Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen (highlights): DG
The cover of “Twilight of the Gods” features Bryn Terfel brooding darkly, a raven perched on his shoulder. Twilight of the Gods? But isn’t Wotan out of the picture by Götterdämmerung? Despite the title, this two-disc set is a collection of bleeding chunks, a veritable abattoir if you please, taken from the Metropolitan Opera’s new Ring cycle.
Robert Lepage’s new production has been controversial, dominated by his ‘machine’ which draws admirers and detractors in equal measure. It certainly makes quite a few creaks and clicks in some of the softer music, but it isn’t too distracting as most of the microphone placements seem to focus on the orchestra and individual singers. Indeed, I’ve rarely heard a live Wagner opera recording where singers are never submerged by the pit and orchestral detail – such as the harps as the gods approach Valhalla – are so clear. The anvils are deafening and there is a big, fat brass sound.
Two conductors are engaged; James Levine for Rheingold and Die Walküre, before his indisposition made way for Fabio Luisi in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. It’s interesting to bear in mind Levine’s previous Met stewardship of the Ring (also for DG).
His Rhine flows rather quicker here, the rainbow bridge is traversed more swiftly and his Ride of the Valkyries is taken at a good canter too (with a hint of audience applause for the set). Luisi also favours quick tempos, although he also encourages lighter, more springy, less emphatic playing from the Met Orchestra, especially appropriate for Siegfried, the scherzo of the tetralogy.
Bryn Terfel is the finest Wotan before us now. His word-painting is superb (much more so than with James Morris, Levine’s earlier Wotan) and his refulgent tone makes him sound every inch a god. The voice has coarsened somewhat, but that slight graininess is entirely in keeping with the character. His “Abschied” contains some glorious singing, so it’s galling to report a sudden fade before the Magic Fire Music suddenly bursts in. The first disc does run to 81 minutes, but one couldn’t help wondering if something else could have been forsaken to include the last quarter of an hour of Walküre uncut.
The Rhinemaidens are an attractive, well-blended trio and Stephanie Blythe’s brief appearances as Fricka find her in superb voice. Eric Owens might not be as sardonic an Alberich as Ekkehard Wlaschiha on Levine’s earlier recording, but is in commanding voice in Alberich’s great curse. Incidentally, Dwayne Croft has to be one of the best Donners I’ve heard in recent years – his heroic baritone launching the finale of Rheingold magnificently.
Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Sieglinde is sometimes tremulous on high notes, but Jonas Kaufmann is extraordinary as Siegmund; the velvety-chocolate depths to his baritonal-tenor and his aristocratic phrasing in the very generous section from “Winterstürme” to the end of Act I of Walküre is worth the cost of the set alone.
Deborah Voigt is not the loudest Brünnhilde on record, but sounds girlish in Walküre and is note-accurate, although sometimes a little pinched at the top of her range. Sadly, in Siegfried she is too matronly – well, she is Siegfried’s aunt – and her final C is a bit of a shriek. Ironically, she sounds in much fresher voice in a decent immolation scene in Götterdämmerung.
Siegfried offers the least satisfying set of vocal performances. Jay Hunter Morris, stepping in for Gary Lehman in the title role, is a bit stretched in such a large house. He lacks the sheer heft of a Heldentenor and in the Forging Scene is in danger of being outsung by Gerhard Siegel’s excellent Mime. He does have stamina, however, and presents a likeable enough hero. Mojca Erdmann’s Woodbird is a little thin-toned.
Götterdämmerung features the bitter Hagen of Hans-Peter König and some thrilling singing from the men of the Met Chorus. Applause is retained after some excerpts. It’s difficult to identify the intended audience for this release. Committed Wagnerites will have their favourite complete cycles on disc and DVD and probably wouldn’t countenance a mere selection of edited highlights. The complete cycle has recently appeared on DVD and Blu-ray, so this could be treated as a sampler, or perhaps as a memento for those who have seen it, either live or via cinema screenings. Perhaps it’s meant to snare new converts to Wagner… DG’s presentation would seem to suggest this, with glossy photos and an unbelievably superficial booklet note “The Ring in later mythologies”, Mike Ashman spending two tortuous pages drawing comparisons between Wagner’s tetralogy and Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars franchise. The phrase “scraping the barrel” comes to mind.
The entire cast of the Ring is listed in the booklet, despite the fact that we never hear a note from the Norns or from Waltraud Meier’s Waltraute, Franz-Josef Selig’s Fasolt nor Wendy Bryn Harmer’s Freia. Four Rhinemaidens are credited, which I cannot begin to fathom unless the recording of Das Rheingold took place over more than one performance.
If this release does attract new listeners, they will find precious little in the documentation to guide them through Wagner’s world of gods, dwarfs, dragons and Rhinemaidens, for not only are there no texts or translations (an instant black mark on this Beckmesser’s slate) there isn’t even a synopsis to give a clue as to what the story is even about. Booklet editor Jochen Rudelt should be immediately exiled to Nibelheim!
Twilight of the Gods – The Ultimate Wagner Ring Collection: Bryn Terfel, Deborah Voigt, Jay Hunter Morris, Jonas Kaufmann, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Stephanie Blythe etc; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/ James Levine; Fabio Luisi (DG, 2 discs, 479 0638)
Das Rheingold: Morris, Ludwig, Wlaschiha; Met/ Levine (DG, 2 discs) 445 295-2 (1988)
Die Walküre: Morris, Behrens, Lakes, Norman; Met/ Levine (DG, 4 discs) 423 389-2 (1987)
Siegfried: Goldberg, Behrens, Morris, Battle; Met/ Levine (DG, 4 discs) 429 407-2 (1988)
Götterdämmerung: Behrens, Goldberg, Salminen; Met/ Levine (DG, 4 discs) 429 385-2 (1989)
This review appeared in the December 2012 issue of International Record Review.