Recording of March 1992: Wagner: Siegfried

WAGNER: Siegfried
Siegfried Jerusalem, Siegfried; James Morris, Wanderer; Peter Haage, Mime; Eva Martón, Brünnhilde; Theo Adam, Alberich; Jadwiga Rappé, Erda; Kurt Rydl, Fafner; Kiri Te Kanawa, Forest Bird; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink
EMI CDS 7 54290 2 (4 CDs only). Wolfram Graul, prod.; Martin Wöhr, eng. DDD. TT: 3:49:25

Das Rheingold is not even properly part of Der Ring des Nibelungen, which Wagner called a trilogy; it's a brief, concise prologue from which no one expects a great deal of passion or emotional catharsis. After all, there's not a single human being in the entire opera. Opera-goers do expect a great deal of Siegfried, however, and are usually disappointed. At four hours, it's full-blown Wagner, and is usually named not only as everyone's least favorite Ring opera, but everyone's least favorite opera, even by otherwise perfect Wagnerites. It's not hard to see why: With the exception of the Forest Bird's four tiny songs, there are no female voices for the first 3 hours, and it's notoriously difficult to make the young Siegfried believable or sympathetic. As actors say, "the lines give you nothing."

However, for most of my late teens, Siegfried was my favorite Ring opera. It contains some of Wagner's most consistently interesting scoring; in fact, Siegfried served as my primer in learning the instruments of the orchestra, particularly the viola, whose orchestral role, even though I'd played in school ensembles for years, had until then remained a mystery to me. In Siegfried Wagner seemed to have almost single-handedly invented the viola as a romantic voice of dark forboding, exponentially expanding the instrument's orchestral language; page after page of the score read like excerpts from some vast, dark, High Romantic Concerto Grosso for the viola section—with vocal obbligato. Still, Siegfried remains, for most, the most difficult opera for which to acquire a taste.

But in his third installment of EMI's new studio Ring cycle, Bernard Haitink conducts a Siegfried for people who hate Siegfried. This recording works in every way—dramatically, musically, sonically—as Haitink continues to confound all expectations with his exciting, straightforward, musical storytelling. Haitink's conducting has generally been more respected than loved, more praised than listened to; words like "correct," "careful," "reverent," and "refined" appear far more often in reviews of his recordings than do such adjectives as "heartfelt," "powerful," "passionate," or even "warm." The contrast of EMI's cycle to the other Ring-in-progress, Levine's for DG, is thus all the more puzzling: How could Levine, the Metropolitan Opera's dynamic, ambitious man of the theater, consistently turn in such turgid, lackluster conducting as in his Rheingold and Walküre? (I emphatically except his conducting in the recently released Götterdämmerung, reviewed last month.) Perhaps Haitink, relatively unused to depending on the added excitement of a stage filled with sumptuous sets, dancing lights, and moving singers, instinctively knows that what doesn't get on tape doesn't count.

Regardless, this Siegfried, only the fourth studio recording ever made of the opera, is a triumph, right up there with the justly legendary recordings of the first, Solti's, and the live Bayreuth recordings of Böhm and Krauss (my other favorites). Haitink never overemphasizes here (no surprise), but neither does he ever hold back (surprise!), always rising to the occasion with orchestral foils exactly supportive, perfectly contrapuntal to the dramatic action, whether staged or implied. And I always appreciate a conductor who can show me new things in a score I thought I knew: in Siegfried's Act I Forging Song, Haitink brings out a foreboding, previously unheard (by me) dissonance in the horns just before "Hoho! Hoho!"; Act II's "Forest Murmurs" is the tenderest I've heard; and the familiar lullaby-like music of Act III's "Ewig war ich," excerpted in the Siegfried Idyll, is the most affecting reading I know, slower even than Goodall and Gould, yet far more of a caress.

But Haitink is equally capable of carrying a big Wagnerian stick and speaking not softly at all, painting with a broad brush without missing a single detail. The preludes of all three acts are marvels of atmospheric scene-setting here, particularly that of III: Haitink makes this monumentally restless music heavy, yet still it moves (and yes, producer Wolfram Graul, I do appreciate all that beautifully recorded thunder and wind!).

Unlike so many Ring recordings—Karajan's (DG, not Hunt/Memories), Janowski's, Levine's—there is never any doubt that Haitink consistently holds dramatic integrity higher than musical, though never at the latter's expense; a delicate and difficult balance. The characters are always (with one exception; see below) fully rounded in the pit and on the stage, the singers creating living, breathing characters with complex motives and believably rich inner lives. All of this makes the three-fourths of Haitink's Ring so far released more vital, more consistently exciting—more fun—than any studio or stage cycle since the very first—Solti's. And nowhere is "fun" more important in the Ring than in Siegfried, the ultimate "boys' opera," which so often ends up a very unfunny unintended parody of Never Never Land ruled by a middle-aged, overweight, gallumphing, loudmouth braggart Pan.

Perhaps the most telling difference between the Haitink and Levine Rings is that, when listening to the latter, I'm always aware that I'm hearing singers and players, that I'm being "performed at." Then I put on the Haitink: a sonic window opens onto a magical universe of real beings meeting real challenges, triumphs, tests, and tragedies; a world that has been going on long before I loaded the first disc into my player, and will continue long after I remove the last. I can't imagine wanting any more from a recording.

The singing satisfies almost as uniformly as the conducting. Over the past 20 or so years Siegfried Jerusalem has, from not very impressive beginnings, grown into a Wagner singer of formidable skill, stamina, and stature. This all-but Heldentenor is intelligent, strong-voiced, a good actor at ease on stage, has almost no trouble with notes or volume, and seems—as he did in Levine's televised Ring—to enjoy himself immensely as Siegfried. Unlike the formidable Windgassen, one of the most brilliant singers ever to assume the role, Jerusalem is never in the position of having to sing around his own voice—it's become an instrument as polished and strong as Nothung itself. Only in a very few moments is there even a hint of strain; otherwise, Jerusalem fairly tears into the role like a teenaged Errol Flynn, calling on Youth's endless reserves and easy relaxation. And his attempts to mimic the Forest Bird on the "stupid reed" comprise the funniest—and not at all precious—acting of the scene I've ever heard. It sounds as if Jerusalem's actually playing that sour English horn.

But in Act I (though not in II or III) Jerusalem shares with Peter Haage's Mime a tendency toward a rote observance of the score's written rhythms. This works from time to time for dramatic effect, but all the time amounts to sing-song. I prefer a looser, more creative way with a phrase.

But not James Morris's way! For all his beauty of voice and presence of mind and heart, Morris goes to the opposite extreme. Again, as in Levine's PBS Ring, Morris's Wanderer is almost too relaxed, at the expense of dramatic tension or (more to the point) emotional investment. His Act I scene with Mime is all mellow and avuncular, and while those elements are certainly germane, Wotan's vital interest is missing. However, when compared with his stiff, youthful, grasping Rheingold Wotan, it's clear that Morris has a firm grasp on the evolution and growth of Wotan—by far the most complex character in all of opera. And, by Act III, Morris has awakened sufficiently to rouse not only the sleeping Erda but any drowsy listeners as well, and his first and last meeting—triumphant, tragic, Oedipal—with his rowdy, unwitting grandson Siegfried, is thoroughly, deeply felt.

Peter Haage's Mime is so good, so naturally right in this large but thankless role, that I barely noticed him as singer or actor; he strikes a perfect balance between the hilarious if over-the-top buffoonery of a Gerhard Stolze (Solti) and the merely excellent singing of the too-polite Peter Schreier (Janowski). It was wonderful to hear a fully fleshed-out person actually hitting all the notes, and the Mime/Alberich confrontation in Act II raises blisters.

In the four smaller roles, Jadwiga Rappé is a strong if wobbly Erda, a classic clotted-cream contralto; Kurt Rydl's Fafner is technically perfect if somewhat emotionally distant; and Theo Adam continues his late-career exploration of Alberich's noble desperation with more musicality and no less angst than he did in Haitink's Rheingold. But Kiri Te Kanawa as the Forest Bird (!!) is a delight as unalloyed as it is unexpected—by a long shot, she's the best I've heard in the part. Wagner's/Haitink's settings of the Forest Bird's four brief Act II "songs" are absolutely magical, enchanting, breathtaking, and Te Kanawa's sheer beauty and freshness of tone are, for once, in the service of a lively interpretation (though I don't think even the sharpest-eared native speaker could unravel her German).

But just as there are no perfect Ring cycles, there is no perfect Siegfried—the problem here is Eva Martón's Brünnhilde. Her rich voice is immense, but so is her vibrato/wobble; she seems to expend most of her energy in simply controlling her pitch and belting out the notes. By the end of Act III, I was much less aware of her success at accurate vocal production than of the effort she had to make to do so—and I'd rather be aware of neither. Her Brünnhilde seemed more an exhausting exercise in vocal gymnastics than a living, breathing dramatic character who just happens to be speaking through an opera singer. Needless to say, Martón had little energy left over for characterization. Still, there were moments: a tender "Ewig war ich," and an almost pathetically vulnerable "Ich bin ohne Schutz und Schirm." I don't want to overstate my cricitisms: after all, Brünnhilde sings for less than 30 of this Siegfried's 230 minutes. Still, Martón remains the only flaw in my otherwise rabid anticipation of the Fall release of Haitink's Götterdämmerung.

Helping conductor, singers, and orchestra alike is a wonderfully supportive recording style. At no point did I not believe that I was hearing a simply, accurately miked re-creation of a mature, seasoned orchestra and singers in a warm, uncavernous, perfectly sized venue—Munich's Herkulesaal, the BRSO's home. This is all exactly opposite of the Levine Ring's sonic frigidity. Once again, the marvelous clarity and spaciousness that characterized the Haitink/EMI Rheingold and Walküre are fully in evidence; as I said in my review of the former, the music seems to rise like a golden mist through the orchestra rather than from it. Still, the orchestra retains its integrity: there is little or no spotmiking; things don't jump out at you, yet there is as much detailed "soundstaging" as you'd ever want. An utterly believable recording, in terms of both musicality and accuracy—except for a horrendous edit at the climax of Act I, just before Siegfried sings "So schneidet Siegfrieds Schwert!" It's the only glitch in an otherwise stellar sonic production, one whose sheer sound alone made me feel warm and good for four straight hours.

Now, Mr. Haitink—to Götterdämmerung, and glory!—Richard Lehnert