27 July 2014

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner – Selections from GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG, TANNHÄUSER, & TRISTAN UND ISOLDE (Heidi Melton, soprano; Musicales Actes Sud ASM 22)


RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Overture, Venusberg-Szene (Bacchanal), and ‘Dich, teure Halle’ (Aria, Elisabeth – Act II) from Tannhäuser; Prelude (Act I) and Liebestod (‘Mild und Leise’ – Isolde, Act III) from Tristan und Isolde; and Trauermarsch and ‘Starke Scheite schichtet mit dort!’ (Immolation Scene, Brünnhilde – Act III) from GötterdämmerungHeidi Melton, soprano; Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine; Paul Daniel CBE, conductor [Recorded in concert at Salle Dutilleux, l’Auditorium de Bordeaux, France, 9 and 11 October 2013; Musicales Actes Sud ASM 22; 1CD, 76:52; Available from harmonia mundi, fnac, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​While those primarily concerned with selling copies of out-of-touch periodicals and instigating ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ via social media comment on singers’ waistlines, exacerbate conflicts among Arts institutions, and revel in their own eulogies for Classical Music, what those who genuinely love opera long to hear is great singing. There is no growth without innovation and no innovation without ideas, but without great singing there is no future either for opera or for any other genre of vocal music. The most extraordinary production of Götterdämmerung without a Siegfried capable of dying with integrity in glorious song and a Brünnhilde who seems to give a damn when he is gone is little more than reality television with a pretty soundtrack. Exasperatingly, much contemporary criticism suggests that the listener should assess opera primarily with the eyes rather than the ears. Virtually every aspect of human life is a balancing act, but it is difficult to accept that opera, an art that is predicated upon the unlikely, relies primarily upon visual beauty for its preservation. To reject a middle-aged Mimì or a barely-shaving Gurnemanz is to obliterate the very essence of opera: imagination. Great singing enables the listener to see not what a director seeks to impose on the music but what the composer intended. On this disc, the sublime singing of Spokane-born soprano Heidi Melton introduces the listener to the barely-contained excitement of Wagner’s Elisabeth, the ecstasy of Isolde’s transmutation, and the unbending resolve of Brünnhilde’s sacrifice. Let those for whom music is merely an industry debate the superficial failings of opera in the Twenty-First Century: those who embrace opera as a divine art of song rather than trivialities can rejoice in this performance by a ravishing new prophetess of Wagner singing.

Recorded during a pair of concerts celebrating the Wagner Bicentennial and reproduced in bright, spacious sound that eschews efforts at artificially smoothing out the wrinkles that inevitably occur in live performances, this disc announces the emergence of the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine as an ensemble with unquestionably strong Wagnerian credentials. Opening with a robust but refined account of the Overture to Tannhäuser, the Orchestre’s players display complete affinity for Wagner’s compositional style and a degree of comfort in his music that has traditionally eluded many French orchestras. Gallic influences on Wagner are highlighted with telling emphasis, particularly by the woodwinds, but Teutonic discipline and accuracy are laudably maintained. The great thematic arcs of the Tannhäuser Overture and the energetic largesse of the Bacchanal from the opera’s ‘Venusburg’ Scene are constructed by the Orchestre with secure intonation guided by the firm beat provided by conductor Paul Daniel. Not least owing to his stewardship of English National Opera, Maestro Daniel possesses experience with an unusually extensive repertory, and unlike many conductors he has proved an effective interpreter of virtually all of the styles with which he has contended. In the performances on this disc, he occasionally adopts tempi that are slightly too broad, momentum being imperiled as the musicians endeavor to sustain melodic strands and rhythmic precision. The Prelude to Act One of Tristan und Isolde is rousingly played, the mysterious, vaguely sinister quality of the celebrated ‘Tristan chord’ conveyed with ethereal impact. The splendor of the Orchestre’s accompaniment of Isolde’s Liebestod is undermined only by Maestro Daniel’s too-deliberate pacing of the concluding bars, which extends the lines just beyond the wind players’ abilities to sustain accuracy of pitch. The pinnacle of the Orchestre’s full-bodied, lovingly-phrased playing is achieved in the music from Götterdämmerung. The Trauermarsch that accompanies the corpse of the slain Siegfried to the Gibichung Hall receives from the musicians a performance of true power, not just empty volume, and the brass fanfares are formidably sure of intonation and ensemble. This recording offers the perfect setting for a memorable account of the postlude to Brünnhilde’s Immolation, the live concert provenance enabling the inimitable frisson of interaction between musicians and audience but eliminating the roars and rumbles of staged productions of the opera in which Walhalla noisily implodes. The Orchestre and Maestro Daniel seize this opportunity with flair, and the halos of sound suspended by the strings over the coruscating tide of sound in the critical statements of Sieglinde’s motif are stirring. Solely in the outpouring of sincerity in the conducting and orchestral playing, this is a performance in which the universal absolution of Brünnhilde’s self-oblation is especially evident.

The performances preserved on this disc also reveal that Heidi Melton is the uncommon soprano who has both the vocal thrust needed to soar over Wagner’s leviathan orchestrations and the beauty of tone to make the results of her efforts sounds that audiences will actually want to hear. She sails through Elisabeth’s ‘Dich, teure Halle’ from Act Two of Tannhäuser with an ease that belies the fact that it is an entrance aria of a level of difficulty for which even prodigiously-gifted sopranos might long to throttle the composer. Ms. Melton captures the girlish excitement of the music with charisma to spare, and she makes the ascent to top B—managed with the energy of an erupting geyser—an organic, even orgasmic resolution of the vocal line. The contrast with her singing of Isolde’s Liebestod could hardly be more gripping. This selection she begins in a perfectly-supported mezza voce, the opening phrases revealing the pallor of death already in the voice. As the vocal line ascends, however, the dark-hued resignation of the opening brightens into first acceptance and finally welcoming of the journey to reunion with Tristan. Ms. Melton conjures an Isolde who, rather than being impersonally transfigured by death, by her own will transforms physical dissolution into spiritual rejuvenation. She sings the Liebestod with complete technical mastery, and her disembodied voicing of the final F♯5 is the parting sigh of a soul already embracing immortality. Transition is likewise central to Ms. Melton’s sculpting of the Immolation Scene from Götterdämmerung. The sting of Siegfried’s guileless betrayal and the trauma of his death simmer in Ms. Melton’s singing of the opening bars of the scene, and she insightfully conveys the development of Brünnhilde’s comprehension of the global implications of her deeply personal destiny, completing the metamorphosis started in Act Three of Die Walküre. The top A♭s, A♮s, and B♭s to which Brünnhilde’s vocal line climbs seem to trouble Ms. Melton very little, and though the climactic B♮5 on the phrase ‘Lockt dich zu ihm die lachende Lohe’ makes a greater demand upon her resources the effort expended is rendered dramatically apt by the psychological potency of her delivery. Her calmly enraptured singing of ‘Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott’ makes this passage the catharsis that it should be, and she manages to create a Brünnhilde who greets the flames as both Valkyrie and Woman. This is an extraordinary achievement in a staged performance of Götterdämmerung: in a concert performance of only the Immolation Scene, it is a feat that only a Wagnerian in the tradition of Lehmann and Nordica, Flagstad and Traubel, and Varnay and Nilsson can bring off.

For earnest music lovers starved for performances of the music of Wagner that are memorable for the right reasons, this disc from Musicales Actes Sud and the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine is a veritable feast. In the pair of concert performances that produced this recording, the Orchestre, Paul Daniel, and Heidi Melton paid homage to Wagner with complementary eloquence and exuberance. Ultimately, this disc’s greatest gift to the composer is the manner in which it proves to the listener that great Wagner singing is not exclusively in the past.