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Urmana, Larsson; Gould, Elsner, Schmeckenbecher, Konieczny, Salminen; Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Janowski. Text and translation. PentaTone PTC 5186 408
One of the most monumental intermissions in all opera happens between Acts II and III of Siegfried. It's not the way we experience the opera in the theater during a performance, however. When Wagner was composing the Ring, he began to despair that he would ever have an acceptable performance of the entire huge cycle, and in the middle of Siegfried he took a break of approximately nineteen years. (During this period, among many other activities, he composed Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger.) When Wagner picked up Siegfried again with Act III, his musical dramaturgy, his orchestrations and his working out of leitmotifs had changed. Conductor Marek Janowski, offering here the ninth in his ten-opera recorded traversal of the Wagner canon, is attuned to this stylistic evolution like no other maestro. Acts I and II, with a bounding, adolescent Siegfried, put the listener in mind of a comic-strip punching match. We half expect to see the words "POW!!" and "ZAP!!" emanate from the loudspeakers. The glow of fire seems to advance on us. As musical references to Alberich and Fafner flit across the orchestra it is scary, but scary in the way we tell a fairy tale to a child. Cellos and basses chuff in a warm and raspy way. This allows the gentle forest murmurs of Act II to make an enormous effect. But then in Act III Janowski gives us the mature operatic master. Erda's paragraphs are here interjections in Wotan's opening scene, not separate sections. The orchestra seems ready to combust as Siegfried rebuffs Wotan's questions, but Janowski then takes time for a grand ascent to the mountaintop. There's a sense of inevitability, as if this might be the finale to the whole cycle. In this entire performance, the orchestra carries the story to an unprecedented degree.
Janowski, as it happens, is recording his second Ring. His first, the premiere digital reading, was made (get ready for it, kids) thirty-one years ago, for Eurodisc. The two versions are often similar in broad outlines, and the early version was the best studio Siegfried until this one. The Eurodisc version did sag a bit around the death of Fafner, which is remedied here, and the recorded sound, already spectacular in 1982, is even better here. But the Eurodisc Ring does have the benefit of consistent casting. In Siegfried, six of the characters are returning from earlier Ring operas, but of the PentaTone singers only the Alberich (the excellent Jochen Schmeckenbecher, who wrings every drop from his juicy, unexpected final encounter with Wotan) and the Wotan (Tomasz Konieczny, relatively thin-voiced rather than expansive) are returnees. The new Mime, Christian Elsner, is luxury casting, given that he already sang Parsifal and Loge for Janowski. (The earlier Janowski Siegfried was famous for the detailed Mime of lieder singer Peter Schreier, who set new standards for vocalism in the role.) The new Erde, to put the best face on it, shows how the character has aged since Das Rheingold. Janowski's Eurodisc Fafner, Matti Salminen, returns here. Sixty-eight at the time of the new recording, he produces nastiness rather than satisfaction or sleepiness at his awakening.
Violeta Urmana, taking over the one of the three Brünnhildes to which she is least suited, is stentorian from her first entrance. She is not particularly steady, but after the listener takes the performance on her own terms there are things to admire. Stephen Gould's Siegfried is remarkable in the same way his Bayreuth Siegfried was remarkable: the punishing role doesn't sound especially hard for him. For the first two acts he plays at the role in a confident, football-jock fashion, with plenty of energy left for the end of Act II. In Act III, as the character finally acquires a little depth, he becomes multidimensional and mature, even mixing in a bit of appropriate dread to his cries of "Erwache!" It's a fine performance, and it fits perfectly into Janowski's utterly persuasive conception.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
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