07 June 2013

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner—DAS RHEINGOLD (T. Konieczny, C. Elsner, I. Vermillion, G. Groissböck, J. Schmeckenbecher, A. Conrad; PentaTone PTC 5186 406)

Richard Wagner: DAS RHEINGOLD [PentaTone PTC 5186 406]

RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Das Rheingold—T. Konieczny (Wotan), A. Yang (Donner), K.-J. Dusseljee (Froh), C. Elsner (Loge), I. Vermillion (Fricka), R. Merbeth (Freia), M. Radner (Erda), G. Groissböck (Fasolt), T. Riihonen (Fafner), J. Schmeckenbecher (Alberich), A. Conrad (Mime), J. Borchert (Woglinde), K. Kammerloher (Wellgunde), K. Pessatti (Floßhilde); Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin; Marek Janowski [Recorded ‘live’ during a concert performance in the Philharmonie, Berlin, on 22 November 2012; PentaTone PTC 5186 406]

Few conductors of Wagner repertory during the past forty years have been as fortunate on disc as Marek Janowski.  Though generally not considered one of the seminal recordings of the Cycle, his Eurodisc Ring des Nibelungen nonetheless offered attentive listeners many splendid qualities: in addition to recorded sound at its early digital best, Maestro Janowski’s Ring offered uncomplicatedly linear dramatic momentum and introduced listeners to the uncommonly musical and impeccably-phrased Sieglinde of Jessye Norman, who would reappear a few years later on the DGG recording of James Levine’s Ring that commemorated the Metropolitan Opera’s Otto Schenk production.  Detailed, spacious recorded sound is a trait that Maestro Janowski’s Eurodisc Ring shares with this recording of Das Rheingold, the seventh installment in PentaTone’s series of recordings of Wagner’s mature operas and the inaugural release in the Ring Cycle component of that series.  Recording the operas in concert has naturally neutralized the dangers of stage noise, and in this Rheingold as in other operas in their series PentaTone’s engineers have minimized intrusions by the audience, as well.  With a 1962 Bayreuth Ring conducted by Rudolf Kempe recently unearthed from the personal collection of mezzo-soprano Grace Hoffman and released by Myto, a complete Ring with Valery Gergiev and Mariinsky forces in progress, and DGG’s recording of the 2011 Wiener Staatsoper Cycle conducted by Christian Thielemann soon arriving in stores worldwide, the Wagner Bicentennial is producing what will likely prove an unmatched glut of complete Ring recordings.  In terms of casting, the 1962 Bayreuth Ring towers over the other releases, with Astrid Varnay and Birgit Nilsson sharing duties as Brünnhilde and an array of the most compelling artists active at Bayreuth at that time singing with unerring sense of Wagnerian style.  The clarity of the sonic landscape in which Wagner’s Vorspiel to the Ring takes root in PentaTone’s Rheingold is exciting, and this gives PentaTone’s Ring great promise as an opportunity to experience Wagner’s music with more vibrancy and immediacy than ever before.

Sound reproduction of such quality creates its own perils in that any mistakes by the orchestra or missteps by the conductor are in sharp focus.  The Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin does not enjoy the sterling reputation of the Berliner Philharmoniker, but this performance confirms that the less familiar ensemble can rival its more famous counterpart when on best form.  The riparian music that opens the opera with a depiction of the undulating Rhine—the music that announces from that first ominous E-flat that the Ring is something unique in the history of opera—sounds almost Stravinskian when played and recorded with the precision heard in this recording.  Throughout the performance, the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester players respond to Wagner’s and Maestro Janowski’s demands with great virtuosity, secure intonation, and many displays of first-rate playing, especially from the horns.  There are refreshingly few of the errors that mar many recordings of live performances, and the handful of slips in ensemble and lapses in tuning neither impede the musical flow of the opera nor lessen its cumulative impact.  Maestro Janowski is not a young man, but his pacing of Das Rheingold suffers from no suggestions of lethargy.  Though lacking the unrelenting intensity of a conductor like Knappertsbusch or the expansive treatment of the opera as an extended musical paragraph exhibited by Böhm, Maestro Janowski’s conducting reveals a learned mastery of the score that includes intuitive shaping of the opera’s most important dramatic moments but does not quite extend to a natural placement of the significant Leitmotifs within their respective musical contexts.  Many conductors bruise the music by over-accentuating the Leitmotifs, and while Maestro Janowski’s approach avoids this pitfall it also allows crucial musical aspects of the opera to pass virtually unheralded.  The mystery of Erda’s rise from the earth and dire warnings is compellingly conveyed, but music as significant as that introducing the Ring, Alberich’s Curse, and Walhalla is played with little notion of its importance both to Rheingold and to the Ring as a whole.  Dramatically, the performance is most effective from Erda’s appearance through the entry of the gods into Walhalla: nothing that comes before Erda’s ascent could be said to be perfunctory, but much of Wagner’s musical and dramatic cleverness remains unexplored, particularly in scenes as rich for exploitation as Alberich’s taunting by the Rhinemaidens and the journey of Wotan and Loge to Nibelheim.  Ultimately, this is not an inert Rheingold, but it is not a fully-realized performance of Wagner’s score.

Vocally, the Rhinemaidens—soprano Julia Borchert as Woglinde, mezzo-soprano Katharina Kammerloher as Wellgunde, and contralto Kismara Pessatti as Floßhilde—start the opera uncertainly, occasional problems with intonation and a combination of individual timbres that do not blend ideally mitigating the effectiveness of the opening scene.  Once Alberich lumbers into their presence, however, the ladies improve immeasurably, and their singing in the final minutes of the opera, when their not-so-gentle reminders of the true ownership of the Rhine gold so annoy Wotan, is playful and often lovely.

Fafter and Fasolt, sung by basses Timo Riihonen and Günther Groissböck, are suitably nasty pieces of work, sparring with Wotan and Loge—and, eventually, with one another—with delightfully mean stupidity.  Neither singer is completely convincing in his depiction of the block-headed explosion of temper that leads Fasolt to slay Fafner in their argument over the Rhine treasure, but the aptness of both voices for the music is rewarding.  Mr. Groissböck offers an unexpectedly eloquent, touching account of ‘Das Weib zu missen,’ the lines in which Fasolt laments the giants’ loss of Freia.  The squally singing of soprano Ricarda Merbeth, who also sang Senta in the PentaTone Fliegende Holländer, undermines the inspiration for Fasolt’s grief.  Obviously a dynamic performer with deeply-considered dramatic ideas, Ms. Merbeth possesses a bright, rather unwieldy voice that threatens to become sour, shrill, and unsteady above the staff.  Freia is a limited rôle, but Ms. Merbeth approaches the part with a rounded conception.  Dramatically, Ms. Merbeth makes Freia an atypically central presence in the drama, but the voice does not consistently perform with equal accomplishment.  The basic timbre is lovely and feminine, and moments that do not stress her with demands of volume or tessitura find Ms. Merbeth singing with lovely tone.  If the golden apples purveyed by this Freia are a bit tarnished, Ms. Merbeth is still mostly satisfactory in the part, putting vocal imperfections to dramatic use as expressions of desperation, shame, and flashing anger.

The Mime of tenor Andreas Conrad is a slimy creation, all too eager to recount Alberich’s activities and cruelty to Wotan and Loge.  Mr. Conrad’s voice is a character tenor of better quality than the voices of many Mimes, and the sharpness of his diction contributes meaningfully to the impression made by his performance.  Also duplicitous but less cunningly so is the Alberich of Jochen Schmeckenbecher, whose baritone voice is light for Alberich’s music.  Mr. Schmeckenbecher obviously knows his part, and his strong, generally dark-hued performance also contains moments of telling emotional insecurity.  There is an audible sense of disappointment, quickly metamorphosing into disillusionment, when Alberich realizes that the Rhinemaidens are merely teasing him, and the naïveté that enables Wotan and Loge to trick him is almost boyishly enacted.  Alberich is undone by his wavering resolve, and Mr. Schmeckenbecher ably portrays Alberich as an unstable, uncertain figure.  Unfortunately, this uncertainty extends to Alberich’s curse of the Ring, which lacks the power that it needs to be completely credible as the catalyst that starts the chain reaction of cataclysms that shape the Ring.  Vocally, Mr. Schmeckenbecher sings very capably, coping with challenges at both extremes of his range: some of Alberich’s music is uncomfortably low for him, but he compensates with alertness and a legitimate attempt to portray Alberich as something more profound than an oafish, bad-tempered dwarf.

One of the unqualified successes of this Rheingold is the Erda of contralto Maria Radner, whose stony timbre is fitting for the Earth Mother.  Her fleet-tongued enunciation of text is compromised only by her over-emphatic trilling of Rs, but even this adds to the impression of the character inhabiting a different world.  Musically, a couple of Erda’s highest notes lack authority, but Ms. Radner’s voice is otherwise very impressive in the part.  The air of haughtiness in Erda’s warnings to Wotan is not inappropriate, and Ms. Radner easily rises to the top of the admittedly underwhelming ranks of recorded Erdas.  If casting remains more or less consistent among the Ring operas, it will be good to encounter Ms. Radner’s Erda again in Siegfried.

Singing the brothers of Freia and Fricka are tenor Kor-Jan Dusseljee as Froh and baritone Antonio Yang as Donner.  Both characters have brief but memorable solo moments, and both singers in this performance are effective in ensemble.  Conjuring the rainbow bridge that enables the gods’ entry into Walhalla, Froh spins a beautifully evocative melody beginning with ‘Zur Burg führt die Brücke,’ raptly sung by Mr. Dusseljee.  Also lovely is his singing of the passage ‘Wie liebliche Luft’ in which Froh breathes a sigh of relief upon the safe return of Freia.  Donner’s summoning of the thunderstorm is one of the most famous passages in Das Rheingold, an orchestral tour de force in which Wagner depicts the blows of Donner’s hammer and the violent eruption of the elements in tempest.  Mr. Yang’s voice is slightly blunt and unyielding in tone, but he rises sonorously to his command of the clouds.

The rôle of Loge was created by Heinrich Vogl, who would go on to sing the heroic principal tenor rôles in all of Wagner’s mature operas, suggesting that he possessed a larger voice than is frequently heard in the part in latter-day performances of Das Rheingold.  Too often, Loge is assigned to aging Heldentenors who over-rely on Sprechstimme and barking to carry them through the music.  Richard Croft revealed in the Robert Lepage Ring at the Metropolitan Opera that a smaller but properly-projected lyric voice can be fascinatingly alluring in Loge’s music: Mr. Croft’s fluidly-produced singing brought tremendous beauty to Loge’s music, disclosing a bel canto grace in Wagner’s writing for the part.  Though he has sung Siegmund in Die Walküre and the title rôle in Parsifal, including the latter in PentaTone’s recording of the opera for this Wagner series, the voice of tenor Christian Elsner is more lyric than dramatic, some of his most successful singing having been done in the music of Mozart.  It is to his credit that he brings a Mozartean poise to his singing of Loge, especially in his dramatically vital Narration, and the success of his performance relies in no small part upon his careful placement of the voice and avoidance of forcing at climaxes.  Loge’s music is not at all like that of Siegmund or Siegfried, and unless one possesses a deteriorating Siegmund or Siegfried voice and can do little else there is no reason to sing Loge in a manner more suitable for those parts.  Dramatically, Loge is absolutely unique in the Ring: not seen after Rheingold, he is nonetheless omnipresent throughout the Cycle and, the extent of Erda’s omniscience being unknown, is seemingly the only character who is fully cognizant of the implications of the events that will transpire.  Avoiding strain, Mr. Elsner sings imaginatively, bringing to the music greater beauty than the basic color of his voice seems disposed to allow.  After the character has remarked on his vision of the impending twilight of the gods, Wagner’s stage directions state that Loge ‘geht, um sich den Göttern in nachlässiger Haltung anzuschliessen’: he leaves the place from which the gods contemplated Walhalla and nonchalantly joins them.  Ms. Elsner’s singing of the lines in which he reflects on the trials to come conveys a shrug of the shoulders that honors Wagner’s directions solely in musical terms.  The wry humor of Mr. Elsner’s Loge does not preclude shadows of melancholy and genuine concern.  There are many famous names in the annals of performances and recordings of Loge, but few singers have brought greater insight to the part or provided more pleasure to the listener than Mr. Elsner does in this performance.

Ideally, the rôle of Fricka requires an opulent voice of columnar strength throughout a tessitura that seems undemanding in comparison with any of Verdi’s great parts for mezzo-soprano but has unique needs for power and stamina.  Her part in Rheingold is not extensive, but she must be noticed.  Veteran mezzo-soprano Iris Vermillion has been noticed in numerous recordings of a very wide repertory, but she is only partially successful as Fricka in this performance.  The dedication, musicality, and surrender to the dramatic impulses of the text are undiminished, but this performance finds Ms. Vermillion’s voice sounding colorless and unsteady.  The voice does not wobble unacceptably, but the focus of the tone has loosened with time, and top notes are precarious.  The resulting Fricka sounds more like an unpleasant harridan than a justifiably exasperated consort of the ruler of the gods.  Ms. Vermillion makes the best of the resources at her disposal, however, contributing singing that maximizes her strengths.  She remains an innovative, valuable singer, but Fricka makes demands on the voice that can no longer be comfortably met.

Having sung Alberich in the first run of the Wiener Staatsoper Ring recorded by DGG, Polish baritone Tomasz Konieczny had already graduated to the rôles of Wotan and the Wanderer in full Ring Cycles in Mannheim and elsewhere prior to the November 2012 concert performance of Rheingold that was recorded by PentaTone.  [He is also scheduled to sing Wotan in Die Walküre and the Wanderer in Siegfried in PentaTone’s forthcoming recordings of those operas.]  Born in 1972, Mr. Konieczny has a wealth of experience in Wagner that is unusual for a young singer in today’s operatic environment.  In his performance of Wotan in this recording of Rheingold, it is a true joy to hear a voice in its prime in Wagner’s difficult, daunting music.  Billed by PentaTone as a baritone but by the Wiener Staatsoper and his own website as a bass-baritone, Mr. Konieczny displays gratifyingly few concerns with the tessitura of Wotan’s music.  Virtually a textbook example of a bass-baritone rôle, Wotan’s music descends to bass depths while also requiring the singer—especially in Die Walküre—to rise to baritone heights.  Mr. Konieczny’s vocal registers are well equalized, the bottom octave taking on a dark, slightly cavernous but never artificial resonance, allowing the singer to project in Wotan’s lowest lines without forcing the voice.  On high, Mr. Konieczny’s voice rings out splendidly, the manly timbre unflinchingly conveying godly authority.  It is obvious that Mr. Konieczny is an insightful artist, but the aspect of his singing of Wotan that will surely grow most during seasons to come is his phrasing.  Compared to a Wotan like George London, whose singing in a 1962 Rheingold from Cologne has recently been preserved anew in a remastered release from Archipel, the room for improvement is immediately audible.  Mr. Konieczny delivers the notes of the part better than almost any other artist singing Wotan today, but his phrasing remains stiff and uninflected.  His German diction is excellent, but he has not yet mastered the art of transitioning an informed enunciation of the text into an elevated presentation of the rôle in the broader context of Wagner’s music and drama.  Mr. Konieczny’s singing of Wotan’s greeting to Walhalla is wonderfully voiced but lacks poetry.  It is apparent in this performance that Mr. Konieczny possesses the voice to be an important Wotan: with time and collaboration with other dedicated artists, he may well achieve the stature of a great Wotan.

The most concise opera of the Ring, Das Rheingold can be challenging to bring off in performance.  Swift-moving and episodic, the opera can get bogged down with surreptitious layers of subtext that obscure the dramatic arc that, when allowed to develop naturally, so awesomely launches what remains the most ambitious creation in operatic history.  Even concert performances and recordings of Rheingold can lose the thread of the opera’s dramatic progression, and there are failings in this performance that hopefully will not be repeated in Maestro Janowski’s accounts of Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung.  Capably but not luxuriously cast, this Rheingold is indicative of the near-impossibility of assembling a cast for any of Wagner’s operas today that would be wholly free of compromise.  This set, which preserves some very good singing, is far from a failure, however, and it raises expectations and piques curiosity for what Maestro Janowski will achieve in the final installments of his Bicentennial Ring.