Der Ring des Nibelungen

Simon Rattle
Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper
30 May 2015 (R), 31 May 2015 (W)
4 June 2015 (S), 7 June 2015 (G)
Staatsoper Wien
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio

Das Rheingold

Die Walküre



Wagner in Vienna – Simon Rattle is the new Lord of the Rings

In comparison to other contemporary and more scandal ridden Ring cycles, Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s 2009 production for the Vienna State Opera with Rolf and Marianne Glittenberg’s designs and costumes is relatively inoffensive and technically uncomplicated (aka cheap). Fafner and Fasolt looked like a cross between the Michelin-man and a woolly mammoth. Projections of a loping wolf in Die Walküre and a cantankerous bear in Siegfried were about as frightening as Ding-a-Ling and Yogi Bear. The all-consuming fire around Brünnhilde’s rock at the end of Die Walküre was much more effective, although the inclusion of the Walküre’s horses in the blaze meant that Grimgerde and the girls must have walked back to Valhalla.

The singers in this enormous undertaking were on the whole less consistent than the incomparable orchestra. There were a number of changes from the original cast, with the most interesting being that of the State Opera’s current lieblingskind, baritone Tomasz Konieczny (which appropriately means ‘necessary’ in Polish), who made a quantum improvement in social status by switching from Alberich to Wotan. Although not yet having the definitive dramatic authority of Hans Hotter or the extreme lower vocal range assurance of René Pape or James Morris, Konieczny’s ringing top register, sensitive phrasing and mellifluous vocal colouring displayed singing of the highest calibre. The plethora of top E and F naturals (eg. ‘Spitze fürchtet’at the end of Die Walküre) were all wonderfully pitched with resonance and innate musicality. His phrasing of ‘Der freier als ich der Gott’in the same scene was deeply moving.

Konieczny’s very young attractive stage presence made Wotan’s easy sexual success with any female from feisty Fricka to a nameless nubile Wälsung and in all likelihood, the titillating Rhinemaidens, very easy to understand. This Wotan was no Moses-like mono-dimensional autocrat. He was domineering, duplicitous, pompous, preening, irritable, covetous, and scheming as well as gentle, compassionate, world-weary, guilt-consumed, fatalistic and deeply troubled. One can only anticipate Konieczny’s fascinating interpretation, based on superb vocal and dramatic skills, to mature even further in the future.

Another role switch from the 2009 cast was that of Janina Baechle who moved from playing a plump matronly Fricka to that of the subterranean savant and snoozer, Erda. This was another good move in that there were some marvellous rich low notes (eg. the C# on ‘weiss ich’) and a superbly controlled pianissimo top E natural on ‘meide den Ring’.

Although no stranger to this production, Michaela Schuster sang a subtle and definitely unfrumpy Fricka. In fact she looked rather like the late unlamented Duchess of Windsor and her interest in what kind of jewels could be fashioned from the Ring would have rivaled the former Mrs Simpson’s covetousness for Cartier.

Much less successful was the new Loge of Herbert Lippert who failed to make any impact, either musically or dramatically. Jason Bridges as Froh was similarly disappointing and should have stayed singing the First Jew in Salome. Boaz Daniel’s Donner wasn’t much better. Tomasz Konieczny’s replacement as Alberich, Richard Paul Fink, was completely outclassed by both brother Mime (the excellent character baritone Herwig Pecoraro) and son Hagen (veteran villain Falk Struckmann).

Photo: Wiener Staatsoper / Michael PöhnThe vital role of Brünnhilde in this production was originally interpreted by the formidable Eva Johansson who had also sung it in Bayreuth under Barenboim. This time the diminutive German dramatic soprano Evelyn Herlitzius took on the mantle of saving the world – or destroying it depending on one’s point of view. It is remarkable that a soprano of such small physical stature can produce a sound of almost Nilsson-esque volume. Certainly her tiny figure made it very easy to hide from a raging Wotan behind a pod of her more corpulent Walküre sisters and she looked dangerously crushable beside Stephen Gould’s large but brilliantly sung Siegfried.

In keeping with the growing maturity of the role, Miss Herlitzius was also the singer who most developed over the course of the cycle. Her acting in Götterdämmerung was worthy of serious comparison with Hildegard Behrens or Gwyneth Jones in her less screechy days. Vocally the cruelly exposed top B and C’s ‘Hojotoho’s!’were steely accurate while the low A# on ‘alles’in Götterdämmerung was firmly projected. The ecstatic ‘Fühl’ meine Brust auch’ in the last explosive moments of the opera was sung with passion, exemplary breath control and profound musicality. Taking a solo bow at the end of the ultimate scene, Miss Herlitzius was justifiably cheered louder than the vast brass section had just played.

Simon Rattle’s rare appearance at the Vienna State Opera (he had previously only conducted Parsifal in 2005 and Tristan und Isolde in 2009) was, apart from one determined vociferous booer, an unqualified triumph. Compared to a previous Ring in Baden-Baden in 2004 with a much less gifted orchestra, Rattle’s reading was a revelation. Avoiding the extremes of Solti’s celebrated interpretation, the ponderous solemnity of Furtwängler or the intellectual detachment of Haitink, Rattle was closer to the Karajan concept of bringing out the inherent lyricism of this inconceivably complex score. Tempi were generally broad but never retarded the drama.

While obviously unable to minimize the impact of the enormous forces of bass tuba, bass trombone, bass trumpet, bass bassoon and bass everything else which growl, snarl and blast their way through many of the leitmotiv, Rattle was able to utilize the extraordinarily sensuous string sound of the Vienna Philharmonic to create a musical tapestry which could perhaps be best described as Lohengrin-esque lyric/romantic. Surely this is not without justification as love does eventually triumph over greed and power.

Highlighting all the outstanding orchestral moments would take as long as another performance of the cycle, but suffice to say the cello playing throughout was superb, the oboe solo during Fasolt’s expression of tender feelings for Freia was heart rending and the pianissimo horns in the Tarnhelm motif were mystical and magical. The rapturous recapitulation of the Redemption motif by the high strings in the orchestral coda to Götterdämmerung was nothing less than sublime. This is not to say that there weren’t wonderful passages of extremely powerful playing and intense rhythmic vitality. The first trumpet repeated the Sword motif with peerless accuracy and Siegfried’s Funeral March was as emphatic and decibel-shattering as one could wish for.

The only major criticism of this Ring Cycle is that the four performances were given over a period of 9 days with only Das Rheingold and Die Walküre on consecutive evenings. This severely affected the continuity and musical/emotional cohesion of what Wagner intended. Although his patron and ridiculously generous benefactor Ludwig II jumped the gun and staged Das Rheingold and Die Walküre without the composer’s approval six years before the officially completed tetralogy, this is hardly justification for staggered stagings. The ‘greatest genius of all time’ (WH Auden) would not be amused.

Jonathan Sutherland | Vienna State Opera May/June 2015

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A production by Sven-Eric Bechtolf (2007/2009)