www.musicweb-international.com, 01. Juni 2007
Last year (2006) this Dutch Ring, directed by Pierre Audi, was released on DVD. It attracted a lot of attention through the brave concept of having the orchestra fully visible mid-proscenium and the action taking place on a sparsely decorated stage that surrounded the orchestra. The singers sometimes act almost in the lap of the on-lookers in the first rows of the stalls. The production was, in the main well received, on Musicweb-International by myself and my colleague Anne Ozorio. We each commented on the timelessness of the concept. These were committed performances and even though some of the singing wasn’t up to the best on competing sets it was a fresh Ring that offered new perspectives and new insights. On DVD, interest will inevitably focus on the visual impact. However the musical side was analysed and the same freshness was inherent in the orchestral concept. One reason was that the conductor, Hartmut Haenchen, is known first and foremost as a baroque specialist and a stickler for authenticity. When he ventured into high romantic repertoire it was with something of the same approach, creating lightness and transparency of orchestral structure, like blowing away a good century’s worth of cobwebs. But it was more musicological than that. For this production Haenchen has gone to sources beyond the printed score and studied the details that Richard Wagner’s assistants recorded while rehearsing the opera at Bayreuth. There is copious commentary concerning notes and rhythms that were changed, agogic details, orchestral balance and, not least, questions concerning tempos. Wagner stresses time and again ‘in tempo’, ‘very brisk’, ‘never drag’ and ‘Moderate, but always lively and full of variation’. The outcome of this, which Maestro Haenchen writes quite extensively about in the liner notes, is exactly what I have already touched upon: no cobwebs, brighter colours, greater transparency, a feeling of chamber music-making but still no lack of power and drama. Quite the contrary in fact since the lightness and the relative briskness produces greater momentum and propels the action forward. Few composers divide opinion more than Wagner: there are pro- and anti-Wagnerians and very few in between. The anti- camp invariably states that ‘he is so pompous, so heavy, so long-winded’. I have thought so myself and when listening to the other recent Götterdämmerung - the Stuttgart production under Zagrosek on Naxos - I felt that even this reliable conductor, whose earlier instalments I have admired, dragged and marked time.
Haenchen’s prelude to the prologue is as good an example as any to show the transparency and the chamber music quality of the music. His Rhine journey has nicely pointed rhythms. The Entr’acte before act 1 scene 3 is forward moving, where Zagrosek stands still – and the delicate woodwind writing is beautifully played. The Funeral March (CD4 tr. 8) is taut and swift and the surround-sound adds extra atmosphere and presence. The concluding music, depicting the Rhine overflowing, is forceful and vehement and has the listener grabbing the arm-rests not to be swept away. This being recorded during the second round of Ring performances, Haenchen has obviously put his finger on even deeper insights and now controls the proceedings superbly. This alone should make this an important acquisition for Wagnerians.
But opera is also singing and here, as in the Zagrosek set, there are swings and roundabouts. There are new singers in all the roles since the DVD series, bar one, namely Kurt Rydl’s Hagen. Seen as well as heard he was formidable in his viciousness. Dramatically he is definitely a force to reckon with too. Unfortunately his voice has deteriorated further and today – read ‘two years ago’ – it was in a state where he could hardly sustain a single note without an incipient beat – read ‘heavy wobble’ – afflicting it. Roland Bracht on the Zagrosek set does not have the most ingratiating of voices but it is steady and he is almost as formidable as Rydl. It’s the same state of things with Hagen’s father, Alberich: Günter von Kannen, such an expressive and many-faceted singer and actor on the Barenboim set from Bayreuth fifteen years ago, is here just a shadow of his former self and almost as shaky as Hagen. Franz-Josef Kappelmann on Naxos, in spite of thirty years as a professional singer, has retained his voice more or less intact and has just as much insight.
The Rhinemaidens are good in both incarnations but when it comes to the norns Haenchen’s trio wins hands down. They are among the best in any recording I have heard. Two of them also double in bigger roles; Irmgard Vilsmaier as a splendid, silver-voiced Gutrune. I would not be surprised if before long she upgrades to Brünnhilde. Michaela Schuster, who was also Fricka in Zagrosek’s Rheingold, is a deeply engaging, expressive Waltraute with admirably steady tone, outsinging Tichina Vaughn’s likewise expressive but over-vibrant Waltraute for Zagrosek. Robert Bork’s Gunther is strong but wobbly in the first act. He improves, though, and in the second act he rises to the requirements and delivers some manly, heroic singing.
I have mixed feelings about the hero and heroine. Danish tenor Stig Andersen is a highly experienced singer, not equipped with the enormous all-encompassing baritonal voice of his compatriot from long ago, Lauritz Melchior. Instead there are parallels with the rather more Nordic silvery tones of his latter-day fellow-countryman Poul Elming, Barenboim’s Siegmund. He has enough heft to make his mark but is also, to begin with, rather strained and worn. He is uneven but in act 2 he sings with much more ease than in the beginning and in the final act he sounds almost rejuvenated. In the scene with Hagen and Gunther, before the murder, he is truly heroic. Then he delivers a death scene, both sensitive and dramatic, that is by some margin the best thing on the whole set, challenging even Jerusalem (Barenboim). His counterpart on Zagrosek’s recording hardly reaches to his waist.
Linda Watson is a youthful Brünnhilde who is able to lighten her voice but she too is uneven. The final scene of act 2 offers some beautiful lyric singing but under pressure her voice adopts an edge that, paired with a certain fluttery unsteadiness, makes her less than attractive. What one always remembers after a Götterdämmerung performance is the immolation scene and here her tone is more concentrated and she sings with great feeling. Flieg heim, ihr Raben! is dramatic singing of the first order, not as rock-steady as Birgit Nilsson or even Anne Evans, but impressive even so. For pure singing she trumps Luana DeVol on the Zagrosek set, even though the latter has the deeper insight in the role.