October 31, 2013


Wagner: Siegfried. Tomasz Konieczny, Stephen Gould, Violeta Urmana, Anna Larsson, Matti Salminen, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Christian Elsner, Sophie Klußmann; Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $49.99 (3 SACDs).

Wagner: Overtures to “Die Feen,” “Christoph Columbus,” “Das Liebesverbot,” “Rienzi,” “Faust,” “Der fliegende Holländer,” Act III of “Lohengrin,” “Tristan und Isolde,” and Act I of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.” Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Jake Heggie: Moby-Dick. Jay Hunter Morris, Stephen Costello, Morgan Smith, Jonathan Lemalu, Talise Trevigne; San Francisco Opera Chorus, Dance Corps and Orchestra conducted by Patrick Summers. EuroArts DVD. $24.99.

     The ninth in PentaTone’s excellent 10-release series of Wagner’s 10 mature operas tackles the most difficult opera of the Ring cycle to bring off – and as with all of these releases conducted by Marek Janowski, produces a resounding success thanks to the conductor’s intimate familiarity with the music and his willingness to take chances with tempos, characterizations and the complexities of a live performance (this one dating to March 1, 2013). Siegfried (which Wagner originally called Young Siegfried) is a very talky opera, more so than usual in Wagner – whose music dramas are talky by design and for that reason are unappealing to some operagoers. A voyage of self-discovery climaxed by returns to events of earlier operas, Siegfried brings back Alberich and Mime – giving the latter, whose portrayal owes much to Wagner’s anti-Semitism, more prominence than in Das Rheingold. Fafner also returns, the giant of the first opera now transformed into a dragon that is conquered rather abruptly. Nothung, the sword shattered by Wotan’s direct intervention in Die Walküre, is forged again here in the opera’s most-famous scene; and Wotan himself, rapidly becoming a shadow of the powerful (if flawed) god he has been before, is back as well, rehashing much of the plot of what has come before (leading the wonderful parodist of classical music, Anna Russell, to comment that Wotan comes down from Valhalla to play “Twenty Questions” with Siegfried). The comparatively static Siegfried stands in strong contrast to the nearly frenetic activity of Die Walküre, although after the death of Fafner and Mime, as we return to the fire-surrounded rock from the ending the previous opera, and Siegfried discovers the sleeping Brünnhilde, there is certainly drama enough. Janowski builds the opera toward this climactic moment throughout the nearly four-hour running time of the recording, with the contrast between Tomasz Konieczny’s increasingly feckless Wotan/Wanderer and the rather simple-minded, straightforward strength and bravery of Stephen Gould’s Siegfried communicated particularly well. Christian Elsner is suitably slimy as Mime, and his confrontation with the sly vengefulness of Jochen Schmeckenbecher as Alberich is handled with skill. Violeta Urmana is not an ideal Brünnhilde – Petra Lang was more intense and fiery in Janowski’s Die Walküre – but Urmana certainly sings well and with considerable emotion. Anna Larson as Erda – another revenant from earlier in the cycle – handles her scene with Wotan well; Matti Salminen has plenty of depth to his potent bass voice as Fafner; and Sophie Klußmann does a fine job with the small but crucial role of the forest bird. Janowski again conducts with a sure hand and very considerable intelligence, and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin turns in yet another of those first-rate performances that the players seem to produce effortlessly. Siegfried is a particularly difficult opera to bring off effectively, and Janowski’s success here – a success that includes PentaTone’s consistently excellent SACD sound – virtually guarantees that Götterdammerung, the final Ring opera and concluding entry in PentaTone’s Wagner-bicentennial sequence, will also be a splendid production.
     Wagner’s purely instrumental music – what there is of it – tends to get short shrift in comparison to his operas, but some of the opera overtures and preludes have become reliable staples of the concert hall. Some, however, have not, a fact that makes Chandos’ new recording led by Neeme Järvi particularly welcome. This is actually a compilation of Järvi performances from 2009-2011, plus one (Der fliegende Holländer) not released before. The SACD is notable for sound quality, length (a full 80 minutes), and inclusion of some rarities along with the more-familiar works. Christoph Columbus, a 1907 concert-overture version by Felix Mottl of Wagner’s 1835 opening for a stage play, may not be top-flight Wagner; but Faust, written in 1840, revised in 1855, and originally planned as the first movement of a symphony, is certainly worth more-frequent performances. So are the overtures to Wagner’s first two operas, Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot, in which the music may not sound “Wagnerian” as that term later came to be used but is certainly well-made and effective. As for the overture to Wagner’s third opera, Rienzi, it is broad, exciting and exceptionally tuneful – deserving, like the opera itself, of being considerably better known. The remaining works on this SACD are familiar, and all are very well played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra – although Järvi’s tempo choices are occasionally questionable and he does not come across as a top-notch Wagner conductor in terms of sensitivity to the nuances of, say, Tristan and Meistersinger. Nevertheless, all the readings here are better than serviceable, and the fine playing and sound, along with the intriguing mixture of well-known and little-known music, makes this a very worthwhile recording indeed.
     Wagner’s pervasive influence extends to the present day, and it is certainly noticeable in Jake Heggie’s fascinating Moby-Dick, adapted from Herman Melville’s novel by librettist Gene Scheer. The DVD of the San Francisco Opera’s 2012 production features four of the five singers who presented the opera at its world première in Dallas in 2010. The exception is Jay Hunter Morris as Captain Ahab (the role was created by Ben Heppner); but Morris handles the increasingly mad captain with plenty of fervor and intensity, making him an effective center around whom the action swirls. Scheer’s libretto hews closely to the actions of Melville’s book – which, it should be remembered, is in large part not an action/adventure novel, since much of it is taken up with discussion and exploration of whales and the whaling life. Eliminating all of that, as Scheer does, makes the story manageable as a libretto, and emphasizing the tragic elements and psychological darkness of the book is an intelligent decision – simply treating the whole work as a morality play, which is essentially what Melville did, would result in an overly rigid presentation for modern audiences. Nevertheless, Scheer is basically true to Melville’s approach, and manages to retain enough of the author’s language to give the opera a feeling both old-fashioned and up-to-date. Heggie does the same thing with the music: in addition to Wagnerian elements and a few approaches borrowed from Debussy and from Britten’s Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, there are distinct echoes of Philip Glass and other minimalist composers, plus an overarching sense of the drama and emotional turmoil of film music – which, indeed, is exactly what the work’s instrumental opening sounds like. The music’s accessibility makes this a very approachable opera indeed: what Heggie does is scarcely innovative, but it is very well tailored to audience involvement and to the dramatic story line. Leonard Foglia’s stage direction – the same in San Francisco as in Dallas – is also integral to the success of the presentation. And this is an opera that is decidedly better served by DVD presentation than it would be in an audio recording, where the comparative straightforwardness of Heggie’s music would make the work less appealing than it is when seen as the multimedia totality it is intended to be: opera has in fact always been a multimedia format, and the projections and perspective shifts of this production make Moby-Dick even more so. There are occasional elements that do not work – renaming Ishmael as Greenhorn is simply too obvious and comes across as a bit silly, for example – but by and large, this is a thoroughly enjoyable and effective music drama, not in the Wagnerian sense but in an equally valid post-Wagnerian world, where Melville is as much a part of the United States’ shared literary and mythic heritage as the Nibelungenlied was part of Wagner’s and Germany’s in the 19th century.

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