> WAGNER Complete Ring Kuhn [CF]: Classical CD Reviews- July2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Richard WAGNER
Der Ring Des Nibelungen

Das Rheingold [139’ 32]
Die Walküre [210’ 17"]
Siegfried [229’ 18"]
Götterdämmerung [238’ 17"]
Sung in German
Siegfried - Alan Woodrow (tenor)
Brünnhilde - Elena Comotti/Elizabeth-Maria Wachutka/Eva Silberbauer (soprano)
Wotan - Albert Dohmen/Duccio dal Monte/Juha Uusitalo (bass-baritone)
Alberich - Andrea Martin (bass)
Siegmund - Andrew Brunsdon (tenor)
Sieglinde - Gertrud Ottenthal (soprano)
Mime - Krzysztof Kur/Thomas Harper (tenor)
Hunding - Thomas Hay (bass)
Gunther - Herbert Adami (baritone)
Hagen - Duccio dal Monte (bass)
Fafner - Thomas Hay (bass)
Fasolt - Xiaoliang Li (bass)
Gutrune - Gertrud Ottenthal (soprano)
Erda - Julia Oesch (contralto)
Fricka - Nadja Michael /Julia Oesch (soprano)
Waltraute - Ewa Wolak (soprano)
Loge - Arnold Bezuyen (tenor)
Singers of the Accademia di Montegral
Orchestra del Teatro di San Carlo, Naples/Orchestra of the Tyrol Festival
Gustav Kuhn (conductor)
Recorded live at the Tyrol Festival or Teatro di San Carlo, Naples between 1998 and 2001
ARTE NOVA 74321 87075 2 13CD [13 hours 37’ 24" ]


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There are, to date, twenty-four complete performances of Wagner’s Ring tetralogy conducted by Moralt, Gebhardt, Furtwängler, Stiedry, Karajan, Krauss, Knappertsbusch, Solti, Kempe, Böhm, Swarowsky, Goodall, Boulez, Janowski, Haitink, Levine, Sawallisch, Barenboim, and Neuhold. There is now another taken from live performances in Austria and Italy under Gustav Kuhn.

The cast-list itself makes strange reading and should hint at the rather curious background to the singers (of whom I must confess to have heard only of Alan Woodrow, who had a career at ENO in London some years back, but in tenor roles considerably lighter than that graveyard of a part written for Siegfried). The clue lies in the Accademia di Montegral, the brainchild of the charismatic Kuhn, who himself had a starry if brief career at Glyndebourne and Covent Garden, mainly in Strauss operas in the 1980s.

Rather like the late lamented Sinopoli but not so talented as a conductor, Kuhn had a quasi-medical background at university (philosophy, psychology and psychopathology) while simultaneously studying composition and conducting in Salzburg (his birthplace) and Vienna. He founded the Accademia di Montegral in 1993 and staffed it with ‘highly qualified teachers and promising young artists who attempt to make an active contribution to revitalise and maintain standards of musical theatre in a combined effort, in addition to reaching and maintaining a high musical and artistic standard among talented professionals’ (the CD booklet’s translation not mine). The students consist of singers, composers, conductors, stage directors, dancers and so on, with the principal focus placed upon the Italian and German opera repertoire. It is all sponsored privately and also voluntarily by the members (i.e. students). Apparently entry is extremely competitive, with a ‘severe audition and recurring controls’, which presumably means periodic moderation to ensure standards are being maintained

Whether this accounts for the sharing of roles among several singers, such as three each of Brünnhilde and Wotan and a couple of Mimes, as well as instances of doubling up such as Wotan returning as Hagen, and Sieglinde as Gutrune for the denouement in Götterdämmerung remains a mystery. If it was intentional on the stage director’s part it becomes an interesting slant but was it intended as such or are they simply getting their just rewards for having paid their ‘voluntary contributions’ to the school? Perhaps it was because one opera per year appears to have been staged (with Die Walküre the last instead of second, curiously), but on the other hand once a cycle has been put together over however many years it takes, it surely makes sense then to stage it as Wagner intended, over six days including days off. Nor can it be wise to double or triple-cast if the result piles confusion upon what can be already prove to be a confusing story for the new listener. There is little sense of theatrical atmosphere here, even though we are listening to a series of live recordings, and if ever a work needs a wary approach to what can be longueurs this is it - regrettably there are many and not of Wagner’s making.

Some of the singing is seriously miscast. Andrea Martin’s Alberich is not evil enough, Thomas Hay as Fafner sounds like a woolly kitten rather than a giant-turned-dragon, while as Fricka, Nadja Michael’s recessed voice makes her sound like a fishwife, and one feels instantly sorry for the hen-pecked Wotan. The orchestra plays well enough but the balance is sometimes completely wrong with parts sounding like a concerto for timpani. Kuhn manages to knock half an hour off the last Ring I reviewed (Neuhold’s), and I did not find that one particularly slow, but here the tonal colour is fairly monochrome and the pacing not very exciting, not even at the end of Die Walküre when Siegmund draws Nothung from the ash tree. It’s not all doom and gloom. Loge has a marked success, while as Wotan Dohmen is imposing enough, so why replace him with the less impressive Duccio dal Monte? The whole idea smacks of that farcical replacement of Miss Elly in Dallas which defied credulity. There’s a similar transformation when Julia Oesch, Erda in Das Rheingold, sings Fricka in Die Walküre, admittedly an improvement on Nadja Michael, though her diction is far from clear, and then goes back underground to sing Erda once again in Siegfried. The female groups of Rhinemaidens, Valkyrie and Norns, respectively make the most of their appearances despite competition from over-zealous playing by the orchestra, which failing reinforces Wagner’s point about the unique covered pit he created especially for this tetralogy in Bayreuth in 1876. There the orchestra never drowns the singers and every word is audible.

As Siegmund, the Australian Brunsdon tenor sounds strained at the top with ominous signs of a wobble here and there, and his breathing is not always logically paced. That he started his career as a bass speaks volumes, but he came up through the baritone Fach, and perhaps that is where he should have remained, for that register of his voice as heard here is very attractive. Gertrud Ottenthal as Sieglinde is much more thrilling a discovery, and unsurprisingly she turns out to be a very experienced singer (though I doubt the biographical note for this soprano which lists the role of the third Norn in her repertoire - being for a contralto and therefore the lowest of the three ‘dreary aunts’ in Götterdämmerung as Anna Russell memorably described them). She is at her best (despite Kuhn’s attempts to drown her) when she is told she is carrying Siegfried, and at this point also inspires the first of the three Brünnhildes, Elena Comotti to her best singing. The first act of Siegfried always provides an opportunity to contrast the tenor voices of Mime and Siegfried, and sure enough Thomas Hay characterises the former in traditional nasally whining manner while Woodrow’s voice either rings heroically like his hammer on the anvil as he forges the pieces of the shattered sword Nothung, or lyrically as he dreams of the mother he never knew. We also encounter the last of Wotan in this act, and sure enough it’s yet another singer, though this time the rather beautiful voice of the young Finn Juha Uusitalo (trained as an orchestral flautist) as the world-weary Wanderer. We should be hearing more of him in the future.

Meanwhile on top of the mountain is Brünnhilde Mark Two, this time Elizabeth-Maria Wachutka, woken after (or perhaps by) woeful tuning and ensemble in upper strings, harps and woodwinds to greet the sun after twenty years sleep. She is another of the few more experienced singers, having been around for twenty years or so, and despite some shrillness gives a pleasing performance. In Götterdämmerung we encounter the last version, Eva Silberbauer, who immediately sounds the part from her first entry ‘Zu neuen Taten, teurer Held’, a voice reminiscent of a former Brünnhilde, Gwyneth Jones, including her less attractive habit of coming to the note from slightly under it. Mercifully the role of Siegfried has remained with Woodrow, and their first act duet is a highlight of the whole cycle. So if you can cope with all these cast changes and are prepared to accept some variable performances then it’s worth adding this 25th version to the others, but be choosy about which bits you listen to.

Christopher Fifield


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