Recording of July 1992: Wagner: Siegfried

WAGNER: Siegfried Reiner Goldberg, Siegfried; Heinz Zednik, Mime; James Morris, Wanderer; Hildegard Behrens, Brünnhilde; Ekkehard Wlaschiha, Alberich; Kurt Moll, Fafner; Birgitta Svendén, Erda; Kathleen Battle, Forest Bird; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, James Levine
Deutsche Grammophon 429 407-2 (4 CDs only). Cord Garben, Claudia Hamann, prods.; Wolfgang Mitlehner, eng. DDD. TT: 4:10:29

Götterdämmerung's orchestral textures may be heavier, but Siegfried's are thicker, harder to pierce, even though, on average, the actual number of instruments scored for is considerably lower. Though ostensibly the "lightest" and fastest-paced of Wagner's four Ring operas, Siegfried is actually the darkest in tone—strange for this "interlude" of a youthful hero full of practical jokes and comic bickering.

For these reasons, I've always found Siegfried, on the surface a lighthearted if leadfooted romp, to be the Ring's most mysterious quadrant. The spirit of the forest primeval suffuses and reigns over these dark, tangled pages, which embody perhaps the most florid example of 19th-century Romanticism's fever-dream of a brooding, impenetrable, and ultimately unknowable Nature. The endlessly hooked and interlocking themes and counterthemes, rhythms and counterrhythms, are the musical equivalent of the endless crosshatching of 19th-century engravings and lithographs, the deliberate erasure of the boundaries between background, foreground, and all levels in between. The resulting texture, too complex to know in its every line and shape, is an analog of the overwhelming richness of Nature itself, a meticulous building of Mystery through surfeit of detail.

In his excellent notes to this set, John Deathridge points out how each of Siegfried's three acts begins in darkness and climbs toward light. A Jungian might immediately see this as the Animus's struggle to extricate itself from a once-nurturing, now-confining Anima (ie, the Mother); given Siegfried's constant brusque shrugging-off of his past and heedlessness of his own destiny, this makes a great deal of sense. What separated Wagner from his 19th-century peers was the fact that, at the very end of the Ring, he actually allowed the dead Siegfried to be once more absorbed into the Mother's primordial juices, tokened by Brünnhilde and embodied by the flooding Rhine.

All of which means that Siegfried, the story of the Ring hero's quite lonely assertion of his manhood and strength amid (though not against) a natural matrix which contains nothing remotely like him, must perforce imply the Mother as strongly as it states the Son.

And it does. Nowhere else in the Ring is the orchestra, Wagner's Greek Chorus, so much a great coiled serpent, heaving and breathing toward the day in dark, chthonic, amoral, wordless power. When I first heard Siegfried at age 14, I heard a "nature symphony" so different from Beethoven's "Pastoral" as to force the following distinction: while Beethoven's Sixth is "about" nature, Wagner's Siegfried is very Nature embodied, cloned, and downloaded into an orchestral score—dangerously fascinating, impersonally passionate, unpredictably powerful, and completely indifferent to individual egos.

In the other most powerful Siegfried on record—and the one that seems to have permanently set my ear for the work when I was that impressionable 14-year-old—Georg Solti presents Wagner's sound world in this image of the earth, the elementals, Nature as Kali the Destroyer. James Levine, in this new set recorded more than four years ago, the concluding chapter in his DG Ring cycle, paints a portait of a nobler, sterner Mother Nature, just as careless of individuals but somehow moral. In the Solti/Wagner cosmos—and this is emphatically not a criticism—Nature seeks mindlessly to redress the imbalance initiated by the narrowly male ambitions of the light/dark mirror-images of Alberich and Wotan; but in Levine's universe, Nature (again, embodied by the orchestra) is self-aware, conscious of justice—a far more anthropomorphized entity, at once more stern, austere, and comforting, if ultimately, by the very fact of its more human traits, a smaller conception. Here are two very different but equally thorough realizations of this remarkable work—I wouldn't be without either of them.

Ah, yes, the music. It's obvious in Levine's Siegfried, as it was in his Götterdämmerung but decidedly was not in his Rheingold and Walküre, that he loves every single note of this deep, rich score. Levine's exhaustive preparation is everywhere evident. Contrary to received operatic wisdom, Wagner had a great deal to say in Siegfried, and Levine has taken infinite pains to make sure that the listener hears every one of the composer's notes; not one of them is taken for granted, glossed over, or played simply because it's written on the page. But, unlike Levine's Rheingold and Walküre, there is not a single rote or dogged note here.

This no doubt explains the recording's considerable length—more than 20 minutes longer than the recent Haitink version (reviewed in March 1992), which itself was hardly rushed. Happily, it also explains the fact that Levine's recording seems not a second longer than Haitink's, so thoroughly has Levine digested the score—there is not an ounce of fat on this interpretation. This is as unified a vision of Wagner's music as I have heard; given the competition of Solti, Böhm, Krauss, Haitink, and Furtwängler, that's saying a great deal indeed. It continues to astonish me how Levine can have done such inspired work for the last half of the Ring when his "visions" of the first half were so piecemeal and flat. If, as I said in March, Haitink's is a Siegfried for people who hate Siegfried, then Levine's is one for those who love it as much as he does, and are willing to give it the time and attention it deserves. Perhaps the explanation is as simple and obvious a truism as this: the better Levine likes a work, the more he has to give. He must like Siegfried very much.

In the Act I Prelude, Levine leans, digs heavily into the "Hoard," "Nibelung," "Nibelung's Hate," "Ring," and "Fafner" motifs, taking his carefully impassioned time, each phrase worked to a perfect shape and polished to a rich, deep patina. The Act II Prelude is slower even than the glacial Goodall's, but that's no problem as Levine builds to a powerful climax. Act II in general is a triumph of conducting, the dragon-fight music the best I've heard, the Forest Murmurs uncannily mimicking the thousand-layered complexities of wind and light in a forest of leaves. The Mime/Alberich confrontation is fast without being rushed, with real humor and dialog. Levine's Act III Prelude is the only version I've heard that actually challenges Solti's in terms of sheer churning inevitability and yearning, aching pursuit of a resolution always just out of reach. The long ascending passage for unaccompanied violins between scenes ii and iii is the sweetest and tenderest, most effortless playing of these 23 naked bars I've ever heard—even Karajan's Berlin Philharmonic, in its overrehearsed chamber version, did no better.

But for all the pains Levine has obviously taken in the pit with his own miraculously masterful Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, he seems to have paid less attention to his singers. There seems to have reigned a palpably laissez-faire attitude, with little attempt at dramatic direction of singing actors in a dramatic scene as opposed to what we have here: acting singers in a musical event. Still, his cast is seasoned enough that they can well fend for themselves; Levine's benign conductoral neglect is a serious problem with only one of his singers: the hapless Reiner Goldberg. Don't get me wrong—Goldberg is far more palatable here than in the Götterdämmerung he recorded for Levine merely a year later, a year in which both his and Hildegard Behrends's voices seem to have seriously deteriorated. No, during Siegfried I never wanted to shoot him. I simply forgot he was there—quite a trick when he's the only one singing for long, long stretches. But it never failed: when Reiner's mouth opened, my eyes closed and my mind went almost as blank as his, only to open wide again as soon as he stopped. I'm sorry to say it, but Goldberg sings as if there's no one home. Still, he never bleats here, and the voice itself, in far greater shape than it was to be a year later, is not at all unpleasant to hear—only to listen to.

Behrends herself sounds like a different singer altogether, her voice free of the wobble, swoop, and strain that have plagued it recently, and with that astonishingly seamless tone and total lack of register shifts from top to bottom that have always been her most attractive technical traits. Though she lacks the sheer vocal power of Nilsson's pure acetylene virgin Valkyrie (apologies to Sylvia Plath), she has humanity to spare. Her awakened defrocked demigoddess, though not larger than life, is certainly no smaller. The long scene with Siegfried is warm, tender, and human, if not exactly passionate. (With a stick like Goldberg, a girl can only do so much.) Filled with penetrating, unfailingly right emotional insight, Behrends's performance here amounts to the best of her three Brünnhildes.

James Morris's Wanderer has a remote, noble, imperious grandeur often aimed for but seldom struck. It seems unnecessary to say that he lacks Hotter's warmth, but who doesn't? No, this is an all-but-perfect Wotan in the winter of his wisdom, detached, weary, and resigned, but still strong. Morris's vocal power is almost overwhelmingly godlike, though this is ever so slightly at the expense of the Wanderer's vulnerability. (Morris delivers an alternate and very unbuttoned Wanderer on Levine's VHS/laserdisc PBS Siegfried, a different performance entirely, and with the wonderful Siegfried Jerusalem as his own namesake.) But that's definitely a split hair. No complaints here at all—James Morris is the most exciting Wotan/Wanderer since George London.

Heinz Zednik is his usual ingratiating self as Mime, a role he seems to own these days, with a balance of musicality, grotesquery, and dwarfish humanity currently rivaled only by Peter Haage (Haitink). Though the adjectives may sound strange, Ekkehard Wlaschiha is a big-hearted, expansive Alberich, the most satisfying in the role since the 30-year reign of Gustav Neidlinger. One can truly believe that, somewhere deep inside his twisted heart, buried under all the rage, fear, pain, and resentment, their still flickers some spark of an idea that the world would be a better place under his rule. (Which is the key to tragic ignorance in art and life: Even the worst of us are convinced we're right.) Kurt Moll's undistinguished Fafner wouldn't scare a pet ferret, though the singing itself is technically "correct." Fafner is too often sung as a coarse brute—here, for the first time (on record) in this role, too much emphasis is placed on the shape-shifted dragon's inherent nobility and wisdom in death, at the expense of his natural ferocity.

Birgitta Svendén is a very human—and very musical—Erda; not a common combination. Her voice is so liquidly easy to listen to that this difficult scene works as well as I've ever heard it. But the tastiest tidbit is Kathleen Battle in the star cameo (this is getting to be a tradition) of the Forest Bird: she is simply the finest singer I've ever heard in this tiny role, her voice effortlessly light, always finding the song in the notes, and with perfect diction. A delight.

The Met orchestra plays beautifully, as it has throughout this cycle, even if the brass lack a bit of heft and Levine's scrambled string seating is disconcerting. The sound is the best of the cycle: warm, richly resonant, not coldly cavernous as in Rheingold and Walküre. The readers of fine print will note that Siegfried and Rheingold were recorded simultaneously in April/May 1988, which probably means that recording conditions were identical for both operas. I don't care. The frigid Rheingold and the warm, dark Siegfried sound vastly different to me. Go figure. My only sonic complaint is that the singers are consistently bunched mono-like at stage center. But the orchestral soundstaging is spectacularly convincing; though DG must have used many mikes, as is their wont, they did it very well. And though the engineers were as Apollonianly sparing in their use of Culshaw-like "special effects" here as elsewhere in this Ring, I did appreciate the rich thunder at the climax of the Act III Prelude.

This first American Ring on record has closed at its highest arc. Still, look to Solti, Böhm, Krauss, or Haitink for a Rheingold or a Walküre—Levine has little to offer these works. But only in singers can any of these other conductors better Levine's Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Though this last is hardly a "small detail" to those aficionados who consider operas to be concerti grossi for voice with orchestral obbligato, I am not overly sympathetic. In his Ring, Wagner constructed an entire universe in sound. In terms of dramatic vision and orchestral realization, James Levine's recreation of that world stands equal to anyone's, and nowhere more so than in this Siegfried. A triumph.—Richard Lehnert

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