James Levine
New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
10 April 1993
Metropolitan Opera House New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegfriedWilliam Johns
MimeHeinz Zednik
WotanJames Morris
AlberichEkkehard Wlaschiha
FafnerMatti Salminen
ErdaAnne Gjevang
BrünnhildeGwyneth Jones
WaldvogelHeidi Grant Murphy
The New York Times

‘Ring’ Moves On to ‘Siegfried’

The Metropolitan Opera’s first performance of Wagner’s “Siegfried” this season — as the third entry in its Saturday matinee “Ring” cycle — was a reminder that any mounting of this opera is a heroic effort that can seem as foolhardy as the title character’s ventures. The most imposing task is in casting: to find a tenor who, over more than five hours, is able to sustain good tone, often in a high tessitura, and create nuanced interpretations against an orchestra often blaring fortissimo. This tenor must also seem hopelessly callow and blustery one hour (“a regular Li’l Abner type,” Anna Russell once said) and incurably passionate the next. And at the end of his quest he must find a soprano of surpassing power to justify the first love duet in Wagner’s cosmic history, leaving far behind the opera’s fairy-tale dragon, shattered sword and riddle-posing god.

There was a fair amount of heroism in this performance (as listeners to the radio broadcast would have heard), but there was also a fair amount of effort. Siegfried, found after much scrambling around in the minuscule heldentenor circuit, was William Johns. He has enough of the equipment and physical stamina to provide an often respectable rendering, itself no mean feat. For all the artifice of the part and the posing, there was some palpable energy in the sword-forging, and even, in blunt fashion, in the final duet.

But Siegfried is also the embodiment of Germanic ideas about will and consciousness; he must seem to be a life force coming to know itself. In Mr. Johns’s singing, that element of growing reflection rarely became relevant. He tended to punch out individual notes in moments of high passion, breaking the line; many phrases ended abruptly and artificially. And there were many times when the words did not make much difference in the delivery; there was little difference between the Siegfried reflecting about his mother and the Siegfried finding the Tarnhelm. When there was variation in expression (and vocal register), Mr. Johns’s voice seemed to take on radically different character, leaving stitches when there should have been coherence.

Gwyneth Jones was his sleeping beauty, Brunnhilde. She was far more attentive to pitch than she was last week in “Die Walkure,” but her vibrato is still too wide to lend credence to her character’s divine origins. The opera’s final scene had a militant air about it, the two lovers aggressively declaiming, their movements awkwardly staged around a hole in the floor through which Erda had arisen a half-hour earlier. Nevertheless, the characters’ muscular projections, combined with James Levine’s driving conducting in the pit, gave some motivation for Ms. Jones’s final high C.

This is an opera of successive dialogues, each encounter occurring between two characters in a struggle for knowledge and power. Siegfried benefited from his other foils. Heinz Zednick has mastered the role of Mime. He captured the teasing, nervous rhythms Wagner wrote into the score. The almost childlike sway of his recollection of Siegfried’s infancy was as touching as his bewilderment as he dooms himself with compulsive confessions. Ekkehard Wlaschiha’s Alberich was also powerful; Mr. Wlaschiha gives Alberich’s whining a virile force.

As for James Morris’s Wotan, it has become the dominant interpretation of this part and is gaining in expressive nuance. Mr. Morris sometimes tends to hit notes from below, but there is much thought behind what happens once they are hit. Anne Gjevang’s contralto gave Erda the appropriate sheen of womanly melancholy, although it was a puzzle why Erda was forced by the costume designer, Rolf Langenfass, to writhe about sensuously in webbing, like a fly caught by a Wagnerian spider.

The arachnidan role, at any rate, seemed reserved for Fafner in the second act, in which the most problems with this traditional production by Otto Schenk also emerged. A ramp circles around a shallow crevice hiding the dragon (whose miked words were intoned by Matti Salminen); with a single eye like a woozy Cyclops, teeth like those of Sigourney Weaver’s “Alien” nemesis and giant limbs like rotting trees, he was difficult to take seriously. Gunther Schneider-Siemssen’s set created an ancient, slightly ruined forest without allowing it to give way to the youthful greenery heard in Wagner’s Forest Murmurs. Mr. Levine let the score splinter at times, missing the powerfully dramatic arch he brought to “Die Walkure,” but he was in full command of its detail, managing to suggest Wagner’s journey along with Siegfried’s. For between the second and third acts passed 12 years in which “Tristan und Isolde” and “Die Meistersinger” were composed. The third-act music is more intricately layered; the motifs are more intricately interwoven. Wagner, like Siegfried, was then ready to take on the themes of love and death.

Edward Rothstein | April 12, 1993

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 553 MByte (MP3)
A production by Otto Schenk (1988)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.