The Gramophone Choice (but see also Wagner's Ring)
George London bass-bar Wotan; Kirsten Flagstad sop Fricka; Set Svanholm ten Loge; Paul Kuen ten Mime; Gustav Neidlinger bass-bar Alberich; Claire Watson sop Freia; Waldemar Kmentt ten Froh; Eberhard Waechter bar Donner; Jean Madeira contr Erda; Walter Kreppel bass Fasolt; Kurt Böhme bass Fafner; Oda Balsborg sop Woglinde; Hetty Plümacher mez Wellgunde; Ira Malaniuk mez Flosshilde
James King ten Siegmund; Régine Crespin sop Sieglinde; Birgit Nilsson sop Brünnhilde; Hans Hotter bass-bar Wotan; Christa Ludwig mez Fricka; Gottlob Frick bass Hunding; Vera Schlosser sop Gerhilde; Berit Lindholm sop Helmwige; Helga Dernesch sop Ortlinde; Brigitte Fassbaender mez Waltraute; Claudia Hellmann sop Rossweisse; Vera Little contr Siegrune; Marilyn Tyler sop Grimgerde; Helen Watts contr Schwertleite
Wolfgang Windgassen ten Siegfried; Hans Hotter bass-bar Wanderer; Birgit Nilsson sop Brünnhilde; Gerhard Stolze ten Mime; Gustav Neidlinger bass-bar Alberich; Marga Höffgen contr Erda; Kurt Böhme bass Fafner; Joan Sutherland sop Woodbird
Birgit Nilsson sop Brünnhilde; Wolfgang Windgassen ten Siegfried; Gottlob Frick bass Hagen; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau bar Gunther; Claire Watson sop Gutrune; Gustav Neidlinger bass-bar Alberich; Christa Ludwig mez Waltraute; Gwyneth Jones sop Wellgunde; Lucia Popp sop Woglinde; Maureen Guy mez Flosshilde; Helen Watts contr First Norn; Grace Hoffman mez Second Norn; Anita Välkki sop Third Norn
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Georg Solti
Decca The Originals 475 7528DOR2. Recorded 1958-65. Also available separately. Buy from Amazon
As perspectives on the Solti/Culshaw enterprise lengthen, and critical reactions are kept alert by the regular appearance of new, or newly issued, and very different recordings, it may seem increasingly ironic that of all conductors the ultra-theatrical Solti should have been denied a live performance. There are indeed episodes in this recording that convey more of the mechanics of the studio than of the electricity of the opera house – the opening of Die Walküre, Act 2, and the closing scenes of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, for example. Yet, in general, dramatic impetus and atmosphere are strongly established and well sustained, sometimes more powerfully than is usually managed in the theatre. As just one example one would instance the superb control with which the intensity of Donner’s summoning up of the thunder in Das Rheingold is maintained across Froh’s greeting to the rainbow bridge into Wotan’s own great salutation. At the majestic climax of this scene the power of feeling conveyed by George London’s fine performance counts for more than any ‘artificiality’ in the way the voice is balanced against the orchestra.
Equally memorable in a totally different context is Solti’s management of the long transition in Götterdämmerung between Hagen’s Watch and the appearance of Waltraute. Nothing could be less mannered or unnatural than Solti’s grasp of perspective and feeling for the life of each phrase in this music. On CD the clarity of instrumental detail is consistently remarkable, and while not all the singers sound as if they’re constantly in danger of being overwhelmed, there are some vital episodes, especially those involving Windgassen and Nilsson. Awareness of what these artists achieved in other recordings strengthens the suspicion that they may have been giving more than we actually get here. Windgassen isn’t allowed to dominate the sound picture in the way his part demands, and Nilsson can seem all too relaxed within the comforting cocoon of the orchestral texture.
Factors like these, coupled with those distinctive Soltian confrontations between the hard-driven and the hammily protracted, have prevented the cycle from decisively seeing off its rivals over the years. It’s questionable nevertheless whether any studio recording of the Ring could reasonably be expected to be more atmospheric, exciting or better performed than this one. The VPO isn’t merely prominent but excellent, and such interpretations as Svanholm’s Loge, Neidlinger’s Alberich and Frick’s Hagen remain very impressive.
Above all, there’s Hotter, whose incomparably authoritative, unfailingly alert and responsive Wotan stands up well when compared to his earlier Bayreuth accounts. Nowhere is he more commanding than in Siegfried, Act 1, where one even welcomes Stolze’s mannerisms as Mime for the sparks they strike off the great bass-baritone. Earlier in this act the interplay of equally balanced instruments and voices in relatively intimate conversational phrases displays the Culshaw concept at its most convincing. He would have been astonished to hear what his successors have achieved in renewing his production through digital remastering. One now realises how much of the original sound was lost on the old pressings. In comparison with the 1980 Janowski/RCA version, the approaches are so different they almost seem like different experiences. Culshaw was intent on creating a theatre on record with all the well-known stage effects; the rival version eschews all such manifestations. In general, Janowski presents a much more intimate view of the work than Solti’s.
However many other Rings you may have, though, you’ll need this one.
Johan Reuter bass-bar Wotan; Randi Stene mez Fricka; Michael Kristensen ten Loge; Bengt-Ola Morgny ten Mime; Sten Byriel bar Alberich; Anne Margrethe Dahl sop Freia; Johnny van Hal ten Froh; Hans Lewaetz bar Donner; Susanne Resmark contr Erda; Stephen Milling bass Fasolt; Christian Christiansen bar Fafner; Dijna Mai-Mai sop Woglinde; Ylva Kihlberg sop Wellgunde; Hanna Fischer mez Flosshilde
Stig Andersen ten Siegmund; Gitta-Maria Sjöberg sop Sieglinde; Iréne Theorin sop Brünnhilde; James Johnson bass-bar Wotan; Randi Stene mez Fricka; Stephen Milling bass Hunding; Ylva Kihlberg sop Gerhilde; Emma Vetter sop Helmwige; Carolina Sandgren sop Ortlinde; Hanna Fischer mez Waltraute; Anna Rydberg mez Siegrune; Elisabeth Jansson mez Rossweisse; Elisabeth Halling mez Grimgerde; Ulla Kudsk Jensen contr Schwertleite
Stig Andersen ten Siegfried; James Johnson bass-bar Wanderer; Iréne Theorin sop Brünnhilde; Bengt-Ola Morgny ten Mime; Sten Byriel bar Alberich; Susanne Resmark contr Erda; Christian Christiansen bar Fafner; Giselle Stille sop Woodbird
Iréne Theorin sop Brünnhilde; Stig Andersen ten Siegfried; Peter Klaveness bass Hagen; Sten Byriel bar Alberich; Guido Paevatalu bar Gunther; Ylva Kihlberg sop Gutrune; Anna Bod mez Waltraute; Djina Mai-Mai sop Woglinde; Elisabeth Meyer-Topsoe sop Wellgunde; Susanne Resmark contr First Norn; Hanna Fischer mez Second Norn; Anne Margrethe Dahl sop Third Norn; Ulla Kudsk Jensen contr Flosshilde
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Danish Opera / Michael Schønwandt
Stage director Kasper Bech Holten
Video director Uffe Borgwardt
Decca DVD 074 3264DH7 (15h 20’ · NTSC · 16:9 · PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 · 0 · s). Recorded live 2006. Buy from Amazon
The first of several wonders in this new set, collated from three cycles in the early summer of 2006, is the intuitive performing skill of a genuine house ensemble. Even the ‘borrowed’ Swedish and Norwegian artists, including the Brünnhilde and Hagen, are regulars in a company which inevitably casts the most demanding repertoire from its own – Copenhagen has achieved a class Ring with just one guest, James Johnson’s Walküre/Siegfried Wotans. Moreover, if Stockholm is the Venice of the north, the Royal Danish Orchestra must be the Vienna Philharmonic of the north with its forward, rich woodwind timbres (a Nielsen sound, wholly suitable for Nibelung music) and cool-sweet string tone, the whole integrated, balanced and paced with a Kempe-like swiftness and attention to rhythmic detail by their chief Michael Schønwandt.
The assembled cut from the filming of the live performances (Uffe Borgwardt is the credited director of photography) is quite radical for a record of live opera. Like the curious spectator, these cameras want to look up the Rhinemaidens’ flapper skirts, focus on props or the after-effects of violent action, or wonder how a scene looks from behind, from the wings, or even from beneath stage level in the orchestra pit. So the visual editing is busy, justifying allusions to the hand-held operation rediscovered by Danish art cinema directors. It gives the films a breathless close-up quality, the absolute inverse of the accustomed best-seat-in-the-stalls approach.
Kasper Bech Holten’s production doesn’t intentionally disturb realism and story-telling. There is a frame story – Brünnhilde is seen researching, in some giant sidestage Valhalla library store, the events of the past from the moment she betrayed Siegfried. But, in principle, this Copenhagen Ring follows a linear narrative. It’s costumed and situated between (approximately) 1920 and the 1990s, and – through ever-ingenious lateral thinking – finds latter-day equivalents for Wagner’s geography, properties and dramatic violence. Thus the Rhinegold itself is a beautiful, golden, naked swimming boy, whose heart is bloodily torn out by a serially drinking, lecherous Alberich when he is rejected by les girls. Once captured in Nibelheim, Alberich is chained up in a scary white-tiled torture room, surrendering the ring only when Wotan literally hacks off his entire lower arm. Loge, knowing too much at the end of Rheingold, is murdered by Wotan; Erda’s life-support is turned off, sorrowfully, by Wotan in Siegfried; Alberich, having worn out Hagen, is dispatched at the end of their colloquy in Götterdämmerung; and, later in that same act, hostages are executed by Hagen in ‘celebration’ of Gunther’s wedding.
But don’t get squeamish at the horror, or sniff at Quentin Tarantino-influenced trendiness. See instead how this director finds more heartbreaking emotion in Wagner’s drama than almost any since Patrice Chéreau. In the last scene of Walküre Johnson’s Wotan – a characterisation admirably unafraid of appearing less than godlike – searches the whole scene for a way out for Theorin’s emotionally mobile Brünnhilde but has to end up (at that huge climax between the ‘verses’ of the Farewell) by tearing off her Valkyrie’s black wings. Stig Andersen’s Siegfried, sung with lyrical beauty, is seen desperately alone in the ‘forest’, stroking the bodies of Mime and Fafner whom he has killed and thus left himself stranded. Kasper Bech Holten is astute too at those potentially awkward moments of embarrassment and waiting and watching – watch the superb detail in the playing of his ensemble stars like Andersen (as both the Walsungs), Theorin, Byriel’s unclichéd Alberich, Peter Klaveness’s terrifying SS officer of a Hagen (although the voice cannot always equal his dramatic presence), Randi Stene’s Fricka (Hillary Clinton with humour) or Guido Paevatalu’s multifacetedly lazy, brutal coward of a Gunther.
In addition to the sheer zip of performance and filming, the sound picture is warm, resonant and true, the English subtitles give an unusually revealing and detailed insight into Wagner’s text, and, winningly, the ‘extra’ item consists of a discussion between the stage director and his country’s opera-loving head of state. But finally, can these performers, only some of them known on main stages outside Scandinavia, cut the mustard alongside the more international competition on rival DVD productions? They most certainly can.