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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.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Recording Review: The Complications of a Family Business

Jaap van Zweden leads Siegfried in Hong Kong.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
SImon O'Neill, shown here as Siegmund in Die Walküre, sings the title role of Siegfried in Jaap van Zweden's new Hong Kong recording of the opera. Photo © The Metropolitan Opera.
Richard Wagner intended Siegfriedto be a romp. Certainly, there is a fairy-tale quality to this recording, the third installment of Jaap van Zweden's Ring, recorded in Hong Kong in 2016 with that city's Philharmonic Orchestra and an international cast. But does it do enough to help the reputation of this, the least known and least-loved of the four operas that make up this massive mythological cycle?

In each of its three acts, Siegfried charts its hero's psychological journey, moving musically "upward" from grim minor keys to a bright, blazing major. However, the character is a bit of a simpleton, succeeding through brute strength and a kind of gormless innocence--the same qualities that will get him killed in the next and last opera of the Ring. Act One starts with a drum roll and a simple descending minor third, introducing us once more to Mime (David Cangelosi) the brother of Alberich and Siegfried's ersatz guardian, who has raised the boy in the woods and repeatedly attempted to repair the sword that Wotan obliterated with a spear-stroke in the last opera Die Walküre.

Mr. Cangelosi is a Mime that is close to ideal, getting into the nooks and crannies of this character's spiky music with enthusiasm. His sharp and slightly waspish tenor is awfully close in tone quality to Simon O'Neill, who delves into the title role with more enthusiasm than beauty. Mr. O'Neill offers an intelligent characterization of the meat-headed hero, displaying touching innocence, self-reflection and moments like the big Forging Song that are just pure testosterone. If there are any problems here it is that it seems that the bangs and clangs that accompany the forging sound like they are coming from the percussion section, not from the tenor's own efforts.

In the middle of the first act, Wotan puts in an appearance, now in his "earthly" disguise as the Wanderer. (His purpose, move the plot forward by playing a riddle game with Mime, one which predicts the outcome of the opera and the death of the dwarf.) This role is more troublesome for baritone Matthias Goerne, as it sits lower on the scale. However, the lieder specialists a skilled singer and adds grace and phrasing to make the disguised king of the Gods a sympathetic figure. His power has been destroyed (even if he doesn't know it yet) and all he can do is observe and try to steer dumb young Siegfried in the right direction.

All these plot threads come together (along with the brief return of Alberich (Werner van Mechelen)) in the second act, when Siegfried is brought (by Mime) to the forest cave where the gold-possessing dragon Fafner sleeps. This is Falk Struckmann, the experienced baritone (he's sung and recorded Wotan), bawling his way through Fafner's part. Mr. van Zweden does not linger here, and picks up the pace for the scenes with the Forest Bird (soprano Valentina Farcas). He also makes short work of the murder of Mime, a scene in which Wagner's trick of using the orchestra to expose a character's innermost thoughts is used with the greatest effect.

Mr. Goerne and Mr. van Zweden have their finest moment together at the start of Act III, as the conductor whips up the orchestral storm and the god awakens the Earth goddess Erda for some desperately needed advice. Erda here is Deborah Humble, plush of tone but a little too sweet. The music in this act was written after Wagner took an extensive break from the Ring, having given up hope of getting it produced. He used the time productively: writing  Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger. He also started a long and ultimately disastrous professional relationship with the mad Bavarian king Ludwig II. On top of all that, he wooed, impregnated and finally married Cosima von Bulow, the daughter of composer Franz Liszt, who was married to the conductor Hans von Bulow. The music that adorns the final love duet in this opera originated in a work written as a present for his new wife Cosima.

This time-jump in the creation of the Ring means that when one sits down to listen to the third act of Siegfried, twelve years have passed and the music is now in the "late" Wagner style. This means that the leitmotifs (the themes that are the building blocks of the operas) are organized in vertical stacks, so that multiple ones appear at once, develop together and comment on each other.  Mr. van Zweden welcomes the change with enthusiasm. He is careful in these surging oceans of sound, clear and precise, even when a little more abandon would be warranted in this stormy first scene.

Siegfried blunders in, bullies Wotan, breaks his spear and clambers up to the mountain where Brunnhilde sleeps. This is Heidi Melton, who sang Sieglinde (Siegfried's mother) in the previous recording of Die Walküre. It's a little disconcerting, this--not because Ms. Melton isn't capable of singing the part--she does very well. It's just weird that the woman who is Siegfried's great love--and who he strove throughout the opera to reach and wake up is...his mother. Sorta. Kinda? The same singer anyway. This distraction aside, this recording of Siegfried ends with both tenor and soprano pushing themselves to the absolute limit in the blazing major of the last pages, with Mr. van Zweden spurring his Hong Kong orchestral forces to keep up.

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