting companions, the choristers sing with audible wonderment and, as Hagen’s snare of lies entraps and dooms Siegfried, increasing horror.  Female choristers similarly take advantage of the limited opportunities given to them with singing of distinction.  Surprisingly, the playing of the orchestra does not always rise to the level of the choral singing.  As one might expect, there are stretches of playing that equal or surpass the work of the best orchestras in the world, but there are also passages—some of them including dramatically critical Leitmotifs—that find the orchestra lacking focus, balance, and precision.  The sheer professionalism of the orchestra makes it decidedly unlikely that any lacks of preparation, rehearsal, or familiarity with the music account for these lapses in ensemble and musicality, so the logical attribution for the occasional defects falls onto the conductor.  Coordination between stage and pit reveals few hints at the causes of the orchestral pitfalls, being generally impeccable, leaving only conjecture.  Waywardness of ensemble is most noticeable—and most damaging to the musical performance—during Act One of Die Walküre, but exactness of execution is restored in Act Two, formidably so in the ‘Todesverkündigung’ Scene, and prevails throughout most of the Cycle.  Perfect Rings are rarer than genuine Brünnhilde voices, of course, and even with momentary flaws this performance displays all of the legendary hallmarks of the Wiener Staatsoper Orchestra at its most imposing: luminous string tone, richness of woodwind timbres that seem fed on Sachertorte, and the famed security of horn playing that shames the horn sections of even very fine orchestras.  Maestro Thielemann presides with the assurance of a conductor who obviously knows and understands the music very well indeed, and there are passages that reveal encouraging strokes of a master’s hand in phrasing and following the dramatic thread of a scene from beginning to end.  Tempi are uniformly well-judged, but what is missing is an audible sense of the overriding structure that makes the Ring a credible cycle rather than a series of four connected but separate operas.

The Wiener Staatsoper possesses a rich ensemble from which to draw singers for principal rôles in the Ring, and consistency of casting pays great dividends in this performance.  Portraying the Rhinemaidens in both Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung, Ileana Tonca, Ulrike Helzel, and Zoryana Kushpler interact playfully but with carefully-judged tonal balance.  Ms. Helzel and Ms. Kushpler also add their voices to the band of warrior sisters in Die Walküre and to the trio of Norns in Götterdämmerung, in which capacity they are joined euphoniously by Ildikó Raimondi, who also sings the Valkyrie Gerhilde.  Complementing Ms. Raimondi’s Gerhilde, Ms. Helzel’s Siegrune, and Ms. Kushpler’s Schwertleite, the Staatsoper assembled an impressive band of Valkyries for Die Walküre, with Donna Ellen as Helmwige, Alexandra Reinprecht as Ortlinde, Aura Twarowska as Waltraute, Monika Bohinec as Grimgerde, and Juliette Mars as Roßweiße.  Ensemble in the Valkyries’ contributions to Act Three of Die Walküre is tight, with almost no individual vocal misfires and departures from pitch to distract the listener.  There is little sense of the humor that Wagner suggested was appropriate in the ‘Walkürenritt,’ but there is great vitality in the way in which the Valkyries hurl out their lines.  The cantilena-like passages in which the Valkyries beg Wotan for mercy for Brünnhilde are beautifully done, and the terror with which they receive Wotan’s pronouncement of Brünnhilde’s punishment is credibly spontaneous.  Considering that they participate in twenty of the most famous minutes in opera, it is interesting to note that so many Ring productions feature such disappointing covens of Valkyries and most welcome that the Wiener Staatsoper have cast the parts so competently.  Another secondary rôle that can be a primary source of displeasure is the unseen avian voice that communicates with Siegfried: any feelings of dread of the Stimme des Waldvogels are remedied immediately upon hearing the first notes sung by Israeli soprano Chen Reiss, a coloratura specialist whose lovely, poised tone and complete ease with Wagner’s repetitive but ever-changing music convey that, at least for a singer with Ms. Reiss’s gifts, warbling dire warnings is the most natural thing in the operatic world.  Isolated to appearances in Götterdämmerung are Gutrune and Hagen, sung in this Ring by Australian soprano Caroline Wenborne and South Korean bass Attila Jun.  Ms. Wenborne brings to Gutrune’s music, some of which is quite strenuous in the scene in which she spars with Brünnhilde, a pliant voice of size and security equal to the part.  Mr. Jun, possessing a notably black-toned voice, is a chilling Hagen despite being a somewhat cardboard presence.

Das Rheingold is the nearest of any of the Ring operas to being a legitimate ensemble piece.  In Rheingold, the listener first encounters several of the Ring’s power players, and in opera as in all other aspects of life and art first impressions are tremendously important.  There are also several characters whose only appearances in the Ring occur in Das Rheingold, however, and these rôles are largely cast from strength in this production.  Loge’s presence is suggested by Leitmotifs in the orchestra throughout the Ring, most notably in the final scene of Die Walküre, but he is only seen and heard in humanoid form in Das Rheingold, during the course of which it becomes apparent that it is Loge’s prescience inspires his manipulation of events that precipitate the dramatic progression of all that follows in the Ring.  It is unusual to encounter a baritone as Loge, a part originated by tenor Heinrich Vogl (whose rôles at the Metropolitan Opera included Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Siegfried, and Tristan, in addition to Loge), but Austrian baritone Adrian Eröd—a deservedly revered artist in Vienna—delivers the rôle with fine tone and notable musical and verbal dexterity.  Loge’s world-weariness is subtly conveyed by Mr. Eröd’s tonal shading, and the virility of his singing suggests a disarming sense of Loge’s delight in his own cleverness.  Donner and Froh can be rather dull figures, their posturing and threats of vengeance for the abduction of their sister Freia growing tiresome even in their relatively brief duration, but the parts are sung to great effect in this performance by Markus Eiche and Herbert Lippert, respectively.  Mr. Lippert is a singer most associated with Mozart repertory, but he proves himself an asset to this performance of Das Rheingold by singing boldly but within the scale of his natural instrument.  His conjuring of the Rainbow Bridge to Valhalla is a magical moment, shaped by Mr. Lippert with great imagination.  Donner’s raising of the storm receives a similarly articulate and engagingly virile performance from Mr. Eiche, who returns in Götterdämmerung to sing a socially impotent but ultimately pitiable Gunther.  Alexandra Reinprecht’s bright soprano, also heard in Vienna in rôles as diverse as Marie in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment and Massenet’s Manon (and as Ortlinde in this Cycle’s Walküre), shines in Freia’s music, which often falls victim to heavier voices less capable of conveying youth and beauty, two of her qualities that most effectively play into Wotan’s bargain with Fasolt and Fafner.  Sung by Lars Woldt and Ain Anger, Fasolt and Fafner—the rather dim-witted giants who, ignorant of Wotan’s deception, agree to build Valhalla in exchange for receiving Freia as their shared bride—are nasty louts, sung with such self-congratulatory menace and petulance that Fafner’s slaying of Fasolt in their quarrel over the ring seems inevitable.  Mr. Anger’s Fafter returns—in ophidian form—in Siegfried, still almost comically evil and oily of voice.  Also encountered in both Das Rheingold and Siegfried are Anna Larsson’s Erda, a compelling portrayal that gains immeasurably from the strength of the dynamic Swedish contralto’s lower register, and the Mime of Wolfgang Schmidt.  Having sung Siegfried in several notable Ring Cycles, Mr. Schmidt finds in Mime a far more congenial assignment, the voice sounding more controlled and evenly-produced than in larger-scaled rôles.  Genuine beauty of tone is in short supply, but Mr. Schmidt convincingly provides the creepiness needed for an effective Mime.  Common to Rheingold, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung is the Alberich of Tomasz Konieczny, an impressive Polish artist who will sing Wotan in the Staatsoper’s 2013 – 2014 revival of the Bechtolf Ring.  It can be argued that Alberich is the most complex character in the Ring, trapped in a series of inept interactions with societies that exploit and then reject him.  Broken by bitterness, he pours out his hate in a curse that undermines the confidence even of the mighty Wotan, and his dogged pursuit of the ring that he has cursed but cannot cede leads to his demise.  Mr. Konieczny sings the part wonderfully, sounding beguiled by the Rhinemaidens and then genuinely shocked by their taunts, both arrogant and ashamed in his confrontation with Wotan and Loge, goading but strangely tender in his ghostly scene with his son, Hagen.  The vocal bite and dramatic depth of Mr. Konieczny’s performance bring to mind Gustav Neidlinger, the veteran Alberich of many Ring productions: equally as intriguing psychologically as Neidlinger’s famous Alberich, Mr. Konieczny’s is in several passages, including his ‘haunting’ of Hagen in Götterdämmerung, even better sung.

A foundation is laid in Das Rheingold upon which the more dramatically substantial Fricka is constructed in Die Walküre.  The Fricka met in this Cycle’s Rheingold is a calculating intellectual rather than merely a scolding consort, sung by German mezzo-soprano Janina Baechle with a thoughtfully-colored voice allied to an unwavering intensity of dramatic purpose.  The Ring may inhabit a superficially patriarchal world, but Ms. Baechle’s interactions with her siblings Donner and Froh in Rheingold make it clear that Fricka is the familial authority figure.  It is more than usually evident that Fricka’s marriage to Wotan is one of political maneuvering, a means of elevating her in power and prominence to a status that she feels that is her birthright.  This does not preclude affection for her husband, of course, but even this is something that can be used to her advantage.  Dramatically, Fricka can be interpreted as Wagner’s foil for Erda, Sieglinde, and Brünnhilde: essentially Erda’s archetypal opposite in a very basic struggle between good and evil, she also shares with Erda a certain measure of understanding of her predicament and a societal barrier to breaking free from it.  Erda and Fricka are women of vision but inaction: sharing insights into their respective environments, Erda’s global and Fricka’s more individual, they nonetheless leave action to men.  Erda’s blandishments are directed at Wotan, with the intention of spurring him to action, and Fricka bullies both Wotan and Hunding into enacting her orders.  Sieglinde moves between these camps, so to speak, going on after Siegmund’s death but by the necessity of her own death leaving fulfillment of her humble ambitions to her son, Siegfried.  Only Brünnhilde successfully tramples the boundaries of the society into which she was born by seizing control of her destiny.  Even in her seeming domination of Wotan, Fricka is merely controlling her social order rather than truly transcending it.  Ms. Baechle’s singing makes both Fricka’s exasperation and her self-righteous authority audible, the voice strongly expressive in both Rheingold and Walküre.  Ironically from a dramatic perspective, Ms. Baechle returns in Götterdämmerung as Waltraute, one of the Valkyries—Wotan’s ‘illegitimate’ daughters—Fricka so loathes as symbols of her husband’s disloyalty and fears as the people closest and most precious to him.  Ms. Baechle’s singing as Waltraute is as impressive as it is as Fricka, her voice simmering magnificently with fear and uncertainty in her scene with Brünnhilde.  As did Fricka in Walküre, Waltraute attempts to control the circumstances into which her social order has been thrust, and Ms. Baechle’s powerful singing in both rôles makes the parallel unusually clear.

Die Walküre introduces a trio of important characters who do not appear in any of the other Ring operas.  Hunding, Sieglinde’s brutal husband and Fricka’s pawn, is physically imposing enough to carry out Fricka’s commands with strength to spare and witless enough to do so without questioning any of Fricka’s motives.  The performance by American bass Eric Halfvarson conveys both of these qualities—Hunding’s brute force and dullness—in spades, the voice darkly blunt but well-focused.  Like so many of Wagner’s ‘heavy’ characters, though, Hunding is not completely devoid of touches of humor, even in his unrelenting baseness of spirit, and more desirable qualities: though he will win no awards for inducing marital bliss, it is a valid point that Hunding is, despite his utter unsuitability, Sieglinde’s rightful husband.  It cannot be said that Mr. Halfvarson’s performance is likely to evoke any special sympathy for Hunding, but his avoidance of stock villainous gestures might arouse twangs of pity for a very simplistic man who is mercilessly—and ultimately fatally—plied by a woman of superior intellect.  British tenor Christopher Ventris’s Siegmund is a familiar creation, appreciated at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples and the Teatro La Fenice in Venice in addition to the Wiener Staatsoper.  Though he sings Wagner repertory to acclaim throughout the world, Mr. Ventris’s voice is not of true Heldentenor proportions, which is not an immediate disqualification from singing Siegmund.  In fact, he sings quite capably in this performance, producing the notes in his difficult outbursts in Act One with a degree of freedom.  He phrases handsomely in the ‘Todesverkündigung’ but offers few insights into Siegmund’s inner conflicts.  In truth, this Siegmund’s heroism pales in comparison with that of his Sieglinde, so much so that he finally seems merely a Y-chromosome donor rather than a bona fide contributor to Siegfried’s dramatic and emotional genetics.  Singing Sieglinde in this performance, German mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier is a veteran of many Wagner productions, having proved her merit as a Wagnerian both as Kundry and as Isolde.  Sieglinde is a daunting assignment for a mezzo-soprano, but with Ms. Meier there are no worries about the notes: she has even the most exposed top notes demanded by Sieglinde’s music in her voice, and in this performance she delivers them almost totally without strain.  Interestingly, it is the middle range of Ms. Meier’s voice that sounds slightly cautious and unsteady in this Walküre, but her lightning-intensity dramatic instincts are more flashing than ever.  The torrents of sound that she unleashes in Acts One and Two are thrilling, and she digs more deeply into the character Wagner has given her to sing than any other singer in the cast of this Ring.  Despite gorgeous music in Act One and searingly intense music in Act Two, the greatest test of any Sieglinde comes in Act Three, in her response to Brünnhilde’s plan to rescue her from Wotan’s anger, ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’  Ms. Meier delivers this passage as though singing it for the first time, the sentiment sounding like the sudden awakening of a young woman to the promise of motherhood.  Vocally, Ms. Meier scales these heights with remarkable freshness and security.  Few listeners would dispute Ms. Meier’s reputation as one of her generation’s best singing actresses: none could deny that this performance confirms that her reputation is justified.  Singers with such exalted reputations sometimes disappoint, but there is no mistaking the quality of this Sieglinde.

Also unique to the Walküre performance is the Brünnhilde of Swedish soprano Katarina Dalayman, who does not sing the same part in the subsequent Siegfried and Götterdämmerung performances.  It is good to have this recorded documentation of Ms. Dalayman’s Walküre Brünnhilde, which is not available elsewhere.  [Her account of the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde is available in a recording of concert performances with the Hallé Orchestra.]  Displaying wisdom that eludes many of her colleagues, Ms. Dalayman has mostly paced her trajectory through the Wagner repertory according to the growth and development of her voice, starting her journey in rôles like Brangäne before moving into Brünnhilde territory.  She was not yet fifty at the time of this Walküre, and the voice remained on generally excellent form, exhibiting few signs of hard use.  Ms. Dalayman does not ‘taste’ the excitement of her opening Battle Cries like Marjorie Lawrence or Astrid Varnay, nor does she possess the kind of vocal athleticism of Birgit Nilsson.  She approaches her ‘Hojotohos’ unflinchingly, however, and despite a few wayward pitches she conveys the impetuosity that is central to Brünnhilde’s character.  She improves as the performance progresses, expressing gratitude for the lower center of vocal gravity in the ‘Todesverkündigung’ with firm, attractive singing.  She indicates Brünnhilde’s frustration with the defiant Siegmund but mostly misses the nuances of the Valkyrie experiencing the first pangs of human compassion.  There is ample fear in Ms. Dalayman’s singing of her first lines in Act Three, when Brünnhilde is being pursued by Wotan, and a brightened tone of triumph enters the voice when she facilitates Sieglinde’s escape.  Throughout Act Three, Ms. Dalayman offers her best singing of the performance, placing tones in the upper register with precision and authority.  The girlish affection and resignation that she brings to Brünnhilde’s defense and farewell to Wotan are touching.  Ms. Dalayman is not in this performance a Brünnhilde of legend, but she is a very good one, achieving much in a rôle that confounds even accomplished efforts.

Singing Wotan in Rheingold and Walküre and the Wanderer in Siegfried, Albert Dohmen was an eleventh-hour substitute for Juha Uusitalo.  Mr. Dohmen is a Wagnerian of proven distinction, but the three incarnations of Wotan are widely acknowledged as exceptional challenges even by Wagner’s exalted standards.  Musically, Wotan’s music veritably defines the dramatic bass-baritone Fach, the tessitura extending from bass depths to baritone heights, occasionally within the brief space of a single musical phrase.  Thankfully, Mr. Dohmen is a rare singer in whose performance Wotan’s weariness and disenfranchisement do not equate with wobbling.  There are instances, especially in Die Walküre, in which pitches are not as precise and lines not as eloquently shaped as would be ideal, but Mr. Dohmen’s voice generally sounds on good form.  He takes command winningly in Das Rheingold, greeting Valhalla with ringing tone.  There is fantastic contrast in Mr. Dohmen’s performance in Die Walküre, his live-wire nervousness in his first interview with Brünnhilde giving way to the boiling ire and boundless sadness of his arraignment and renunciation of her in Act Three.  When this Wotan takes his leave of Brünnhilde as the Magic Fire encircles her, he is already a broken man, and this is audible in the hollowness of Mr. Dohmen’s tone.  As the Wanderer, there is something very moving in Mr. Dohmen’s singing, especially in the failing Wotan’s encounter with his grandson, Siegfried.  The beauty of Mr. Dohmen’s softer singing conveys feelings more intimate than defeat and shame: there are also elements of pride and hope.  Though he was in slightly fresher voice in the 2008 Bayreuther Festspiele Ring recorded by Opus Arte, Mr. Dohmen improves upon that Cycle with these performances, in which the soul of the character is more tellingly explored.

Siegfried is sung in both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung by American tenor Stephen Gould, a busy artist with as legitimate a claim to being designated a true Heldentenor as any artist singing today.  Its formidable tessitura—rising to a top C in Götterdämmerung—notwithstanding, Siegfried is, in both of his appearances, an almost impossibly long rôle, his contributions to Siegfried alone being almost triple the duration of an average Italian dramatic tenor rôle.  Stamina and meticulous knowledge of the score are equally important, the latter quality allowing the tenor to pace his performance according to cognizance of the passages during which he can rest the voice in order to reserve power for the climaxes.  In this sense, recordings of live performances are the best evidence for judging a tenor’s true capabilities for singing Siegfried, and Mr. Gould is revealed to be a clever artist who mostly makes choices that benefit his concepts of both the pre- and post-Brünnhilde Siegfrieds.  Few contemporary accounts survive of Georg Unger, the tenor who created both Siegfrieds for Wagner at Bayreuth, so it is difficult to assess the extent to which Wagner expected Siegfrieds to possess both power and tonal beauty.  Neither of Siegfried’s duets with Brünnhilde is particularly romantic in tone, repeated cries of ‘Heil!’ not creating the most seductive of atmospheres, but there can and should be great feeling in Siegfried’s death scene.  Historically, it is possible to suggest that only Lauritz Melchior approached a level of achievement as Siegfried that might be considered ideal, and Mr. Gould does not approach the sort of perfection in the parts that one longs without hope to hear.  Mr. Gould is superior to many of his contemporary rivals, however, and his performances in this Ring are more memorable than those in the 2008 Bayreuth Cycle.  In Siegfried, Mr. Gould brings adolescent petulance to his exchanges with Mime and rollicking high spirits to his combat with Fafner.  Like most Siegfrieds, he survives more than he conquers the Forging Song, but he sings with wonder when following the Stimme des Waldvogels and passion when contemplating the slumbering Brünnhilde.  Phrasing in both the closing duet in Siegfried and his opening duet in Götterdämmerung is finely-wrought, and strain in the upper register—sorely tested on both occasions—is put to dramatic use.  The Siegfried who arrives at the Gibichung Hall is a self-assured but still somewhat immature young man, and Mr. Gould makes much of the pain that Siegfried feels from the sting of his friends’ betrayal.  His flirting with the Rhinemaidens is light-hearted, and he sounds genuinely befuddled by their warnings.  The machismo of his descriptions of his youthful adventures to Hagen’s hunting party is deflated by the pierce of Hagen’s spear, and Mr. Gould provides his most subtle and beautiful singing of the Cycle in his death scene.  The world is not populated by tenors capable of singing Siegfried, but Mr. Gould gives a credible performance of some of the most punishing music in the tenor repertory.

Linda Watson’s Siegfried and Götterdämmerung Brünnhildes are both better-sung and better-recorded in Vienna than at Bayreuth three years earlier.  Like several of her colleagues in this Staatsoper Ring, Ms. Watson is a veteran Wagnerian, having participated in Ring productions throughout the world.  Dramatically, her Brünnhilde remains a work in progress, which is indicative of a welcome artistic curiosity.  Here building upon previous performances, Ms. Watson sings with greater involvement and dedication to meaningfully delivering the text than have been heard from her in past, and she achieves moments of genuine dramatic excellence.  It was cruel of Wagner to pair a fresh-voiced Brünnhilde in a duet at the opera’s end with a tenor drained by a long haul of singing in Siegfried, and Ms. Watson admittedly sails through the duet with far more energy than Mr. Gould can manage.  Soprano and tenor are more fairly matched in their duet in the Götterdämmerung Prologue, and the byplay between Ms. Watson and Mr. Gould is expert.  The top Cs that Brünnhilde is asked to produce to end both duets are in place but uncomfortable, though Ms. Watson’s upper register is mostly in good working order.  The amplitude of Ms. Watson’s instrument is most apparent in her trio with Gunther and Hagen, when the full force of the humiliated Brünnhilde’s anger is unleashed by the American soprano with snarling power.  The brightly feminine tone with which Ms. Watson describes Brünnhilde’s happiness with Siegfried to Waltraute turns imperious when the fallen Valkyrie realizes that her sister has come on ‘official business,’ so to speak.  If the greatest test for a Sieglinde is her ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’ in the final Act of Walküre, the highest peak that Brünnhilde must ascend is her Immolation Scene in Götterdämmerung.  It is anything but coincidental that both scenes are musically linked by Leitmotifs, Brünnhilde’s self-sacrifice framed by the return of thematic material associated with Sieglinde that is heard at no other time in the Ring except in Sieglinde’s final scene in Die Walküre.  Not unlike the way in which Siegfried is tried by the closing duet in Siegfried, the Immolation Scene comes after Brünnhilde has been required to sing unstintingly throughout the four hours of Götterdämmerung.  Ms. Watson gives her all, loading the voice into the music fearlessly despite audible fatigue and still producing sounds of bracing efficacy in the upper register.  There are a few raw attacks to remind the listener that, despite the pulsing inevitability of the rising tessitura, this is extraordinarily difficult music.  As a vocal actress, Ms. Watson is a Brünnhilde in command of all of her faculties, sweetly lyrical in love, tempestuous in rage, and unhesitatingly firm of purpose in death.  Several of the world’s larger opera houses have recently offered their audiences Brünnhildes considerably less pleasing to the ears than Ms. Watson is in this Ring: much praise is owed to Ms. Watson for Siegfried and Götterdämmerung Brünnhildes in this Ring that can be enjoyed with only miniscule reservations.

With complete Ring Cycles in the works with Valery Gergiev (leading Mariinsky forces on the theatre’s house label) and Marek Janowski (conducting the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin on PentaTone), this Wiener Staatsoper Ring from Deutsche Grammophon contributes to an unlikely embarrassment of riches being offered in homage to Wagner on the occasion of the bicentennial of his birth.  The devoted Wagnerite in 2013 is fortunate to have a plethora of Ring recordings available for study and submersion, ranging from Metropolitan Opera Cycles from early in the history of that Company’s Saturday matinée broadcasts and famous traversals of the complete Cycle by Wilhelm Furtwängler at La Scala and for RAI Roma to an array of Bayreuth Rings, the most recent to emerge from the mists of time being a 1962 Cycle conducted by Rudolf Kempe.  Though Wagnerian traditions are more firmly-entrenched in Germany than in Austria, it is surprising that the Wiener Staatsoper is not more extensively represented in the Ring discography.  Superbly recorded and presented, this Ring does not consistently capture the Staatsoper forces at the incomparable levels of greatness of which they remain capable, but its lack of any glaring weaknesses among its large cast of young and veteran singers is undeniably appreciable.  In the hearts and on the shelves of all zealous Wagnerites, there is always room for another Ring, and even without Flagstads, Melchiors, Nilssons, and Mödls this is a fine one.

Christopher Ventris (left) as Siegmund and Waltraud Meier (right) as Sieglinde in DIE WALKÜRE at the Wiener Staatsoper, November 2011 [Photo from the Wiener Staatsoper; photographer uncredited]

[Note: The DVDs including introductory documentary films for each of the Ring operas were not available at the time of this writing and therefore have not been included in this review.]