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A Night at the Opera -
Courtesy of Melba
Das Rheingold, Richard Wagner, Melba MR301089-20
Das Rheingold, composed as the first opera in Wagner's titanic cycle, Der Ring des Niebelungen, was released out of order (following Melba's release of Die Walküre in late 2006. I do not know the reason (nor am I really concerned) for this but Melba is following in the footsteps of Die Walküre with the next stage in the cycle. I suspect that I (like many) will make the inevitable comparison between my benchmark set of the operas (Solti/Vienna/Decca) and we will jump right into the fray with the opening prelude. The first sound we hear is a deep pedal note which is then followed by numerous measures of ascending arpeggios in the French horn section. I have talked to horn players who state that this opening horn section is quite terrifying as any mistake will clearly be heard. On the Solti recording, the horns of the Vienna Philharmonic are quite audible, and play with aplomb. Here is my only real nit with the Melba recording: where are the ascending horns? I have listened to this on several systems (including one in surround) and most of the time, the Adelaide horns are barely audible. Were there a few mistakes that were removed during the final editing? That is it ...my only quibble. Now we can get on the rest of the opera, which is a winner.
The opening music is intended to make you think of the Rhine River, gently flowing on its merry way and Asher Fisch and his orchestral forces do a fine job portraying this. However, warning flags went up when the voices entered. There was a strange sheen, a plastic quality to the otherwise stunning Rhine Maidens. Even the nasty character Alberich had a strange quality to his voice. I was so confounded by this that I immediately e-mailed Melba, asking them to offer an explanation. Well, I received a most excellent explanation: the opening scene is either along the Rhine River (or, depending on who is directing the production) in the Rhine itself. The Melba production used some plastic sheeting (with water running down the sheets) to simulate the river. This, I was told, is the cause for the slightly plasticy sound. The singing between Alberich and the three Rhine Maidens (Natalie Jones, Donna-Marie Dunlop and Zan McKendree-Wright) is absolutely superb and I have to say that I enjoy the Melba Rhine Maidens as much as I do the Solti maidens. John Wegner (Alberich) pleads his desire for the maidens and the three vixenish ladies offer a stunning portrayal of petty frivolity and down right nasty treatment of Alberich (who is already lusting after the Rhine gold). The ladies unfortunately reveal the secret of the gold and to their chagrin (and to our delight for an act that causes three more operas!!) Alberich steals the gold.
The next scene introduces us to a bunch of cranky immortals, Wotan (chief god-John Bröcheler in fine form), his wife Fricka (always crabby and hacked at Wotan and nicely sung by Elizabeth Campbell) and the rest of the Valhalla gang (Donner, Froh, Loge and Freia) We also meet the two giants, Fasolt and Fafner, who have just completed the construction of the new Valhalla. Folks, I am not going to offer a blow by blow detail of the story, so let's see if we can condense the story. Wotan has the two giants build his new castle. The two giants demand payment and Wotan, who promised the fair Freia to them, decides to trick the giants out of paying them. We meet the entire ensemble in the opening of Scene 2, where we see a furious Fricka fussing at Wotan. Freia is horrified at what is happening and Donner and Froh are promising violence to save their sister. The treacherous Loge tells Wotan about Alberich's gold and suggests that Wotan take Alberich's cache and use that gold to pay the giants. The giants agree, but still take Freia as a hostage until the gold appears. Wotan succeeds in the theft, and when the giants appear to claim their gold, the two fight and Fasolt dies. Pretty sordid stuff, but that is grand opera.
While I enjoyed most everything about Die Walküre, this installment from Melba is extremely fine. Unlike Die Walküre, I have no quibbles with any of the singing. I have already mentioned the three maidens and Alberich, but Donner (Timothy DuFore), Froh (Andrew Brundson) and Loge (Christopher Doig) are all equally impressive. I found Fasolt (Andrew Collins) and Fafner (David Hibbard) to also be of the highest quality and at times, almost threatening.
The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra is in top form (despite the unheard horns in the prelude) and offers some truly exciting playing. As with Die Walküre, the sound is expansive and offers a wide and deep soundstage with plenty of transparency. Detail is superb and it is easy to "see" the singers as they move across the stage.
This second release is simply fantastic. I am delighted so far with the results and I now expect the Melba Ring Cycle to take its place in the annals of recorded history as one of the very top Ring Cycles ever produced. Siegfried is in my library now and though I am halfway through it, it is even better than the first two releases! More to come!
Siegfried, Richard Wagner Melba Recordings MR301095-98
With Melba's release of Wagner's opera Siegfried, we are one opera away from the conclusion of Melba's bold and super fine SACD project featuring Wagner's titanic Der Ring des Niebelungen. I can remember the excitement I felt after reading the news in early 2006 about a new recording project of these four massive operas on SACD. I am still lamenting the fact that Decca likely has no plans for remastering the benchmark Solti/Culshaw/Vienna Ring, but by now I can rest assured that while the Solti Ring still sits in some dark vault, we can all be happy with a truly fine Ring Cycle from Melba.
Siegfried, the third opera, is one of those truly LONG works. Four discs (whether CD or SACD) makes for some serious listening sessions. My hat is off to those who can sit for hours in a dark hall listening to this music, though thankfully, there are plenty intermissions to relieve the inevitable "posterior" pains. I think that it is safe to say that Siegfried is the most difficult opera of the four Ring operas for the sole reason that the Forging Scene in Act 1 is one of the most physically demanding roles for tenors. No bel canto tenors singing Puccini here, rather, but big voiced heldentenors. Even Wagner himself admitted to friends during the rehearsals that perhaps he was asking too much of his super hero. However, history has shown that there are plenty of tenors who have conquered the role (as well as some tenors who were overcome as well). The Solti/Decca Ring, with Wolfgang Windgassen, is just respectable as lamentably Windgassen was approaching the twilight of his career. The Melba tenor, Gary Rideout, is more than up to the role. It is rather incredible that at no time in the recording did I sense that Mr. Rideout was getting tired and maintains a hearty voice throughout. This to me is impressive as this was a live recording and NOT a studio session. However, Siegfried is not the only tenor in Act 1 to share in the pain. The role of Mime (very well sung by Richard Greager) is also quite demanding and requires a pretty stout singer as well. The nasty Alberich (John Wenger, superb!) makes another appearance and once again we see his nastiness as he taunts his brother Mime about the young Siegfried.
A little bit of the plot might help, though the story line in Siegfried is not quite as convoluted as the other operas. Mime has raised Siegfried to a young adult. Siegfried (the son of an incestuous relationship from Die Walküre) is an arrogant and cocky youth and is afraid of nothing. Siegfried comes in possession of the shards of the broken sword Notung (broken in Die Walküre) and is always badgering Mime to reforge the sword. An impossible task for the incompetent Mime, Siegfried unmercifully taunts him. Secretly, Mime wants the sword to kill the dragon Fafner (who is hoarding the Niebelungen gold) but until the sword is forged, Mime suffers the abuse of Siegfried. Siegfried finally reforges the sword (some truly spectacular music) and then sets off at the promptings of Mime to slay the wicked Fafner. During Act 1 we also see Wotan (John Bröcheler) who tells Mime he is called Wanderer. An interesting discussion between Mime and Wander ensues. In Act 2, Siegfried journeys to fight the Dragon, while Wotan and Alberich face off and exchange taunts. Wotan leaves and Alberich waits until Siegfried and Mime approach. While Siegfried fights and kills Fafner, Alberich and Mime exchange insults while waiting for Siegfried. Ah, brotherly love. Also in Act 2 we meet the Woodbird (soprano Shu-Cheen Yu) who accompanies Siegfried. After Siegfried kills the dragon he tastes the blood and then begins to understand the Woodbird. Meanwhile, Mime had prepared a poisoned drink for Siegfried in hopes that Siegfried, thirsty and tired after fighting the dragon will die, thus allowing Mime to secure the gold. However, the dragon's blood gives Siegfried the ability to truly understand the lies of Mime, who declares that he (Mime) hates Siegfried and that he only wants the gold. Finally, furious at the treachery Siegfried kills Mime. Siegfried then sets off at the Woodbird's behest. On the way, Siegfried encounters Wotan who soon argues with the youth about approaching the rock where Brünnhilde sleeps (another Die Walküre flashback). Siegfried and Wotan briefly fight and then the young hero goes and awakes the sleeping maiden. They fall in love and live happily ever after ...wait, this is opera …no, this is a WAGNER opera…
Act 3 brings us to a superb duet between Wotan and Erda (excellently sung by Liane Keegan). Once again we are treated to some superb music making as Wotan wakes Erda from a long sleep to ask her how to stop what will become the end of the gods. Erda tells Wotan what he must do, only to be horrified that Wotan has punished and exiled the one person to save the gods: Brünnhilde! Wotan tells Erda to return to her slumber and proceeds to meet Siegfried who is on his way to awaken the sleeping maiden. It is in this act where Wotan and Siegfried meet and then in a fit of childish anger, Siegfried attacks Wotan and shatters his spear. Wotan flees, leaving Siegfried to brave the fire and awaken his bride. Glorious music that incredibly trumps the Solti/Decca performance
The fourth and final act (where Brünnhilde awakens) is some of Wagner's most spectacular music. And I have to say that Lisa Gasteen (whom we met as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre) is simply stunning in Act 4. Gary Rideout (Our Siegfried) is also incredible (after three killer acts) and I have to confess that I think that this Act 4 is actually MORE impressive than the Solti/Decca Act 4 with Windgassen and the towering Birgit Nilsson …and folks, I think that this is indeed a compliment. It is not just the singing that is sublime; Asher Fisch and the Adelaide Symphony forces play with serious fire and passion. In fact, until I hear Götterdämmerung I will say that this is some of the best playing the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra has done so far in the three operas! The passionate conclusion of Act 4 was well deserving of the cheers of the audience. BRAVO!
As per the other two operas, the sound is simply breathtaking. I need to someday see an opera performed in the hall where this was recorded to see if the space is a large as I suspect it is. Imaging is superb, space, dimension and crystal clear movement of the voices across the stage. I am afraid I am going to start sounding like a broken record with my constant praise of the operas as they simply are that good. Oh, I cannot wait until Götterdämmerung!