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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Siegfried (1876) [253.00]
Lance Ryan (tenor) - Siegfried; Nina Stemme (soprano) - Brünnhilde; Terje Stensvold (baritone) - Wanderer; Johannes Martin Kränzle (baritone) - Alberich; Peter Bronder (tenor) - Mime; Alexander Tsymbalyuk (bass) - Fafner; Anna Larsson (contralto) - Erda; Rinnat Moriah (soprano) - Woodbird
Orchestra of La Scala/Daniel Barenboim
rec. La Scala, Milan, October 2012
Sound Format: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1
Picture Format: 16:9
DVD Format: NTSC
Subtitle languages: German (original language), English, French, Spanish, Italian, Korean
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 101695 [166.00 + 87.00]

I gave a rather mixed reception to Barenboim’s La Scala Das Rheingold a few months back. I was more impressed with his Walküre which had jettisoned some of the more objectionable features of the earlier production and was generally very good indeed. However with this Siegfried a number of production problems with Rheingold have resurfaced, and in general the performance does not live up to that of Walküre

Let’s take the more welcome elements first. The sets by Enrico Bagnoli, which I welcomed in both Rheingold and Walküre, get better and better as the cycle continues. The sense of omni-present nature, so important to Wagner’s symbolism, is retained and indeed enhanced. Mime’s forge is clearly set in the same forest as Fafner’s lair. The constantly moving projections at the rear produce some thrilling effects including a splendid magic fire in Act Three. It’s a vast improvement on its disappointing realisation at the end of Walküre.
 
The Brünnhilde of Nina Stemme is every bit as thrilling as she was in Walküre. The Erda of Anna Larsson, so impressive in Rheingold, is even better in her scene at the opening of Act Three with her extraordinary voice ranging freely from the lowest register up to a ringing top A-flat as she confronts Wotan. Johannes Martin Kränzle is once again an excellent Alberich, with his subtle and malevolent approach bringing the part of the dispossessed and vengeful Nibelung to exciting life. Barenboim’s conducting never draws attention to itself by an idiosyncratic approach. Even when his tempi are sometimes relatively unorthodox he nearly always makes them sound convincing. The playing of the orchestra, who actually remain behind to applaud Barenboim as he takes his curtain call, is invariably responsive and heartfelt. That said, one might have welcomed more initial definition from the timpani thundering out the diminished fifths at the climax to the Act Two Prelude.
 
There are however a number of visual elements from Rheingold, thankfully absent from Walküre, which resurface here in Guy Cassiers’s staging. The troop of dancers which were often intrusive in the earlier opera return after Siegfried has killed Fafner. They remain throughout during his confrontation with Mime constructing various cabbalistic and occult symbols to surround him. It may be the producer’s intention to convey that Siegfried’s understanding of Mime’s underlying meaning has been enhanced by the Tarnhelm - which the dancers impersonated in Rheingold. Wagner’s text here is clear that this new comprehension is the result of the dragon’s blood on his tongue. Presumably this has worn off - or he has brushed his teeth - by the time he confronts Hagen in Götterdämmerung. If it is going to be suggested that it is the result of carrying the Tarnhelm, he should presumably be aware of the Gibichung treachery from the beginning. Similarly the Ring itself is conspicuous by its absence. Instead Siegfried wears the same bejewelled gauntlet which we saw in Rheingold. When this would get in the way he simply pushes it unceremoniously further up his arm. As before, the back-projections are used to undertake a number of changes of scene during the course of the Acts. Mostly these are unobjectionable, but after the Wanderer has left Mime the forge seems to grow another couple of upper storeys - where Siegfried retires upstairs to smelt the sword. Suddenly we get the impression of a nineteenth century factory, with Siegfried’s hammering producing electric discharges through the metallic framework and - perhaps not altogether surprisingly - seeming to set the whole edifice on fire by the end of the Act. We also get the transformation of Fafner from dragon back into a rather undersized giant after Siegfried has killed him. This seems to have become a standard practice in modern productions but - as I have observed on a number of previous occasions - this gloss flies in the face of Wagner’s specific transformation of the giant motif with its perfect fifth to the sinister dragon motif with the fifth diminished, which does not change back even after Fafner’s death. There is a similar moment of clear misapprehension of Wagner’s musical symbolism during the prelude to Act Two, where Wotan is seen lurking in the forest at the exact moment when the theme of Alberich’s curse is given out by the trombones. Sometimes Cassiers will anticipate the music, as when Fafner is seen stirring in the background during Siegfried’s horn-call before his theme enters so startlingly in the tubas. However such jarring inconsistencies are thankfully rare, and Cassiers and Stemme really succeed in making the long orchestral passage during Brünnhilde’s awakening thoroughly convincing.
 
In Rheingold René Pape had been a generally successful Wotan, but he was ill during the run of Walküre and his place was taken by the heroic but less subtle Vitalij Kowaljow. Here we have a third singer in the role, and it has to be said that Terje Stensvold is the least successful of the three. His voice generally lacks heroic stature, and he has to force his tone during the opening of Act Three. He never succeeds in dominating his confrontations with Mime, Alberich, Siegfried or (especially) the heroically voiced Erda. As before, he clearly has two functioning eyes, which makes nonsense of the remarks of Siegfried when he meets him. During the opening of his scene with Mime he moves too quickly through the solemn music - this may be Barenboim’s fault - which simply fails to impart the sense of gravitas that he should radiate.
 
In Rheingold the part of Fafner had been taken by the rather small-voiced Timo Riihonen. Here he is replaced by the more solid-sounding Alexander Tsymbalyuk whose voice from offstage sounds properly menacing. It is hardly the singer’s fault that when he is required to turn back into a giant and sing from onstage he sounds less impressive. Incidentally, the piping Woodbird of Rinnat Moriah, similarly sung from offstage while impersonated onstage by a dancer, is a model of clarity. A further substitution is made in the role of Mime, taken in Rheingold by Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke but here reassigned to Peter Bronder. This is a very real advantage. Bronder, a strong singer, has plenty of character but never distorts the music for the sake of dramatic effect and makes one realise just how much singing the part really requires. His lowest register - Wagner writes a lot of his music in this range - could have more body, but otherwise he is excellent.
 
Unfortunately he is so good that he rather shows up his foster-son in the shape of Lance Ryan’s Siegfried. When he first appears, indeed, Ryan sounds very much like Bronder with much the same sort of pointed delivery. Although he seems to get stronger as the opera progresses - no sign of tiredness here - the sound always seems uncomfortably too much like a bumped-up Mime than a real Heldentenor. Ryan is an intelligent and musical singer - his hammering is a model of clarity and accuracy - and he clearly wants to sound more lyrical, but his voice is simply not made that way. Heroism he can manage perfectly well, but sympathy for the character is harder to manufacture. While he makes a conscientious effort to sing quietly in places, sometimes his mezza voce threatens to topple over into outright falsetto which distinctly militates against the vision of the young and flamboyant hero. Nevertheless he has a great many good things going for him. He is lithe, athletic and totally fearless about heights, at one point jumping a good six feet from a rock down onto the stage below. He is often a very subtle actor, even managing at times to suggest a sense of sympathy for Mime which is rather touching. He knows just when to let his volume rip, as at the end of the forging scene, without distorting his tone or diction. Under the circumstances it is unfair to complain that his wooing of Brünnhilde lacks the ideal sense of honeyed lyrical sweetness; after all, one can’t have everything.
 
At the end of the day, and despite my expressed reservations, this La Scala cycle remains a very satisfying production of the Ring without too many of the modern excrescences which mar (for example) Harry Küpfer’s Bayreuth production for Barenboim - although that production, with its vision of the opera as set in a post-apocalyptic industrial world, is the best segment of that cycle. For those who want a more ‘traditional’ production, the old Metropolitan set under Levine still takes quite a lot of beating. Siegfried Jerusalem and James Morris as Siegfried and the Wanderer are generally more satisfactory singers than Ryan and Stensvold are here. Otto Schenk’s stage direction remains rather static, but the Met manage to provide the only really convincing dragon in any of the video sets I have seen. Fafner properly remains as a dragon throughout, with a real frisson as he cries out Siegfried’s name at the point of his death.
 
The television production team at La Scala - a huge body of people - generally manage to get the cameras pointing in the right direction at the right time. Sometimes however we are given shots of the scenery when we really should be looking at the singers. The subtitles, although sometimes over-colloquial, are generally satisfactory.
 
There is a four-page essay by Michael Steinberg provided in the booklet which makes out a good case for Cassiers and his production, but no other extras are provided. Those who have been following Barenboim’s cycle will have every reason to be satisfied with this DVD. 
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey

Masterwork Index: Siegfried
 


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