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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Der Ring des Nibelungen
see end of review for details
Staatsorchester Stuttgart/Lothar Zagrosek
EUROARTS 2057368 [7 DVDs: 15hrs 21]

Availability
Chandos.net

Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
The Ring Cycle (in English translation by Andrew Porter)
English National Opera/Reginald Goodall
CHANDOS CHUSB0005 [contents of 16CDs: 16 hrs 23]

Experience Classicsonline


Das Rheingold and die Walküre from the complete Stuttgart Ring cycle were released as DVDs on TDK in 2004, when, apart from Lothar Zagrosek’s direction and the orchestral playing, they received quite a pasting from Tony Haywood - see review. I’m with Tony Haywood, but in fairness, I should add that others have praised Rheingold in particular as closer to Wagner, a work of smart dramaturgy and a marvellous experience to see. The Stuttgart audience seems to have thoroughly relished the whole thing. I really cannot see how anyone could regard this version of Rheingold or any of the other operas in the series as ‘closer to Wagner’s intentions’. Those intentions are spelled out so fully in the score - and even more fully in the record which he had made of the 1876 production. What we see is so clearly at odds with what we read.
 
Those TDK releases, together with those of Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung, remain available: from some dealers they are slightly less expensive than the newer versions, though the new complete set represents a considerable saving over purchasing the individual operas in either version.
 
David Harbin was a little more complimentary about the Naxos audio-only recording of Rheingold from this cycle: he liked the sound engineering but, like Tony Haywood - and myself - had serious reservations about most of the singing. (8.660170/1 - see review.) Göran Forsling was a little more enamoured of the Naxos Walküre, but, again, felt that it hardly challenged existing recommendations (8.660172/4 - see review). Siegfried is on 8.660175/8 and Götterdämmerung on 8.660179/82.
 
I could almost leave it that, simply adding that the two other works in the cycle fare no better than their predecessors. The lack of an overall guiding hand which TH noted - each of the four operas in the cycle has a different director and a different cast - continues in perhaps even more acute form in Siegfried. Act I is set in the kitchenette of Mime’s bijou 1960s-type maisonette, complete with all mod cons, including built-in forge in the corner. When the hero enters he looks most unheroic - we know that Siegfried is an oaf, but an oaf in jeans and T-shirt? It wouldn’t matter so much if the singing were better, but neither Mime nor Siegfried really makes the grade and the Wanderer - complete with designer shades - doesn’t improve matters much. Banging with a spoon on a plate is no substitute for blows on the anvil - it’s only at the very end of the act that anything like realistic sword-forging takes place.
 
Just as a reminder, Wagner specifies ein Teil einer Felsenhöhle, part of a cave in the rocks, with ein großer Schmiedeherd, aus Felsstücken natürlich geformt, a huge forge, naturally formed from pieces of rock, not a domestic kitchen and a glorified gas cooker.
 
Fafner’s lair is some kind of disused nuclear site and the dragon itself turns out to be all too human, with a tannoy system to amplify his voice. Even the Tarnhelm turns out to be extremely disappointing: by the time that it appears in Götterdämmerung, it’s a mere hand mirror. Admittedly, it’s far from clear what exactly Fáfnir’s ‘helm of terror’ is in the earliest version, the Norse Fáfnismál, but it certainly wasn’t a mirror - not much terror in that:
 
(Fáfnír speaks)
Ægishjalm bar ek of alda sonum,
meðan ek of menjum lák;
einn rammari hugðumk öllum vera,
fannk-a ek svá marga mögu.
[The terror-helm I bore among the sons of men while I lay on the necklaces; I thought myself stronger than all for I found few enemies.]
 
In the texts with which Wagner was working, it was a helmet or cape which conferred invisibility, in the manner of Harry Potter, or altered the wearer’s appearance. 
Unless it’s explained by the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome, there presumably are those who applaud this sort of thing, but I’m certainly not one of them and I really fail to understand both the sentiment and false grammatical accord of a review which describes this set as offering a ‘combination of musical excellence and dramatic invention [which] make [sic] for a fascinating and engaging operatic experience’.
 
Götterdämmerung is Wagner’s masterpiece in that he employs the format of the first half of the Middle High German Nibelungenlied but weaves into it all the material derived from the Norse Vølsunga-saga and his own theme of greed, symbolised by the Ring, bringing about the downfall of the Gods. Mercifully, the singing is considerably better in this opera, though Albert Bonnema’s Siegfried is not very memorable, and the gimmicks rather fewer and more palatable.
 
As the orchestra tunes up, the three Norns enter, one by one, as bag-ladies. In a sense, since they have been made homeless by Wotan’s destruction of the world-ash, that’s not inappropriate, but when the first Norn is supposed to unwind a golden rope from around herself (während sie ein goldenes Seil von sich löst) the imagery is spoiled by making her unravel the threads from an old jumper. The pine tree under which they are supposed to sit (unter der breitästigen Tanne) becomes a few green scribbles on a large sheet of cardboard. 
 
Without asking for a live horse, I do draw the line at a hobby horse - a mere head on a stick, with which first Brünnhilde and then Siegfried canter around the stage. I wonder, too, what is the point of having a realistically painted backdrop of a mountain-girt river valley in the manner of Caspar David Friedrich if the realism is to be shattered by having Brünnhilde lift a corner of it for Siegfried to canter off down the Rhine - a journey on which, incidentally, he seems to make one or two amorous encounters in this production.
 
I mustn’t go on - and I particularly mustn’t spoil the surprise at the end which all the admirers of the production insist on keeping: I promise that most of you will be underwhelmed by it. I shall keep Götterdämmerung alone from the set, since its musical virtues exceed its weaknesses, but it’s likely to be played audio-only and not too often at that. It’s almost superfluous to add that the picture quality of all four operas is good, especially if your player can upscale - I cannot imagine that Blu-ray would add much more. The sound quality, played via an audio system, is also generally good, apart from one or two inevitable imbalances from live recording.
 
If you’re looking for traditional Wagner - or any production that makes sense - read no further: this is not for you. You’re likely to end up regarding this as a sound-only set, and you can do much better in that department. In the case of das Rheingold, for example, you need look no further than the most recent reincarnation of the classic Solti set, which I made Bargain of the Month. (Decca Originals 478 0382 - see review - or, in a more basic packaging, for as little as £8.50, Decca Heritage Masters 478 1403.) Better still, go for the complete Solti Ring (Decca 455 5552, available from some dealers for as little as £78).
 
There’s also a new kid on the block. It takes the form of one of the first releases in Chandos’s USB memory stick issues and enshrines Goodall’s celebrated ENO recording of the complete Ring. It’s on the kind of memory stick that most of us will be familiar with: more than 16 hours of superb music-making, in both mp3 and lossless formats, in a small plastic box that will take up minimal space in your collection. MusicWeb has the information here.
 
You could download all this from Chandos’s theclassicalshop.net at the expense of a good deal of time and effort, and you would end up paying rather more than the price of £99.99 which Chandos have placed on these USB releases. Rhinegold in lossless format costs from theclassicalshop.net £19.99 and the other three operas £29.99 each - other download sites will charge you more, even for mp3. With both lossless and mp3 on the stick, too, you can, if you wish, load the operas on your mp3 player. Chandos always offer mp3 free to purchasers of lossless downloads but, to obtain the mp3, you would need to sit and watch the download paint dry again.
 
There’s a choice between flac and wma versions. I chose the wma version, if only because wma files contain more information when viewed in Windows Explorer, and found the recording excellent. To date I haven’t listened to the mp3 files - the idea of listening to Wagner on an mp3 player, even via my car radio’s mp3 input, doesn’t greatly appeal. Because Chandos wanted my review stick back - not unreasonably at £100 a throw - I dragged and dropped all the files to the hard drive of my computer, something that I would have done anyway, in order to play the music via Squeezebox. The process was very quick, considering the size of each of the folders - far quicker than waiting for it all to download.
 
As for the Goodall performances, their virtues and minor shortcomings are pretty well known by now. If you doubt that they are for you, try the inexpensive download of the sampler - no longer available on CD. The generally broad tempi mostly work very well, giving the music time to expand, though occasionally allowing the tension to drop. The slight lack of tension at the opening of Rhinegold is more than offset by the scene in Nibelheim later in the opera. The singing, too, is generally good or very good: where individual contributions don’t quite convince, the teamwork always does. And with Goodall and Solti there are no visual distractions. The ENO productions were fairly gimmick-free anyway, with Fasolt and Fafner looking like giant nuts and bolts, as illustrated in the booklet for Rhinegold - about as unusual as it gets.
 
The live recording inevitably brings a few moments of minor imbalance and the odd stage clunk. The ADD sound cannot compare with the sonic glories of the most recent refurbishment of the Solti recording or even the Stuttgart DVDs, but it still sounds very much more than satisfactory.
 
Goodall’s Twilight of the Gods may run for over half an hour longer than the Zagrosek, but I enjoyed it very much more. At just over five hours, it’s also longer than the Hallé recording of Götterdämmerung with Mark Elder which I recently recommended as Bargain of the Month in both its conventional multi-disc version and the single-CD mp3 incarnation. (CDHLD7525 or CDHLM7530 - see review)*. That recording restored my faith in the final opera of the Ring as the equal of its predecessors. The single-CD version provided an example of innovative technology, building on Nimbus’s successful mp3 versions of Haydn and Bach. I could hardly, if at all, tell the mp3 from the original, but younger, sharper ears may spot a slight difference.
 
Now Chandos offer the whole Ring in an even more compact format and cater for those who insist on CD-quality sound at the same time. In comparison with Elder and Solti, Goodall’s Twilight is a little slow to get underway - the scene with the Norns always drags a little - but it catches fire by the time that Siegfried is off on his Rhine journey. All three versions are preferable to having to watch the charade from Stuttgart and all three offer better singing, even if Zagrosek’s direction is sound.
 
Those wary of opera in English need have no fear of Andrew Porter’s idiomatic English translation. The Faber edition of that translation, with the original text on the facing page, has been my companion during hours of listening to various operas in the Ring cycle for many years - preferable to the minuscule fonts in the Decca CD booklets.
 
If you just want a fine, inexpensive version of Götterdämmerung, the Hallé recording will do very well. Order it diect from MusicWeb International for a competitive price. The complete Solti set can be obtained on CD at a very modest price and remains very competitive. The same is true of the slightly later Karajan set on DG. Those looking for Wagner in English and wishing to save space should be well content with the Chandos USB - downloading without tears, as it were, and at a price-saving over both the parent CDs and the download. I wouldn’t wish to be without any of these. Those of a sensitive disposition should steer clear of the Stuttgart DVDs.
 
* Please read carefully what I have written there about how to play these files. Don’t try to play Wagner via the Windows Media Player on your PC, or you will end up with short gaps between tracks. The iTunes Player will play the mp3 tracks seamlessly or burn them to CDR, but won’t recognise WMA or Flac. The free version of Winamp will play all files or burn the tracks to CDR - the paid version will do it even better - but you will still be limited by your PC soundcard and speakers unless you invest in a programme such as Squeezebox to get the music to your audio system.
 
Brian Wilson 

Details
For cast lists and separate availability of both sets, see below. 
Das Rheingold (1854)
Wotan (bass) - Wolfgang Probst
Donner (baritone) - Motti Kaston
Froh (tenor) - Berhhard Schneider
Loge (tenor) - Robert Kunzli
Mime tenor) - Eberhard Francesco Lorenz
Alberich (baritone) - Esa Ruutunen
Fasolt (bass) - Roland Bracht
Fafner (bass) - Phillip Ens
Fricka (mezzo) - Michaela Schuster
Freia (soprano) - Helga Ros Indridadottir
Erda (mezzo) - Metta Ejsing
Woglinde (soprano) - Catriona Smith
Wellgunde (mezzo) - Maria Theresa Ulrich
Flosshilde (mezzo)- Margarete Joswig
Staatsorchester Stuttgart/Lothar Zagrosek
Director: Joachim Schlömer;
Set and Costumes: Jens Kilian
Video direction: János Darvas and Thorsten Fricke
rec. Staatsoper, Stuttgart, 28 September and 29 December 2002.
Picture: NTSC 16:9. PCM Stereo, DD 5.1 and DTS 5.1. Region code 0 (worldwide)
subtitles in German, English, French, Italian and Spanish
EUROARTS DVD 2052068 [152:00]
 
Die Walküre (1851-56)
Siegmund (tenor) - Robert Gambill
Hunding (bass) - Attila Jun
Wotan (bass) - Jan-Hendrik Rootering
Sieglinde (soprano) - Angela Denoke
Brünnhilde (soprano) - Renata Behle
Fricke (mezzo) - Tichina Vaughn
Gerhilde (soprano) - Eva-Marie Westbroek
Ortlinde (soprano) - Wiebke Goetjes
Waltraute (mezzo) - Stella Kleindienst
Helmwige (soprano) - Magdalena Schaeffer
Siegrune (soprano) - Nidia Palacios
Rossweisse (mezzo) - Margit Diefenthal
Staatsorchester Stuttgart/Lothar Zagrosek
Director: Christoph Nel;
Set and Costumes: Karl Kneidl
Video direction: János Darvas and Thorsten Fricke
rec. Staatsoper, Stuttgart, 29 September 2002 and 2 January 2003.
Picture: NTSC 16:9. PCM Stereo, DD 5.1 and DTS 5.1. Region code 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles in German, English, French, Italian and Spanish
EUROARTS DVD 2052078 [2 DVDs: 229:00]
 
Siegfried
Siegfried (tenor) - Jon Fredric West;
Brünnhilde (soprano) - Lisa Gasteen;
Mime (tenor) - Heinz Göhrig;
Der Wanderer (bass) - Wolfgang Schöne;
Alberich (baritone) - Björn Waag;
Fafner (bass) - Attila Jun;
Erda (contralto) - Helene Ranada;
Der Waldvogel (soprano/treble) - Gabriela Herrera;
Staatsorchester Stuttgart/Lothar Zagrosek
Director and Dramaturgy: Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito;
Set and Costumes: Anna Viebrock
Video director: Hans Hulscher
rec. Staatsoper, Stuttgart, 1 October 2002 and 5 january, 2003.
Picture: NTSC 16:9. PCM Stereo, DD 5.1 and DTS 5.1. Region code 0 (worldwide)
subtitles in German, English, French, Italian and Spanish
EUROARTS DVD 2052086 [2 DVDs: 251:00]
 
Götterdämmerung
Siegfried (tenor) - Albert Bonnema;
Brünnhilde (soprano) - Luana DeVol;
Gutrune - Eva-Maria Westbroek;
Hagen (bass) - Roland Bracht;
Gunther (bass-baritone) - Hernan Iturralde;
Alberich (bass-baritone) - Franz-Josef Kapellmann;
Waltraute (mezzo) - Tichina Vaughn;
Norns (contralto, mezzo, soprano) - Janet Collins; Lani Poulson; Sue Patchell;
Rhinemaidens (soprano, mezzo, alto) - Helga Ros Indridadottir; Sarah Castle; Janet Collins
Staatsoper Chorus, Stuttgart;
Staatsorchester Stuttgart/Lothar Zagrosek
Director: Peter Konwitschny;
Stage and Costumes: Bert Neumann
Video director: Hans Hulscher
Picture: NTSC 16:9. PCM Stereo, DD 5.1 and DTS 5.1. Region code 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles in German, English, French, Italian and Spanish
EUROARTS DVD 2052098 [2 DVDs: 289 minutes]
 
Complete Ring: EUROARTS DVD 2057368 [7 DVDs, playing times as above]
 
The Ring Cycle (in English translation by Andrew Porter)
Alberich - Derek Hammond-Stroud
Wotan/Wanderer - Norman Bailey
Fricka (Rheingold)/Waltraute (Twilight) - Katherine Pring
Loge - Emile Belcourt
Donner - Norman Welsby
Fafner - Clifford Grant
Fasolt - Robert Lloyd
Erda/First Norn - Anne Collins
Freia - Lois McDonnell
Woglinde - Valerie Masterson
Wellgunde - Shelagh Squires
Flosshilde - Helen Atkins
Mime - Gregory Dempsey
Froh - Robert Ferguson
Siegmund, Siegfried - Alberto Remedios
Sieglinde/Gutrune - Margaret Curphey
Hunding - Clifford Grant
Brünnhilde - Rita Hunter
Fricka (Valkyrie) - Ann Howard
Mime - Gregory Dempsey
Woodbird - Maurine London
Hagen - Aage Haugland
Gunther - Norman Wellsby
Second and Third Norns - Gillian Knight and Anne Evans
English National Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Reginald Goodall
rec. live, London Coliseum, August 1973 (Siegfried); March 1975 (Rhinegold); December 1975 (Valkyrie); August 1977 (Twilight). ADD.
CHANDOS CHUSB0005 [contents of 16CDs: 2:53:50 + 4:09:06 + 4:38:37 + 5:11:20]
Contains mp3 and lossless versions, artwork and booklets on USB memory stick.
Also available separately on CD or mp3 or lossless download as: The Rhinegold CHAN3054(3); The Valkyrie CHAN3038(4); Siegfried CHAN3045(4); Twilight of the Gods CHAN3060(5) - times as above.
Also The Goodall Ring Sampler (download only from theclassicalshop.net in mp3 or lossless, for £4.99) CHAN0019 [76:09]

 


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