November 25, 2015


Wagner: Das Rheingold. Matthias Goerne, Michelle DeYoung, Kim Begley, Oleksandr Pushniak, Charles Reid, Anna Samuil, Deborah Humble, Peter Sidhom, David Cangelosi, Kwangchul Youn, Stephen Milling, Eri Nakamura, Aurhelia Varak, Hermine Haselböck; Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jaap van Zweden. Naxos. $25.99 (2 CDs).

     There are no human characters at all in Wagner’s Das Rheingold, but there are plenty of human characteristics on display – pretty much a laundry list of foibles, errors, poor conduct, weakness and meretriciousness. The only absent one of the seven deadly sins (pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth) is sloth, although there is even a hint of that when Wagner introduces Wotan and Fricka sleeping al fresco because the gods are apparently too, well, slothful to build their own castle. It is difficult to decide which of the sins is the primary plot driver, since they play into each other so clearly: Alberich’s lust for the Rhinemaidens turns to anger as he seizes their Rheingold; the giants’ covetousness of Freia and envy of the gods’ use of her powers to stay always young are among the reasons they agree to build Valhalla; Wotan’s pride demands the castle in the first place, leads him to offer Freia in return for it, then merges with envy and covetousness when he learns about Alberich’s Ring, which by this time Alberich is using to satisfy his gluttony for ever-higher mounds of gold in the Nibelung realm; and on and on. The first three operas of Der Ring des Nibelungen can be seen (and effectively staged) as Wotan’s story, with the greatest of the gods diminishing in stature from opera to opera until he is left powerless in Siegfried and disappears altogether from Götterdammerung, a downfall even before the final collapse.

     But in Das Rheingold we need to see a grand Wotan, a commanding presence whose mistakes are as outsize as his power. This makes Matthias Goerne’s role as Wotan crucial in the new Das Rheingold production on Naxos – the first release in a four-year project that will eventually produce the complete Der Ring des Nibelungen as played by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Jaap van Zweden. This is a major undertaking – every recording and, indeed, every performance of Wagner’s cycle requires a huge investment of time and energy – and one with several “firsts.” It will be the first-ever Ring cycle performed by a Chinese orchestra, and it marks the debuts both of Goerne as Wotan and of Michelle DeYoung as Fricka. The question is whether Goerne and van Zweden have the necessary heft to make the tetralogy as effective as it can be.

     On the basis of Das Rheingold, the answer is somewhat equivocal. Goerne certainly has the necessary vocal equipment to be a first-rate Wotan. A well-known lieder singer, Goerne knows how to enunciate clearly and deliver lines with strength and passion. He has a solid range, an effective lower register, and the ability to color his voice to communicate emotions strongly and involvingly. But he seems not quite sure what to make of Wotan’s character: his performance hints at psychological complexity but not at any real rationale for Wotan’s actions. From the start, he makes Wotan seem manipulated by events rather than active in making them happen – a justifiable approach, perhaps, but one that will leave the character with nowhere to go as the events do spiral out of his control in the succeeding operas. A hint of recklessness or shrewd calculation would be welcome in Goerne’s Wotan – either would help explain the bad bargain that eventually precipitates his fall – but neither is forthcoming here: there is a matter-of-fact quality to this Wotan that makes him less central than he should be.

     As a result, the strongest characters in this Das Rheingold turn out to be Kim Begley as Loge and Peter Sidhom as Alberich. Begley is quick-witted, smart, sharp and clearly very dangerous, wheels within wheels turning in his head as he tries to decide in what ways to help the gods and in which to hinder them, seeking his own place in a world where he does not fit in (he is a demigod, not a full god) but one where he has the ultimate power (his fire will eventually bring down all the gods). Sidhom is far more one-dimensional, and that works well for a narrow character whose single-minded determination is crucial to the unfolding of the multi-opera plot. Sidhom is so self-involved, almost to the point of psychosis, that he lets the clever Begley manipulate him into his own downfall – indeed, he seems toadlike even before he transforms himself into a toad, the form in which he can be captured. There is genuine malevolence in Sidhom’s Alberich, showing itself most clearly in his vicious treatment of Mime (David Cangelosi), a scarcely admirable character for whom it is impossible not to have some sympathy when he is subjected to the level of abuse that he suffers here.

     There is little for DeYoung to do in her first outing as Fricka – her most telling moment is her thought about the sort of power she might get from the Ring – but she handles herself well. The question of her suitability for the role will have to wait for Die Walküre, in which she must stand up to Wotan and force him into a corner because of her own disturbed emotions, born of frustration. There is no hint here of how she will handle that crucial scene. The remaining singers manage their roles well, if without significant insight. Deborah Humble sings Erda effectively, but a little more portentousness would not have hurt. Kwangchul Youn is more emotionally compelling as the doomed Fasolt than is Stephen Milling as the murderous Fafner. As Freia, Anna Samuil is suitably put-upon; her protectors, Oleksandr Pushniak as Donner and Charles Reid as Froh, are as thin in character as she is. The three Rhinemaidens are better differentiated here than in many performances: Aurhelia Varak (Wellgunde) is strong and determined, Hermine Haselböck (Floßhilde) lighter and more playful, and Eri Nakamura (Woglinde) even more flighty.

     However good the singers may be, Das Rheingold and its successor operas rise or fall on the quality of the orchestral playing and the skill of the conductor. The reasons for the uncertainty surrounding the eventual success of this Der Ring des Nibelungen lie even more in van Zweden’s performance than in Goerne’s. This is a spacious, well-paced interpretation with some excellent instrumental touches: the anvils of Nibelheim are unusually effective, the bass trumpet and Wagner tuba are used to good effect, and the full sound of the six harps is notable. The conducting is energetic, the orchestral sound transparent, the flow of the action clearly communicated even though this recording comes from two concert performances rather than staged ones. There is a cleanliness to the sound of the orchestra that is abetted by the clean and clear sound with which this Das Rheingold has been recorded. But this is not a monumental interpretation: there is nothing grand in what happens here, and there is no attempt by the conductor to make it sound as if earthshaking events are occurring. There is precision, yes, but it is a surface-level precision, one that – in the absence of any human characters – reduces the bickerings and betrayals of the gods, giants and dwarves to human level. There is something petty about everything that happens, underlined by the overall fleetness of van Zweden’s approach. Of course, in a sense this is what Wagner intended: potent beings these may be, but the composer wrote his libretto specifically to show just how small their motivations could be despite their vast powers. But the music has tremendous power, the power to sweep audiences into Wotan’s (and Wagner’s) fatally flawed world, the ability to show at once how grandiose these beings and their schemes are and how mundane and small-minded are their motivations. It is grandeur that van Zweden’s approach lacks: he offers clarity and consistency in its stead. Whether that proves to be enough – indeed, whether his approach will remain the same in the three other parts of Der Ring des Nibelungen – is something listeners will have to wait to find out.

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