Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen (complete). Bayreuther Festspiele Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Christian Thielemann. Opus Arte. $139.99 (14 CDs).
There is no greater operatic spectacle than Wagner’s Ring cycle, and no composer who ever thought through the visual impact and design of his operas more thoroughly than Wagner did in this tetralogy. And yet there is something to be said for hearing the operas instead of seeing them, especially when it is a matter of hearing them in a performance from Bayreuth, whose opera house was built expressly for the staging of the Ring. The reason is that modern Bayreuth productions of the Ring have striven, again and again, to remake it visually – with greater or lesser success. The stagings, and the controversies surrounding them, can all too easily distract operagoers from the astonishingly rich musical fabric that Wagner wove in these splendid works – the pinnacle, for many, of German opera, if not for the entire operatic field.
This 2008 Bayreuth Festival performance of the Ring is a case in point. Half-sisters Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier are now joint leaders of the festival, after a series of political and family machinations themselves worthy of an opera. Tankred Dorst staged the operas as a juxtaposition of the gods’ world and a modern, 20th-century one, to lukewarm reviews that often praised the stage design and costumes but less often complimented the direction and Dorst’s overall concept.
None of that matters in this superb recording – the first-ever CD release from Opus Arte, which has heretofore produced only DVDs. What counts in this fine Ring set is the way Christian Thielemann handles the orchestra, chorus and individual singers (during the Bayreuth Festival itself, the four operas used different soloists for different cycles). Thielemann, born in 1959, has in a sense come of age through his Ring conducting, which was generally deemed uneven (but with episodes of brilliance) as recently as 2006. There is nothing episodic about his 2008 performance: it is wonderful. The pacing is often faster than is usual in these operas – although without any loss of grandeur – and the sense of forward motion throughout the cycle is a real joy to hear. It is especially helpful in Siegfried, the third and most static of the operas. In fact, Siegfried comes off, in some ways, even better than the other three works, with strong performances by Stephen Gould as the hero and Gerhard Siegel as Mime, and with Albert Dohmen so good as the Wanderer (Wotan in disguise) that he practically takes over the opera in his scenes. Linda Watson, as Brünnhilde, also sings exceptionally well, and Thielemann’s handling of the score reveals its inner dynamics – and inner dynamism – to a thoroughly impressive extent.
The other operas fare perhaps a smidgin less well – largely because Siegfried is such a tough nut to crack – but are still outstanding. Dohmen is not quite as inspired as Wotan in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, but other singers are top-notch. In Das Rheingold, the Rhinemaidens (Fionnuala McCarthy, Ulrike Helzel and Simone Schröder) beautifully blend playfulness with despair, and Andrew Shore gives real depth and real menace to Alberich. The one significant disappointment is Arnold Bezuyen as Loge, who comes across as characterless.
Die Walküre has one outstanding performance, by Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde in a rare blend of dramatic effectiveness with vocal superiority – she is worth hearing again and again. Unfortunately, she more than overmasters Endrik Wottrich as Siegmund – he pushes himself and his voice hard, and creates some effective moments as a result; but a sense of the heroic is never present, while a sense of being at the limit of his abilities always is. In fact, this is doubly unfortunate, since Kwangchul Youn makes Hunding a far stronger character than he often comes across as being.
In Götterdämmerung, Gould’s Siegfried is fine, but is disconcertingly surpassed vocally by Hagen, sung by Hans-Peter König – he dominates every scene in which he appears, right up to his final, fatal plunge into the Rhine in fruitless pursuit of the Ring. Watson’s Brünnhilde here is not quite as good as in Siegfried: she has much more to do, and her voice does not quite stand up to the demands of the final cataclysm. Christa Mayer is a genuinely moving Waltraute, and the Three Norns (Simone Schröder, Martina Dike and Edith Haller) are unusually well cast. Schröder also repeats as Floßhilde, with McCarthy as Woglinde and Helzel as Wellgunde, and they again make the Rhinemaidens effective and unusually full-featured characters.
The most important recurring roles in this Ring cycle are those of the outstanding chorus, committed and beautifully balanced orchestra, and conductor Thielemann. And this is where these wonderfully recorded live performances really come into their own. Without the distraction of Dorst’s staging – whatever one may think of it – this Ring becomes music-making of the very highest order in Thielemann’s hands, with each opera complete in itself but carefully tied to all the others, both through Wagner’s structure and through Thielemann’s emphasis on the unifying musical and thematic elements. The whole presentation is enhanced by Opus Arte’s inclusion of complete librettos for each opera, along with brief but to-the-point notes and clear synopses. This is, in sum, an absolutely superlative Ring cycle, and a strong argument for envisioning Wagner’s masterpiece yourself, as the music carries you away to the composer’s world, instead of being guided by the hand and eye of a stage director whose vision may or may not complement (much less match) your own.