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WAGNER: Siegfried

CD Button Melton, Farcas, Humble; O’Neill, Goerne, Cangelosi, Van Mechelen, Struckmann; Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, van Zweden. No texts or translations. Naxos 8.660413-16 (4)

Recordings HK PHilharmonic hdl 118
Wagner in China: the Hong Kong Philharmonic and cast record Siegfried
© Cheung Wai Lok/HK Philharmonic
Recordings Siegfried Cover 118

THE DUTCH CONDUCTOR Jaap van Zweden, now music director designate of the New York Philharmonic, stamps Wagner’s titanic score with a very personal approach in this third entry in Naxos’s new Ring cycle. It seems fairly careful—the climaxes are a bit dampened—but also surpassingly beautiful. Rarely have the leitmotifs been played with such clarity while also blending seamlessly into the whole. Rarely have the opera’s quiet, introspective moments been so achingly beautiful, especially Siegfried’s Act II wonderings about his parents under the linden tree and when he bemoans his loneliness to the Forest Bird. These passages are played with such delicate transparency—and sung by Simon O’Neill with such tenderness—that Siegfried’s vulnerability is strikingly clear. Throughout, the Hong Kong Philharmonic (of which van Zweden is also music director) plays brilliantly and emotionally, particularly the strings and woodwinds, creating glowing musical textures and finding every nuance in the rich, complex score.

In the wrong hands, Act I of Siegfried can be a chore—a character tenor and a heldentenor barking and yapping at each other for an hour. But that’s not the case here. David Cangelosi provides a gorgeously sung Mime, never resorting to snarling or blustering. He manages to provide many fine character touches by darkening and lightening the tone. He’s well matched by O’Neill, who manages every aspect of his brutally long and difficult role with aplomb. His Siegfried is sweet, innocent and volatile, sung with burnished tone and, occasionally, a tear in the voice. While he has to lunge for a few high notes, his voice maintains tonal beauty throughout the registers, and O’Neill never shows vocal strain or pushes for effect. Like the best heldentenors, he makes it sound easy. Particularly in the Act II passages when Siegfried is alone, O’Neill’s soft singing is ravishing. He’s also capable of expressions of great joy, as in his final scenes with Brünnhilde. The famous passage in which he discovers her sleeping form and sings “Das ist kein Mann!” usually draws audience laughter, but here O’Neill has such surprise and fear in his voice that it’s touching.

This Ring is notable for Matthias Goerne’s role debut as Wotan. He has garnered much praise for his performance in Walküre, but I can’t be so enthusiastic about his Wanderer. He approaches the music as a lieder singer, with velvety richness to his sensitive baritone. But—and this could be the fault of microphone placement—in Act I, he sounds muffled and tentative. His singing is effectively smooth but never exciting. His fine use of textual subtlety seems calculated. His best singing comes in his Act III invocation of Erda, when he seems much less careful and lets his voice fly out.

The supporting cast is uneven. Heidi Melton, who sang Sieglinde in Walküre, is Brünnhilde here. She starts out tentative and fluttery in her “Heil dir, Sonne” but soon comes into her own in the duets with Siegfried. There’s real warmth and richness in her middle and lower registers, but her laser-beam high notes can be shrill. Falk Struckmann’s baritone is too light for the dragon Fafner, but he provides theatrical fireworks with the dragon’s hearty laughs and blood-curdling screams at his death. Valentina Farcas is a thick-voiced Forest Bird, mezzo Deborah Humble an effective, deep-voiced Erda.

The main asset of this recording is the splendid orchestral playing and the sensitive, nuanced conducting of van Zweden. It may not be a Siegfried for the ages, but it finds all the subtle beauty in Wagner’s music. It’s a moving performance that’s unusually human. —Henson Keys 

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