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Yastrebova, Gubanova, Bulycheva; Rügamer, Popov, Pape, Putilin, Markov, Nikitin, Petrenko; Mariinsky Orchestra, Gergiev. Text and translation. Mariinsky MAR 0526
The installments of Valery Gergiev's St. Petersburg Ring cycle are appearing out of order. An unfulfilling recording of Die Walküre was released first, perhaps owing to the salability of the opera and the glamorous cast. Backing up for Das Rheingold, we find a higher-quality performance. The three acts of Walküre were recorded during three widely-spaced periods in 2011 and 2012, perhaps contributing to the scattershot effect of the final product. Das Rheingold, as it happens, was recorded concurrently with some of those dates, but it is a different sort of opera from Walküre (one with many more characters and disparate kinds of music), and Gergiev leads a more solid performance. The orchestra, too, is in better form, with particularly fine work in the trombone section and in the violins' flickering music for Loge, if perhaps not reaching the nearly unbelievable level of Berlin's Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra in Marek Janowski's complementary ongoing Ring cycle on PentaTone.
Gergiev does some effective things, particularly in the transition from the first scene to the second, which is well sustained and full of character, and in Loge's explanation of the effects of Freia's absence on the health of the gods. Gergiev keeps revitalizing the accompaniments under Donner's and Froh's solos in Scene Four. Elsewhere, ideas that initially succeed end up outlasting their usefulness. Fricka's narration, beginning at "Um des Gatten Treue besorgt," is deadly slow at first, an interesting portrayal of her real hurt and regret at Wotan's inconstancy, but it soon falls apart. Loge's narration about the Rhinemaidens loses a sense of intention. The giants move at a remarkably slow tempo; it's striking at first, but by Scene Four they just seem out of gas. Erda's solo has the sense of directionless playing that is usually heard in rehearsals when a conductor stops leading and goes out into the hall to listen for balance, but here Gergiev is saddled with Zlata Bulycheva, a singer who is tremulous from first note to last, and who has a creative approach to German pronunciation.
The three leading roles are thoughtfully cast. René Pape's Wotan, much in favor in Europe but as yet unheard in the U.S., has an unusual bent. The idea in Scene Two is that, as the king of the gods, Wotan has never had much to worry about in his life, and he is thus slow to realize that his situation is now serious. He is quite considerate and playful with Fricka, putting a new spin on their later scene in Die Walküre. Nikolai Putilin is a fine vocal actor, showing Alberich's gallant submission to the Rhinemaidens in the first scene, when he thinks he still may have a chance with them, an implacably commanding confidence in Scene 3, and the sense of a crafty mind working overtime when things get desperate in Scene 4. Stephan Rügamer's Loge is a performance geared to the microphone (which, after all, is the situation here), and he does beautifully with the oily, traveling-salesman side of the character.
Among the comprimario singers, Mikhail Petrenko's Fafner gives us a true, appealing storybook giant, paired with a more human Fasolt from Evgeny Nikitin, while Alexey Markov is luxury casting as Donner. Ekaterina Gubanova sings well as Fricka, as she did in Gergiev's Walküre. If there are puzzling moments in Gergiev's work — how can there be no magic whatsoever in the music for the Tarnhelm, and why does the performance virtually stall after Fafner's exit in Scene 4? — this Rheingold succeeds overall. But Janowski's version unquestionably trumps it.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
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