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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Das Rheingold [147:12]
Wotan - René Pape
Donner - Alexei Markov
Froh - Sergei Semishkur
Loge - Stephan Rügamer
Fricka - Ekaterina Gubanova
Freia - Viktoria Yastrebova
Erda - Zlata Bulycheva
Alberich - Nikolai Putilin
Mime - Andrei Popov
Fasolt - Evgeny Nikitin
Fafner - Mikhail Petrenko
Woglinde - Zhanna Dombrovskaya
Wellgunde - Irina Vasilieva
Flosshilde - Ekaterina Sergeeva
Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. June 2010, February, April, June 2012, Mariinsky Concert Hall, St Petersburg
MARIINSKY MAR0526 [72:21 + 75:21]

When record companies embark on a complete Ring it’s often Die Walküre that they release first. There can be several reasons for this; most often it’s because Walküre is the most popular opera in the cycle and so you can guarantee some sales. Sometimes it’s to give a flavour of the conductor’s approach before embarking on the more expository style of Rheingold. Both of these may well be true of Gergiev’s Ring, but I fear that another reason lies behind their decision to release Rheingold second. That is that, after such an excellent Walküre as the one they released earlier in 2013, this Rheingold is nowhere near the top flight.
There’s a very mellifluous prelude, in which Gergiev generates a fantastic sense of momentum so that you feel that the music just about reaches breaking point by the entrance of the Rhinemaidens. After that things get off to a bad start with a formulaic, run-of-the-mill opening scene. It’s perfectly capably sung, but the trio of Rhinemaidens and, especially, Nikolai Putilin’s Alberich feels very much like they are going through the motions. Perhaps it’s the consequence of a concert performance, but that’s no excuse when you compare it with, say, Janowski’s recent version which was recorded in similar circumstances. Alberich’s flirtation with the Rhinemaidens lacks any sense of playfulness, mockery or malice; they might as well be singing hymns for all the emotional investment they put in. The Rhinemaidens don’t seem in the least bit excited about the unveiling of the gold so that their shrieks when Alberich steals it are decidedly unconvincing. Nor, until the last possible moment, does Putilin sound in any way energised by the prospect of the power that the gold will bring him.
Things improve with the second scene, for this introduces René Pape whose Wotan was so impressive in Walküre, and it remains so here. His opening peroration to the finished castle is superb, full of hope, nobility and high-minded aspiration, and his single - or should that be simple? - minded determination to avoid paying with Freia is convincing in the simplicity of its conviction. There is palpable frustration in his voice when the giants ask for the Rhinegold as payment instead of Freia and he toys effectively with Alberich in the fourth scene. His self-confidence then gives way to deep-seated insecurity, even fear after Erda’s appearance and he sounds deeply reflective after Fasolt’s murder. However, he sounds tired by the time of the final monologue, and the first appearance of the sword theme seems to push him too far beyond his comfort zone. It’s the only thing that blots an otherwise excellent performance.
Stephan Rügamer is thin of voice for Loge, but I rather liked his interpretation because the lighter colour is never less than attractive to listen to, and it adds to the character’s slippery sense of cunning. Gubanova’s Fricka grew on me after a rather anonymous start and, thankfully, Putilin’s Alberich finds some energy by the time of the third scene as he describes his designs on the gods. He fumes and fulminates brilliantly when the hoard is confiscated, though there is no need for him to lapse into screaming as he does at the end. His delivery of the curse is good, however, combining malice and frustration very convincingly, and making you wonder anew why he didn’t put more conviction into the first scene.
Much of what is on offer elsewhere, however, is distinctly mediocre. On paper the duo of Evgeny Nikitin and Mikhail Petrenko look like a dream pair of giants, but in fact Nikitin is a shouty and banal Fasolt. Petrenko is better because his Fafner has a hint of evil about him, even as he describes Freia’s golden apples in his first appearance, and his murder of his brother seems like the natural conclusion for this character. At times Sergei Semishkur is barely audible as Froh, though Alexei Markov summons Donner’s thunderclouds fairly convincingly. Regrettably the thwack of the timpani when the hammer strikes the rock is terrible bathos. The voice of Zlata Bulycheva sounds as though it has been electronically enhanced for Erda, which is an unnecessary mistake as she sounds perfectly good as she is. Andrei Popov gives his all as Mime and makes you wish he had been given more to do, even if he isn’t always exactly tuneful.
Gergiev keeps the transitions moving quickly, and the transformation from the first to second scenes works particularly well with a quick-paced attack on the Rhine music before giving way to the more elevated evocations of the lofty heights. There are plenty of times, though, where his vast dramatic experience seems to desert him completely, such as the appalling slowing up of the tempo for the entrance of the giants. Even worse, he slows down unforgivably during the moment when Wotan wrests the ring from Alberich’s finger, sapping the dramatic tension fatally and belying all of his experience in the theatre. Furthermore, the tempo is all over the place for the final scene; too slow for the appearance of the rainbow bridge and Wotan’s monologue, then too rushed for the final climax. On the plus side, the descent into Nibelheim is exciting, without being thrilling, and Gergiev is helped by an unusually tuneful set of anvils. The orchestral playing is good, and they rise capably to the climaxes, such as the appearance of the dragon or the finale with the rainbow bridge, but they’re not quite at the elevated level that they achieved in Walküre, and it’s hard to know why. Perhaps it’s because there are fewer international heavyweights in the cast, or perhaps it’s down to the very spread out dates for recording, no explanation for which is given.
Anyhow, now that we’re half-way through the Mariinsky Ring it’s a clear case of one hit and one near-miss. This Rheingold is fair enough but it in no way stands up to the other live experience of Janowski’s version, never mind the still incomparable Solti Rheingold from 1958 or Karajan’s 1967 version which I’m also extremely fond of. Which, then, will prove the norm for Gergiev’s Ring: the thrilling passion of Walküre or the slightly insipid, formulaic approach of Rheingold? Maybe we’ll find out with the arrival of Siegfried.
Simon Thompson

Masterwork Index: Das Rheingold