René Pape: "Wagner"
Selections from Die Walküre, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Lohengrin, Parsifal and Tannhäuser. Chor der Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Staatskapelle Berlin, Barenboim. Deutsche Grammophon DG 477 6617
Pape as Wotan, Pape as Hans Sachs…. The prospect of new ventures for this artist lends unusual interest to an all-too-brief survey. René Pape's singing of Wagner is, after all, one of the major reasons for hearing opera today, and his partnership with Daniel Barenboim has been extensive and, as interviews declare, influential.
The conductor shows a knack for making this studio recording feel live and theatrical; there is little hint of following or cosseting a singer who has a pronounced lyrical bent. Wotan's farewell from Die Walküre moves at an unusually strong pace, positively racing at the start, as if to reflect the character's desperate resolve. Barenboim builds the scene on vast waves, with seamless transitions, and maintains intensity in the swelling, roiling intervals, thanks to the brilliant strings of the Staatskapelle Berlin.
Pape, a self-styled "basso cantante," is not exactly typecast in Wotan's rugged music. He summons a broad, regal tone, with a firm edge in the staccato thrusts ("ein bräutliches Feuer") to complement his absolute command of the intimate lines leading to the final farewell. Individual words are pointed ("dich, die ich liebte") or illuminated with mixed timbre ("freier als ich") for emphasis, and — in keeping with the conductor's long view — the big vocal phrases are melded and unified with an art seldom heard.
Nearly as notable here is the Good Friday scene from Parsifal, in which Barenboim combines rubato and tautness to reach a robust, riveting conclusion. This is quite unlike the same passage in Pape's complete Parsifal recording under Valery Gergiev, in which that conductor is so accommodating that he sacrifices momentum for individual vocal effects, such as the bass's splendid ritardando on the line "So weiche jeder Schuld Bekümmernis von dir!" You can't fault Gergiev's telling details, but his version of the scene ends up too slack.
As for Hans Sachs, a role not yet undertaken in full by Pape, we hear what the Germans call an "innerlich" interpretation in the Act II monologue. Masterful singing here gets a little over-refined, almost milking the lyrical recollections of Walther's music. Too little contrast is afforded Sachs's intermittent breaks from reverie, prosaic intervals suggesting speech, as he reminds himself that he is a cobbler as well as a poet.
In a second segment from Die Meistersinger, Pape evokes a lighthearted, likable side to Sachs just where it's most needed, in the nationalistic lecture to Walther late in Act III. Unfortunately, the ensuing finale, with those onrushing high Es against massed orchestra and chorus, becomes mostly a matter of endurance.
King Heinrich's greeting from Lohengrin is not particularly congenial to Pape. The Night Watchman's lines from Die Meistersinger at least remind us that he actually sang this tiny role — such luxury casting — at the Met for five performances in 1995. Speaking of luxury, Plácido Domingo is a welcome presence here as Parsifal in three continuous selections, bursting with resonance and zealous as ever.
At the end, in something between an encore and a dare, the bass ventures into high-baritone terrain for Wolfram's song to the evening star, from Tannhäuser, an unfriendly tessitura in which he sounds both miscast and marvelous. Not many singers could span that oxymoron.
DAVID J. BAKER
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