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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Wagner Project: Das Rheingold

Wagner's first Ring opera has no pauses...and no humans!
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Underwater love: Alberich (Gunther von Kannen, center) pursues the three Rhinemaidens
in the opening scene of Das Rheingold.,
Image from the Bayreuth Festival, © 1991 Teldec/WBC/Unitel
Believe it or not, Wagner's enormous 15-hour Der Ring des Nibelungen (hereafter referred to as "the Ring Cycle) was originally supposed to be just one opera. In 1848, Richard Wagner sketched an opera called Siegfrieds Tod, which would retell the most famous incident from German myth and epic: the death of the hero Siegfried and the later fate of his beloved, the valkyrie (warrior maiden) Brunnhilde. And then, much like the ambitious god Wotan he realized that one opera wouldn't be enough.

Working on his libretto (or "poem", as the composer called them) he started adding and expanding the back story of his hero and the Gods. By 1852, he had completed poems for three "Festival plays" (Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung and a "preliminary evening": the opera we know today as Das Rheingold. He wrote the music working forward, finishing the score of Rheingold in 1854, although it was not staged until 1869. The composer finished the last opera Götterdämmerung in 1873 and mounted the whole cycle at the opening of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in 1876.

This was the last story written for the cycle. The multiple thefts of the Rhine's gold (and later the Ring) and the god Wotan's attempt to use said bauble was sourced from seven different German and Icelandic epics. The result: a story of outright greed, corruption and the curse on the Ring that must be purged at the end of the entire four-opera cycle. (For more on the myths used in Das Rheingold, read Deryck Cooke's excellent study I Saw the World End.) The score remains the most perfect expression of Wagner's "new" technique of weaving orchestral fabric from small musical threads or "leitmotifs" that change and adjust in relation to each other. The themes have new meaning every time they appear and eventually spawning new motifs of their own.

The Prelude to Scene One of Das Rheingold, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic 
conducted by Sir Georg Solti. Recording © 1958 Decca Records/UMG.

Above, you can listen to the famous Prelude to Rheingold. A droning contrabass and bassoon that is slowly joined by a rising horn...then two...then three and finally eight horns playing a rising E flat chord in canon. The intervals between the horns are the source of much of the motivic material to follow, having been augmented, diminished and even played backward. Then the strings come in depicting the lapping waves. The first scene is built from these and draws out new motifs: the Rhinemaidens' cry of "Rheingold", the rat-a-tat rhythm of the Nibelung dwarves and the mysterious circle of minor intervals that depicts the Ring itself. And that's just the beginning.

As difficult as Das Rheingold is to sing and perform, it is an even bigger headache to stage. The opera is just two and a half hours with no intermissions, no pauses and no human characters. Wagner's text requires an imaginative director to create the illusion of the opening scene under water, transform the set in just four minutes (without lowering the curtain) to a rocky height, transform it again for the journey into the depths of Nibelheim and then back to the mountains with a giant thunderstorm and a rainbow bridge to Valhalla thrown in for good measure at the opera's end. Small wonder then that the magic of this opera is often best captured in studio or concert recordings. Five very different recordings are examined below.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Sir Georg Solti (Decca, 1958)
This was the second complete Decca recording of a major Wagner opera and the first of a seven year project to lay down the entire Ring at the storied Sofiensaal in Vienna. A painstaking assembly of short takes, this recording features a galaxy of Wagner stars of the '40s and '50s, with Set Svanholm singing  Loge and Kirsten Flagstad coming out of retirement in Norway to essay Fricka. Her Wotan is George London. This set was bought by millions, not just because of their love of Wagner but because the passages involving special effects (the Nibelheim anvils, the screaming children (playing the enslaved dwarves) the thunderclap in the last scene) were used to demonstrate the quality of one's stereo. The Solti Ring has been released three times on CD and each pressing has a little bit more clarity than the last one. None match the original vinyl.

Berlin Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon 1967)
Herbert von Karajan was a hell of a Wagner conductor, and a smart one. He took a different approach to Rheingold, emphasizing the lyric quality and beauty of the score with graceful, elegant playing from his crack Berlin Philharmonic. This is the only chance you'll ever have to hear Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sing Wotan, as the legendary lieder specialist never did the role on stage. The cast is not quite as starry as Solti's but Martti Talvela and Karl Ridderbusch make a truly awe-inspiring pair of Giants. Fine analog sound that is a little dated in the CD transfer although the DG Originals pressing is an improvement on the old white-and-gold boxes.

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra cond. James Levine (Deutsche Grammophon 1989)
This was the second issue from James Levine's complete New York recording of the Ring, made downtown from the Met in the Manhattan Center Studios. One could argue that this is the apex of Mr. Levine's four decades at that opera house, as he was the party responsible for once more making the Met a pilgrimage destination for American Wagner buffs. As Wotan, James Morris is all steel and velvet. He is surrounded by a very good cast with heldentenor Siegfried Jerusalem showing versatility and good voice as Froh and Christa Ludwig as a motherly but sharp-tongued Fricka.

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra cond. Daniel Barenboim (Teldec/WBC 1991)
This Bayreuth recording offers stereo sound and the opportunity to hear the singers performing in Wagner's historic theater without the coughs and mutters of a live audience. The staging featured is Harry Kupfer's spectacular post-apocalyptic Ring with lasers, enormous giants and the gods ascending to Valhalla by glass elevator. John Tomlinson (a full bass)stretches his range as Wotan, tenor Graham Clarke as Loge and Gunther von Kannen as a unique and somehow pathetic Alberich. This performance is also available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Marek Janowski (PentaTone, 2013)
This set is part of Mr. Janowski's ten-opera Wagner Project which advertised itself as the first complete cycle of Wagner recordings in super digital audio format. The sound is glorious with a fresh, live feel in front of an actual (if thankfully, quiet) audience. Tempos are brisk and business-like with Mr. Janowski accelerating through familiar passages like the entry of the Giants without ever dragging his feet. The opening scene is excellent, ditto the entry of those Nibelheim anvils which start softly and then pound out with fearsome power. The big scene where Wotan rips the ring from Alberich's hand is absolutely chilling as it captures the god's greed and the dwarf's despair. Worth hearing.

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