Wagner: Das Rheingold

Mark Jordan
High Fidelity Review (US)

Musical Content: 100%
Recording Fidelity: 100%

Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs is coming to multi-channel SACD, and thanks to the State Opera of South Australia and Melba Recordings, it is being done right.

The odds of bringing this massive tetralogy off successfully, especially with the additional hurdles of demanding recording technology, are considerable But then again, the musical movers and shakers of the city of Adelaide, Australia, had the wherewithal to produce Australia’s first Ring Cycle a decade ago (with the use of existing costumes and sets from Europe), and they had the gumption to build a completely new production in 2004, so why shouldn’t they go ahead and grab the golden ring by being the first to premiere the Cycle on Super Audio Compact Disc? Melba Recordings is the glorious independent record company making all this possible, and along the way proving once and for all the future of classical recordings is with the independents, not the tired old corporate interests. After living with the first two instalments of this Cycle (Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, to be reviewed next) for a couple of weeks, I can only say that my initial excitement has not ebbed. Rather, it has grown to nothing short of amazement. Though as with any production on this scale, there are a few minor qualms, duly noted below, my overall impression is of the utmost excitement. Not only have the Australians brought us a worthy Ring, they have brought us one that stands proudly against past recordings and one that is likely to cast a very long shadow in the future.

Das Rheingold is the first opera of the cycle, a sort of prequel that sets the mythic stage for the worldly battles to come. It opens with a stunning prelude, a five-minute build-up of layers of sound based on a single E-flat major chord. It starts with a single low note, and gradually new tones, then arpeggios, enter in, forming a great wash of sound. Here the playing of the Adelaide Symphony starts primally, then grows in security and warmth as the instruments warm and the river begins to flow. Incidentally, this recording has been set at a rather low level, to preserve as much dynamic range as possible, so be prepared to crank it to a healthy level in order to truly revel in the prelude. When I first cranked the volume, I noticed some noise in the surround channels of the recording, and at first glance, assumed that it was audience noise, as this production was recorded live in performance. But quickly realizing that it was too constant to be the crinkling of programs, I cranked the volume again (to what ended up being the ideal level), and realized that I was hearing the sound of cascading water, part of the River Rhine set for the first scene of the opera. While the water was on stage during the performance, the engineers have used the technology at hand to put the cascading rivulets of water in the surround channels, drawing the listeners into the surging drama.

This brilliant use of sound, combined with the handsome playing of the Adelaide Symphony properly sets the stage with excitement and wonder. Only a slightly greater clarity in the lower bass range of the orchestra could improve upon the sound picture here, and of course there would be a resultant loss of atmosphere if things were clarified. But as the sound stands, it is as marvellous as any live opera recording is ever likely to be. The producer and engineers made a bold decision here: Instead of going for strict live performance verisimilitude or the sort of studio-bound special effects which John Culshaw used in Solti’s Decca Ring, here we find the gap bridged. None of the “effects” are anything other than what might be encountered live in the opera house, but their manipulation and deployment here makes the most of the technology. The stage image stretches around the listener, from left surround to right surround, with the orchestral sound welling up from beneath that. It doesn’t match the perspective one would likely have in any live scenario, but it is startlingly effective in drawing one into the proceedings, even pinning the listener to one’s seat in places.

When the Rhinemaidens sail in, they prove quite delectable, especially Zan McKendree-Wright, who has a masterful way with turn of phrase as Flosshilde. The maidens cavort playfully, teasing John Wegner’s greedy Alberich. Wegner alternately keens and rages as the Rhinemaidens toy with him, staying just out of reach as he clumsily woos them. If less conventionally attractive in sound than Solti’s Gustav Neidlinger, Wegner is nonetheless far more interesting in the role, veritably dripping with character. Alberich’s stage business with the maidens must have been effective, as audience laughter can even be heard in a few places as the maidens deftly slip his grasp.

The masterful hand of conductor Asher Fisch is everywhere in this performance, shaping wonderful details in the orchestral parts, but more importantly shaping the overall ebb and flow of energy on the large scale. For instance, he builds the gradual growth of the prelude into the ebullience of the Rhinemaidens’ scene, but pulls back to allow the Rhine gold to gleam as the sun breaks over the mountains and shines into the water. Once Alberich seizes the magic gold and curses love in order to gain the power to control it, Fisch unleashes a flurry of activity in the orchestra, enhanced by the high-resolution recording. The low strings are starchy and tensile, the woodwinds sound nasal and harsh.

In Scene Two, Wotan and Fricka are introduced as they argue, going pretty much full tilt without warm-up ... Elizabeth Campbell remains a touch strident – which doesn’t hurt Fricka one bit – and her incisive characterization is quite effective. John Bröcheler proves to be an impressive Wotan: Indeed, this Cycle bodes to be a career-making event for Bröcheler, as it no doubt will be for conductor Fisch, as well. Bröcheler has the requisite vocal size and grandeur for Wotan, but he doesn’t hesitate to tear into the part, biting off phrases with vehemence where required, yet somehow never making an unmusical sound along the way. By comparison, the famous Decca recording led by Georg Solti featured George London in this role. London’s voice is marginally richer, but I dare say that I prefer Bröcheler, who seems more prepared to push to the dramatic brink, while yet maintaining a suave and heroic sound. Either is preferable to Ferdinand Frantz, the featured Wotan in the Ring Cycle led by Wilhelm Furtwängler at La Scala in Milan in 1950. Despite the dim sound it was captured in, Furtwängler’s rendition is essential listening for ebb and flow of energy, though few of the vocalists measure up to later, greater cycles.

Getting back to the present release, Kate Ladner brings a wonderfully bright sound to Freia, in contrast to the darker sound of Campbell. As the giants Fasolt and Fafner, Andrew Collis and David Hibbard are the embodiment of power. Collis is broad and strong, growing in depth as he warms up, but Hibbard’s dark bass voice is truly imposing: It is cavernous and bottomless, far surpassing anything Kurt Boehme brought to Solti’s set. Andrew Brunsdon brings a golden heldentenor sound to Froh, while Timothy DuFore’s Donner is vital and storming ... I have a number of reservations about Christopher Doig as Loge, but given that he is here, I couldn’t imagine him in a more appropriate role. Indeed, one of the most remarkable features of this set is the preternaturally shrewd casting of roles. Rarely has any production so effectively exploited the vocal advantages and the inevitable disadvantages of the cast members. Doig, a veteran who no longer has the bloom his voice once had, now wisely uses his increasingly nasal and harsh tone to play up the knavish character of Loge. And when he goes into the narrative telling how he searched far and wide for ways to help Wotan evade the giants, Doig proves supple and pleasant in the quieter lyrical moments, providing a more human side to this most outcast of deities. Doig’s unintentional nod to the archetypal roots of this character (based on Loki, the Nordic god of chaos) is found mostly in his enunciation and pronunciation of the German language, which approaches chaos theory in action in places. But even if his tone is harsh compared with the arguably overly-handsome Loge which Set Svanholm gave Solti, Doig’s relationship to the other characters is spot-on. And his tendency to shout at full volume only makes Wotan more enticing as Bröcheler grows in fury without ever losing his handsome, heroic sound.

Toward the end of the first disc, we go into the Third Scene with a wonderful glower of brass as Wotan and Loge descend down to Nibelheim, the misty vale where Alberich and the dwarves live. As the interlude plays, the pounding of the dwarves’ anvils rises up, here to stunning effect as it swells up around us in the surround channels then drops away. Unfortunately, in order to fit the opera on only two well-filled discs, the disc break comes soon after the start of the Third Scene, but that is a small price to pay for holding the price down by holding the opera to two discs. With the Third Scene, we meet Mime, played here with memorable wretchedness by Richard Greager. The atmospheric tension during Alberich’s attack on Mime is palpable, and Greager’s extreme theatricality brings the role of the hapless Mime to life, where others have left him sounding merely whiny. Indeed, here it is irresistible to connect this Ring with that other great Ring Cycle, inspired by the same Nordic mythology: J.R.R. Tolkien’s. Here, Greager’s Mime is as wretched a creature as Tolkien’s Gollum, though one might expect a closer resemblance between Gollum and Alberich. But in this plot, the thief of the ring must remain mighty enough to curse it. And, indeed, Wegner’s version of the curse is a highlight of this performance, building to a ragged, stormy peak, and bending notes at the close as his spite flames.

There are some stage noises as the gold of Freia’s ransom is piled up for the giants, though nothing like the over-the-top clanging of special effects in Solti’s Decca recording, which sounds more like the scene is unfolding in a junkyard. In her cameo as Erda, an all-knowing prophet, Liane Keegan brings a rich and sorrowful voice, matching the rich but stentorian voices of the brass which announce her sudden entry into the scene to warn Wotan not to keep the ring. The subsequent murder of Fasolt by his brother Fafner is more riveting than any other I’ve heard, not least because of the quality of the recording: Whereas the microphones suddenly swoop in to the timpani and contra-basses in Solti’s recording, robbing them of space and strength, this recording properly gives them resonance room, and resound they do! I hate to fall back on the old cliché about sitting on the edge of my chair, but I was. The percussive onslaught is brutal and shocking, just as it should be but so rarely is. This, indeed, is a passage where I must cringe when I listen to the Furtwängler set from La Scala, for not only is the dim recording hopelessly unable to capture the intensity of sounds here, but Furtwängler also compounds the problem by rushing through the murder in a frenzy. Asher Fisch cunningly controls the pace here, giving the action plenty of room, while tightening the reins as the passage unfolds in all its terrible glory. I simply can’t imagine it being done better.

Moving into the closing pages, this production provides Donner with a massive clang, not unlike Solti and Culshaw’s famous sound, only here it plays even better because not only can the recording technology handle it at full impact, the stage-thunder sound effect has been routed into the surround channels, giving us the fantastic effect of having the lightning bolt right before one’s eyes, and the resultant thunder surrounding us. The surround channels are further used to great effect as the gods retreat into their palace over their rainbow bridge, ignoring the Rhinemaidens pleading far below for the return of their gold. The harps accompanying their song appear in the left surround channel, while the Rhinemaidens themselves are heard in the right surround channel. The gods themselves remain featured centre stage, with the recalcitrant Loge slightly off to the right. Indeed, the high-resolution recording makes it possible to easily track movements around stage as characters come and go, an effect achieved by the engineers by “chasing” particular voices around in the veritable forest of microphones they had above the stage in order to get full coverage. One slight issue is that travel time from the wings to centre stage can be amazingly quick in a few places, due to the stage edges being pulled back into the surround channels. Nonetheless, I feel the aural picture works marvellously here, and Melba Recordings is to be hailed for both their vision and their technique.

The multi-channel program of this hybrid release is clearly the best way to experience this production, though the stereo-only SACD layer, and the regular Redbook CD layer are impressive as well. I particularly enjoy listening to such a vivid production so well defined in space, for it allows me to dream up my own imagery to go with it. Accompanying pictures in the huge booklet show that this production was one of those typical modern affairs with everyone lounging around on distorted plastic furniture and walking up to Valhalla on a lighted staircase. Fortunately, the realm of the imagination can provide a staging that matches the tremendous musical richness heard herein. This Rheingold (like the others in the series) comes in a deluxe package including libretto, essays, pictures, and recording information in a hardback book, with the discs inside sleeves and the whole book inside translucent plastic sleeves. The album is priced at full Super Audio Compact Disc range, but the quality of the performances, production, and packaging justifies the cost to any lover of this music. In short, this is electrifying music making, and edifying production. It is a true delight to witness the emergence of what surely will be remembered years from now not only as a legendary performance, but as an epoch-making recording as well.