Joint Recording of February 1992: Wagner: Götterdämmerung

WAGNER: Götterdämmerung
Hildegard Behrens, Brünnhilde; Reiner Goldberg, Siegfried; Matti Salminen, Hagen; Bernd Weikl, Gunther; Cheryl Studer, Gutrune; Hanna Schwarz, Waltraute; Ekkehard Wlaschiha, Alberich; Helga Dernesch, First Norn; Tatiana Troyanos, Second Norn; Andrea Gruber, Third Norn; Hei-Kyung Hong, Woglinde; Diane Kesling, Wellgunde; Meredith Parsons, Flosshilde; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus; James Levine
DG 429 385-2 (4 CDs only). Cord Garben, prod.; Wolfgang Mitlehner, eng. DDD. TT: 4:29:53

The story of Wagner's scripting-in-reverse of the first three Ring operas—Siegfried as prologue to Götterdämmerung, Die Walküre as prologue to Siegfried, and Das Rheingold as prologue to all three, the music then composed from front to back—is common operatic lore. But Siegfried's Death—the original title of Götterdämmerung, or The Twilight of the Gods—remained the story Wagner always most wanted to tell. By the time Wagner began composing Götterdämmerung, he'd been consciously preparing for that moment for over 20 years. Götterdämmerung is the single part of Der Ring des Nibelungen that we know, without a doubt, Wagner wanted to write all along.

This certainty, Wagner's all-consuming appetite for the task, can be heard everywhere in the music. There's an inevitable urgency to Götterdämmerung that the three other Ring operas lack, a headlong surrender to passion, fate, death, and transformation that never flags, from the very first chord to the final diminuendo 41/2 hours later. Those fortunate enough to have experienced an entire Ring cycle in the theater know the special feeling of sitting down for the Prologue and first act of Götterdämmerung: it's a quiet, ineluctable excitement, a certainty that, at least for this evening, everything is going to be hashed out, accounts settled, scores evened, slates wiped clean—almost regardless of the level of performance skills about to be revealed. This feeling is, in my experience, unique in the world of art, and constitutes Wagner's special triumph. He wished more than anything to transcend the jaded ennui of just another evening at the opera; and despite the best and worst intentions of musicians, critics, and audiences alike, performances of Götterdämmerung succeed in just this way far more often than not.

As do recordings. Of the 13 complete recordings of Götterdämmerung on my shelves, none are actually bad. I can't say the same for the Siegfrieds, certainly not for the Rheingolds. Partly this is because performances—let alone recordings—of Götterdämmerung are not undertaken lightly. The illusion is that the work "conducts itself" with far less effort than the fast-forward exposition of Rheingold, the hammering-out of a musical/dramatic language in Walküre (whose composition gave Wagner the most trouble), and the fitful, stop-start, eventually abandoned orchestral busy-work of Siegfried's first two acts. The reality, of course, is that only a fool would attempt to stage or record this most powerful (some might say overpowering) of operas without a great deal of experience, knowledge, insight, musical wisdom, and money. Even the closest we've come to such a recording, Marek Janowski's on Eurodisc, doesn't actually do anything wrong; it simply does so little right.

After James Levine's phlegmatic, turgid, dispassionate, seemingly endless recordings of Walküre and Rheingold (reviewed in Vol.12 No.7 and Vol.13 No.9, respectively), I looked forward to Götterdämmerung with what can only be described as a sense of grim duty, ready to shut my eyes, grit my teeth, and think of Bayreuth.

Well, what a surprise. If Götterdämmerung is the real story, the single music-drama for which Wagner was preparing himself—and his audience—all along, then it seems that Götterdämmerung is, so far, the only installment of the Ring that Levine ever truly wanted to conduct, or in which he had anything to say.

Levine does almost everything right here, and keeps on doing it until the final chord. Everything I missed in his two previous Ring installments can be found on these four well-packed CDs in opulent bounty: passion; expansive savoring of the score; the undeniable thrust of a never-flagging dramatic through-line; what seems a full and deeply felt understanding of the leading motives and their roles as soloists in the Greek chorus that is the Wagner orchestra; and revelation after revelation of previously hidden treasures. From a score I've listened to and studied all of my life, Levine has ferretted out wonderful things: here, a caressing ppp cymbal roll I'd never heard before; there, a dramatically etched string figure; and perhaps most important—and something that virtually all conductors of this work gloss over—Brünnhilde's final entrance in Act III, the theme of The Twilight of the Gods falling from the high strings as if to drape her shoulders in a waterfall of light. Levine takes all the time in the world for this moment, in which Wagner tells us musically that this once-demigoddess, so recently all-too human, has now taken upon herself a responsibility and a power that transcend that of even the gods themselves. Here, with less than 30 minutes of the Ring's 15 hours to go, and in a mere two bars, Wagner does the seemingly impossible: he raises everything to a level of significance, portent, and spiritual inevitability higher than anything that has gone before. This is one of the most powerful moment in all of opera, and almost no one knows it exists. James Levine does.

Siegfried's funeral music is grand and noble, and following Brünnhilde's leap onto his pyre, Levine's and Wagner's scene-painting of the dénouement—the Rhine-flood, the destruction of the Gibichung Hall, the firing of Valhalla, and the Rhinemaidens' recapture and purification of the Ring—all unfolded before my mind's eye as it hasn't since I was a lonely, terminally romantic teenager just newly introduced to things darkly Northern. Wonderful work; the theme of Redemption Through Love truly redeems here.

So, yes, already this recording is highly recommended, and I haven't even talked about the singing. Just as well, as there's not much of it. The principals are simply awful: Our Siegfried, Reiner Goldberg, sings as if he's learned the part phonetically in a foreign language—and he's a native German speaker. I've never heard a less emotionally involved, less intelligently sung, more wooden performance. You know you're in trouble when Siegfried is routinely upstaged by the usually mousy Gutrune—not to mention the far stronger characters of Gunther, Hagen, and Brünnhilde. Siegfried winds up as a disinterested bystander to his own story. For those who've read Stephen Fay's account of the 1982–83 Georg Solti/Peter Hall Bayreuth Ring—for which a stubbornly unteachable Goldberg sulked through months of painstaking coaching for his first-ever Siegfried, only to be dropped from the cast by a despairing Solti after the first dress rehearsal—this may come as no surprise. But even the voice itself is much deteriorated; Goldberg squalls and bleats, and his vibrato needs a chokechain. I'd hoped this recording might mark the merciful end of a short, misguided career, until I thought of Levine's final installment—next Fall's Siegfried. God help us.

On the other hand, Hildegard Behrens's Brünnhilde has all the heart you'd ever want—this is one passionate woman. Trouble is, her voice is so far past its prime she should probably never sing the role again: watery, wobbly, out of control, gasping, with a disturbing amount of truly ugly tone. Her justifiably respected acting talents cut little ice in the recording studio—histrionic swoops and dives can cover only so much. What Behrens does have going for her—rare in a Brünnhilde—is remarkably even tonal color from the very top to the very bottom of her range; there seem to be no "breaks" in the voice, no "register shifts" to remind the listener that he's listening to a goddamn opera singer. But it's just not enough.

As Hagen, Matti Salminen has matured remarkably since his embarrassing outing for Janowski ten years ago. He still has a (much-tamed) tendency to hoot and strain, but otherwise lets fly with all the darkly intelligent power of a Gottlob Frick. Bernd Weikl is a standard-issue Gunther, properly uptight and confused, but never gets inside Gunther as he should. (Since Fischer-Dieskau, who has?) Still, the Act II Revenge Trio works a treat. I don't think I've heard this passage sung or conducted this clearly before—three individuals lost in three separate worlds converging at one bloody focus: the point of Hagen's spear entering Siegfried's unguarded back. Hanna Schwarz's Waltraute is perfectly serviceable, but I couldn't stop thinking of Christa Ludwig. And as Gutrune, Cheryl Studer is as fine a singer as this thankless role has ever had. Period. She does the impossible, making Gutrune a strong, interesting woman. How? She sings the role as if Gutrune actually cares about her own life; almost inevitably, it can't help but matter to us as well. Another bit of excellence from this fine, fine young singer.

The Rhinemaidens are the same lush trio that graced Rheingold. Their voices are unimpeachably sleek and sweet, but their Act III music is the only time that Levine's pulse falters, lacking the requisite sensuousness, fluidity, and fun. Not so for the Norns' Prologue scene, where these three strong singers, counting among them women who have sung, on record, Isolde for Karajan (Dernesch) and principal Strauss roles for Böhm (Troyanos), hold forth with the stately grandeur that this scene has always required but so seldom receives. (I admit it: I'm in that tiny minority whose two favorite Ring scenes are Wotan's Narration in Act II of Walküre and this same Norn scene.)

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra remains the absolute miracle it was revealed to be in Rheingold and Walküre. They are now a first-rate, world-class orchestra with powerful brass and disciplined strings. And the Met Chorus, invariably a pack of happily hammy but sloppily singing supernumeraries when I heard them often a quarter century ago, now channel their gusto through throats disciplined and strengthened by the same magic that has resurrected their brothers and sisters in the pit. They turn in one of the most rousing "Calling of the Vassals" scenes I've ever heard.

The orchestra is still miked just a tad distantly for me, but the sound is considerably less frigid than the other two operas so far released (though I doubt the Manhattan Center will ever be a "warm" venue until they unroll the rug.) Soundstaging is remarkably convincing for the number of mikes I'm sure DG used, and I was happy to hear real thunder at Waltraute's approach in Act I.

I've gone on at Wagnerian length as usual, but Levine's Götterdämmerung demands praise as strongly as his Rheingold and Walküre deserved pans—it's that much better a story that much better told. With the Solti and Böhm recordings, and singing notwithstanding, definitely one of the top three to consider.—Richard Lehnert