WAGNER: Der Ring des Nibelungen: Symphonic Excerpts = Nine Stemme, sop./ Orch. de l’Opera Nat. de Paris/ Philippe Jordan – Erato (2 CDs)

WAGNER: Der Ring des Nibelungen: Symphonic Excerpts = Das Rheingold: Vorspiel; Interludes; Entry of the Gods into Valhalla; Die Walkuere: Ride of the Valkyries; Magic Fire Music; Siegfried: Forest Murmurs; Goetterdaemerung: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and Siegfried Funeral March; Brunnhilde’s Immolation – Nine Stemme, sop./ Orch. de l’Opera Nat. de Paris/ Philippe Jordan – Erato 50999 9341422 7 (2 CDs) 44:03, 38:59 [Distr. by Naxos] (11/19/13) ****:

In June 2013 the Paris Opéra, under its music director Philippe Jordan, marked Wagner’s bicentenary with Der Ring des Nibelungen. It was the first time in more than 60 years that the company had performed the complete cycle under festival conditions. This program of excerpts (rec. 12, 17, 24 June 2013) from the Ring, with Jordan conducting the Orchestra of the Paris Opéra, concludes with Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene, sung by one of today’s leading Wagnerian dramatic soprano, Nina Stemme.

The Orchestra of the Paris Opera achieves a lovely unanimity of tone from the outset, the E-flat Major chord’s swelling in pedal point, a tone of cosmic necessity. The Rhine River rises out of a welter of 137 bars of music that expand into a mythical urge for the Rhine maidens to sing of the floodtide of life and the legend of the Rhine gold, whose possession can be had only by the renunciation of love. Even at the entrance of the Alberich motifs, we face those later motifs of Wotan and Siegfried that will involve the guilt of the gods, whose redemption can only be bought with human sacrifice. The trajectory of the waves carries us to the visions of Valhalla, the Magic Fire Music, the heroic forging of both the Rhine Gold of Siegfried’s sword Notung.

Jordan fuses the mystical and the playful elements of the tetralogy into a seamless symphonic synthesis, much in the manner of Stokowski. Donner’s fateful call to create the rainbow bridge into Valhalla is effective in the horns, but not so much as the human voice. But Jordan’s invocation of the spatial distances involved, the gods passing in high relief into celestial vistas in strings, brass and harp, carries a sensuous appeal. The Rhinemaidens lament the loss of their guarded treasure, and we know the forces of inevitable, tragic destiny have been loosed so that Siegfried, the man of the future, may fulfill his dark destiny.

The Ride of the Valkyries needs little commentary, only the smell of napalm in the morning. Brilliant brass and string work from the French orchestra comes to us courtesy of Jean-Martial Golaz. Jordan repeats the elements of the Ride with a breadth and fervor we know from Hans Knappertsbusch. Jordan combines the orchestral drooping figures from Wotan Farewell to segue to the Magic Fire Music, threatening and rife with Loki’s impish delight, at once.  The orchestra’s harp warrants its own mention, even in the face of the Valhalla motif. In its reversal of the Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi conceit, the Ring proffers Siegfried as the human who must redeem the sin of the stealing of the Rhine Gold from Alberich. In the scherzo sensibility of Siegfried, the young hero receives signals – at first, like the bird’s call, indecipherable, until he later tastes the dragon Fafner’s blood – from Nature, and so Siegfried attains an orphic conception of himself. As lyrically passionate as the Jordan performance is, my own idol in the Waldweben remains Mitropoulos live at the MET.

Heinrich Heine characterized the Rhine River as that which “conceals within it death and night.” Heine could be describing the entire organic process of Wagner’s Tristan!

The Twilight of the Gods, too, equates love and death as inexorable mates, and so Siegfried and Bruennhilde experience an askesis of denial. The music moves with glowing fluidity into darkness, but only after having revealed the fervent virility of its hero in his Rhine Journey.  The elements from the opening duet “Zu neuen taten” become transmogrified into an explosion of sublimated sexuality, the heroic quest upon the heroine’s steed Grane as symbol of the world refreshed. Brünnhilde suspected the loss of her hero even as she bestowed him the magic Ring she had taken from Fafner. But through insidious plots, Hagan, the son of Alberich, pierces Siegfried’s back with spear, killing him.

After a solemnly sonorous Funeral March, Brünnhilde orders a funeral pyre for Siegfried (“Starke Scheite”). She condemns the gods for their guilt in his death, takes the Ring, and promises it to the Rhinemaidens. Placing it on her finger, she throws a torch onto the pyre and joyfully rushes into the flames. As the river overflows its banks and the Gibichung hall is consumed, the Rhinemaidens, dragging Hagen to his death, regain their gold, at last purified of its curse. Flames engulf Valhalla, leaving a human world redeemed by love. While soprano Stemme has not the metallic power of Nilsson nor the Herculean thrust of Flagstad, she invokes “like sunlight, his radiance beams on me” with earnest ardor. From then on, her recounting of betrayal points to Wotan as complicit in moral corruption. “Let the fire that burns me cleanse  the curse from the ring!” And so, through Wagner’s transcendent notion of suttee, the two young warriors attain dramatic divinity.

—Gary Lemco

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