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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Recordings Review: The Hero on the Podium

Christian Thielemann is the star of this new Vienna Ring.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Getting the point: Siegfried (Stephen Gould) swears on Hagen's (Erik Halfvarson) spear in
Act II of Götterdämmerung from the Vienna State Opera. These performances are the
basis for the new CD cycle conducted by Christian Thielemann.
Any recording of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen is a major artistic statement. When you're the Vienna State Opera, whose orchestra members recorded the first studio cycle of the operas (as the Vienna Philharmonic under the late Georg Solti), that statement must be of the utmost profundity. After all, the "Solti Ring" from 1958-1964 remains the industry standard for opera recordings and stereo demonstration, and features an all-star cast from the silver age of 20th century Wagner singing.

Luckily, this new 14-disc set (taken from live recordings made in 2011 and released in 2013 by Deutsche Grammophon to celebrate Wagner's 200th birthday) is helmed by conductor Christian Thielemann. He is a magnetic and profoundly serious conductor who knows his stuff. (This is his second complete Ring on disc--a live set from Bayreuth with some of the same singers came out in 2009 on OpusArte.) As the long dramas spin out, the care and thought invested in this music being made can be heard in every bar.


Throughout the tetralogy, Mr. Thielemann is clearly committed to supporting his singers. The opening of Das Rheingold is hushed and mysterious. Die Walküre enters and leave on a flying carpet of strings and horns, with the unique Vienna "F" horns heard clearly through the storms. In Siegfried the conductor occupies himself with building each of the three acts from gloom to a state of blazing light. All this pays off for the listener in a rich, detailed, and (appropriately) gloomy account of Götterdämmerung, played with power and enthusiasm by the assembled Vienna State Opera Orchestra.

Mr. Thielemann's view of the score is rich and symphonic, with an ear for  small, important details that some other conductors might miss. He makes his brass players literally hold their collective breaths in the "Tarnhelm" theme, capturing notes that can only be made by horn players who respect their conductor. He pulls sweeping, sumptuous song from the string players and leads the Vienna winds in a fine account of the Forest Murmurs from Act II of Siegfried. Most importantly, it is clear that he understands the profound meaning of Wagner's leitmotivic development. This foreknowledge  pays off  at the beginning of Act III of Siegfried and the start of the composer's much more difficult "late" style. (Wagner took a seven-year sabbatical from the Ring to write Tristan and Meistersinger.)

The wide-ranging cast formss an interesting mosaic of the state of Wagner singing in 2011. The best performance here is Stephen Gould's robust, seemingly inexhaustible Siegfried, who actually sounds like he as the energy to have sex with Brunnhilde after a marathon evening of singing his lungs out. He is not quite as well suited to the difficulties of Götterdämmerung but this is on the whole a convincing portrayal of this near-impossible character. (Like most Siegfrieds, Mr. Gould makes the "strangled chicken" noise on the octave-drop on "Mein frohen Mute" in Act II of Götterdämmerung, maintaining the truth that Wagner was either a poor editor or something of a musical sadist.)

Waltraud Meier is a passionate but miscast Sieglinde, although pairing her once more with Christopher Ventris as Siegmund makes a lot of sense. The most bizarre choice is former Bayreuth heldentenor Wolfgang Schmidt. He growls and screams his way through the part of Mime--much as he did when he played Siegfried on the international stage. An even bigger problem is Albert Dohmen, reprising and re-recording his all-too-familiar, grey-voiced Wotan. He sounds weary from his entrance in Rheingold and is much better suited to the dark later pages of Walküre and Siegfried. If there's a saving grace here, it may be Mr. Dohmen's experience working with Mr. Thielemann on the aforementioned 2009 Bayreuth cycle.

Like the DG Karajan cycle (made in Berlin from 1966-1970), Mr. Thielemann elects for two Brunnhildes. Katherine Dalayman plays the Walküre version of the character to the hilt. After a rocky opening battle-cry, she plays the young Valkyrie as an enthusiastic girl who learns the hard life-lessons that this opera teaches. She is very good in her long duets with Mr. Dohmen and in the following Annunciation of Death with Mr. Ventris. Linda Watson's Brunnhilde in the last two operas is more of the grand, formidable lady. She sings a lovely Awakening and is appropriately steely in following duet. There is more than a hint of mourning and darkness throughout Götterdämmerung but she lacks the vulnerability of Ms. Dalayman's portrayal in the Immolation Scene.

It helps the drama considerably that that the tenors have good villains to play off of. Erik Halfvarson doubles Hunding and Hagen, bullying through the first role and slithering through the second in a pair of performances that recall the great basses of the past. Tomasz Koniczny is a very human Alberich in the opening scene, but starts snarling and spitting once he steals the gold and renounces love. His curse on the Ring is the most gripping moment in Rheingold. Markus Eiche is perfect for Gunther--you can hear the vacillation and absence of strong character in every bar he sings.

The set is handsomely boxed in a heavy cardboard case. The four operas come in 14 color-coded slip envelopes with the casts for each show printed neatly on their backs. There is a thick booklet with a complete Ring libretto and essays in multiple languages. There are even a few performance photographs from Sven-Eric Bechtolf's Spartan staging, which (happily) seems to feature a minimum of stage noise.. The bonus DVDs feature extensive and instructive German-language documentaries on the history and meaning of each opera. However, most of the performance footage here comes from past video cycles by Boulez, Barenboim and Zubin Mehta--it would have been more enjoyable to have more footage of Mr. Thielemann's process as he rehearsed these productions in the Staatsoper. What little there is of this is the most enjoyable content on the DVDs.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.