Previous instalments in the Hamburg Ring Cycle have been a hit
and miss affair, but this Götterdämmerung is a real success.
Even without visuals, it is a dramatically coherent account
and the on-stage chemistry between the singers really comes
across. Almost every performer here is in the top league of
modern Wagner interpretation. Nobody is perfect but the minor
faults from each of the singers, and from each of the orchestral
sections, do little to diminish the overall achievement.
Every member of the cast has something impressive to bring to
this production. Christian Franz is an expressive and believable
Siegfried. His performance suffers from some rhythmic inaccuracies
in the first act, but he has no trouble with the high notes,
nor with projecting across the orchestra. Deborah Polaski is
similarly secure in her pitching as Brünnhilde. I found her
performance very endearing, her natural tone, even at the top,
making her the focus of attention in all the scenes she sings.
This allows the Immolation Scene to be all the more definitive,
with the audience really feeling Brünnhilde's transcending compassion.
The small role of Waltraute is given a similarly endearing reading
by Petra Lang. She is sometimes a little sharp on the top notes,
but her tone is direct and her singing always filled with emotion.
The baddies are just as convincing. This might well be the first
recording of John Tomlinson singing Hagen, and if it is, it
is worth buying for him alone. He has the best ‘Hoihos’ in the
business, and the passing years have done little to diminish
their power. Wolfgang Koch is similarly menacing as Alberich,
although he doesn't quite have the depth of tone in the lower
register. In their scene together in Act 2, he is comprehensively
out-classed by Tomlinson.
Gunther and Gutrune, not roles that usually attract star casting,
are here taken by the excellent Robert Bork and Anna Gabler.
Both put in dark and complex readings. There is a sinister air
about every scene in which they appear, and both sing with dark-hued
tones that underline their malicious influence. Gabler in particular
rises head and shoulders above any other singer I have heard
in the role, and the emotional complexity of her singing ensures
that Gutrune is always presented as a real character and not
just a minor functionary of the plot.
There is some great ensemble singing from the Norns, the Rhinemaidens
and the chorus, and the orchestra is also on good form. The
brass make the most of their many chances to shine, and have
an impressive tonal palette ranging from round, warm chords
to biting, angular interjections. The ensemble in the orchestra
isn't always completely accurate, and that might be a factor
to separate this recording from the very best on the market.
The orchestra is well served by the audio recording, much better
in fact than the singers. Everything that happens on the stage
sounds frustratingly distant, at least in comparison to the
orchestra. The engineering does a good job of representing the
physical positions of the singers on the stage, but perhaps
goes a little far in this direction. Add more apparent distance
between the singers and the audience than is necessary. That
said, the balance between the singers and the orchestra rarely
suffers, thanks perhaps to the impressive casting.
For me, the biggest problem with the previous instalments in
this cycle was Simone Young's interpretation. She has a tendency
to let the music flow without intervening to articulate its
dramatic extremes. That tendency remains here, but is not as
significant. In fact, to a certain extent she is able to turn
it into a virtue. Some of the longer passages, especially in
Act 1, benefit from her ability to maintain a sense of narrative
flow without getting too involved in the individual moments.
This also allows the singers the space they need, although the
lack of dramatic engagement can be as dangerous for the stage
action as it can be in the pit. And the set pieces – Rheinfahrt,
Funeral Music, Immolation Scene – good as they all are - never
feel like the fully committed performances of the greats of
Nevertheless, this Götterdämmerung gets my recommendation
on the strength of the singing. A modern recording of the work
usually has at least one weak link in the cast, and it is usually
either Siegfried or Brünnhilde. Not so here; the principals
are all more than up to Wagner's many challenges, and equally
surprisingly, the supporting cast is too. Minor ensemble problems
in the orchestra and a general lack of dramatic intensity are
the downsides, but it's the singing that makes or breaks any
Wagner recording, and the singing here is as good as you could
Masterwork Index: Götterdämmerung