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Ring à la russe

Wagner is becoming an important calling card for Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre. After releasing a well-received Parsifal on its recording label in 2010, the St. Petersburg troupe is marking the bicentennial of the composer’s birth with a buzzworthy new Ring cycle culled from a series of performances and recording sessions featuring the likes of Jonas Kaufmann, Rene Pape, Nina Stemme and Anja Kampe.

With that kind of international star power, the set is probably destined for commercial success. For some, it will also add kindling to the debate about Gergiev’s strengths in this repertory.  

The 59-year-old maestro’s Wagner performances have evolved over the past decade into darkly intense affairs that ooze melodrama and tend to play up the music’s lyric romanticism. The Mariinsky orchestra has become much more secure in the material over that time, though it still lacks the finesse of some of some other major opera company pit bands.

What remains frustrating is Gergiev’s tendency to undercut the pulse of Wagner’s music in spots by slowing the action to linger on a character’s emotions or some moral dilemma. In the first installment of the cycle, Die Walküre, the drama goes slack and loses focus during a number of Act 2’s narrative sequences before regaining momentum, as if someone’s hit a fast forward button. While the approach yields some interesting portraiture and forces one to really listen to what’s being sung, it dilutes the cumulative effect and gives the performance an odd, inconsistent feel.

Gergiev is hardly the first conductor who’s strayed searching for this music’s deeper meaning. And though he may be guilty of loving some sections to death, he still excels at tapping the raw power and radiant sound of a Wagner orchestra. The opening storm scene is vividly rendered, if a little light on the bass, and the familiar leitmotives sound suitably grand in the hands of the orchestra’s winds. It remains to be seen whether the cycle’s remaining installments, which continue with Das Rheingold in September, will be more organically whole or resemble a patchwork quilt of highlights.

What keeps this performance together is the commitment of the leading vocalists, who use Gergiev’s spacious tempi to capture the sensuous, mystical quality of the music and lend power and authority to the dramatic climaxes. In contrast to the Parsifal release, there are only two Russians in prominent roles: Ekaterina Gubanova, who’s a less-than-imposing Fricka, and Mikhail Petrenko, whose Hunding unspools some lovely legato but doesn’t project nearly enough menace.

In the now familiar role of Siegmund, Kaufmann uses his burnished, baritonal sound to distill the displaced character’s noble qualities. One would be hard-pressed to find a more expressively phrased “Winterstürme,” and Kaufmann’s performance builds in intensity and authority through the exciting Act 1 finale and his Act 2 duet with Brunnhilde. Anyone who was impressed by his recent Met appearances will likely find this reading at least as good, if not a just bit more magisterial.

Kampe is a rising star soprano with keen dramatic sensibilities and mezzo-like shadings who acquits herself well as Sieglinde. The expressive strengths lie more in her robust, well-focused middle and low registers than in her top, which can sound pinched at times. Together, she and Kaufmann make a charismatic couple and turn Act 1 into the highlight of the show.

Stemme, widely regarded as the preeminent Isolde of our times, could very well lay claim to the title belt for Brunnhilde, too. With her ample, polished voice, she captures the character’s transformation from stubborn Valkyre to tenderhearted woman and brings a palpable sense of doom to the Todesverkündigung. Her pleading third act “War es so schmählich” features some gorgeous cantabile singing and enough dramatic thrust to make it sound like her world is breaking apart.

Pape’s Wotan is predictably better here than on his DG Wagner highlights disc with Daniel Barenboim and the Stattskapelle Berlin, and nicely conveys the contrast between the god’s vulnerability and power. His rich voice and effortlessly rendered melodic lines provide an interesting contrast to the rougher, more dramatic delivery of Bryn Terfel. But at least on CD, his technical perfection, scrupulous diction and emphasis on control still make the performance feel reserved, maybe even bland. Pape fails to give enough lift to Gergiev’s dead spots in the middle act and doesn’t quite channel the anguish one would expect from a heartbroken father in the Act 3 Abschied. Perhaps it’s a different story experiencing him live.

The hybrid SACD sound captures the sonics of the new Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre and in an incongruous but interesting twist, places the listener in the middle of the Valkyries during their ride at the beginning of the third act. Four discs come with a 136-page booklet with notes, photographs and the libretto in German and English.

This release could probably merit inclusion in many collections on the strength of the singing alone and unites some major artists at the peaks of their careers. But because the Mariinsky’s identity is so intertwined with Gergiev’s, and because he has made Wagner so essential to the company’s rejuvenated repertory, the cycle will ultimately have to be judged on whether the tireless conductor’s broad vision in this music matches his artistic ambitions.

43 comments

  • Feldmarschallin says:

    Well I would hardly call Kampe a rising star since she has been singing for quite a while. The voice itself is in my opinion nothing special but she is a very committed actress. Sofar I have heard her in three roles (Sieglinde, Senta and Leonore) and found her always more than adequate but less than stellar.

    • armerjacquino says:

      Yes, I wondered about that. I bought her FIDELIO recording *thinks* six years ago…

    • Lalala says:

      I wouldn’t call her “up and coming” either. She’s been a part of at least two Rings in the States and sang Sieglinde in a non-Ring run of “Walküre” in Washington nearly 10 years ago. She has been singing all over Europe for some time including new productions in Munich (“Fidelio” and “Dutchman”) and Barcelona “Parsifal” for many years.

    • phoenix says:

      IMO Kampe, if she had ever risen, had already fallen just as far by the time I heard her. Sorry, but I find her provincial without being distinctive -- apparently she has a good personality (onstage and off) with an even better agent/publicist/promoter. As it goes with Voigt, I will just have to try to avoid Kampe whenever possible -- but that is getting more and more difficult since the media give both clunkers plenty of bogus hype. Due to the virtual realities of Kampe’s abysmal singing, I suspect she is cheap and available. If not, call Susan Bullock for a quote.
      - Adriel, your review is fine and much appreciated. What you say about Pape is exactly what I thought the first time I saw him at Staatsoper Unter den Linden in 1992 -- still, I am surprised that Gergiev couldn’t get more out of him.
      - The only thing I am wondering about is the cohesive quality of the performance. According to the press releases, this recording is not taken from a single performance -- but it does use sections taken from live performances -- as well as other rehearsal or studio takes. If I am reading between the lines of what I have already read elsewhere as well as what you have written, let me know -- but the whole affair sounds like a thrown together tangled mess -> a tug-of-war between studio-rehearsal-live performance clips -- but this is probably something old-time lovers of studio recordings might enjoy very much.

    • Regina delle fate says:

      Of those three roles Sieglinde easily lies the most comfortably for her. Both Leonore and Senta are a bit of a stretch, but she does some lovely singing on these discs.

      • phoenix says:

        Regina, I haven’t heard the recording reviewed above, so I have no comment -- except to say I am skeptical due to the commercial patchups involved.
        - I tried to get through Kampe’s Munich Sieglinde, but (in the declamatory first half of Act 1) she sang around the pitch too much for my tastes -her in tonation sounded so far off it annoyed me to have to listen to her. But that wasn’t as bad as her Irene in Rienzi (Madrid 2012) where above the passagio there was fervent wailing (I suppose that could be construed to be great drama). I never heard her Leonore in Fidelio, but I did try her Senta twice -> which didn’t come off as inadequate as the others, but my favorite section of the opera -> the bass-baritone-soprano trio at the end of Act 2 -> was cut both times and I seriously doubt whether Kampe could have mustered up to it anyways.
        - The only time I ever liked Kampe was her Elisabeth in the 2010 Welser-Möst Tannhäuser from Wiener Staatsoper. Yes her singing was a bit blowzy, but the performance itself held together and her enthusiastic, bright tone won me over:
        http://www.the-wagnerian.com/2011/06/listen-now-tannhauser-johan-botha-ain.html

  • Bluevicks says:

    Slightly OT:

    For Kaufmann’s fans, a new picture of the upcoming Met’s Parsifal:

    http://operawebclub.com/papageno/index.php?showtopic=2891&st=600

  • Alto says:

    Have just come from the dress. Fantastic singing from Kaufmann. Major moobs, alas. ALL the singers were stupendous. The best singing I’ve heard at the Met in a very, very long time. Pape is at his best, and Mattei was a god (and was hot when he took HIS shirt off). He gave us such effortless, eloquent singing (despite, as the elderly lady beside me said, “that fucking wound”). Gatti conducted as in your dream of Wagner conducting.

    So six hours practically flew — despite the claptrap libretto and the silly production. which is desperately afraid we might let ourselves get distracted by the music at any point. But we’re accustomed to that, unfortunately.

    • manou says:

      Have the subtitles been doctored to fit the production?

      • Alto says:

        Good question. I don’t know. I paid inconsistent attention to them.

        And here’s a tip: shut your eyes during the Prelude to Act I. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

        • Bluevicks says:

          And how about Dalayman and Nikitin if I dare to ask ?

          • Alto says:

            Without quite “marking,” Dalayman clearly wasn’t always singing out as she would in a performance. But she was good when she did. Not quite on the level of these men (as few singers these days would be!), but very respectable. Especially considering some things the director made her do (in a Madonna-esqe getup — and I don’t mean the Blessed Virgin Mary).

            Again, I insist that I bear good news. This was singing of a high order that we haven’t been hearing much of.

            Nikitin sang well as an quite grimy Klingsor — could have been a refugee from the current RIGOLETTO? He was perfectly fine.

    • scifisci says:

      I don’t really agree with your assessment of the production, save for the distracting business during the prelude. I found it beautifully stylized and quite sensitive to the score, if one paid attention. It’s not a revelatory or groundbreaking production but it certainly fits the opera very well--minimal, symbolic, ritualistic movements and great use of lighting and color. Btw, i’m guessing if you sit in any level above the orchestra the big visuals of the production (arrangement of people, blood, lighting effects) will come off better. The blood is totally not visible from the orchestra.

      I agree that musically this is a superlative cast, led by the distinctive and dynamic conducting of Gatti. He really knows how to pace the music and build it. There were also many illuminating orchestral details in quiet moments I had not noticed before. The usual longueurs of the first act didn’t feel tedious. The singing was across the board excellent, with each singer distinguishing him or herself in some way. Pape was noble and restrained, and I suspect he’s probably in his best voice later in the day. Mattei gave a beautiful and intimate performance, quite moving. Dalayman surprised me in a good way and I didn’t feel that she was holding back, though I felt Jonas definitely was. Even if he wasn’t using his grandest voice to sing today, the way he builds, supports, and sustains phrases is just so musically grand that it honestly doesn’t matter how many decibels he’s pumping out. I think though that his conception of the role is extremely internalized and he draws the audience in rather than project himself out. But of course one can’t really tell from a rehearsal. And yes lots of jonas sans shirt and mattei too eventually.

    • parpignol says:

      very good role for Dalayman at this stage, time perhaps to stop singing Brunnhilde and Isolde; and she seemed comfortable in this over-the-top production; JK, though he sounded fantastic, did not seem so comfortable as he experimented with degrees of shirtless and open-shirted while wading through the blood puddle; I didn’t see it all, but imho this is going to be a hard production to love. . .

  • Bluevicks says:

    Thanks Alto. Although I’m far from being a JK or a Mattei fan, you actually made me curious about this Parsifal production (after all, I’m not a big fan of Vogt either and I was still impressed by his Parsifal in Lausanne some years back so,,,). I’m glad that you had such a good time and I would try to catch the HD broadcast when it will appear in my country.

    With his spider nets tattoos, Nikitin seems to be the only artist who wouldn’t be out of place in this production. BTW, the Lyon original production had its Parsifal not only shitless but also head shaven. Apparently, they have at least ”spared” Jk’s hair to some extent (a kind of star status I guess).

    • Nerva Nelli says:

      One always warms to a shitless Parsifal…

      • Bluevicks says:

        Dear Nerva, I don’t know about the ”shitless” part but one can hardly say that this Parsifal is bloodless so some kind of fluid is nevertheless involved….

    • oedipe says:

      The shirtless Parsifal with his head shaven was an image loaded with meaning in Lyon. The production loses something in translation in the absence of this detail.

      • FragendeFrau82 says:

        Oedipe have you seen the Met version yet? Or do you just take any change to what was done in Lyon as an insult to the Francophone world as is your habit?

        • oedipe says:

          Let’s see. The Met and Lyon are sharing the same production, and the shaved, shirtless Parsifal is a detail that made a great impression on me, so I would hate to see it go.

          If you think that my defense of things French is OTT, you are free to avoid my posts! At least I am talking about a whole culture (musical mainly, but not only) and trying to be informative about it, rather than obsessing 150% of the time about Jonas…

          And hey, even if it irks you to no end, I believe that the French/francophone culture is a great and important one, well worth defending against ignorance and/or prejudice when one encounters them. Vive la différence!

          • FragendeFrau82 says:

            Thank you Oedipe. I see I should have understood “the shaved, shirtless Parsifal is a detail that made a great impression on me, so I would hate to see it go” from your original statement. I can’t disagree with your experience.

            The Met stage is different from the Lyon stage and the Met performance will be broadcast in HD. These have necessitated changes, some of which will be noticeable to you (no bald cap) and some which may not. Since Girard still has overall control, I assume these necessary changes are made with his blessing. Also with a different cast I’m guessing there may be other changes that have come out of rehearsals--surely this is only to be expected?

      • louannd says:

        Oedipe, for my sake, not being an expert on Parsifal, could you explain please?

        • oedipe says:

          Not sure what you are referring to, Louannd.

          • louannd says:

            “loaded with meaning” -- what is the meaning?

          • oedipe says:

            Oh, OK. Girard’s world is a scorched Earth, seemingly the result of an ecological disaster brought about by modern man. The scorched Earth resembles Amfortas, it has cracks like wounds from which rivers of blood come to the surface.
            When Parsifal appears in the 3rd act, among all the suffering people on the wounded Earth, he is hard to recognize, so much he has changed: he seems very peaceful and mature. His shaved head and stark, shirtless costume make him look like a Buddhist monk, or some sort of Asian sage. He imparts spiritual peace to everybody. The way I interpret Girard’s idea is that our sick world needs help from a completely different, more serene value system -Asian in this case- in order to be able to heal itself. In a round about way, this staging “respects the composer’s intention”, since Wagner composed Parsifal at a time in his life when he was strongly under the influence of Asian philosophy.

          • oedipe says:

            BTW, Louannd, I thought of you tonight: I am just back from a concert version of Handel’s Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, with Julia Lezhneva and cutie pie Cristophe Dumaux, with René Jacobs conducting. I wanted to post a picture for you here, but none came out well. At any rate, Lezhneva was wonderful and sang a suberb “Lascia la spina”.

          • louannd says:

            Oedipe -- thank you much. I hope I can catch that Handel performance online.

          • Chanterelle says:

            Parsifal in no way resembles a Buddhist monk in Act III; more like a hermit who just spent 20 years in the woods. He staggers on leaning heavily on his spear, extremely weak, and shrouded in a filthy robe, certainly not shirtless (the white shirt comes later). He seems beaten down rather than peaceful and mature. His assumption of the leadership seemed unexplained, or perhaps I’m just dense…

            But a bald/shaved head on Jonas would be so wrong. It was odd enough seeing him almost clean shaven.

          • oedipe says:

            Well, to me, Parsifal’s shirtless costume and shaved head, once he had taken off his filthy robe under which he was hiding, looked Asian. As far as I know, European hermits had lots of (head and facial) hair -since they lived by themselves- and didn’t go shirtless. I saw Schukoff, not Kaufmann; I thought he was pretty good, BTW. His Parsifal seemed weak, but at peace with himself. It all made sense to me.

          • oedipe says:

            Come to think of it: it’s interesting that you were unconvinced of the leadership powers of a weak Parsifal. That seems like such a modern, western view of leadership. I interpreted Parsifal’s powers to come from his deep understanding of human suffering and the others’ (Kundry’s in particular) appreciation of this deeply felt empathy.

  • parpignol says:

    just got a message from the Met selling tickets to the premiere on Friday, which is not sold out. . .

  • Feldmarschallin says:

    BTW Kaufmann was in the Boris General Rehearsal yesterday.

    • FragendeFrau82 says:

      What?

    • peter says:

      He is a God. He can be on two continents at the same time.

    • Gualtier M says:

      Amazing, he sang Parsifal from 10:30 a.m. to 4:20 p.m. at the Met in NY and then found the time to fly to Munchen and check out a Boris. When does the guy rest?

      • Feldmarschallin says:

        I am thinking he was here to visit his family since he just built a large house an the Ammersee which is about 30 minutes away from the center of town. There was a picture of him in the paper the day after the Lohengrin Premiere at La Scala in which he and his wife were at some church charity concert Saturday early afternoon. He obviously is one of those who prefers to dash home when possible to attend to things. He has said in an interview he wishes this travelling to stop soon since his children miss him.

        • Regina delle fate says:

          That last bit of your post sounds like excellent news for you Muencheners, FM! Luckily I have a place to stay in your beautiful city! I managed to get a ticket for the Festspiel Trovatore :)

  • Poison Ivy says:

    Well everyone after thinking about it I’ve decided I’m not going to Parsifal after all. I exchanged my ticket for Giulio Cesare today. Lots of reasons, but I think it’s the fact that after trying recordings and videos, I still can’t get into it, and life’s too short to sit through a 5 hour opera whose storyline makes my skin crawl. I feel disappointed but maybe another time I’ll try it again. But not now :(

    • DonCarloFanatic says:

      Whereas I am going the other route, and plan to listen to it Friday night, and go to the HD, and then go to the Met to see it in person.

      I can’t say that I have yet found any part of the music inspiring, but I am hoping that increasing my familiarity with it will breed comfort and then excitement.

  • Orkenise says:

    Girard’s “scorched earth” seems to stay very true to the “waste land” of the medieval texts.

  • ipomoea says:

    I’m with you, DonCarloFanatic! I’ve never “got” Parsifal, but it’s gonna be now or never. Thanks to La C and all parterriani who have offer invaluable advice and succor to Parsifal preppers like me. I now have two tickets in-house, an HD ticket and will listen to the prima livestream. I’m looking forward to enjoying every minute (hour?!day!?) of it.