January 03, 2019
(++++) DESCENT INTO NOT-QUITE-DARKNESS
Wagner: Götterdämmerung. Sarah Castle, Stephanie Houtzeel, Jenufa Gleich, Gun-Brit Barkmin, Daniel Brenna, Shenyang, Eric Halfvarson, Amanda Majeski, Michelle DeYoung, Peter Kálmán, Eri Nakamura, Aurbella Varak, Hermine Haselböck; Bamberg Symphony Chorus, Latvian State Choir, Hong Kong Philharmonic Chorus and Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jaap van Zweden. Naxos. $49.99 (4 CDs).
The conclusion of Jaap van Zweden’s Der Ring des Nibelungen with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra turns out to be more crepuscular than genuinely dark, not exactly disappointing but never quite living up to the increasing promise of the first three operas and, in particular, the somewhat uneven but genuinely compelling Siegfried. The most positive aspect of the performance, and the thing that earns it a high rating, is the excellence of the orchestra, which plays Wagner with commanding fervor and an exceptionally high understanding of the music. Whether from van Zweden’s conducting or from the players’ own study, or a combination of both, the Hong Kong Philharmonic sounds like a Wagner orchestra of the highest order, with great sweep in the grand and grandiose passages and admirable attentiveness to detail and beauty in the quieter and less-fraught elements of the music (of which there are admittedly not all that many in Götterdämmerung).
Unfortunately for the orchestra and van Zweden, this is an opera, not an instrumental reduction of one, and the unevenness of the singers pulls the overall production down to the level of “ordinary” when it could easily have been extraordinary with somewhat different casting. This recording features the cycle’s third Brünnhilde (Gun-Brit Barkmin) and its second Siegfried (Daniel Brenna); Michelle DeYoung reappears from earlier installments, this time as Waltraute (she was Fricka in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre). The cast changes relate to the once-a-year concert performances that led to these Naxos recordings, and while that is certainly understandable, home listeners will not really care, and should not have to, about the circumstances under which the CDs were made – only about how they sound and how the music and drama come across. The casting for this Götterdämmerung is not so much bad as it is adequate – which is not enough for a top-level performance of some enormously difficult music. The orchestra’s marvelous playing in the opening scene, for example, swamps the voices of the Norns (mezzo-sopranos Sarah Castle and Stephanie Houtzeel and soprano Jenufa Gleich), and van Zweden seems rather curiously uninvolved in the scene, his conducting more uncertain here than elsewhere in the cycle or, indeed, in some parts of this specific opera.
Matters improve afterwards. Barkmin does not have a very large voice, but she emotes well and has a strong sense of the drama of her opening scene with Siegfried – although she is less effective in some of the later, weightier music, including the oath on the spear in Act II and her outburst of grief over Siegfried’s supposed faithlessness to her. Brenna is energetic and projects enthusiasm, naïveté and flair, but his voice too is a trifle small for the role, and tends to be swamped by the orchestra – he is certainly no match for the brass. Much more effective than both is Eric Halfvarson as Hagen, who is vicious, dark, frightening and determined – everything a good, solid Wagnerian villain should be. His sinister characterization and fine vocal technique help keep him in front of the orchestra, and he is excellently paired with Shenyang as Gunther, who also offers a dark characterization – in which the essence of nobility seems to be communicated in part through very careful (almost overly careful) enunciation. Amanda Majeski as Gutrune also projects nobility, but falls short of drama and intensity. Surprisingly, DeYoung as Waltraute is no more than adequate, conveying a kind of neutrality rather than passionate worry and despair – although the fault here is likely that of van Zweden, whose pacing of the Waltraute-Brünnhilde scene is mannered and uncertain. Indeed, van Zweden’s pacing throughout this Götterdämmerung is rather uneven, generally effective in the faster sections but oddly unenergetic in many slower ones – a surprise from a conductor who is known for his understanding of Bruckner.
The pure orchestral portions of the score come through here with tremendous power: the preludes, entr’actes, Rhine Journey and Siegfried’s Funeral March allow the orchestra to shine forth with splendor and the brass, in particular, to show its considerable mettle (and metal). But the necessities of a concert performance, with the orchestra behind the singers rather than in a pit, mean that extra vocal heft is required simply to be heard above the instruments, and that is something that only Halfvarson and Shenyang possess here to an extent sufficient to allow them to emote as well as sing. Barkmin does do a more-than-creditable job under these difficult circumstances – her lament for Siegfried after his death is an emotional high point of the entire production – but her somewhat bland vocal quality makes her performance inconsistent. Van Zweden’s performance is, too, and ultimately it is the conductor’s responsibility to meld all the disparate elements of a highly complex work such as Götterdämmerung into a convincing whole. Van Zweden does not quite manage to do that: this is an admirable Götterdämmerung in many ways, but it is short on grandeur, short on tragedy, and short on the pervasive sense of coming doom that the best versions of this monumental work possess. It is a good performance, at times a fine one, but it is not the Götterdämmerung that van Zweden’s accomplishments in the earlier Ring operas with the Hong Kong Philharmonic would lead listeners to expect.