SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

WAGNER: Das Rheingold (complete opera) – Rene Pape (Wotan)/ Stephan Rugamer (Loge)/ Ekaterina Gubanova (Fricka)/ Evgeny Nikitin (Fasolt)/ Nikolai Putilin (Alberich) – Mariinsky Orch./ Valery Gergiev – Mariinksky (2 discs)

I have some issues with this otherwise sterling production, but even if it doesn’t match Janowski in pacing and drama, it’s still a good opener for this series.

Published on September 25, 2013

WAGNER: Das Rheingold (complete opera) – Rene Pape (Wotan)/ Stephan Rugamer (Loge)/ Ekaterina Gubanova (Fricka)/ Evgeny Nikitin (Fasolt)/ Nikolai Putilin (Alberich) – Mariinsky Orch./ Valery Gergiev – Mariinksky (2 discs)

WAGNER: Das Rheingold (complete opera) – Rene Pape (Wotan)/ Stephan Rugamer (Loge)/ Ekaterina Gubanova (Fricka)/ Evgeny Nikitin (Fasolt)/ Nikolai Putilin (Alberich)/ Andrei Popov (Mime)/ Alexei Markov (Donner)/ Sergei Semishkur (Froh)/ Vikroia Yastrebova (Freia)/ Zlata Bulycheva (Erda)/ Mikhail Petrenko (Fafner)/ Zhanna Dombrovskaya (Woglinde)/ Irina Vasilieva (Wellgunde)/ Ekaterina Sergeeva (Floßhilde)/ Mariinsky Orch./ Valery Gergiev – Mariinksky multichannel SACD Mar0526  (2 Discs), 1:47:12 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] (9/10/13) ****:

I read a couple of other reviews from Britain that raved over this set; no surprise, in that they usually rave over anything that Gergiev does. Still, considering my newfound respect for him in Wagner, which still surprises me, I also expected something really good here as his Parsifal and Die Walküre are truly outstanding recordings. But Das Rheingold is a little different; though created first in the cycle Wagner’s thoughts began with Twilight of the Gods and ran backwards—this opera is essentially a “prelude” to the others, and isn’t really considered, at least in the composer’s eyes, and part of the whole cycle. First, but definitely not among equals.

Rheingold is different from the others in that it is not as passionate—the subsequent three music dramas (as Wagner called them, featuring the longest stretch of purely instrumental/vocal music that has ever been written) have intensely focused segments of formidably personal dialog that Wagner hammers home by means of brilliant repetition and magnificently varied music. The prelude, on the other hand, is far more “noble” in theme and stately in execution. These are, after all, gods, despite being as infallibly decadent as the mortals they like to toy with, and the rest of the series makes little sense without establishing, Genesis-like, the heights from which Valhalla will ultimately fall. Groundwork must be laid, and characters established before the action proper can really begin. Only the Fafner/Fasolt incident, aside from the forging of the ring scene, spices the work with genuine drama.

And herein lays the biggest gripe I have with this release. It is very fast—Gergiev seems to miss the point time and time again with his rushing and lack of proper contemplative endeavor, as if he has to add the excitement he thinks is missing in this work by means of artificial exaggeration. It is in fact, nearly 25 minutes shorter than the magnificent effort turned in recently by Marek Janowski on Pentatone 

That release gets it all right, even though it is a tad faster than many other recordings. So Gergiev is speedy and carelessly ignorant of the carefully constructed building blocks of drama an sound that Wagner has so beautifully crafted.

Lest my words seem too harsh, even with these aberrations, this is far from a bad performance. The singers, all but two being Russian, give new life to the idea that Wagner belongs in a Russian house, something unthinkable even ten years ago. It is true that there are some diction issues—it is audibly clear but consistently blurry and nondescript through much of the opera and among all the Russian characters. This doesn’t mar enjoyment but it should be pointed out. And the sound, consistently more narrow than the Pentatone set (which I find true of almost all the Mariinsky recordings) is resonant and deep, and certainly in possession of a lot of clarity. But when we get to the forging scene the anvils sound more like wind chimes and tinker bells than steel against steel. Nevertheless, the almost-all Russian cast brings a high degree of fervency to their individual roles which does indeed pay off when the totality is considered.

Rene Pape is certainly a wonderful singer, one of the best Wotan’s today, even if I prefer Tomasz Konyechuni on Pentatone. Stephan Reamer’s Loge is wonderful, even though his light voice may be an acquired taste for some, but I find the increased urgency to his portrayal most effective. And Ekaterina Ulanova’s Fricka is tremendous, a real triumph for the young singer. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, proving that St. Petersburg is fully capable and ready to take its place among the elite Wagnerian stages of the world. Despite my quibbles, few people hearing this will come away disappointed, and it is a worthy beginning to the cycle that has already seen a fantastic Walküre.

—Steven Ritter

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