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Richard WAGNER (1813–1883)
Siegfried (1876)
Jon Fredric West (tenor) – Siegfried; Heinz Görig (tenor) – Mime; Wolfgang Schöne (bass) – The Wanderer; Björn Waag (bass) – Alberich; Attila Jun (bass) – Fafner; Gabriela Herrera (soprano) – Forest Bird; Helene Ranada (contralto) – Erda; Lisa Gasteen (soprano) – Brünnhilde
Staatsorchester Stuttgart/Lothar Zagrosek
rec. live, Staatstheater Stuttgart, Germany, 1 October 2002, 5 January 2003. DDD
NAXOS 8.660175-78 [4 CDs: 54:17 + 50:50 + 72:17 + 62:58]


This is a more-than-competent recording of an extraordinary opera. Siegfried is structured around three sets of three conversations with overriding themes of upheaval and revolution. The hero rebels against his treacherous guardian to find freedom through experience of both fear and love. And the gods' dominance increases its downward tilt in favour of the rising power of men.

Wagner intended Siegfried to be the favourite chunk in his Ring cycle yet it never found the popularity of, say, Walküre, partly due to the ostensibly unsophisticated hero. Even in Wagner's day audiences felt young Siegfried was not the most intellectual character in the Ring. Anna Russell put it bluntly: "he’s very young, and he’s very handsome, and he’s very strong, and he’s very brave, and he’s very stupid".

Of course poor Siegfried did not exactly benefit from a liberal mind-expanding education under Mime's guardianship. Indeed Siegfried never sees a fellow human until the last thirty minutes of this opera when his discovery of Brünnhilde draws new depths within his character, in the best performances at least. And anyway, Siegfried is not stupid, working out that Mime is lying about his parentage in Act I. There are obvious parallels with his character and the 'pure fool' Parsifal.

West's Siegfried has the heldentenor chops to stay the course with impressive power, precise diction and legato. West batters the anvils and sings with robust bullish power at the end of Act I, sings with robust bullish power throughout his showdown with Wotan in Act III and, err, robust bullish power for most of the final love duet. To be fair, West can soften, for example when referring to Sieglinde in Act I or upon the discovery of the sleeping Brünnhilde, but the law of diminishing returns means we need more such expression for powerful lines to register fully. Turn to Windgassen (Keilberth, Testament) or Suthaus (Furtwängler 1953, EMI) for greater poetry and dramatic curve.

There is also a streak of anger in West's tone that is reminiscent of Manfred Jung for Boulez. Listeners may miss the sunniness of Remedios and Windgassen.

West's bullish Siegfried contrasts well with Göhrig's smooth, snaky Mime. Göhrig resists over-egging here and his Mime is all the more real for it. There is innate beauty in Göhrig’s voice, expertly coloured to portray the wheedling, whining dwarf. Yet Mime’s revealed treachery at the end of Act 2 draws Gollum-like nastiness from this singer so the listener has full sympathy for Siegfried’s revenge.

Australian soprano Lisa Gasteen’s ringing, warm Brünnhilde is admirably clear and she digs into her chest voice for passionate expression. Gasteen is fresher voiced than Astrid Varnay's fruity Brünnhilde on Testament and Gasteen does not use Varnay’s excessive portamenti. Yet Varnay is steadier and more thrilling when attacking or coming off notes, particularly in the final verse. My favourite Siegfried Brünnhildes remain Martha Mödl for expressive intensity and Rita Hunter, who later adopted Australia as her home, for utter radiance.

Schöne's Wanderer has delicious dark metallic resonance and he shifts colours dramatically. So it is frustrating that much of his legato is undermined by unsteadiness. Perhaps listeners will accept this as an aspect of the gnarled, declining God but the character's innate authority is too often compromised. One wonders how much effort this Siegfried would exert to wrest the spear from his granddad?

Helene Ranada's Erda is a treat: rich and metallic, bringing out both Erda's increasing desperation and exasperation. Jun is a truly terrifying dragon, a voice from the dark pit. The sonics bring Jun more into focus as he recalls his folly in Rheingold, as if Fafner the giant was again present. Herrera is a bright woodbird with a welcome suggestion of avian flutter.

Zagrosek's conducting is natural and unexaggerated, drawing warmth from a saturated orchestral palette. Brass never unduly blare, unlike the Solti set, but can have tremendous weight in key scenes, such as the slaying of Fafner. A more brilliant, detailed orchestral image, as for Levine on DG, would have helped. In this respect Keilberth's forging scene is consistently more thrilling. Zagrosek's Act III Prelude is a bracing renewal of energy with biting horns and chiselled strings but the apex misses thunderousness as the timps are somewhat recessed.

Voices are not too forward and always clear within a dry acoustic. Perspectives are decent overall. Stage noises add theatricality and the few audience coughs are unobtrusive. But why on earth did the producers sanction fade-out breaks at the end of the first three CDs?

The Naxos booklet contains cast biographies, a brief essay and a cued synopsis. The libretto is on but it is only in German and with no cue points.

So this Naxos Siegfried is ‘a keeper’ but not top of the list. If Wagner's ghost were to descend and ask to hear the best example of Siegfried on record then for sheer passion and immersion into Wagner’s dramatic world don’t hesitate to play the 1953 Furtwängler.

David Harbin 

see also Review by Göran Forsling



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