Wagner: Siegfried

Christine Tham
SA-CD.net (Australia)
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" I must confess that I have never really taken to Siegfried as much as the other operas in the Wagner Ring Cycle. Yes, I know, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and one is supposed to enjoy the tetralogy as a gigantic operatic drama, but Siegfried has always seemed to me to suffer from "middle child syndrome" (if we disregard Rheingold which is intended as an operatic prelude). Sandwiched between the emotional and lyrical intensity of Die Walküre and the tumultuous events of Götterdämmerung, Siegfried has always seemed like operatic filler material.

There's very little dramatic tension in Siegfried, the events unfold in an almost perfunctory, documentary style exposition. Siegfried reforges the sword that was broken, kills the dragon, finds the girl. No soul searching, or difficult decisions, or even cruel fate.

Wagner never intended it to be this way. Originally, he started with the core events of Siegfried and gradually worked his way backwards and forwards until he ended with the complete cycle. Siegfried was supposed to the crown jewel, where all the "action" is, and the "filling in the sandwich" (if you will excuse the metaphor). However, as all the really interesting dramatic developments moved elsewhere, so too did Wagner's creativity.

Obviously, the State Opera South Australia disagreed with my views. In the highly acclaimed 2004 Adelaide production, a significant part of the budget was focused on Siegfried, with the dragon slaying scene (featuring Siegfried perched on a giant mechanical dragon paw) evoking "oohs" and "aahs" from the audience.

Still, I approached the third instalment of Melba Recording's well regarded Hybrid Multi-channel release of the Adelaide Ring Cycle with some trepidation and mixed feelings. Phil Rowlands (the recording engineer) sent me a nice email late last year encouraging me to look forward to Siegfried as in his opinion it is "the best recording of the four". I wondered if it will live up to those expectations, and whether my bias against the work will cloud my judgement.

Well, I shouldn't have worried. I don't know about it being the "best of the four" (since I have yet to hear Götterdämmerung), but I can confirm the recording quality of Siegfried surpasses even the extremely high standards set by the earlier releases.

And it's not only the recording. The cast and orchestra also managed to put out a truly superb performance, and made me revise my opinion about Siegfried being a "middle child". Perhaps my apathy towards Siegfried has been influenced by Solti's version, which I have never really warmed up to.

The problem with the Solti version is a rather uneven cast. Wolfgang Windgassen was past his prime, and Gerhard Stolze had a rather irritating whiny voice as Mime (yes, the character is supposed to be a whiny dwarf, but still ...). The result is that in the sword forging scene, the orchestra and the sound effects swamp out the thin voices, and my mental image was two old midgets surrounded by huge tools. Similarly, Joan Sutherland overpowers Windgassen in Act II and the love duet between Siegfried and Brünnhilde sounded comical (try and imagine an Amazon embracing Gollum, if you dare!).

By contrast, the Adelaide production has one of the best and well balanced Siegfried casts I've come across in recent years. Gary Rideout sounds appropriately lusty and heroic as Siegfried, and Richard Greager gives us a very listenable Mime that somehow conveys not just his weakness and deceit but makes us pity the character as well. John Wegner and John Bröcheler are simply amazing as Alberich and Wotan respectively, and bring amazing depth into both characters. The love scene Siegfried and Brünnhilde in Act III finally sounds like a conversation between equals, with Lisa Gasteen being suitably stirring and conveys a Brünnhilde that is god-like even in her mortal state. The “minor” characters perform admirably, with Shu-Cheen Yu being a sweet sounding woodbird and Liane Keegan given a very "earthy" rendition of Erda.

Even the "boring" bits in the opera come alive (for example, I never noticed before that the dialogue between Wotan and Mime is a musical tour through some of the most significant leitmotives in the Ring cycle), and the set pieces (such as the sword forging and love duet) don't leave me wanting.

The recording can only be described as incredible. Not only I feel like I'm in the Adelaide Festival Theatre (particularly on the multi-channel version), but I feel like I'm sitting in the best possible seat. The recording captures the wonderful voices in perfect detail and richness (with reverb tails that seem to last forever), and the orchestra on this title is perfectly balanced with the singers (a significant improvement over the earlier releases). Gone is the slightly recessed sound in Rheingold and the somewhat "sunken" perspective in Walküre – the orchestra in Siegfried finally takes front stage alongside the singers. The orchestra playing sounded pacy, and at times scintillating, but never over-bearing. Most importantly, it did not have that "lethargic" feel (which kind of worked for Walküre but made Rheingold sound a bit boring).

I could almost taste the menacing undertones conveyed by the deep bass of the opening bars. The sound effects (metal clanging) accompanying the forging of Notung did not sound as loud (or as intrusive) as on the Solti version, but it did convey a sense of progress being made. The thunderstorm in Act III (as Siegfried confronts Wotan and smashes his spear) appropriately rolls around the room, taking good advantage of the surround speakers in the multi-channel mix.

Another thing that I quite liked about this recording is that it sounded less "antiseptic" and "clinical" than Walküre – I feel that it's a live performance, with footfalls, audience clapping at the end of each Act, and I can actually hear the audience gasping in the dragon slaying scene.

In summary, this is a "must own" recording (but you kind of knew that if you have already bought the previously released titles). But if you haven't, this is the perfect album to sample just how realistic a multi-channel SA-CD can sound. Finally, it's a wonderful performance that may just change your perceptions about this opera (it certainly changed mine).

Read the original web review