Saturday, November 1, 2014

Das Rheingold from the Frankfurt Opera

Richard Wagner, Das Rheingold

Wotan             Terje Stensvold

Donner           Dietrich Volle

Froh                Richard Cox

Loge                Kurt Streit

Alberich          Jochen Schmeckenbecher

Mime              Hans-Jürgen Lazar

Fasolt              Alfred Reiter

Fafner             Magnus Baldvinsson

Fricka              Martina Dike

Freia               Barbara Zechmeister

Erda                Meredith Arwady

Woglinde        Britta Stallmeister

Wellgunde     Jenny Carlstedt

Flosshilde       Katharina Magiera

Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester
Conducted by Sebastian Weigle

Directed by Vera Nemirova

Recorded live June/Julky 2012 at Frankfurt Opera

OEHMS Classics OC995  (2 hours and 35 minutes)

Many Wagner reviewers must be starting to feel rather embattled. New Ring cycles are emerging at a rate of knots, exceeded only by the constant torrent of newly issued historical recordings (and newly remastered versions of previously issued historical recordings). The price of entry into the market-place is low, now that relatively few recordings are studio recordings. Compare the cost of recording a live performance that was going to happen anyway in, say, Valencia, Barcelona, Seattle, or Copenhagen with all the drama and expense that went into the studio Solti Ring.

All of this makes one wonder: Of course we need as many live performances of the Ring as possible, but do they all need to be preserved for posterity and resale? Probably not. But on the evidence of this Rheingold, the Oper Frankfurt Ring certainly does. Oehms Classics released a CD recording of live performances from the 2010 production.  The current DVD is the first in a second complete DVD Ring recorded live in the summer of 2012 (with an overlapping, but slightly different cast). This Rheingold is a very fine start to the DVD cycle, with very strong singing, good conducting, and an imaginative staging that supports, rather than diverts attention from, the drama.

Vera Nemirova’s staging is very economical, built around a set of concentric blue rings that can move independently to create holes and subterranean caverns as the drama requires. The design is ingenious in its simplicity, while yielding many degrees of freedom. The surface of the rings works for both the Rhine and the mountaintop, while the rings rise to reveal Nibelheim. The hole in the center serves many purposes. It is a pool for Rhinemaidens and an entrance point initially for the gods and then for the giants (who are bulked up with ski gloves attached to their dark costumes, in a clumsy but effective contrast with the white-clad gods).

The high points of the singing are (fortunately) the two major characters – Alberich and Wotan. Jochen Schmeckenbecher sings Alberich with vocal and expressive power. The scene with the Rhinemaidens is well paced and well sung, and his rejection of love is very convincing. He is suitably menacing with the Nibelungs in Scene 3, and defiant with Wotan. Alberich’s cunning and self-disgust emerge clearly in Scene 4. The curse he places on the ring is very chilling.

Wotan is also well characterized and powerfully sung by Tetrje Stensvold. He is not very prepossessing in physical appearance, but more than makes up for it vocally (e.g. when he stops Donner and Froh from attacking the giants). The confrontations with Alberich convincingly set up the dynamics of the entire cycle, with violence and treachery on all sides (including an unpleasant moment when Loge cuts the ring off Alberich’s finger).

Richard Cox’s Loge initially acts better than he sings. But he gets better and better as the drama unfolds. Cox gives an excellent portrayal of Loge’s deep ambivalence about the gods, and he is masterful at convincingly allowing everyone to see their own goals in the Rheingold. The rest of the cast is very solid, with a particularly fine set of Rhinemaidens.

The production has some real merits, in addition to the staging. Nemirova shows a parallel aged and weak set of principals to illustrate the cost of Freia's absence. The decrepit gods reappear as the gods cross the bridge to Valhalla. But every Wagner production seems to have to do something silly. Putting Froh in shorts blowing bubbles on the stage is a major miscalculation, and I am still uncertain about the merits of having the gods descend into the audience, which is a strange way of crossing a bridge to Valhalla.

Sebastian Weigle conducted at Bayreuth for the first time in 2007 and has been the general music director of the Frankfurt Opera since 2008. His conducting is intelligent and well-paced. I am looking forward to hearing what he does with the three main operas in the Ring,. They are all on a larger and more dramatic scale than Rheingold, but he has laid down some strong foundations here. 

I certainly recommend this disc (which, by the way, has very good sound quality). But I should caution purchasers that this set is high-priced with low frills. The liner notes are minimal and the menu only picks out the start of the 4 scenes, whereas most Wagnerians like to be able to navigate in a much more fine-grained way. The set includes a short video on the making of the cycle, but I would frankly have preferred more of the traditional trimmings.