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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Das Rheingold - music drama in one act (1869) [2:27:46]
Wotan - George London(bass-baritone)
Fricka - Irene Dalis (mezzo-soprano)
Loge - Karl Liebl (tenor)
Mime - Paul Kuen (tenor)
Alberich - Ralph Herbert (baritone)
Freia - Heidi Krall (soprano)
Froh - Robert Nagy (tenor)
Donner - Norman Mittelman (baritone)
Erda - Jean Madeira (contralto)
Fasolt - Jerome Hines (bass)
Fafner - Ernst Wiemann (bass)
Woglinde - Martina Arroyo (soprano)
Wellgunde - Rosalind Elias (mezzo-soprano)
Floßhilde - Mignon Dunn (mezzo-soprano|)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus / Erich Leinsdorf
rec. live broadcast 16 December 1961, Metropolitan Opera House, New York
Free MP3 download: full score, vocal score and libretto as PDF docs.XR Ambient Stereo
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO152 [70:42+77:07]

The was the start of the first Met Ring cycle for four years; the distinguished cast was mostly new, with the exception of Hines, Madeira and Elias but the production dated back to 1948. Paul Kuen was making his Met debut, while George London was making singing Wotan for the first time on stage. He had of course been singing at the Met since 1951 and had recorded Wotan for Solti in 1958. Even the trio of Rhinedaughters were either already stars or soon to become so, including such names as a young Martina Arroyo as Woglinde. Leinsdorf continues to be under-rated as a Wagner conductor, and indeed in general; recording of Die Walküre made the same year as this performance continues to be my prime recommendation and you may hear Pristine’s excellent remastering of his superb account of that opera starring Melchior in 1940, which I reviewed.

This performance was sung in accordance with Wagner’s wishes, straight through without a break and proceeds with great impetus. It begins with Milton Cross’ introduction, then the clarity and warmth of the reprocessed sound is immediately startling: rich in the bass and exceptionally detailed, every strand of the instrumentation prominent. The microphones were obviously well positioned. The twenty-six-year-old Arroyo’s vibrant soprano is instantly recognisable, as are the warmer lower voices of her two sisters, but Ralph Herbert is merely competent, being a rather dull-voiced Alberich, lacking the snarl and bite of the best. He simply has the wrong voice for the role and his sneezing and “ho-ho-ing” are a bit stagey, too – and I’m not sure why, having nabbed the ring, he gives us two valedictory versions of the latter, one apparently backstage and one up close. However, he by no means undermines the impact of the performance as a whole.

The coughing during the lovely brass introduction to Scene 2 is annoying but the playing is lovely. In my estimation, no singer ever had a voice better suited to portray Wotan than George London, and he is here in his absolute prime before his enforced, premature retirement at 46. “Hehrer, herrlicher Bau!” is thrilling. Dalis’ Fricka is a real presence: insistent without being shrewish, and the giants are a mightily imposing pair. I had expected Jerome Hines to impress as Fasolt, but Ernst Wiemann, previously unknown to me, is, if anything, even more commanding. Robert Nagy is an excellent Froh and Heldentenor Karl Liebl makes a Loge firmer and more virile than usual, bright and incisive of voice – the best I have heard. Note, too, how the strings sing through Loge’s Narration, track 12; Leinsdorf knows how to bring out the lyrical aspects of Wagner’s score as well as engender excitement. Heidi Krall, who famously substituted for an ailing Zinka Milanov in Bruno Walter’s live, 1959 Verdi Requiem, makes a febrile, affecting Freia.

The sound for the forging scene where Wotan and Loge trick Alberich is really atmospheric, the enslaved Nibelungs’ screams are chilling and Kuen is an ideal Mime. Jean Madeira is vast of voice, stentorian of utterance and suitably sibylline; her brief appearance is a highlight Norman Mittelmann’s Donner is firm and ringing and his hammer-stroke makes a proper impact. London is as dominant in the concluding passage, as the gods trop over the Rainbow Bridge into Valhalla, as he is for Solti and, if anything, Liebl’s Loge is stronger than Svanholm’s.

What an experience it must have been to be in the audience that evening to hear such an ensemble perform the first work in Wagner’s tetralogy almost to perfection.

Ralph Moore

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