OPERA NEWS - Das Rheingold
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WAGNER: Das Rheingold

CD Button Bell, Tynan, Bickley, Shaw, Jones, Resmark; Hartmann, Paterson, Youn, Philip, Stout, Spence, Hagen, Bayley; Hallé Orchestra, Elder. Text and translation online. Hallé CD HLD 7549 (3)

Recordings Rheingold Cover 119

WAGNER'S RING might be interpreted as a tragic gender conflict. The rampaging males work their ill-considered mischief, while the female characters are imprisoned in defensive, reactive roles. You could even divide the cycle’s four works into two “gendered” pairs, with Rheingold and Siegfried especially male-dominated and the other operas offering more scope (if less power) to the heroines. Conductors sometimes take the testosterone-heavy Rheingold as a particular challenge, as if its imbalance in vocal color required leavening.

That’s not the approach taken by Mark Elder in this live-concert Rheingold. He apparently seconds Wagner’s categorization of the work as a prologue to the three full-scale dramas. The performance has symphonic breadth and weightiness in setting out the cycle’s relevant dramatic and musical themes, as the conductor nudges the listener to heed warnings and foreshadowings. This “Ring in miniature” stands out by reflecting more of the cycle’s tragedy, which seems to foster a more reflective pace. But there’s nothing sluggish in Elder’s expansive narrative style. Flexibility, savored details and the conductor’s palpable rapport with Manchester’s redoubtable Hallé Orchestra (which he has led since 2000) make the orchestral passages especially eloquent. 

Yet at times this performance is also frustrating. Despite the singers’ obvious concentration and well-schooled details, there’s a shortage of Wagnerian scale and splendor. The opening tracks stand out, both for savory atmospherics and for some of the most secure singing. Samuel Youn is an impulsive and bitter Alberich, with considerable freedom and bite in his timbre. Soprano Sarah Tynan elevates the Rhinemaiden Woglinde to a principal role, with her well-punctuated phrasing, bright projection and memorable, childlike awe. Mezzo Susan Bickley’s Fricka is suitably tense and harsh, and Emma Bell gives the threatened Freia explosive resonance (with edgy vibrato) that’s close to overacting but effective. 

There’s an insistent sense of foreboding in Iain Paterson’s Wotan, suggesting the figure’s impulsiveness and curiosity. The big vocal arpeggios in which Wotan vents his ambitions and self-glorification come up short, although the vocal deficits are more than covered by the orchestra’s somewhat ironic grandeur in the entrance into Walhalla. As Loge, tenor Will Hartmann is sardonic and condescending in dialogue and soliloquy but scrappy in the lyrical references to Freia’s charms. David Stout hits some forceful tones as Donner. Among the weightiest roles, the pleasant-toned Reinhard Hagen struggles with Fasolt’s lowest lines, while Clive Bayley, as Fafner, summons more menace. Susanne Resmark has a beautiful timbre in her high passages, making her Erda not quite earthy enough. —David J. Baker

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