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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Siegfried (1876)
Hans Hopf (tenor) – Siegfried, Birgit Nilsson (soprano) – Brünnhilde, George London (baritone) – Wanderer, Jean Madeira (contralto) – Erda, Paul Kuen (tenor) – Mime, Ralph Herbert (baritone) – Alberich, Gottlob Frick (bass) – Fafner, Martina Arroyo (soprano) – Woodbird
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra / Erich Leinsdorf
rec. 13 January 1962, Metropolitan Opera House, New York
PRISTINE PACO155 [3 CDs: 226:19]

Of all the operas that are likely to suffer from the hazards of live recording, Siegfried must surely be the most accident-prone. In the first place, the title role is one of those that defies the abilities of almost all singers, with the hero required to sing in full heroic voice for most of the first act, then to encompass quiet lyricism in much of the second, and finally to match himself in an extended love duet with a Wagnerian heldensoprano who comes to her role totally fresh having had nothing at all to sing in the first two acts - on top of which, the tenor is required to fight a dragon in the second act, to act throughout an interlude in the third when he is supposedly climbing a mountain, and – most perilously of all – to hammer out a whole series of precisely notated rhythms on an anvil while forging a sword, and simultaneously singing in passages of duet which are unusually heavily orchestrated even for Wagner. Not surprisingly, such singers are rare, and in live performances the spectator usually has to be satisfied either with someone who can sing, someone who can act or someone who looks the part, without expecting that more than one of those criteria may be fulfilled (and sometimes not even that).

Some critics are fond of complaining that modern singers cannot match the achievements of earlier generations, but it has to be said that on the evidence of stage relays standards of accuracy - at any rate so far as singing is concerned - have, on the contrary, improved immeasurably over the years. Studio recordings of an artist such as Wolfgang Windgassen (the ruling Siegfried on operatic stages during the 1950s and 1960s), when he had the opportunity to rest between takes and the advantage of a professional percussionist to provide his anvil strokes, give a false impression of a singer whose live performances could be distressingly erratic and on occasions (such as the famous and much-praised Clemens Kraus recording at Bayreuth) downright inaccurate.  Later performers of the role in stage performances, such as Alberto Remedios or Siegfried Jerusalem, were much more acceptable in terms of sheer accuracy (although both suffer from imprecise hammer beating) but lacked the sheer heft of the Wagnerian heldentenor typified by Lauritz Melchior in the 1930s.

All of this is by way of preamble to the observation that Hans Hopf, in this broadcast relay from a single Metropolitan Opera performance in the early 1960s, is amazingly good in the role. My past encounters with him in recordings, both live on stage and in the studio, had not encouraged any such expectations: a voice with bullish tone, little expression, and a tendency to sing on the flat side of the note when this was not otherwise distinguished by unsteadiness of production. The very opening of this performance, a notoriously difficult fast passage culminating in a cruel high C, certainly did nothing to dissipate such low expectations – Hopf delivers an approximation only of Wagner’s written pitches ending well short of the required top note – but after that he hardly puts a foot wrong. He does have a tendency to hang onto high notes rather longer than Wagner indicated, forcing Leinsdorf to slow down to accommodate him; but he shows a willingness to shade his voice delicately where required, and to sing quietly to good effect, and he manages to achieve a very high level of accuracy even in the most complicated rhythms as he beats out his sword on the anvil. Mind you, in the case of the latter, the sound of the beating seems to come from a very different acoustic from the voice; I wonder whether the actual sounds were being provided by a percussionist situated in the wings? The hammering of Paul Kuen as Mime earlier in the same act also has a similarly recessed sound, almost to the extent of being self-effacing; otherwise Kuen makes a good stab at the role (much more rhythmically alert and accurate than he was for Clemens Kraus at Bayreuth) although his pitching sometimes drifts fairly wide of Wagner’s directions and we have certainly heard the part delivered with more dramatic punch and character elsewhere.

The only other character to make an appearance in Act One is here taken by George London, who had been Wotan earlier in the Rheingold of this Leinsdorf cycle but had been replaced – rather disastrously – by Otto Edelmann in Walküre. London’s assumption of the role has long been familiar in studio recordings of the first two parts of the cycle (with Solti and Leinsdorf respectively) but his Wanderer is much more of an unknown quantity, and indeed this performance seems to have been his first stage appearance in the role. To a certain extent his unfamiliarity with the music shows; he has all the nobility of tone that Norman Bailey finds in the role (for Goodall) but lacks the latter’s sense of quiet resignation and willingness to sing softly that is also so important for the portrayal of a god surrendering power – his withdrawal into “sudden darkness” after his spear is shattered goes for almost nothing here. He is heard at his best in his scene with Jean Madeira’s Erda at the beginning of Act Three, where the performance crackles with life and Madeira’s performances makes it all the more inexplicable that after her rock-steady performance in Solti’s Rheingold she was replaced by the less firm Marga Höffgen for the Decca Siegfried. At this point I should mention that Leinsdorf’s penchant for fast and dramatic speeds (noted already in Walküre) has the major advantage of allowing each Act to be contained unbroken on a single disc, and the dramatic tension between Erda and the Wanderer when she realises that her insight and foresight have failed her produce a sense of implacable drive in a way that Decca’s insensitive side break at this point on their CD layout totally dissipates.

The Second Act, too, brings some unfamiliar performances, although here the excellence is perhaps less unexpected. Gottlob Frick, with his wealth of experience in Wagner’s heavy bass roles, is finely rounded as the dragon Fafner, although Wagner’s specific requirement that his voice should be amplified (through a “Sprachrohr”) seems to have been comprehensively ignored in a manner that would have been disastrous for many singers. The presumably offstage voice of the young Martina Arroyo as the Woodbird actually comes across with more body, although Ralph Herbert as Alberich is altogether too polite to make much impression in his brief scene at the outset of Act Two. That of course is not a charge that could possibly be levelled at Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde, every bit as good as she is in other recordings, pingingly accurate in the most strenuous passages and delicate too when required; it is all too easy to dismiss her singing her as expectedly excellent, until one realises how few singers since have managed to match her standards and at the same time make it all sound so natural.

The conducting of Erich Leinsdorf matches up to his achievements earlier in the cycle, bubbling with drama but still prepared to relax on many occasions – the forest murmurs begin with a remarkable sense of stillness. He insisted on the Met playing the score without the cuts that had become traditional in their Ring performances, but the orchestral playing itself leaves something to be desired particularly in the ragged renditions of the preludes to Acts One and Two (although Leinsdorf does allow the timpani rhythms at the climax to register in a way that eluded Levine in the next generation of Siegfrieds at the Met, and indeed with an impact that they seriously lack elsewhere in this performance). The Met audience is pretty atrocious in places, coughing their lungs up in many of the quiet passages (although relatively quiet at others) and even with one miscreant interrupting with giggles during Siegfried’s attempt to imitate the woodbird which would be annoying when heard once but which he repeats after each unsuccessful attempt with a result which sounds like canned laughter from a television comedy. They also manage to ruin the end of Act Two by interrupting with applause to drown out the final bars (they are equally intrusive at the ends of Acts One and Three, but there the orchestras can overwhelm them). Nor is the actual sound of the orchestra quite as clean as it was in Walküre, despite Pristine’s ambient remastering; that may be the result of the sound obtained by the original broadcast engineers, but might also in part be the result of Wagner’s changed and thicker orchestral style in Act Three (written some fifteen years after his earlier abandonment of the score). The radio announcements, left in place at the beginning of Act One and the end of Act Three, add nothing of value to the performance. Pristine’s booklet material is as usual basic, but they make up for it by making both the full score and vocal score available online for purchasers.

As will be gathered, I found this a most enjoyable rendition of Siegfried, all the more so because of the unexpected success of some of the casting and especially of Hopf in the title role. In terms of sheer sound, it cannot compare, of course, with Solti’s studio recording made later in the same year, but that of course has other drawbacks of its own – and no recording of this most difficult of all operas to capture satisfactorily on disc is ever likely to be without challenge. The Hong Kong issue (from concert performances) on Naxos last year, for example, after an absolutely superlative Act One becomes decidedly less satisfactory during what follows; the English-language Goodall set from the 1970s (from a pair of edited live stage performances, originally on EMI and now on Chandos) suffers from some patches of indifferent orchestral playing and an annoyingly bronchitic audience whose contributions grow more wearisome with repetition.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Ralph Moore

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