Gergiev’s Das Rheingold

parts self-perpetuating mythology, convention-defying musical thesis, and
expression of an unfettered ego, the Ring forever changed the
landscape of opera: whether composers of subsequent generations embraced or
discarded the examples of Wagner’s monumental tetralogy, it is undeniable
that their works could not avoid responding to the innovations of Bayreuth.†
In this year of honoring Wagner on the occasion of the bicentennial of his
birth, his influence is more omnipresent than ever, both in the world’s opera
houses and concert halls and in new releases by record labels large and
small.† This recording of Das Rheingold is the second installment in
the complete Mariinsky Ring conducted by Valery Gergiev, and it
upholds the high standards of performance values and state-of-the-art recording
technology set in the previously-released recording of Die Walk¸re.†
Despite the presence of German singers in two of the most critical rÙles in
the opera, this Rheingold also continues the welcome exploration of
Wagner interpretation and performance traditions beyond Bayreuth and
established centers of Wagnerian history.† The aftershocks of the
Ring were felt strongly in Russia: elements of Wagner’s innovations
invaded the scores of Russian composers, and Russia’s most celebrated
composer of the 19th Century, Tchaikovsky, was of course present for the first
complete performance of the Ring at Bayreuth in 1876.† It was only
after the fall of the Iron Curtain that the work of Russian singers in
Wagner’s operas started to achieve recognition outside of Soviet theatres,
however.† For instance, Evgeny Nikitin, who sings Fasolt in this performance
of Das Rheingold, has sung the same part, as well as Pogner in Die
Meistersinger von N¸rnberg
and Klingsor in the controversial new
production of Parsifal by FranÁois Girard, at the Metropolitan
Opera.† Its other artistic merits notwithstanding, this Mariinsky recording
preserves the singing of some of Russia’s best Wagnerians and, with its
richly-balanced sonics, gives Wagner’s score an opportunity to fully reveal
its wonders via one of the world’s great orchestras.

The players of the Mariinsky Orchestra indeed confirm their ensemble’s
competitiveness with the best orchestras in the world, especially among those
that regularly perform the music of Wagner, playing with attention to detail
that proves especially useful in clearly delineating statements of
Leitmotivs even when these are woven deeply into the musical fabric.†
The strings play with full-bodied tone and wonderfully reliable intonation, and
the playing of the brass section is often appropriately ferocious.† More so in
Rheingold than in their performance of Walk¸re, orchestral
sonorities are adapted to the rapidly-changing drama: the brutal sound world of
the Nibelungen is adroitly contrasted with the more nuanced environs of the
gods, and the primordial discord from which the Rhinemaidens emerge to
introduce the Leitmotiv that will serve them throughout the
Ring is viscerally conveyed.† Perhaps owing to the circumstances of
having recorded the opera during concert performances, some of Wagner’s most
emblematic ‘special effects’ here are not quite special.† The thunder
summoned by Donner is decidedly earthbound, and the anvils at which the
Nibelung dwarves work sound more like wind chimes, played with splendid
rhythmic vitality though they are.† Nonetheless, the Orchestra’s playing is
never less than excellent and, in many passages, rises to genuine greatness.

Perhaps no other conductor in the storied history of music in Russia has
made the music of Wagner his own, both in Russia and abroad, more than Valery
Gergiev has done.† His conducting of this performance of Das
exposes both the strengths and the weaknesses of Maestro
Gergiev’s approach to conducting Wagner.† He has a natural ear for
orchestral colors, and his direction of the purely instrumental episodes in
Das Rheingold is superb.† The opera’s first pages, in which Wagner
memorably captured the undulations of the Rhine in unsettled music, are shaped
by Maestro Gergiev with expert command of the strange, sinister sonorities.†
When the Rhinemaidens ascend from the depths, reservations about Maestro
Gergiev’s pacing of the performance start to rise to the surface, as well.†
The irony of the Rhinemaidens’ taunting of Alberich is present, but the
playfulness of the scene is absent.† As the performance progresses, moments of
fantastic dramatic vibrancy alternate with passages that hang fire.† Wotan’s
and Loge’s descent to Nibelheim is depicted with power, but the preceding
scene in which the giants Fafner and Fasolt take Freia hostage goes for
little.† Alberich’s curse lacks focus, and though the orchestral playing is
sublime the famous Entry of the gods into Valhalla does not have the sense of
wonder that it can—and should—possess.† Maestro Gergiev is a musician of
undoubted accomplishment, and there are stretches of this performance of
Das Rheingold that suggest that he can be a memorably eloquent
Wagnerian.† Das Rheingold is the briefest of the Ring
operas, however, and the one in which scenes progress with almost cinematic
legerity.† Though the duration of this performance suggests that Maestro
Gergiev’s pacing is not dissimilar from the speeds at which some of the most
illustrious Wagnerians of the 20th Century conducted Das Rheingold,
there is a lack of momentum that robs the performance of dramatic impetus.†
Maestro Gergiev provides moments of exhilarating theatricality, but the
performance as a whole is marred by patches of dullness.

Das Rheingold begins and ends with songs of the Rhinemaidens.† All
three Rhinemaidens in this performance—soprano Zhanna Dombrovskaya as
Woglinde, soprano Irina Vasilieva as Wellgunde, and mezzo-soprano Ekaterina
Sergeeva as Floflhilde, all of whom were also heard as Valkyries in the
Mariinsky Walk¸re—sing well, with Ms. Dombrovskaya particularly
impressing with her voicing of Woglinde’s high lines.† The ladies do not
prove quite so euphonious in trio as they are individually, but their voices
are admirably secure.

The giants Fafner and Fasolt are sung with almost demonic relish by basses
Mikhail Petrenko and Evgeny Nikitin.† Mr. Petrenko, Hunding at the
Metropolitan Opera in 2008 and in the Mariinsky recording of Die
, here sings Fafner, the dark timbre of his voice again proving
apt for his part.† So nasty are the utterances of Mr. Petrenko’s Fafner that
it is surprising neither that he murders his own brother in a jealous quarrel
nor that he returns in Siegfried as a dragon: in Rheingold,
he is already repulsively reptilian.† Mr. Nikitin’s Fasolt is also a truly
off-putting creation, the singer’s singular timbre filling Fasolt’s vocal
lines with chilling effectiveness.† The maddening arrogance with which both
singers enact their characters’ interactions with their colleagues is
enjoyably disturbing: that one brother should ultimately slay the other seems
inevitable.† Both gentlemen indulge in rather more snarling than is necessary
to convey the sentiments of their parts, but their singing is firm and

Fricka’s trio of siblings is strongly cast.† Singing Freia with a clear,
bright voice, soprano Viktoria Yastrebova gives an expressive performance.†
Her Freia is appropriately unnerved by her abduction, and her pleas for
Wotan’s assistance are voiced with suitable ardor.† Ms. Yastrebova’s voice
is occasionally strident when pressure is applied at the top of the range, but
Freia’s dramatic situation is hardly conducive to smooth singing.† Under
siege by satyrs of the likes of Mr. Petrenko’s Fafner and Mr. Nikitin’s
Fasolt, Freia’s terror is justified.† It might be said that her brothers are
not the most intellectually advanced residents of Valhalla, but they can be
interesting when sung by attentive singers.† Tenor Sergei Semishkur makes Froh
a kindly presence whose concern for his sister is touching: words of comfort
seem to come more naturally to him than threats, but there are flashes of
masculine pride in his performance.† Vocally, Mr. Semishkur has a narrow
timbre and must occasionally push the voice in order to be heard.† Donner is
sung by baritone Alexei Markov, whose noble tone is often lovely.† Like Mr.
Semishkur, Mr. Markov is sometimes compelled to force his voice in order to
make his intended effects, but he, too, proves convincing in his defense of
Freia and summons the best of his vocal resources for a ringing account of
Donner’s raising of the storm.

Tenor Andrei Popov, acclaimed in stratospheric tenore contraltino
parts in Russian operas like the Astrologer in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden
, is an animated, audibly disgruntled Mime: it is obvious in Mr.
Popov’s singing that the seeds of Mime’s hatred for Alberich take root in
Das Rheingold.† Mr. Popov’s performances relies overmuch on
Sprechstimme, but the voice—when deployed without distortion—is an
instrument of quality.† The repertory of German tenor Stephan R¸gamer
includes both lyric rÙles and parts traditionally associated with larger
voices.† As Loge in this performance, Mr. R¸gamer achieves with projection
what several of his colleagues accomplish with effort.† Expectedly, Mr.
R¸gamer’s diction is excellent, and his performance confirms the great
extent to which an effective performance of Loge relies upon a sharp tongue.†
Mr. R¸gamer’s Loge rides the crests of Wagner’s orchestra impressively,
putting across every word with spontaneity and the appearance of legitimate
cleverness.† Mr. R¸gamer’s Loge is a figure who knows too much in a world
in which knowledge is dangerous.† Singing suggestively but with dignity, it is
apparent that from the entrance to Valhalla Mr. R¸gamer’s Loge already sees
the smoke of Siegfried’s funeral pyre rising on the horizon.

Mezzo-soprano Zlata Bulycheva, whose repertory at the Mariinsky contains an
array of the most demanding rÙles in the mezzo-soprano canon, is a dark-voiced
Erda, her warnings to Wotan delivered with unerring accuracy of intonation.†
The part’s lowest notes challenge Ms. Bulycheva, but the upper extension of
the rÙle, so troubling to many singers, is delivered with energy and
command.† There is a slight grittiness in Ms. Bulycheva’s timbre that
contributes to the credibility of her portrayal of the primeval earth

The most indelible portrayals of Alberich are those that inspire sympathy
for the character’s hardships despite his savagery and inhumanity.† It can
be argued that all of his viciousness is born of an unfulfilled desire for
acceptance.† In his first encounter with the Rhinemaidens in Das
, his naÔvetÈ in failing to comprehend that any creatures could
be so unkind as to mock him can be quite piteous, causing his devolution into
sociopathic behavior to be all the more shocking.† Unfortunately, there is
little to pity in the Alberich of baritone Nikolai Putilin.† Raging at the
world from his first entrance, this is an Alberich who seems unhesitatingly
resolved to take the Rhinemaidens by force were they not capable of eluding his
grasp.† His glee in torturing Mime whilst rendered invisible by the Tarnhelm
borders on sadism, and his stupidity and impetuosity when confronted by Wotan
and Loge deprive the character of any redeeming qualities.† This is a
defensible interpretation of the part, but it lessens the emotional impact of
the individual-versus-society subtext that is central to the Ring.†
Vocally, Mr. Putilin is inclined to bark his lines, especially in heated
exchanges, but he shows himself capable of singing handsomely and phrasing
intelligently: were these qualities in greater supply, his performance could be
more completely enjoyed.

Ekaterina Gubanova complements her performance of the Walk¸re
Fricka with this depiction of the same character in Das Rheingold.†
In Walk¸re, she was already ‘inside’ the rÙle, her vocal bearing
regal but womanly.† In Rheingold, where the subject of Fricka’s
indignation is her husband’s self-serving use of her sister as a bargaining
chip in his quest for omnipotence, Ms. Gubanova is even more palpably engaged
as a singer and an artist.† When this Fricka pleads with Wotan for justice for
Freia, it is as an exceptionally insightful woman who loves her husband but is
awakening to the depths of treachery of which he is capable.† One of the most
critical catalysts of the drama in the Ring is the fact that, in both
Rheingold and Walk¸re, Fricka has the upper hand, wielding
moral authority over Wotan.† Few singers have conveyed this more perceptively
than Ms. Gubanova, and her transformation from devoted spouse to protector of
the values upon which her husband treads is perhaps the single most engrossing
aspect of this performance.† The Fricka who enters Valhalla at the end of
Rheingold in this performance is already the justifiably implacable
woman whose pursuit of moral rectitude changes the course of the Ring
in Act Two of Walk¸re.† Musically, Ms. Gubanova brings to her
performance a tightly-constructed, warmly feminine voice with reserves of power
for climaxes.† She is unbothered by troubles at either end of her range, her
lower register focused and well-supported and her top notes hurled out
fearlessly.† Fricka is a difficult to rÙle to bring off without veering into
caricature: Ms. Gubanova succeeds where many fine singers have failed.

Having fallen victim to some of the rÙle’s dramatic and vocal pitfalls in
the Mariinsky Walk¸re, RenÈ Pape here finds the Rheingold
Wotan a more congenial assignment.† The basic timbre remains quite beautiful,
but in Rheingold Mr. Pape is spared the more arduous ascents into the
upper register that Wotan faces in Walk¸re.† In this performance,
Mr. Pape’s Wotan is a subtle figure, and the nobility of his singing is
unchanged.† In a sense, Mr. Pape’s Wotan seems a sheltered character, his
response to Alberich’s depravity and curse almost like the horror of an
idealistic man encountering the mean vagaries of reality for the first time.†
There is in this Wotan’s obsession with the ring more of a sense of wounded
pride than of lust for power.† Still, there is a bluntness in Mr. Pape’s
delivery that diminishes the cumulative force of his performance.† There is
little is his singing to differentiate Wotan’s attitudes in scenes with
Alberich and Loge from his questioning of Erda or exchanges with Fricka: the
largesse of the part is there, but the angst and fatalism have not yet entered
into Mr. Pape’s concept of Wotan.† Not surprisingly, his voicing of the
greeting to Valhalla is expertly phrased and sustained with tremendous breath
control, and the sheer impact of the sound of the voice cannot be denied.† Not
least because he is a bass in what is unquestionably a bass-baritone rÙle,
Wotan will never be an easy sing for Mr. Pape, but when he manages to ally a
more complete identification with the dramatic profile of the part with his
mahogany-hued singing of the music he will be an extraordinary Wotan.

Das Rheingold is the foundation upon which the Ring is
built, and there is considerable logic evident in the fact that Wagner
conceived Rheingold after Walk¸re, Siegfried, and
Gˆtterd‰mmerung had taken shape.† For all that it serves as an
introduction to the events that shape the Ring in the next three
operas, Rheingold is a spellbinding opera in its own right; one with
musical and dramatic elements that create their own unique microcosm, both
inextricably linked to what transpires in the later operas and fully functional
without the context of the full Ring.† Valery Gergiev and the
Mariinsky forces here offer a flawed but earnest performance of this endlessly
alluring opera.† With a perpetuation of the lofty standards of singing and
orchestral playing almost certain, it will be interesting to hear how the
famously passionate Maestro Gergiev responds to the more complicated
architectures of Siegfried and Gˆtterd‰mmerung.

Joseph Newsome

Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883): Das
: R. Pape (Wotan), A. Markov (Donner), S. Semishkur
(Froh), S. R¸gamer (Loge), E. Gubanova (Fricka), V. Yastrebova (Freia), Z.
Bulycheva (Erda), N. Putilin (Alberich), A. Popov (Mime), E. Nikitin (Fasolt),
M. Petrenko (Fafner), Z. Dombrovskaya (Woglinde), I. Vasilieva (Wellgunde), E.
Sergeeva (Floflhilde); Mariinsky Orchestra; Valery Gergiev [Recorded in
conjunction with concert performances in the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky
Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia, on 7 – 10 June 2010, 17 – 18 February and
10 April 2012; Mariinsky MAR0526; 2SACD, 147:42; Available on Amazon
and iTunes.

This review first appeared at Voix
des Arts
. It is reprinted with permission of the

image_description=Marinsky 526
product_title=Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold
product_by=A review by Joseph Newsome
product_id=Marinsky 526 [2CDs]