November 30, 2017
(++++) STRIVING TOWARD GRANDEUR
Wagner: Siegfried. Simon O’Neill, David Cangelosi, Matthias Goerne, Werner Van Mechelen, Falk Struckmann, Valentina Farcas, Deborah Humble, Heidi Melton; Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jaap van Zweden. Naxos. $49.99 (4 CDs).
The third opera in the tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen is in many ways the most difficult to pull off, and it is to Jaap van Zweden’s considerable credit that Siegfried proves the best entry so far in his Ring cycle with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. The success is not unalloyed and does not come altogether easily, but it is success, and paves the way, at least potentially, for a genuinely impressive Götterdammerung. Or so one hopes.
Siegfried is an exceptionally talky opera, a strain both on the voices of its principals and on an audience’s patience – unless the singing is very high-quality indeed. The first act, which features the interplay of two decidedly unpleasant characters, is the hardest to get right, and van Zweden and his singers do not quite manage it – but they are close enough so that the second and third acts come across very well indeed. The problem with the first act is that Siegfried is nasty and abusive to Mime for what appears to be no good reason – and Mime himself, a devious and scarcely benevolent character, deserves some sympathy as a result. The act probably worked better in the pervasive anti-Semitism of the world in which Wagner wrote the opera, with Mime coming across as a stereotypical smarmy Jew, greedy and conniving and fully deserving of whatever comes to him. But there is no way to give the act the same effect today that it would have had in Wagner’s time – and no one would want it to have its effect on that basis nowadays. So what audiences are left with is a nasty, scheming dwarf being belittled, shamed and physically attacked (by a bear, no less) through the agency of a powerful, strong and thoroughly unlikable character who is, if anything, even more repugnant than Mime himself. This is not the best setup for an 80-minute first act. To complicate matters further, whoever sings Siegfried needs a true heldentenor voice of great power and projection, able to surmount full orchestral sounds time and again. Simon O’Neill does not have this: he is expressive and communicates hostility well enough, but his voice does not have the sheer brute strength needed for the role (and reflective of the character’s physical strength when the opera is staged rather than given as a concert production like this one). David Cangelosi does much better as Mime, with well-modulated emotion and cunning, a first-rate sense of drama, and the ability to hold his own against Siegfried and even, in the act’s second scene, against Matthias Goerne as the Wanderer (Wotan). It is this opera and not Götterdammerung that shows Wotan’s downfall: he is not even present in the finale of the tetralogy. Goerne is dramatic, involving, noble and darkly convincing in this Siegfried, not only in the first act but also in the later ones. His voice does show some signs of the stresses to which Wagner subjects it, dropping into heaviness rather than authoritative pronouncements from time to time. But on the whole, he gives a convincing portrayal of a now nearly impotent leader of gods who are doomed by their own all-too-human frailties and failings.
Siegfried improves significantly as music drama when the second act opens with Alberich outside Fafner’s cave. Werner Van Mechelen makes a very fine Alberich, slimy, obsessed and neurotic, although not as deeply bitter as the character can be. The contrast between his voice and Goerne’s is considerable and is used to good effect here. The vocalizing of Falk Struckmann as Fafner works less well. Struckmann was Hunding in van Zweden’s Die Walküre, and was very fine, stolid and determined, in that role. As the giant-transformed-to-dragon, though, he is not particularly menacing, although certainly sonorous enough. On the other hand, it is in this second act, whether singing of his yearning for his mother or having his deadly confrontation with Fafner, that O’Neill’s Siegfried really comes into his own, with vocal strength combined with lyricism in a way that lifts the entire recording to a new height – at which it remains for the balance of the opera.
It is after Fafner’s death and after that of the thoroughly detestable Mime, with the appearance of the Forest Bird, that Siegfried is transformed into a truly wonderful opera. Valentina Farcas is wonderful as the bird, her light voice soaring, dipping and diving in just the way a bird might, her vocal vivacity in strong contrast to the sound of everyone else in the opera. It is she who brings Siegfried to the portentous confrontation with his grandfather, Wotan the Wanderer, who by this time is revealed as little more than a small-minded bully through his treatment of Erda: Deborah Humble deflects Goerne’s attempted bluster effectively, making it clear that Wotan can overpower her through brute strength but cannot really conquer her. By the time Siegfried’s sword, Nothung, shatters the Wanderer’s spear, it is hard to escape the notion that Wotan deserves every bit of doom that is coming to him. But the capstone of the opera, and of this specific performance, lies in Siegfried’s discovery of Brünnhilde. O’Neill’s voice is in full lyrical flower by the time this happens, delivering his soliloquy with mounting passion and enthusiasm. And when Heidi Melton – who was a wonderful Sieglinde in Die Walküre – breaks through strings and harp to hail her awakener, in a part that requires firm vocal control up to a series of high C’s, the entire production blossoms into astonishing beauty. Melton does not have quite the dramatic breadth of the very best Brünnhildes, but her voice is so radiant, and so beautifully matched with O’Neill’s, that their duet of love and discovery (of themselves and each other) becomes, as it should, a tremendous climax of this four-hour music drama, a pinnacle of ecstasy of the sort that smashes all obstacles and cares not that the world may end so long as it fulfills its unerring sense of purpose. That the world does end, for the gods and many of the mortal characters, in Götterdammerung, is the tragedy of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Yet the fourth opera actually concludes with the rinsing clean of the old world by the pure waters of the Rhine, which promise a better world to come – and the conclusion of Siegfried suggests that that better world will be one in which love will be fully embraced, not renounced in the name of worldly power that proves ultimately unattainable despite all the sacrifices made on its behalf.
Van Zweden’s Siegfried, in which the orchestra plays beautifully, with precision and the best balance it has shown so far in this cycle. The Hong Kong players are augmented by a number of musicians from Germany, who may be said to have a substantial intuitive as well as learned grasp of Wagner’s music. And this performance looks strongly ahead both to the tragedy of the final opera and to the ultimate, musically unrealized hope that lies beyond it. This is the first recording in this ambitious Naxos project in which singers, conductor and orchestra show the heights they are capable of attaining. If next year’s Götterdammerung continues at this level, the result will be a Ring cycle from Hong Kong that is fully worthy to stand with the best ones presented in recent times by the top orchestras and singers in Europe.