June 13, 2013


Wagner: Das Rheingold. Tomasz Konieczny, Antonio Yang, Kor-Jan Dusseljee, Christian Elsner, Iris Vermillion, Ricarda Merbeth, Maria Radner, Günther Groissböck, Timo Riihonen, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Andreas Conrad, Julia Borchert, Katharina Kammerloher, Kismara Pessatti; Rundfunk-Sinfinieorchester Berlin conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $18.99 (2 SACDs).

     In his operetta Der Graf von Luxemburg, Franz Lehár beautifully sets, to a broad and erotically charged waltz tune, the words, schöne, goldene Traum – “beautiful, golden dream.” This is diametrically opposed to what Richard Wagner did previously, with equal beauty, far more drama and a very dark undercurrent, in Das Rheingold. The first opera of the Ring cycle and the one with the most brilliantly written libretto (which Wagner created after he had already finished the libretti for the other three operas), Das Rheingold is about all that is wrong with gold, all that it poisons and destroys, all the evil that the love and lust for it create – to the eventual destruction of even the gods themselves. Das Rheingold is, on the surface, about the renunciation of love to allow the forging of a ring of power – which, yes, became the inspiration for Tolkien’s “one ring to rule them all” and for innumerable lesser fantasies. But the lovelessness pervading this opera has infected the characters even before they get into overt disputes about the ring: when we first encounter Wotan, the primary protagonist of the opera, his wife, Fricka, calls him liebelosester (“loveless”) and liebeloser (“unloving”), although at this point it is Alberich, not Wotan, who has officially and dramatically renounced love in order to gain power. The subtleties of this libretto, from its use of alliteration to its pervasive irony, are well-nigh uncountable, and are coupled with a score so finely wrought that it really is necessary to sit through the whole two-and-a-half-hour opera from start to finish, without intermission, in order to absorb and marvel at its cumulative power.

     Marek Janowski is a superb Wagner conductor, and this start of his new Ring cycle – which will be releases 7-10 in PentaTone’s 10-Wagner-opera series marking the bicentennial of the composer’s birth – is simply splendid. Janowski makes some bold casting decisions that turn out brilliantly. Tomasz Konieczny has sung Alberich, Amfortas and the Dutchman – here he is cast as Wotan. Antonio Yang has performed as Alberich and Klingsor – here he is Donner. Kor-Jan Dusseljee has not sung with the Rundfunk-Sinfinieorchester Berlin before – now he is cast as Froh. Christian Elsner has sung Siegmund and, in an earlier PentaTone Wagner release, Parsifal – here he is Loge. Günther Groissböck is well-known as the Landgrave in Tannhäuser, has sung Fafner and Hunding, and was King Heinrich in the PentaTone Lohengrin – but is cast here as Fasolt. There are other unexpected casting decisions, too, and every one of them works out well, as if the singers’ sometimes-unfamiliar roles have led to a fresh consideration of Das Rheingold and the part that each character plays in it. Like all the releases in this PentaTone series, this one is from a live concert performance, and there is a dynamism and propulsiveness to the production that sweeps the home listener along as the audience at the Berlin Philharmonic must have been swept along in November 2012. Janowksi’s pacing seems perfect throughout, and so do the singers’ characterizations: the Rhinemaidens, for example (Julia Borchert, Katharina Kammerloher and Kismara Pessatt) have genuinely different personalities here as they tease and torment Alberich, instead of simply being distinguished by their vocal ranges. The personality clash between Groissböck’s Fasolt and Timo Riihonen’s Fafner is also made clear from the start, with the relative tenderness of Fasolt and the gruffness and barely suppressed rage of Fafner anticipating the brothers’ fatal fight over the ring. The underlying anger that turns Alberich from a creature of near-comic fun to a brutal bully is very well communicated by Jochen Schmeckenbecher. And the dire warnings of Erda (Maria Radner) are here delivered with a sense of caring and concern, not merely as portentous pronouncements from a being even older than the gods.

     The orchestra is as much a character in Das Rheingold and the rest of the Ring cycle as is any individual, and the Rundfunk-Sinfinieorchester Berlin is absolutely first-rate: nuanced, delicate, overwhelming, gentle, warm and biting by turns, with some elements that are startlingly effective – the racket of the anvils as Wotan and Loge enter Nibelheim is one sit-up-and-take-notice moment among many, with the excellent SACD sound a major plus. In fact, everything that Janowski and his forces do here is so good that the success brings extra attention to what is not done. The weaknesses here are all ones of omission: it would have been more effective to include a chorus to deliver the shrieks of fear of the victimized Nibelungs; the gods’ cruel end-of-opera laughter at the cries of the Rhinemaidens is not included, even though the recording does make the nixies’ beseeching and warning sound as if it comes from deep below the bridge to Valhalla; there is no sound of the giants hammering stakes into the ground to take the measure of the gold they will receive in lieu of Freia; and there are several places where Wagner calls for a character to laugh or make a sound of some sort that are ignored. The omissions are understandable in the context of a concert performance, but they are nevertheless unfortunate, because Das Rheingold is so carefully put together in terms of text, music and staging specifics that even an unstaged performance should try to pay some attention to Wagner’s very clear intentions and instructions.

     If there are some things that this Das Rheingold does not have, though, there are so many that it does have that it can fairly be labeled a rousing success and, indeed, a rousing performance. It was many years after the Ring that Lehár wrote of the beauty of a golden dream – but to Wagner, the Ring is the tale of a schrecklich, goldene Traum, a gold-pervaded dream that is frightening, not beautiful, and indeed less Traum than Schreckgespenst, nightmare. Janowksi’s remarkably perceptive performance of Das Rheingold manages to convey the manifest and manifold beauties of the music while making it clear, from the very start of this tetralogy of greed and doom, that even the most powerful forces and characters will become victims of their own deep-seated misunderstandings and failings.

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