April 20, 2006


Wagner: Das Rheingold. Wolfgang Probst, bass-baritone; Bernhard Schneider, tenor; Motti Kastón, baritone; Robert Künzli, tenor; Michaela Schuster, mezzo-soprano; Helga Rós Indridadóttir, soprano; Mette Ejsing, contralto; Esa Ruuttunen, bass-baritone; Eberhard Franceso Lorenz, tenor; Roland Bracht, bass; Phillips Ens, bass; Lothar Zagrosek conducting Staatsoper Stuttgart and Staatsorchester Stuttgart. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

Das Rheingold is the shortest of Wagner’s four Ring operas, but its multiple settings make it almost as difficult to stage as the longest, Götterdämmerung. And it labors under a serious difficulty in terms of drawing the audience in: it contains no human beings. Everything here involves gods, giants, dwarves and Rhinemaidens – humans are not even an afterthought.

A truly involving performance, like this one from Staatsoper Stuttgart, overcomes that inherent difficulty through extraordinary voice acting that gives the characters genuine human emotions while drawing the audience into Wagner’s mythological world. The best example here comes from Esa Ruuttunen in a truly remarkable performance as Alberich. This character, whose theft of the Rhinegold sets in motion all the tragic events that will follow, is often played as buffoonish, unintelligent and a mindlessly evil schemer. Not so here. From his first appearance, when the Rhinemaidens (soprano Catriona Smith and mezzos Maria Theresa Ullrich and Margarete Joswig) tease and taunt him, this Alberich is more tormented than tormenting. Ruuttunen takes him through so many human emotions – pride, anger, wistfulness, uncertainty and, eventually, despair – that his eventual curse on the ring he has forged carries even more weight than usual. Alberich becomes the center of this drama. This may not be exactly what Wagner intended, but it works wonderfully to build empathy for an essentially unsympathetic character. In this performance, what is clear above all is that no one is flawless; no one is fully in the right. The gods’ duplicity (Wotan never really intends to give Freia to the giants) is matched by that of the giants themselves (they will take Freia and so arrange for the gods to wither, separated from the fruit that keeps them forever young). The gods’ pride (why did Wotan need Valhalla?) is the flip side of Alberich’s. And the Rhinemaidens are cruel. There are no “good guys” here.

The mostly very strong vocal cast emotes even while singing effectively. Especially good are Helga Rós Indridadóttir as Freia, whose anguish and fear sound genuine; Michaela Schuster as a sharp-tongued Fricka; and Robert Künzli as an especially slimy Loge, playing with everyone’s future without seeing that he is dooming himself as well.

The orchestral playing is excellent, and Lothar Zagrosek is as well: he moves the action smartly along, while allowing Wagner’s clear instrumental writing to highlight the many leitmotifs here being played for the first time in the tetralogy.

A couple of voices are not quite up to the rest. Wolfgang Probst is a disappointment as Wotan: his voice is too shaky to be regal, and his vocal acting is more wooden than that of other cast members. Motti Kastón sings and emotes well enough, but his voice does not have all the power that Donner needs. Mette Ejsing wobbles a bit as Erda, too, but her powerful characterization of this crucial character almost makes up for some vocal instability. Indeed, “characterization” is in the forefront throughout this performance, which was recorded live in 2002. The successful introduction of strong human emotions into the opera’s nonhuman characters makes this a Das Rheingold worth hearing again and again.

No comments:

Post a Comment