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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Das Rheingold (1869) [157.42]
René Pape (baritone) - Wotan; Nikolai Putilin (baritone) - Alberich; Stephan Rügamer (tenor) - Loge; Evgeny Nikitin (bass) - Fasolt; Mikhail Petrenko (bass) - Fafner; Andrei Popov (tenor) - Mime; Ekaterina Gubanova (mezzo) - Fricka; Zlata Bulycheva (alto) - Erda; Viktoria Yastrebova (soprano) - Freia; Alexei Markov (baritone) - Donner; Sergei Semishkur (tenor) - Froh; Zhanna Dombrovskaya (soprano) - Woglinde; Irina Vasilieva (mezzo) - Wellgunde; Ekaterina Sergeeva (alto) - Flosshilde
Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. Concert Hall, Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, 7-10 June 2010, 17-18 February and 10 April 2012
MARIINSKY MAR 0526 [72.21 + 75.21]

In the modern tradition of performing bodies releasing CDs on their own labels it is usual for such releases to consist of live recordings. This Mariinsky reading of Das Rheingold appears to be something very much closer to a studio recording, assembled from seven sessions held over an extended period of nearly two years. There’s no evidence of a live audience at any point; no applause at the end, for example. The performances were held not in the dry acoustic of the Mariinsky Theatre itself but in the more resonant Concert Hall of the theatre, and the results display the sound of the orchestra to better advantage than in the series of live theatre recordings they made for Philips during the 1990s and 2000s.
Whereas in their earlier release of Die Walküre the Mariinsky employed a number of major Wagner stars from the international circuit, here, apart from two roles, their Rheingold is cast entirely from within the company itself, with it has to be confessed somewhat mixed results. Gergiev has garnered a fair number of critical brickbats over the years for his Wagner interpretations. Even here it must be admitted that some of his choices of speed - and the variations within them - are somewhat unorthodox. At the same time these choices can all be justified by reference to their musical or dramatic context, and only at one point - as Loge describes the Giants’ abduction of Freia (CD 1, track 12 2.10) - is there any sense of undue haste, with the singer simply unable properly to articulate the text at the speed chosen. Even the rather rapid traversal of the final pages can be regarded as a reflection of the tawdry nature of the Gods’ triumph at this point, although the internal orchestral balance between the Rainbow Bridge and the Valhalla themes is not ideal. More serious is the underweighting of the string lines in places, which improves as the performance progresses but is particularly noticeable during the Prelude. When the cellos enter with their flowing version of the Rhine motif, they are simply not clearly audible against the sustained E flat chord on the horns and woodwind (CD 1, track 1 1.38). When one consults the booklet, the reason is clear to see. Wagner, with his tuned ear for orchestral balance, specifies twelve cellos in his orchestra for the Ring; here we have to make do with a niggardly eight. The reduction of the forces to two-thirds of those required is simply inadequate. There is a similar sense of undermanning in the lyrical cello phrases which end the outburst following Alberich’s curse (CD 2, track 7 3.22). The numbers of strings throughout are fewer than those the composer requested, which may lead to a greater clarity of texture but seriously unbalances the orchestral sound in places.
Of the two ‘imported’ singers René Pape - who also sang the role of Wotan in Gergiev’s Walküre - is the more known quantity. He is a singer in the Wagnerian lyric bass mode rather than the more conventional heroic bass-baritone. Even so, he has no difficulty with the high notes. His pointing of the text often pays dividends even when the sense of the lust for domination which drives the character is missing without the visual aspect of the drama which was so apparent in his assumption of the role on DVD for Barenboim.
Stephan Rügamer as Loge is more problematic. Singers of this role tend to fall into one of two categories: either a heroic tenor who can encompass the more lyrical sections of the part, or else pure character tenors of smaller voice but more pungent tone. Rügamer unfortunately seems to fall between these two stools. His voice is basically lyrical, but it seems to be a couple of sizes too small to cope with the Wagnerian orchestra - or else he is set too far back within the audio balance.
One would expect a Russian theatre to be able to furnish magnificent bass voices by the dozen, and in the casting of the two giants the Mariinsky does not disappoint. Both Evgeny Nikitin and Mikhail Petrenko have all the vocal attributes required, but the essential distinction between the romantically smitten Fasolt and his more practical and brutal brother is hardly suggested here. Alexei Markov is a magnificent Donner, sending out his challenge to the thunder in ringing tones. On the other hand Sergei Semishkur is simply inadequate as Froh, frequently close to inaudible and totally lacking in any sense of presence until his disclosure of the Rainbow Bridge which is delivered in reedy rather than lyrical tones. It is hard to believe that, as the booklet notes inform us, he includes the role of Rodolfo in La Bohème among his repertoire.
The only tenor in this set who produces real volume is Andrei Popov in his short cameo as Mime at the beginning of Scene Three. His blatant disregard for Wagner’s written notes does the music no favours whatsoever. As his brother Nikolai Putilin similarly makes a number of slips. His delivery of the line “Auf den Fersen folg’ ich euch nach!” (CD 2, track 6 4.12) departs wildly from Wagner’s notation in a manner that is by no means justified by the dramatic situation. He also makes some very noticeable alterations of the German vowel sounds. One notes that his principal career is devoted to Russian and French opera, and he seems decidedly unhappy with the German language. He is very laid-back during the opening scene, concerned more with the production of beautiful sounds than drama - as are the mellifluous Rhinemaidens. He singularly fails to supply us with Alberich’s “mocking laugh” after the theft of the gold as Wagner indicates in the score. In fact the whole set, like Marek Janowski’s older traversal from the 1980s, omits all the sound effects that John Culshaw supplied so plentifully in the old Solti Decca cycle in 1958 - not even Wagner’s request for the Nibelungs to scream at the sight of the Ring when Alberich wields it. We do of course get the anvils during the Descent to Nibelheim and during the later interlude, but they sound very musical and indeed almost as if the sound has been ‘piped in’ from offstage; especially noticeable as they fade into the distance. A similar effect is used for Erda’s warning (well sung by Zlata Bulycheva) but the Rheintöchter in the final bars sound very much present to the ear, simply placed at the rear of the stage. Donner’s notated hammer-blow on the rock is avoided altogether, and during the following passage where the Rainbow Bridge is disclosed one misses the shimmer supplied by Wagner’s carefully notated six harps - only two players are credited in the booklet.
In short, despite Gergiev’s often impassioned conducting, this set is simply short on dramatic impetus. The climaxes all seem to be much of a piece with each other, with the result that the music sounds rather short-winded; and the singing, as I have indicated, is too uneven in quality to be sufficient compensation. This is a performance that one would be quite happy to encounter in the opera house - there is plenty of incident - and were the competition in this repertoire less ferocious one would welcome this release. Given the presence in the catalogue of so many superb recordings, as a set for repeated listening at home the flaws are too many to bear frequent repetition.
Paul Corfield Godfrey

Masterwork Index: Das Rheingold

See also reviews by Simon Thompson and Dave Billinge