Wagner: Das Rheingold

LABELS: Naxos Historical
WORKS: Das Rheingold
PERFORMER: Metropolitan Opera/Artur Bodanzky
CATALOGUE NO: 8.110047-48 AAD mono
The Metropolitan Opera in New York was a leading venue for the performance of Wagner’s works beginning in its second season (1884-5). Until 1891, performers included many with whom Wagner himself had worked. From the mid-1890s to 1917 the Met became in effect a laboratory for developing a performance style that would realise the musical potential of Wagner’s works, as singers who favoured the vivid declamation promoted by Cosima Wagner at Bayreuth alternated with those who offered different kinds of vocal opulence and mastery. Each approach influenced the others, so that the mid-Twenties inaugurated a quarter-century during which great casts achieved an ideal synthesis of song and declamation.


Several recent releases document this history. A window on to 19th-century Wagner style comes in the sole surviving recording of Luise Reuss-Belce, a Flower Maiden at the premiere of Parsifal in 1882 and later a mainstay of Cosima Wagner’s Bayreuth. As compensations for her less than stellar voice, a brief snippet from Ortrud’s Act II outburst in Lohengrin from a 1903 Mapleson cylinder reveals vividly resourceful declamation and imaginative elucidation of the dramatic potential of the music. This recording appears in Vol. 2 of Marston’s THE COMPLETE JOHANNA GADSKI along with Gadski’s other Mapleson cylinders and her Victor recordings from 1910-17. Gadski was one of the Met’s leading dramatic sopranos for nearly two decades and recorded more Wagner excerpts than any other soprano of the acoustic era. Her virtues include soaring intensity in big moments and beautifully floated tones in quiet passages, but her intonation, sound, and technique can be unwieldy, her specificity of diction less than ideal. Gadski’s Met colleagues included the Dutch tenor JACQUES URLUS (whose Edison recordings appear on Marston) and the American baritone CLARENCE WHITEHILL (Claremont has assembled a representative selection of his recordings). Both are gentlemanly singers who bring line and sensitivity to Wagner while lacking the range of temperament and vocal force that would characterise a later generation. Still, Urlus’s Lohengrin and WhitehillWotan and Amfortas are honourable achievements.

When Wagner performance resumed after the Great War, such singers as ELISABETH RETHBERG and FRIEDRICH SCHORR soon emerged to move Wagner-singing to a new level of accomplishment. Rethberg (whose Elisabeth and Elsa are sampled on a Nimbus recital) is a marvel with her clear, effortlessly produced, vibrant, precisely gradated sound and rhythmically alert singing. At his best Schorr added a soft-grained sensitivity to that mixture. His Wotan is enshrined in broadcast recordings from 1937 (RHEINGOLD) and 1941 (WALKÜRE), where his authority is palpable despite a worn voice – it’s unfortunate that the Walküre Act II monologue is severely cut. The 1941 performance is famous as the surprise Met debut of Astrid Varnay, then 22, as Sieglinde. She achieves an assured portrayal despite her inexperience, and the cast also includes Lauritz Melchior, Kerstin Thorborg, Helen Traubel and Alexander Kipnis, a line-up that collectively offers vocal calibre and dramatic immediacy quite unmatchable today. The Met’s reigning Wagner soprano of this era was KIRSTEN FLAGSTAD, whose sovereign ease added a dimension of grandeur to the tempestuousness of Wagnerian expression. Simax’s single-disc, chronologically arranged survey of her career contains many beauties, but some of the centrepieces of Flagstad’s repertoire turn up in less than exemplary sound or performances.


As Rudolf Bing’s regime began and the prior generation of Wagner singers gradually dwindled, Wagner became a less prominent and less distinguished part of the Met’s repertoire for several decades. Gebhardt’s release of the broadcast RING from 1951 thus represents a swansong for an era. There are some memorable portrayals – Hans Hotter offers a carefully judged Rheingold Wotan, Flagstad is at her mature best as Brünnhilde in Walküre (Traubel takes over the role in the later operas), Herbert Janssen turns in a classic Gunther and Blanche Thebom is an impressively focused Fricka in Walküre, but Set Svanholm’s Siegfried epitomises the dilemma facing the coming crop of Wagner singers. He divorces characterisation and singing in a way the earlier generation never did, insisting on an aggressive, swaggering, chuckling demeanour as Siegfried that over-taxes his vocal equipment and technique (a more general later tendency would be to sacrifice characterisation to singing). Fritz Stiedry is an efficient conductor who shies away from the grand moments, the performance is heavily cut, pitch discrepancies affect the timbre of some voices, the source material contains occasional shudders, beeps and dropouts, and the prompter is frequently audible. In sum, this set is a collectors’ item that falls well short of meriting a general recommendation.