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Thursday, November 8, 2018

Recordings Review: A Castle in the Air

The Naxos Ring starts with Das Rheingold.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Ring leader: Jaap van Zweden at the helm of his Hong Kong forces.
Photo © 2018 Naxos Records/Hong Kong Philharmonic
There are, by this writer's count, at least thirty commercial versions of Wagner's epic Ring Cycle available to the consumer today. So what's the need for one more?

This new Ring, which was produced by Naxos Records in a series of live concerts by the Hong Kong Philharmonic marks the arrival of Jaap van Zweden as a major Wagnerian voice. The Dutch conductor is doing double duty in Hong Kong and New York as music director of both cities' respective Philharmonics, but is still building his international reputation. A complete Ring such as this (Götterdämmerung was released this month) is a major step toward music stardom and this recording of Das Rheingold, in glowing stereo sound with a bright and fresh dynamic range is a good start to the cycle.


The underwater opening is luminous. The eight horns rise out of the murky depths playing an ascending triad. The strings enter and propel the listener along in a trickle that becomes a raging torrent. The Rhinemaidens (Aurhelia Varak, Eri Nakamura, Hermine Haselböck) enter, each carefully differentiated by timbre ad tone. Then they meet Alberich, (Peter Sidhorn) the lust-struck dwarf who tries to get jiggy with each of them in rapid succession. Mr. Sidhorn gives deep insight into his character. You can hear the heartbreak and disappointment when this rejected suitor responds to the three Rhinemaidens' cruelty by stealing their gold, setting the slow-motion fifteen-hour apocalypse into motion. His cackling laugh is a bonus.

The biggest triumph of Mr. van Zweden's unconventional approach to casting this opera is Matthias Goerne in the central role of Wotan. The baritone is an expert lieder singer and he puts meaning into every line Wotan has without resorting to bark or croon. He is well matched by the hyperactive, intellectually sung Loge of veteran tenor Kim Begley, who also inserts nuance and snide double meaning into every one of the fire god's lines. The third side of the triangle is Michelle DeYoung's superlative Fricka, careening between loving and nagging her wayward husband throughout the opera's tumult.

For those new to Das Rheingold, its plot centers on a bad real estate deal. Wotan has had a new house built by the giant brothers Fasolt and Fafner. In payment, he's agreed to give the goddess Freia to the love-sick Fasolt, an action which will (ironically) destroy the Gods' immortality. Then, with Loge's prompting he comes up with a new (and much worse) plan: to steal Alberich's treasure and use it to pay off the builders. Kwangchal Youn and Stephen Milling make a fearsome pair of builders, with Mr. Youn's slightly lighter instrument capturing Fasolt's love for Freia: the only thing approximating human emotion in this opera. Mr Milling has a magnificent snarl and the scene where he murders Fasolt is among the most chilling moments.

To save Freia, Wotan and Loge journey to Nibelheim, the realm of Alberich. This is the opportunity for the Hong Kong players to show their stuff, and they play this music with such clarity and precision that passages often left obscured come out with a sparkle. The anvils could be scarier, but Mr. van Zweden saves the real terror for the passages featuring Mr. Sidhorn's Alberich, now fully corrupted by the power of the Ring. To forge that magical object, the dwarf had to pronounce a curse on love, and his monstrosity is on full display. Mr. Sidhorn's dramatic foil is Mime (David Cangelosi), his character's hapless and much-bullied brother.

The gods get Alberich to show off his new magic helmet, the Tarnhelm (it will be important later) and  trap him in the form of a toad. (No I'm not making this up.) They capture him and drag him back to the surface in a reverse journey for orchestra. There, they rob him of his treasure and helmet. Wotan rips the Ring off of the dwarf's hand, an act that sets everyone on the course to disaster at the end of Götterdämmerung. Mr. Goerne and Mr. Sidhorn are tremendous here, with the latter snarling out the "curse" motif that will hang over the next three operas. The giants return and bargain with the gods, trading Freia for the Nibelung treasure, the magic helmet and of course the Ring. Fasolt and Fafner fight, and the former is quickly killed, the first victim of the curse.

The passage from this opera that first-time Wagnerians may be familiar with is its finale: the Entry of the Gods into Valhalla. It opens with Donner (the stentorian Oleksandr Pushniak) bellowing his war cry and striking his hammer, a famous moment that does not quite carry off with enough power or force. Mr. Van Zweden then leads his charges across the soaring Rainbow Bridge, built from six harps, four Wagner tubas and four horns. The clarity of the recording here allows one to hear the sinister motif that Wagner buried in this triumphant music, the driving Nibelung rhythm played in the violins. The victory of the gods is a hollow one, but the triumph of orchestra and conductor is complete.
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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.