A theme of Rheingold
is 'making' things. Building a castle,
agreeing contracts, attempting to ‘make
love’, undertaking a quest, securing
power and, of course, forging an almost
all-powerful ring. Linked with this,
Peter Conway, in his book A Song
of Love and Death, also argues Rheingold
is partly about the industry of
opera itself. The battering anvils of
the Nibelung and the construction project
of the gods are thereby a metaphor for
Böhm drives this
industriousness through forward-leaning
tempi and Solti via (over)energetic
conducting. Goodall's live account reveals
a deeper, more majestic inexorable power
with tempi that are so grand that his
Rheingold is spread over 3 CDs.
Lothar Zagrosek and his fine Stuttgart
State Opera Orchestra begin their new
Naxos Ring cycle charting a middle
course with overall timings of about
150 minutes, almost exactly the same
But the stop-watch
tells only part of the story. Zagrosek’s
saturated orchestral sound is far less
brassy than Solti, and to a lesser extent,
Barenboim, whose Bayreuth brass section
is wonderful in any event. Throughout
Zagrosek's recording I keep noticing
a beautiful darkness and depth to the
soundstage with the double basses and
cellos thrillingly present.
Much of Zagrosek’s
phrasing just feels longer and deeper.
If the orchestral crescendo building
to Donner’s hammer blow is less exciting
than the quicker Barenboim then, my
goodness, the revealed orchestral colours
and internal balances, such as the clear
violin figures gathering prominence,
bring much compensation. Another excellent
example is the final brass peroration
as the gods enter Valhalla. Zagrosek
does not yet have the rhythmic snap
of Barenboim, Krauss or Solti, but like
Goodall is more deeply majestic. Yet
Zagrosek can be mercurially exciting
when needed, especially after Alberich
uses the ring in scene 3. His rhythms
are not too insistent and the brass
never blare unduly; the music remains
poetic rather than 'pushed'. So whilst
Zagrosek is quicker than Goodall this
is still a darkly glittering world where
Wotan can truly sing "Terrible
now I find the power of the curse".
1953, Rome) also recognises the dark
undercurrents but brings a physical
dramatic power to crescendi, that leaves
me cheering. I occasionally miss that
in Zagrosek's Rheingold. When
in scene 4 Alberich calls and then dismisses
the oppressed Nibelungs Furtwängler
is more overwhelming, evoking mounting
terror despite the limitation of the
sound and his orchestra.
This Stuttgart Staatsopera
production is supported by some of the
best Ring sound engineering I
have heard. The orchestra is spread
across a wide-screen sound picture,
which is appropriate considering the
CDs were lifted from a DVD film soundtrack.
Solti's producer John Culshaw may have
reconsidered his aversion to live recordings
if only he had heard such engineering
which here reveals Wagner's miraculous
orchestration, with voices clear but
never too forward. Unfortunately the
Nibelung’s industrious metalwork at
the opening of scene 3 sounds too polite
and tinkly. And why use a drum rather
than an anvil for Donner’s hammer-blow?
That hammer-blow and subsequent thunder
do not fill the stage as impressively
as for Goodall or Barenboim. Yet Naxos's
overall dynamic range is impressive
and when listening through headphones
I was forced to turn down the volume
when the brass opened out in the final
This is a live theatre
recording so the voices move about a
real stage, sometimes even shifting
across speakers in between lines. There
is the occasional barely perceptible
cough and warm applause at the end.
Although the microphones are close,
you can sense the theatre acoustic.
From the start the
dark swells and currents at the bottom
of the Rhine are beautifully evoked.
Listen to those basses and how Wagner
tubas emerge, flow and meld! Zagrosek
holds a firm line throughout, building
the scene patiently towards the culmination
as the Ring is snatched away.
Rheinmaidens are full of character with
lovely voices. We also meet one of the
stars of the show: Esa Ruuttunen's Alberich.
If not as darkly metallic as Neidlinger
(try the 1955 Siegfried on Testament
he modulates his voice to show Alberich's
comic failures at wooing the ladies
and malicious cunning when he exacts
his revenge. Later in scene 3 Ruuttunen
forms a brilliant partnership with Eberhard
Francesco Lorenz's youthful Mime who
cleverly sounds like a whining underling
within well sung phrasing.
In scene 2 we meet
the gods and, sadly, the gaping hole
at the centre of this Rheingold: Wolfgang
Probst's inadequate Wotan. Comparisons
with Barenboim’s John Tomlinson or Norman
Bailey for Goodall are cruel. The moment
they start to sing you know that you
are encountering a commanding leader
of the Gods. Probst's key distinction
is an unsteady voice. For instance Zagrosek
and the orchestra open out towards Wotan’s
anchoring declaration "So grüß'
ich die Burg, sicher vor Bang' und Grau'n!"
but the moment is undermined of any
mix of grandeur and arrogance as Probst's
vibrato widens under pressure. And just
listen to how loose his voice sounds
spread across the single subsequent
"Walhall". How can Wotan command
the Gods and the stage with such a tremulous
Some singers allay
vocal flaws with an intensity of expression
but here Probst does not fully counter
Anna Russell's (tongue-in-cheek?) assertion
that Wotan is a "crashing bore". Try
Wotan's first two minutes with the Barenboim
recording and the contrast is startling.
Probst simply does not have the chest
resonance, colours or energy that Tomlinson
uses to lift Wotan's character from
The rest of the gods
are better but are not as distinguished
as the Nibelung pair. Donner also suffers
from unsteadiness. His cry "Dunstig
Gedämpf! Schwebend Gedüft!"
has all the power of a flag flapping
in the wind and his upper voice sounds
increasingly unsteady under pressure.
Bodo Brinkmann for Barenboim is not
only steady but seizes the dramatic
power of the moment with surer energy.
I like Scuster’s Fricka. Her voice has
a bright metallic edge which evokes
imperiousness, though Barenboim's Linda
Finnie worries and nags more obviously.
The giants are imposing and the death
noises as Fasolt is killed are truly
impressive. This lurid murder would
not be out of place on CSI!
It is interesting to
compare Robert Kunzli’s Loge with Graham
Clarke for Barenboim. Clarke is clearly
a great character singer with a harder,
narrower voice which he uses more vibrantly,
leaving no doubt of Loge’s cunning mind.
Kunzli has a more open lyric light-filled
voice – a beautifully sung Loge but
less intense. I’ve debated the merits
of both in my mind and must leave you
decide which to prefer.
So this Rheingold is
recommended to those who like to hear
Wagner's orchestration revealed though
fine sound engineering and excellent
conducting. The beautifully deep bass
colours stand out in my mind. However
the set is dragged down by some unheroic
gods. If you want a modern live Rheingold
in outstanding sound and superbly
theatrical cast I'd prefer Barenboim.
And Barenboim's Rheingold with
full libretto occasionally pops up in
Warner box set sales for about the same
price as these Naxos CDs.
Naxos say a full German
libretto and an English translation
can be found on their website. Unfortunately
on the day I looked there was a German
libretto with no corresponding translation
or track numbers. The booklet has a
brief essay, a cued synopsis and biographies
of the singers.
has also listened to this set
After a somewhat lukewarm
response to Leif Segerstam's Tristan
late last year (review),
it is a pleasure to welcome this altogether
more enjoyable Rheingold. If
it looks familiar, try the TDK DVD version
We move to Germany
– Stuttgart, to be accurate - for a
performance that immediately feels more
Wagnerian. The natural unfolding (literally
– of E flat major) of the Prelude is
well handled by the conductor, and the
recording immediately shows itself to
be detailed. This is streets ahead orchestrally
of the ENO Rhinegold at the Coliseum
that I heard a while back. In fact the
orchestra perform well throughout, brass
having a fair measure of weight for
the Walhall moments. Talking of brass,
the horn rusticity at the 'Gold'ne Äpfeln'
motif is most effective.
though, is variable. He slightly mis-times
the 'Rheingold' arrival point in Scene
1, missing the ecstasy here, and he
is woefully - and puzzlingly - pedestrian
immediately thereafter. Suddenly, he
becomes too smooth ... rather like a
Karajan in Wagner but without the Berliner
Philharmoniker! He can steam through
sections which seem naturally to resist
this sort of treatment for example the
passage around a very impressive 'Vollendet
is das ew'ge Werk'. In this respect
he reminds me of Paul Daniel at the
Coliseum. Yet his tempo treatment of
the giants' music is apt - nice and
heavy without being stodgy - and he
– pardon the pun – illuminates Loge
with a nicely flickering orchestra.
The Scene 3 games with the Tarnhelm
are gripping dramatically. Finally,
Zagrosek underplays the crucial tritone
at the heart of the Curse: C major arpeggion
in Alberich's line agains a rolling
F sharp in the bass.
The Rhinemaidens of
the first scene are light and dance-y,
a good complement to the initially rather
dull-of-voice Alberich, Esa Ruuttunen
who improves substantially, going on
to renounce Love in no uncertain terms.
Loge himself (Robert Künzli) is
generally excellent although at times
he is caught too far back in the recording
Erda (Mette Ejsing)
is not as omnisciently matronly as some,
but quite as wobbly of vibrato as others.
Wotan (Wolfgang Probst) has a commanding
vocal presence and balances the big-voiced
Michaela Schuster (Fricka) perfectly.
Of the two giants, Fafner (Philip Ens)
is the one who sounds a bit light to
be a giant - although Freia's screams
are mightily convincing!
break between the CDs is a little puzzling.
It feels cruel, and then you learn that
there are only 46 seconds of Scene 3
on CD 1! On the recording front, though,
this Rheingold is excellent.
Pure and clear and capable of handling
all of the larger climaxes, the sonics
provide much enjoyment in themselves.
The synopsis is all
but unreadable. Someone should be introduced
to the idea of paragraphs.
Overall, despite my
many caveats, there is enough here to
make me eager to hear their Walküre.