Das Rheingold

Valery Gergiev
Mariinsky Theatre Symphony Orchestra
7-10 June 2010
17-18 February, 10 April 2012
Concert Hall Mariinsky Theatre St Petersburg
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanRené Pape
DonnerAlexei Markow
FrohSergei Semishkur
LogeStephan Rügamer
FasoltJewgeni Nikitin
FafnerMichail Petrenko
AlberichNikolai Putilin
MimeAndrei Popow
FrickaEkaterina Gubanova
FreiaViktoria Yastrebova
ErdaZlata Bulycheva
WoglindeZhanna Dombrovskaya
WellgundeIrina Vasilieva
FloßhildeEkaterina Sergeeva

The Mariinsky follows up its Walküre with Wagner’s great prequel

For reasons best known to themselves (perhaps to capitalise on an A-list cast) the Mariinsky launched its series of live Ring Cycle recordings with the second opera of the tetralogy, an acclaimed Die Walküre. Now they’ve backtracked to Das Rheingold, Wagner’s “Vorabend” (“preliminary evening) and if the names in the frame aren’t all as familiar as Walküre’s, fear not: this is a top shelf cast in a musically and dramatically involving performance.

René Pape brings serious star wattage as Wotan, of course, and he’s a majestic but lyrical god, singing with meltingly beautiful timbre and a Lieder-like intensity whose relative lack of thunder only heightens our nervous anticipation of the storms ahead. A supersized, sonorous wife would be at odds with his suave Wotan, so Ekaterina Gubanova is a well-chosen Fricka, singing on a similarly elegant scale and with a beguiling hint of soprano-ish silver.

Of their offspring, it’s Alexey Markov whose clarion Donner makes the most vivid impression, though there’s little to fault in either Viktoria Yastrebova’s Freia or Sergei Semishkur’s Froh. Stephan Rügamer’s slender, high-lying tenor (the kind one half expects to break into Britten at any moment) brings unctuous relish and pointed detail to Loge, while Andrei Popov’s Mime takes the more traditional character tenor route, indulging in nasal, Igor-esque effects which, thankfully, he has the nous to pull off and which contrast tellingly with Rügamer’s slicked-back charm.

As his craven overlord, Nikolai Putilin’s Alberich is very much the dark, grim opposite of Pape’s Wotan, singing with forceful tone and guttural gusto; it’s not the most variegated vocal portrayal, but it’s quite compelling, and Putilin’s solid energy mostly compensates for his fairly haphazard German diction. Evgeny Nikitin and Mikhail Petrenko warm to their roles as Fasolt and Fafner respectively, Zlata Bulycheva’s Erda strikes an eerie note, and the Rheinmaidens who book-end the work – Zhanna Dombrovskaya (Woglinde), Irina Vasilieva (Wellgunde) and Ekaterina Sergeeva (Flosshilde) – are a nicely matched, if slightly earthbound trio.

There’s not much comedy in Gergiev’s reading of the score, which dwells on the solemn, stately side of Rheingold. The laughs are hardly missed though, among such sumptuous, immersive playing as the Mariinsky Orchestra provides. A stickler for chronological order, I’ve yet to hear their Walküre, but if this striking Rheingold is any indication, the entire cycle is certainly one worth following.

Sarah Noble | February 27, 2014

The Guardian

The first opera in Wagner’s Ring Cycle is the second to be taken from the Mariinsky’s concert performances in St Petersburg – Die Walküre is out already. True to form, Valery Gergiev tackles Wagner with the same excitement he brings to all his music-making. With that intensity comes a waywardness, usually concerning tempi. In the prelude the Rhine seems ready to burst its banks far too soon. When the giants Fasolt and Fafner arrive they do so almost in slow motion. But then the pace settles. Most of the cast, led by René Pape as Wotan, are strong though some of the diction is indistinct. The orchestra is superb. All told this is a characterful and compelling account. Siegfried and Götterdämmerung follow next year.

Fiona Maddocks | 1 September 2013

Opera Today

Das Rheingold launches what is perhaps the single most ambitious project in opera, Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Equal parts self-perpetuating mythology, convention-defying musical thesis, and expression of an unfettered ego, the Ring forever changed the landscape of opera: whether composers of subsequent generations embraced or discarded the examples of Wagner’s monumental tetralogy, it is undeniable that their works could not avoid responding to the innovations of Bayreuth. In this year of honoring Wagner on the occasion of the bicentennial of his birth, his influence is more omnipresent than ever, both in the world’s opera houses and concert halls and in new releases by record labels large and small. This recording of Das Rheingold is the second installment in the complete Mariinsky Ring conducted by Valery Gergiev, and it upholds the high standards of performance values and state-of-the-art recording technology set in the previously-released recording of Die Walküre. Despite the presence of German singers in two of the most critical rôles in the opera, this Rheingold also continues the welcome exploration of Wagner interpretation and performance traditions beyond Bayreuth and established centers of Wagnerian history. The aftershocks of the Ring were felt strongly in Russia: elements of Wagner’s innovations invaded the scores of Russian composers, and Russia’s most celebrated composer of the 19th Century, Tchaikovsky, was of course present for the first complete performance of the Ring at Bayreuth in 1876. It was only after the fall of the Iron Curtain that the work of Russian singers in Wagner’s operas started to achieve recognition outside of Soviet theatres, however. For instance, Evgeny Nikitin, who sings Fasolt in this performance of Das Rheingold, has sung the same part, as well as Pogner in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Klingsor in the controversial new production of Parsifal by François Girard, at the Metropolitan Opera. Its other artistic merits notwithstanding, this Mariinsky recording preserves the singing of some of Russia’s best Wagnerians and, with its richly-balanced sonics, gives Wagner’s score an opportunity to fully reveal its wonders via one of the world’s great orchestras.

The players of the Mariinsky Orchestra indeed confirm their ensemble’s competitiveness with the best orchestras in the world, especially among those that regularly perform the music of Wagner, playing with attention to detail that proves especially useful in clearly delineating statements of Leitmotivs even when these are woven deeply into the musical fabric. The strings play with full-bodied tone and wonderfully reliable intonation, and the playing of the brass section is often appropriately ferocious. More so in Rheingold than in their performance of Walküre, orchestral sonorities are adapted to the rapidly-changing drama: the brutal sound world of the Nibelungen is adroitly contrasted with the more nuanced environs of the gods, and the primordial discord from which the Rhinemaidens emerge to introduce the Leitmotiv that will serve them throughout the Ring is viscerally conveyed. Perhaps owing to the circumstances of having recorded the opera during concert performances, some of Wagner’s most emblematic ‘special effects’ here are not quite special. The thunder summoned by Donner is decidedly earthbound, and the anvils at which the Nibelung dwarves work sound more like wind chimes, played with splendid rhythmic vitality though they are. Nonetheless, the Orchestra’s playing is never less than excellent and, in many passages, rises to genuine greatness.

Perhaps no other conductor in the storied history of music in Russia has made the music of Wagner his own, both in Russia and abroad, more than Valery Gergiev has done. His conducting of this performance of Das Rheingold exposes both the strengths and the weaknesses of Maestro Gergiev’s approach to conducting Wagner. He has a natural ear for orchestral colors, and his direction of the purely instrumental episodes in Das Rheingold is superb. The opera’s first pages, in which Wagner memorably captured the undulations of the Rhine in unsettled music, are shaped by Maestro Gergiev with expert command of the strange, sinister sonorities. When the Rhinemaidens ascend from the depths, reservations about Maestro Gergiev’s pacing of the performance start to rise to the surface, as well. The irony of the Rhinemaidens’ taunting of Alberich is present, but the playfulness of the scene is absent. As the performance progresses, moments of fantastic dramatic vibrancy alternate with passages that hang fire. Wotan’s and Loge’s descent to Nibelheim is depicted with power, but the preceding scene in which the giants Fafner and Fasolt take Freia hostage goes for little. Alberich’s curse lacks focus, and though the orchestral playing is sublime the famous Entry of the gods into Valhalla does not have the sense of wonder that it can—and should—possess. Maestro Gergiev is a musician of undoubted accomplishment, and there are stretches of this performance of Das Rheingold that suggest that he can be a memorably eloquent Wagnerian. Das Rheingold is the briefest of the Ring operas, however, and the one in which scenes progress with almost cinematic legerity. Though the duration of this performance suggests that Maestro Gergiev’s pacing is not dissimilar from the speeds at which some of the most illustrious Wagnerians of the 20th Century conducted Das Rheingold, there is a lack of momentum that robs the performance of dramatic impetus. Maestro Gergiev provides moments of exhilarating theatricality, but the performance as a whole is marred by patches of dullness.

Das Rheingold begins and ends with songs of the Rhinemaidens. All three Rhinemaidens in this performance—soprano Zhanna Dombrovskaya as Woglinde, soprano Irina Vasilieva as Wellgunde, and mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Sergeeva as Floßhilde, all of whom were also heard as Valkyries in the Mariinsky Walküre—sing well, with Ms. Dombrovskaya particularly impressing with her voicing of Woglinde’s high lines. The ladies do not prove quite so euphonious in trio as they are individually, but their voices are admirably secure.

The giants Fafner and Fasolt are sung with almost demonic relish by basses Mikhail Petrenko and Evgeny Nikitin. Mr. Petrenko, Hunding at the Metropolitan Opera in 2008 and in the Mariinsky recording of Die Walküre, here sings Fafner, the dark timbre of his voice again proving apt for his part. So nasty are the utterances of Mr. Petrenko’s Fafner that it is surprising neither that he murders his own brother in a jealous quarrel nor that he returns in Siegfried as a dragon: in Rheingold, he is already repulsively reptilian. Mr. Nikitin’s Fasolt is also a truly off-putting creation, the singer’s singular timbre filling Fasolt’s vocal lines with chilling effectiveness. The maddening arrogance with which both singers enact their characters’ interactions with their colleagues is enjoyably disturbing: that one brother should ultimately slay the other seems inevitable. Both gentlemen indulge in rather more snarling than is necessary to convey the sentiments of their parts, but their singing is firm and forceful.

Fricka’s trio of siblings is strongly cast. Singing Freia with a clear, bright voice, soprano Viktoria Yastrebova gives an expressive performance. Her Freia is appropriately unnerved by her abduction, and her pleas for Wotan’s assistance are voiced with suitable ardor. Ms. Yastrebova’s voice is occasionally strident when pressure is applied at the top of the range, but Freia’s dramatic situation is hardly conducive to smooth singing. Under siege by satyrs of the likes of Mr. Petrenko’s Fafner and Mr. Nikitin’s Fasolt, Freia’s terror is justified. It might be said that her brothers are not the most intellectually advanced residents of Valhalla, but they can be interesting when sung by attentive singers. Tenor Sergei Semishkur makes Froh a kindly presence whose concern for his sister is touching: words of comfort seem to come more naturally to him than threats, but there are flashes of masculine pride in his performance. Vocally, Mr. Semishkur has a narrow timbre and must occasionally push the voice in order to be heard. Donner is sung by baritone Alexei Markov, whose noble tone is often lovely. Like Mr. Semishkur, Mr. Markov is sometimes compelled to force his voice in order to make his intended effects, but he, too, proves convincing in his defense of Freia and summons the best of his vocal resources for a ringing account of Donner’s raising of the storm.

Tenor Andrei Popov, acclaimed in stratospheric tenore contraltino parts in Russian operas like the Astrologer in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel, is an animated, audibly disgruntled Mime: it is obvious in Mr. Popov’s singing that the seeds of Mime’s hatred for Alberich take root in Das Rheingold. Mr. Popov’s performances relies overmuch on Sprechstimme, but the voice—when deployed without distortion—is an instrument of quality. The repertory of German tenor Stephan Rügamer includes both lyric rôles and parts traditionally associated with larger voices. As Loge in this performance, Mr. Rügamer achieves with projection what several of his colleagues accomplish with effort. Expectedly, Mr. Rügamer’s diction is excellent, and his performance confirms the great extent to which an effective performance of Loge relies upon a sharp tongue. Mr. Rügamer’s Loge rides the crests of Wagner’s orchestra impressively, putting across every word with spontaneity and the appearance of legitimate cleverness. Mr. Rügamer’s Loge is a figure who knows too much in a world in which knowledge is dangerous. Singing suggestively but with dignity, it is apparent that from the entrance to Valhalla Mr. Rügamer’s Loge already sees the smoke of Siegfried’s funeral pyre rising on the horizon.

Mezzo-soprano Zlata Bulycheva, whose repertory at the Mariinsky contains an array of the most demanding rôles in the mezzo-soprano canon, is a dark-voiced Erda, her warnings to Wotan delivered with unerring accuracy of intonation. The part’s lowest notes challenge Ms. Bulycheva, but the upper extension of the rôle, so troubling to many singers, is delivered with energy and command. There is a slight grittiness in Ms. Bulycheva’s timbre that contributes to the credibility of her portrayal of the primeval earth goddess.

The most indelible portrayals of Alberich are those that inspire sympathy for the character’s hardships despite his savagery and inhumanity. It can be argued that all of his viciousness is born of an unfulfilled desire for acceptance. In his first encounter with the Rhinemaidens in Das Rheingold, his naïveté in failing to comprehend that any creatures could be so unkind as to mock him can be quite piteous, causing his devolution into sociopathic behavior to be all the more shocking. Unfortunately, there is little to pity in the Alberich of baritone Nikolai Putilin. Raging at the world from his first entrance, this is an Alberich who seems unhesitatingly resolved to take the Rhinemaidens by force were they not capable of eluding his grasp. His glee in torturing Mime whilst rendered invisible by the Tarnhelm borders on sadism, and his stupidity and impetuosity when confronted by Wotan and Loge deprive the character of any redeeming qualities. This is a defensible interpretation of the part, but it lessens the emotional impact of the individual-versus-society subtext that is central to the Ring. Vocally, Mr. Putilin is inclined to bark his lines, especially in heated exchanges, but he shows himself capable of singing handsomely and phrasing intelligently: were these qualities in greater supply, his performance could be more completely enjoyed.

Ekaterina Gubanova complements her performance of the Walküre Fricka with this depiction of the same character in Das Rheingold. In Walküre, she was already ‘inside’ the rôle, her vocal bearing regal but womanly. In Rheingold, where the subject of Fricka’s indignation is her husband’s self-serving use of her sister as a bargaining chip in his quest for omnipotence, Ms. Gubanova is even more palpably engaged as a singer and an artist. When this Fricka pleads with Wotan for justice for Freia, it is as an exceptionally insightful woman who loves her husband but is awakening to the depths of treachery of which he is capable. One of the most critical catalysts of the drama in the Ring is the fact that, in both Rheingold and Walküre, Fricka has the upper hand, wielding moral authority over Wotan. Few singers have conveyed this more perceptively than Ms. Gubanova, and her transformation from devoted spouse to protector of the values upon which her husband treads is perhaps the single most engrossing aspect of this performance. The Fricka who enters Valhalla at the end of Rheingold in this performance is already the justifiably implacable woman whose pursuit of moral rectitude changes the course of the Ring in Act Two of Walküre. Musically, Ms. Gubanova brings to her performance a tightly-constructed, warmly feminine voice with reserves of power for climaxes. She is unbothered by troubles at either end of her range, her lower register focused and well-supported and her top notes hurled out fearlessly. Fricka is a difficult to rôle to bring off without veering into caricature: Ms. Gubanova succeeds where many fine singers have failed.

Having fallen victim to some of the rôle’s dramatic and vocal pitfalls in the Mariinsky Walküre, René Pape here finds the Rheingold Wotan a more congenial assignment. The basic timbre remains quite beautiful, but in Rheingold Mr. Pape is spared the more arduous ascents into the upper register that Wotan faces in Walküre. In this performance, Mr. Pape’s Wotan is a subtle figure, and the nobility of his singing is unchanged. In a sense, Mr. Pape’s Wotan seems a sheltered character, his response to Alberich’s depravity and curse almost like the horror of an idealistic man encountering the mean vagaries of reality for the first time. There is in this Wotan’s obsession with the ring more of a sense of wounded pride than of lust for power. Still, there is a bluntness in Mr. Pape’s delivery that diminishes the cumulative force of his performance. There is little is his singing to differentiate Wotan’s attitudes in scenes with Alberich and Loge from his questioning of Erda or exchanges with Fricka: the largesse of the part is there, but the angst and fatalism have not yet entered into Mr. Pape’s concept of Wotan. Not surprisingly, his voicing of the greeting to Valhalla is expertly phrased and sustained with tremendous breath control, and the sheer impact of the sound of the voice cannot be denied. Not least because he is a bass in what is unquestionably a bass-baritone rôle, Wotan will never be an easy sing for Mr. Pape, but when he manages to ally a more complete identification with the dramatic profile of the part with his mahogany-hued singing of the music he will be an extraordinary Wotan.

Das Rheingold is the foundation upon which the Ring is built, and there is considerable logic evident in the fact that Wagner conceived Rheingold after Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung had taken shape. For all that it serves as an introduction to the events that shape the Ring in the next three operas, Rheingold is a spellbinding opera in its own right; one with musical and dramatic elements that create their own unique microcosm, both inextricably linked to what transpires in the later operas and fully functional without the context of the full Ring. Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky forces here offer a flawed but earnest performance of this endlessly alluring opera. With a perpetuation of the lofty standards of singing and orchestral playing almost certain, it will be interesting to hear how the famously passionate Maestro Gergiev responds to the more complicated architectures of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.

Joseph Newsome | 09 Sep 2013

Opera News

The installments of Valery Gergiev’s St. Petersburg Ring cycle are appearing out of order. An unfulfilling recording of Die Walküre was released first, perhaps owing to the salability of the opera and the glamorous cast. Backing up for Das Rheingold, we find a higher-quality performance. The three acts of Walküre were recorded during three widely-spaced periods in 2011 and 2012, perhaps contributing to the scattershot effect of the final product. Das Rheingold, as it happens, was recorded concurrently with some of those dates, but it is a different sort of opera from Walküre (one with many more characters and disparate kinds of music), and Gergiev leads a more solid performance. The orchestra, too, is in better form, with particularly fine work in the trombone section and in the violins’ flickering music for Loge, if perhaps not reaching the nearly unbelievable level of Berlin’s Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra in Marek Janowski’s complementary ongoing Ring cycle on PentaTone.

Gergiev does some effective things, particularly in the transition from the first scene to the second, which is well sustained and full of character, and in Loge’s explanation of the effects of Freia’s absence on the health of the gods. Gergiev keeps revitalizing the accompaniments under Donner’s and Froh’s solos in Scene Four. Elsewhere, ideas that initially succeed end up outlasting their usefulness. Fricka’s narration, beginning at “Um des Gatten Treue besorgt,” is deadly slow at first, an interesting portrayal of her real hurt and regret at Wotan’s inconstancy, but it soon falls apart. Loge’s narration about the Rhinemaidens loses a sense of intention. The giants move at a remarkably slow tempo; it’s striking at first, but by Scene Four they just seem out of gas. Erda’s solo has the sense of directionless playing that is usually heard in rehearsals when a conductor stops leading and goes out into the hall to listen for balance, but here Gergiev is saddled with Zlata Bulycheva, a singer who is tremulous from first note to last, and who has a creative approach to German pronunciation.

The three leading roles are thoughtfully cast. René Pape’s Wotan, much in favor in Europe but as yet unheard in the U.S., has an unusual bent. The idea in Scene Two is that, as the king of the gods, Wotan has never had much to worry about in his life, and he is thus slow to realize that his situation is now serious. He is quite considerate and playful with Fricka, putting a new spin on their later scene in Die Walküre. Nikolai Putilin is a fine vocal actor, showing Alber­ich’s gallant submission to the Rhinemaidens in the first scene, when he thinks he still may have a chance with them, an implacably commanding confidence in Scene 3, and the sense of a crafty mind working overtime when things get desperate in Scene 4. Stephan Rügamer’s Loge is a performance geared to the microphone (which, after all, is the situation here), and he does beautifully with the oily, traveling-salesman side of the character.

Among the comprimario singers, Mikhail Petrenko’s Fafner gives us a true, appealing storybook giant, paired with a more human Fasolt from Evgeny Nikitin, while Alexey Markov is luxury casting as Donner. Ekaterina Gubanova sings well as Fricka, as she did in Gergiev’s Walküre. If there are puzzling moments in Gergiev’s work — how can there be no magic whatsoever in the music for the Tarnhelm, and why does the performance virtually stall after Fafner’s exit in Scene 4? — this Rheingold succeeds overall. But Janowski’s version unquestionably trumps it. spacer

WILLIAM R. BRAUN | December 2013 — Vol. 78, No. 6

The Gramophone

Like the first instalment of the Mariinsky Ring (Die Walküre, 5/13), this recording of Das Rheingold is the result of several separate sessions, one spread over four days in 2010, then three days in 2012. The booklet gives no further details, though the sustained freshness of the singers suggests that the process was more like that of the old-style studio recording than a series of complete concert performances. It might be to compensate for this that such a vividly theatrical atmosphere is created; so much so that the absence of sound effects of the kind an actual staging would involve can seem positively surreal.

In Die Walküre, Mike Ashman noted that, as Wotan, René Pape ‘seems obsessed with remaining noble; he never sounds angry…or bitter’. In Das Rheingold Pape might well have quailed at the thought of appearing alongside three of the Mariinsky’s most formidable bass-baritones – four if Donner is included – and although his superbly well-sung performance is far from monotonously dignified, Pape wisely avoids the histrionic extremes of Nikolai Putilin’s Alberich. Putlin’s anguished outburst during the early stages of scene 4 is electrifying on first hearing but will probably pall on repetition; and Mime, too, is less plaintively downbeat than usual. But there are no weak links in this cast: Fricka, Loge, Fasolt and Fafner are all as good as any of the recently recorded rivals you might care to name, and enunciation of the German text is, with only occasional exceptions, appropriately idiomatic.

What Mike Ashman hears as ‘the decidedly un Western sound of Gergiev and his orchestra’ remains a feature here, and, as with Walküre, ‘a dramatic advantage to this opera’s tense underlay’, not just when the brass are given their head, but with some unusually vibrant string textures. Gergiev usually avoids the more extravagant reining-back of momentum in which he has indulged in the past, though the entry of the giants in scene 2 is exceptionally slow and as a result risks comical exaggeration. Nevertheless, the uniquely euphoric spirit of The Ring’s prelude emerges with irresistible conviction as the compelling drama unfolds.

Arnold Whittall

MusicWeb-International.com (I)

This recording was made over three sessions in 2010 and 2012, presumably covering the availability of soloists. Whilst most of this cast is based at the Mariinsky, at least two, René Pape and Stephan Rügamer, are not. This large gap in recording sessions might also explain the change of gear in the performance noticed during the review audition, when after the descent to Nibelheim, things seemed more energetic. The transfer is fairly low level, but given the wide dynamic range it would not be wise to turn up the opening scene too high. I raised the volume, if my system controller is to be believed, by around 5 dB. The sound throughout, after this change, is detailed and rich for the orchestra but less convincing for the soloists who are backwardly balanced, placing them almost within the orchestra. I am sure they were not, but that is how they sound. Freia and Erda are still more distant. In Erda’s case this may be justified but not for Freia. The rear channels contribute little, not even much spaciousness. The documentation is very good, including an interesting essay entitled Wagner, Russia and Das Rheingold. The libretto has a good German/English parallel translation with all Wagner’s stage directions.

In Scene 1 the Rhinemaidens are not very clear, an immediate consequence of the rather backward recording of voices but it may also reflect the rather vague German of the soloists. Alberich is well enough sung but not as incisive as a German singer would be so that little of his anger and frustration comes over. When his attention is drawn to the gold he needs more forcefulness. This is after all the first of many key moments. The orchestra by contrast is detailed and has great impact. They are the most heroic performers in the scene. Scene 2 brings in Wotan sung by René Pape, an internationally known soloist who, naturally, sounds very at home with the German. Fricka is well sung by Ekaterina Gubanova who sounds almost as good as she did in Barenboim’s wondrous Rheingold in this summer’s BBC Proms (2013). Freia has to enter from the distance but unfortunately stays there and this does damage the impact of all her appearances. Compared to the brilliant Anna Samuil heard at the above Prom she just fails to make an impression. The giants never make it to the front either, perhaps partly because of Gergiev’s slow tempo for their grand entry. Both Fasolt and Fafner are however very well sung. Loge enters from afar too, thus his words are less than ideally clear, but he does make a more forward impact as the story develops. By now it is obvious that Gergiev is dealing with the broad strokes of Wagner’s dramatic painting. Dramatic moments pass without the attention one gets from Solti and Barenboim for example. When Wagner asks for a ‘general stir’ amongst the gods, nothing happens to the musical flow. The discussion between Loge, Wotan, Donner and Froh about the significance of the ring is another scene that lacks dramatic pointing. The sonorous orchestra helps obscure rather than highlight details here too. So much happens in Rheingold compared to the other three parts of Der Ring that such an undifferentiated approach leaves too much unsaid. After the surprisingly high speed departure of the giants – they must be much buoyed by having Freia with them – the gods age without the necessary atmospheric accompaniment.

We have a slow dissolve to Scene 3 and the descent into Nibelheim. There are splendid clangs from the anvils and a supercharged orchestra. After a brief exchange between Alberich and Mime, disc one ends. This break is neither better nor worse than any other turnover point and interestingly it heralds the abovementioned change of gear. Andrei Popov seems much more willing to characterise his role and he turns in a superb Mime, such that Alberich begins to sound altogether more involved. Since he is now in charge of the newly forged ring, indeed he is the eponymous Nibelung in Der Ring des Nibelungen, it is just as well that he does sound involved. It pays immediate dividends in the confrontation between Mime, Alberich, Wotan and Loge who now all sound as though they care about events. The whole performance lifts and gains impetus. When Loge intervenes to keep Alberich and Wotan from each others’ throats the orchestra really begins to drive the drama. This continues when Alberich turns into a giant serpent though the engineers seem to hold back the climax. The ascent from the depths is perhaps less forceful than it might be but the orchestra sounds marvellous. Scene 4 sees the Nibelung slaves carrying the gold back to the surface. Here the orchestra sounds magnificent and the big climax is terrific. Alberich, having been relieved of the ring delivers a superb curse. When the arguments between the gods and giants reach an impasse Erda’s voice is heard as if from a great distance. This works well and makes her pronouncements suitably portentous. Wotan hands over the ring and the curse takes effect. The giants argue – convincingly so in the hands of Evgeny Nikitin and Mikhail Petrenko – before Fafner kills Fasolt. This draws from the orchestral brass a great curse motif. Donner’s hammer is typically inaudible – we all miss Solti here – and the thunderstorm is more beautiful than cathartic. Wotan’s salute to Valhalla could do with a bit more gravitas than it gets here. The Rhinemaidens call piteously from the distance, this time appropriately for the drama, and the orchestra gets the last word. Nothing can erase memories of Solti in this final section, though, as proved by Barenboim at the Proms, a less histrionic approach can be mightily impressive.

This set is well worth hearing but it has its problems and it could never be seen as the Rheingold for a collection. Gergiev holds one’s attention and the orchestra are lovely to listen to. The recording favours the orchestra over the singers so perhaps that is the reason. Up against Solti, Barenboim, Böhm and Karajan, all in good to excellent sound, this one doesn’t quite cut the mustard. For SACD maybe one should try Janowski on Pentatone, but since I haven’t heard it, I’ll say no more.

Dave Billinge

MusicWeb-International.com (II)

When record companies embark on a complete Ring it’s often Die Walküre that they release first. There can be several reasons for this; most often it’s because Walküre is the most popular opera in the cycle and so you can guarantee some sales. Sometimes it’s to give a flavour of the conductor’s approach before embarking on the more expository style of Rheingold. Both of these may well be true of Gergiev’s Ring, but I fear that another reason lies behind their decision to release Rheingold second. That is that, after such an excellent Walküre as the one they released earlier in 2013, this Rheingold is nowhere near the top flight.

There’s a very mellifluous prelude, in which Gergiev generates a fantastic sense of momentum so that you feel that the music just about reaches breaking point by the entrance of the Rhinemaidens. After that things get off to a bad start with a formulaic, run-of-the-mill opening scene. It’s perfectly capably sung, but the trio of Rhinemaidens and, especially, Nikolai Putilin’s Alberich feels very much like they are going through the motions. Perhaps it’s the consequence of a concert performance, but that’s no excuse when you compare it with, say, Janowski’s recent version which was recorded in similar circumstances. Alberich’s flirtation with the Rhinemaidens lacks any sense of playfulness, mockery or malice; they might as well be singing hymns for all the emotional investment they put in. The Rhinemaidens don’t seem in the least bit excited about the unveiling of the gold so that their shrieks when Alberich steals it are decidedly unconvincing. Nor, until the last possible moment, does Putilin sound in any way energised by the prospect of the power that the gold will bring him.

Things improve with the second scene, for this introduces René Pape whose Wotan was so impressive in Walküre, and it remains so here. His opening peroration to the finished castle is superb, full of hope, nobility and high-minded aspiration, and his single – or should that be simple? – minded determination to avoid paying with Freia is convincing in the simplicity of its conviction. There is palpable frustration in his voice when the giants ask for the Rhinegold as payment instead of Freia and he toys effectively with Alberich in the fourth scene. His self-confidence then gives way to deep-seated insecurity, even fear after Erda’s appearance and he sounds deeply reflective after Fasolt’s murder. However, he sounds tired by the time of the final monologue, and the first appearance of the sword theme seems to push him too far beyond his comfort zone. It’s the only thing that blots an otherwise excellent performance.

Stephan Rügamer is thin of voice for Loge, but I rather liked his interpretation because the lighter colour is never less than attractive to listen to, and it adds to the character’s slippery sense of cunning. Gubanova’s Fricka grew on me after a rather anonymous start and, thankfully, Putilin’s Alberich finds some energy by the time of the third scene as he describes his designs on the gods. He fumes and fulminates brilliantly when the hoard is confiscated, though there is no need for him to lapse into screaming as he does at the end. His delivery of the curse is good, however, combining malice and frustration very convincingly, and making you wonder anew why he didn’t put more conviction into the first scene.

Much of what is on offer elsewhere, however, is distinctly mediocre. On paper the duo of Evgeny Nikitin and Mikhail Petrenko look like a dream pair of giants, but in fact Nikitin is a shouty and banal Fasolt. Petrenko is better because his Fafner has a hint of evil about him, even as he describes Freia’s golden apples in his first appearance, and his murder of his brother seems like the natural conclusion for this character. At times Sergei Semishkur is barely audible as Froh, though Alexei Markov summons Donner’s thunderclouds fairly convincingly. Regrettably the thwack of the timpani when the hammer strikes the rock is terrible bathos. The voice of Zlata Bulycheva sounds as though it has been electronically enhanced for Erda, which is an unnecessary mistake as she sounds perfectly good as she is. Andrei Popov gives his all as Mime and makes you wish he had been given more to do, even if he isn’t always exactly tuneful.

Gergiev keeps the transitions moving quickly, and the transformation from the first to second scenes works particularly well with a quick-paced attack on the Rhine music before giving way to the more elevated evocations of the lofty heights. There are plenty of times, though, where his vast dramatic experience seems to desert him completely, such as the appalling slowing up of the tempo for the entrance of the giants. Even worse, he slows down unforgivably during the moment when Wotan wrests the ring from Alberich’s finger, sapping the dramatic tension fatally and belying all of his experience in the theatre. Furthermore, the tempo is all over the place for the final scene; too slow for the appearance of the rainbow bridge and Wotan’s monologue, then too rushed for the final climax. On the plus side, the descent into Nibelheim is exciting, without being thrilling, and Gergiev is helped by an unusually tuneful set of anvils. The orchestral playing is good, and they rise capably to the climaxes, such as the appearance of the dragon or the finale with the rainbow bridge, but they’re not quite at the elevated level that they achieved in Walküre, and it’s hard to know why. Perhaps it’s because there are fewer international heavyweights in the cast, or perhaps it’s down to the very spread out dates for recording, no explanation for which is given.

Anyhow, now that we’re half-way through the Mariinsky Ring it’s a clear case of one hit and one near-miss. This Rheingold is fair enough but it in no way stands up to the other live experience of Janowski’s version, never mind the still incomparable Solti Rheingold from 1958 or Karajan’s 1967 version which I’m also extremely fond of. Which, then, will prove the norm for Gergiev’s Ring: the thrilling passion of Walküre or the slightly insipid, formulaic approach of Rheingold? Maybe we’ll find out with the arrival of Siegfried.

Simon Thompson


Doch kein Referenz-„Ring“

Unter der Leitung von Valery Gergiev spielt das Mariinsky Orchestra mit Ekaterina Gubanova, Stephan Rügamer, René Pape und Nikolai Putilin Wagners Rheingold

Nach einer Fünf-Sterne-Walküre Anfang des Jahres legt das Mariinsky Theater jetzt mit dem Rheingold nach, wiederum als Live-Mitschnitt. Hatte Valery Gergiev in der Walküre der weitgehend deutschen Besetzung zwei russische (sauber deutsch artikulierende) Sänger beigefügt, dreht er jetzt den Spieß um: Mit René Pape als autoritativem Wotan und dem exzellenten lyrischen Loge von Stephan Rügamer sind gerade einmal zwei Muttersprachler mit von der Partie. Gergiev, der orchestral erneut durchweg überzeugt, scheint Das Rheingold im russischen Alleingang bewältigen zu wollen – eine fatale Entscheidung. Was Nikolai Putilins Alberich da an groteskem Kauderwelsch bietet, ist eine Zumutung. Nicht viel besser der Mime von Andrei Popov, der wie eine schlechte Karikatur daherkommt. So wird es trotz (sehr) guter sängerischer Leistungen definitiv nichts mit einem neuen Referenz-Ring, schade.

Michael Blümke | 6. August 2013

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