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Richard WAGNER (1813-83)
Das Rheingold (1869) [149.14]
Manfred Volz (baritone) – Wotan
Christian Franz (tenor) – Loge
Klaus Wallprecht (baritone) – Alberich
Manfred Jung (tenor) – Mime
Markus Hollop (baritone) – Fasolt
Dieter Hönig (bass) – Fafner
Marisa Altmann-Althausen (mezzo-soprano) – Fricka
Silke Marchfeld (contralto) – Erda
Cyril Assat, Sedat Öztoprak (baritones) – Donner
Omar Jara (tenor) – Froh
Inga Fischer, Anja Vincken (sopranos) – Freia
Marisca Mulder, Christa Platzer (sopranos) – Woglinde
Petra Schmidt (soprano) – Wellgunde
Gundula Schneider (mezzo-soprano) – Flosshilde
Kassel State Theatre Orchestra/Roberto Paternostro
rec. from performances at Kassel State Theatre, 3 March, 4 April, 2 May, 3 and 26 June 1999
Bonus interview with Michael Leinert [57.34]
ARS PRODUKTION 38051 [3 SACDs: 71.26 + 77.48 + 57.34]

In several ways this is a decidedly odd issue in what is presumably intended to be the first instalment in a new complete Ring cycle based on performances given in Kassel in 1999, the peculiarities of which may well serve to explain the otherwise unconscionable delay in the release of this recording. In the first place, while we have become accustomed to changes of casting in roles between evenings in the cycle, this is the first recording I have encountered where the recorded performances feature different performers in the same role; two singers each are credited with the roles of Donner, Freia and Woglinde, presumably reflecting changes in casting during the course of the operatic season – the recording derives from performances spread over a period of more than three months. Secondly, although this is billed as a “surround sound” production, directional effects enumerated in the booklet in a note in German only (the remainder of the notes are given English translations) are few and far between. Even Wagner’s specifications for phrases from the Rhinemaidens to be delivered from above or below the stage are simply ignored, and Alberich’s “mocking laughter from below” at the end of the opening scene is conspicuous by its absence. Thirdly, the booklet gives us the sung text in German only, but supplements it with a highly selective collection of musical illustrations of various leitmotifs. While it is pleasing to note that this avoids such solecisms as Walzogen’s misidentification of the second half of the Freia motif as “Flight”, it seems perverse to cite Froh’s motif during his ‘ageing’ towards the end of the second scene while omitting it from its initial statement at his entrance. Similarly, the motifs are labelled in German only. The booklet is copiously illustrated with photographs from the Kassel production, which Manfred Jung in a note regrets was not committed to video; since Michael Leinert seems to have furnished yet another tedious updating of the action to the period of the Wilhelmine First Reich (Jung curiously suggests post-1945, but the costumes are clearly of an earlier period), I cannot find myself sharing his regret. Finally, the orchestra specified by Wagner, over a hundred players including onstage performers, is restricted in size to 78 as a result of constrictions imposed by the limited capacity of the Kassel pit. Although the violins in particular are clearly heard to be attempting to compensate for their reduced numbers, the balances are far from satisfactory in such passages as the end of the Prelude or the rushing figuration which accompanies the trio of ‘Rheingold! Rheingold!’ and which has such significance later in the generation of leitmotifs.

Having said which, the vocal performances here – largely drawn from the Kassel roster of company singers – are a source of much pleasure, considerably better than many efforts from larger theatres which have emerged over the years. Most impressive of these company members is Christian Franz, who was to move onto major roles such as Siegmund and Siegfried when he transferred to Berlin later in 1999; here he is a strong and self-assured god of fire, but also capable of considerable subtlety and lyricism which makes him nearly ideal as Loge despite a couple of unfortunate lapses into ‘barking’ during fast passages. On the other hand, the former Siegfried Manfred Jung is much less impressive as Mime, actually ducking a high note during his opening scene with Alberich. Generally the performances are extremely accurate, with none of the lapses that are alas common in live performances – although clearly the possibility of editing from five different stage presentations will have helped to eliminate these. The booklet quotes some reviews of the original performances which complain of some exaggerations from Klaus Wallprecht as Alberich, but although he more frequently resorts to ‘barking’ (by which I mean a shouted declamation in the vicinity of the note, an early sort of sprechstimme which occasioned adverse comment from Shaw at Bayreuth in the 1890s) I found his delivery in Scene One generally acceptable if without the nobility that the role really needs – a shortcoming more evident in later scenes, where his final line is delivered way off-pitch. More seriously lacking in nobility is Manfred Volz, a lyrical rather than a heroic Wotan, but one who can confidently encompass all the notes (no mean feat in itself) even if he fails to dominate the other gods as he should, for example when countermanding Donner’s attempted assault on the giants. One of the singers of Donner is much stronger than the other, but since we are vouchsafed no information on who actually is responsible for what, it is difficult to be more specific except to note that whoever undertakes ‘Heda! Heda! Hedo!’ appears to be the weaker of the two.

In the smaller roles Markus Hollop makes a strong impression as Fasolt (a role which seems to bring out the best in singers); Maria Altmann-Althausen is a maternal-sounding Fricka but one who can deliver a line with plenty of punch when required; and Silke Marchfeld is a decidedly young and un-resonant Erda, perhaps because in the stage production she was encumbered with an entourage of eight Valkyrie children. Omar Jara does what he can with the cipher of a part that is Froh; Dieter Hönig could be blacker-toned as Fafner; and the two singers who share the part of Freia are both fine, with plenty of scything top notes delivered with panache. The three Rhinemaidens make a good trio, and bring off their teasing of Alberich with plenty of character.

The conducting of Roberto Paternostro is really pretty good, with all the excitement we associate with Solti, coupled to a willingness to ease the tempo to allow for expansion where needed. It is not his fault that the thin string tone and undermanned anvils give a less than ideally weighty Descent into Nibelheim, for example, or that the closing pages are not as redolently grandiose as they could be. In his biography (all the biographies in the booklet are updated to the present day) we are startlingly informed that Paternostro conducted the “premiere” in Buenos Aires of The Marriage of Figaro; reference to the original German clarifies that what he actually undertook was a “new production.” Unfortunately the booklet notes elsewhere, where translations are provided, demonstrate a similarly unidiomatic command of English. Paternostro was also responsible in Buenos Aires for conducting the ‘abridged’ Ring in seven hours in 2013 (still available on DVD and Blu-Ray), but we need not hold that against him in the context of what appears to have been a thoroughly shambolic escapade.

Apart from the matter of orchestral balance to which I have already referred, the recorded sound is excellently clear. The stage production seems to have been mercifully free from too many extraneous stage noises, and only once or twice do these make themselves felt; indeed, there are actually fewer ‘effects’ than in John Culshaw’s studio recording for Solti in 1959 – no screams from the Nibelungs, for example – even where Wagner explicitly requires these.

The two discs are supplemented by a ‘bonus CD’ consisting of an hour-long interview of the Kassel producer Michael Lenert by Thomas Voigt. Since this is in German only, I am not able to comment on it in detail. The layout on the other two CDs is fine, with the inevitable break in the music coming just as Mime drops the Tarnhelm (a fairly standard place to make it). The booklet also furnishes us with quotations from Wagner’s correspondence with Liszt and others, and a genealogy of the characters in the Ring as Wagner conceived it. The reviews of the original production often refer to singers others than those we hear on this recording.

Not a first choice for Das Rheingold, then (Solti’s version still takes some beating), but one which is decidedly better than some other more recent recordings, with no seriously weak links in the cast. Worst of any I have encountered recently was Marek Janowski’s Bayreuth performance, where the conductor’s impatience with the staging (expressed in interviews at the time of the television relay) resulted in a pacing of the music that went beyond the merely efficient to the realm of the perfunctory. Not that the grotesquely awful production, or some of the singing, deserved any better. At least in Kassel seventeen years ago the music seems to have been taken seriously.

Paul Corfield Godfrey




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