December 19, 2013


Wagner: Götterdämmerung. Lance Ryan, Petra Lang, Matti Salminen, Markus Brück, Edith Haller, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Marina Prudenskaya, Julia Borchert, Katharina Kammerloher, Kismara Pessatti, Susanne Resmark, Christa Mayer, Jacquelyn Wagner; Rundfunkchor Berlin and Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $69.99 (4 SACDs).

Sullivan: The Beauty Stone. Toby Spence, David Stout, Stephen Gadd, Richard Suart, Alan Opie, Elin Manahan Thomas, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Madeleine Shaw, Rebecca Evans, Olivia Gomez, Sarah Maxted, Llio Evans; BBC National Chorus of Wales and BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Rory Macdonald. Chandos. $37.99 (2 CDs).

     Here are two lavish, brilliantly mounted productions of operas that are in their own way conclusive for their composers, even though neither work was its composer’s very last – and even though one of the operas is tremendously well-known and the other so obscure that the new recording is its first ever. Marek Janowski’s new rendition of Götterdämmerung is the culmination of a tremendously ambitious and wholly successful project to mark the composer’s bicentennial: Janowski led concert performances of Wagner’s 10 major, mature operas, and all were recorded by PentaTone in truly splendid SACD sound – with Götterdämmerung, performed on March 13 of this year, being the final one of the 10 as well as the conclusion and capstone of the Ring cycle. This is not Janowski’s first recorded Ring: his 30-year-old version with Staatskapelle Dresden (the first-ever digital recording of the cycle) has stood the test of time very well indeed. But the conductor has matured and in some significant ways rethought his interpretations since then, and the new version is even better than the very fine earlier one. Generally brisk tempos prevent the extended scenes from flagging, but Janowski never pushes the music overmuch, and indeed is quite willing to slow things down when trying to make points of contrast – of which there are a great many in Götterdämmerung. This is a simply splendid recording in almost every way, allowing the music its full scope while also giving dedicated Wagnerites plenty to discuss. For example, is Stephen Gould’s naïve and rather bumbling Siegfried in Janowski’s PentaTone Siegfried better than Lance Ryan’s harsher-voiced, somewhat more focused (although still fatally trusting) version here in Götterdämmerung?

     This is the opera where the Ring cycle began, as well as the one with which it ends: Wagner started the concept with Götterdämmerung, then realized he needed a prologue, then came up with a prequel to the prologue, and finally conceptualized the start of the whole gigantic epic with Das Rheingold. Of course, it is with the music of the start of the tetralogy that the entire grand sequence concludes – after the last words of the opera are sung by, of all characters, Hagen (suitably dark and devious in the interpretation of Matti Salminen, who sang Fafner in Janowski’s PentaTone Siegfried). It is always interesting to realize that the prime mover of the first three operas, Wotan, is entirely absent from Götterdämmerung, a fact that lends this opera a different character from the others from the very beginning – in addition to the unique character it receives from the three Norns (Susanne Resmark, Christa Mayer and Jacquelyn Wagner), who re-tell the plot of the first three works in condensed and increasingly portentous form. Everything works in this production. It is a particular pleasure to have Petra Lang return as Brünnhilde, a role she sang in PentaTone’s Die Walküre but one essayed by Violeta Urmana in the new Siegfried. Lang handles Brünnhilde’s cascading and ever-changing emotions with sureness and sensitivity, and makes her eventual sacrifice of the whole world and the gods themselves on the altar of love highly dramatic. The other singers are similarly well cast, with Jochen Schmeckenbecher particularly effective in reprising his Siegfried role as Alberich. Janowski conducts throughout with tremendous confidence and a level of thoughtfulness and involvement that is quite outstanding, while the Rundfunkchor Berlin and Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin turn in their usual absolutely first-rate performances. This Götterdämmerung is a fully fitting conclusion both to Janowski’s new Ring and to PentaTone’s very ambitious and thoroughly wonderful Wagner bicentennial presentation: it is absolutely first-rate from its opening to its conclusion four hours later.

     And speaking of marvelous productions, Chandos has lavished one of the best opera presentations in years on a genuine rarity and real oddity: The Beauty Stone, a decidedly strange late opera by Sir Arthur Sullivan. Dating to 1898, it is not his last opera: he wrote The Rose of Persia the next year and later began work on The Emerald Isle, although he did not live to complete it. But The Beauty Stone is distinguished in many ways – few of them, unfortunately, positive. The libretto, a collaboration between the then-well-known Arthur Wing Pinero and Joseph William Comyns Carr, is extremely unwieldy and is written in dated and overdone language. Many lines from it are far too extended and complex for easy setting to music, although Sullivan came up with some very clever solutions involving unusually extended thematic material. The work was the least successful Savoy opera ever, closing after 50 performances and barely making it that far. And it fits no category particularly neatly: it is definitely not comic, but neither is it a serious grand opera along the lines of Sullivan’s Ivanhoe. Indeed, the librettists saw it as a play with music: many, many plot developments take place in the dialogue rather than the musical numbers. But it is not a very good play with music, certainly in no sense a “music drama” on Wagnerian lines. Yet for all its failings, and they are very numerous, The Beauty Stone contains some exceptionally well-wrought music, with Sullivan composing in serious vein but without the overdone seeking of the lofty that pervades Ivanhoe. The opera’s story revolves around a stone that, worn on a person’s breast, brings him or her extreme beauty – a version of the “lozenge” plot that moved Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer but that Sullivan thereafter disavowed whenever Gilbert again suggested a similar device. It is strange that Sullivan accepted this plot at all, but likely that the serious handling of the material attracted him to it. For the stone comes from the Devil – albeit a rather ineffectual Devil, more an Eastern European character than a potent purveyor of fire and brimstone. And, as the Devil himself explains, the stone always returns to him in the end – as it does here, after being worn by three separate characters in the opera. The overarching theme is the clichéd one of beauty’s impermanence and surface-level appeal; the work ends with a nobleman who has long been seeking beauty but has now been blinded in battle choosing to be united (to the Devil’s chagrin) to a severely crippled young woman who, the lord realizes, has genuine inner beauty.

     Chandos has given this peculiar work, which has never before been recorded in its entirety, a simply splendid presentation, including complete libretto, very extended booklet notes, and ample illustrations showing what the original production looked like and how contemporary operagoers reacted to the staging. And the performance by the BBC’s Welsh forces is absolutely top-notch. Rory Macdonald has clearly studied the score carefully and figured out how to extract from it the largest possible amount of pathos and drama (the work was in fact described by its creators as “an original romantic music drama in three acts,” which is accurate enough to help explain why the work is so difficult to categorize). There is more than two hours of music here; the libretto very effectively encapsulates the action between musical numbers, sparing listeners dialogue that even in its time was considered long-winded and tiresome. Lovers of Sullivan’s music will absolutely rejoice to discover the tremendous skill that he brought to The Beauty Stone. Finely honed orchestrations, beautifully set arias, ensembles and choruses filled with drama and intensity – this opera has them all. One of its many fascinating aspects is a character named Saida, who has been the lover of Lord Philip for years but now, like him, is aging and fading. She could have been just another comic “older woman” along the lines of those in the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, but here she has real pathos and enough energetic attractiveness and emotional wherewithal so that she almost, but not quite, wins Lord Philip back. The Beauty Stone is a deeply flawed work that is nevertheless tremendously fascinating. The Chandos recording, which deserves to be called definitive (it even restores some ill-considered cuts made after the opening proved to be a four-hour marathon), is simply splendid throughout, and while it is almost 100% certain that The Beauty Stone will never again hold the opera stage, its rediscovery is an event of some importance – and its manifest beauties, which are scarcely of the devilish kind, are as welcome to experience as they are unexpected to unearth.

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