The SACD Dilemma
Lawrence Kinsley | Lakeland, FL USA | 12/24/2007
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Hartmut Haenchen and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra have presented us with what I believe is the first Das Rheingold recorded in SACD, made from an all-in-all well received theatrical performance presented in Amsterdam last year of that opera. While giving any of Wagner's great works a sonic boost with the SACD system is a definite plus, this recording feature points out a general problem in contemporary opera recordings I would like to touch on.
The Haenchen set points up the current trend in opera CDs: live recordings of staged operas that are understandably presented for full theatrical, rather than just aural, affect. Thus the work represented here is designed to satisfy all of the demands of the opera house - sets, costumes, lighting, orchestral and soloist placement and level, acting, movement, etc. Unfortunately, unlike the studio recordings of a previous generation, the capturing of this work in SACD becomes thereby somewhat of a contradiction in terms: a technical medium which concentrates on the aural characteristics of a work is used on a staged event specifically designed to make a much wider range of impressions on a theatrical audience.
The result of this current trend is, again, the rather unfortunate dichotomy of recording works in splendid contemporary sound that are not created specifically for the aural process itself. The result to my mind is a detraction (above and beyond audience and stage noises, which this recording to its credit keeps to a relative minimum) from the ability to explore the music exclusively, from inside as it were, in favor of a presentation much more suited to DVD than SACD. The result, especially debilitating in Wagner, is a certain detached thinness of overall sound presentation, a loss of a certain dramatic aural intensity as opposed to a melding of both sonic and visual drama as is presented to the theatrical audience. The singers and orchestra, in other words, tend to sing and play to that audience rather than to the disc, with the result that the sound alone can become somewhat diffuse and distant, and even more so as caught by the SACD process.
I am in no way here disapproving of the capturing of contemporary performances of Das Rheingold or any other opera, by Wagner or anyone else. But again, it seems that the DVD medium is the reasonable one to use here, and not the strictly sonic presentation of SACD. The latter would seem to call for studio recordings, where the principle aim is one of refining and dramatizing the sonic qualities of the work as against the other aspects of operatic presentation. One has only to listen to Solti's great, nearly 5 decades old studio presentation of Rheingold and compare it to this newest offering to hear the obvious difference in intense aural dramatization, in an attempt to get inside the music, as it were, instead of having to spread the effort over the full range of theatrical staging. Unfortunately, of course, the current economic state of classical music, especially in the field of opera, no longer allows for such a recording venue. Where this becomes particularly unfortunate is in the recognition that, just when we have the ability to so grandly capture the aural force of Wagner's music, we no longer have the setting available to fully deliver it.
I won't comment on the particular work in question here, beyond saying that what we have is pretty much an adequate presentation with adequate singers not one of whom really stands out as against the celebrated Wagner performers of past decades. There is a rather strange discussion in the accompanying booklet (no libretto is included) of tempo in Wagner's works in general and Das Rheingold specifically, strange because the conclusion is that previous conductors have fallen into the habit of slowing Wagner down, something this performance fixes. Yet when the time of this recording (approximately 2 hours and 25 minutes) is compared to Solti's they're almost exactly the same! The sonic quality of the work as it is is of course excellent, though one would have preferred a bit more performance punch in a few of the scenes, such as a more robust rendition of Donner's seminal hammer strike instead of what in this case was anemic to the point of implying that that that particular God was saddled with a tin instrument!
In short, recommended mainly for those wanting to hear a disc set of this particular stage presentation of Das Rheingold, SACD or not. Hopefully, at least, if studio recordings are no longer economically viable in the operatic realm, then some of the great earlier Wagner studio offerings - like the Solti - can be given an SACD remastering to bring out the final measure of what older but more aurally aimed performances were capable of.
Great opening of an epic Ring!
Erik O'Beeky | Ireland | 07/18/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This Rheingold is part of the internationally acclaimed "Amsterdam Ring". The Amsterdam Ring was set out to be historic, being the first complete performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen in The Netherlands. It first saw the light in 1998 at the Holland Festival, receiving highest praise from opera-goers and critics alike. In 2005 the Ring was successfully reprised, this time with a better overall cast and the best Wagner orchestra of The Netherlands in the pit.
With this Ring the Nederlandse Opera definitively claimed its place as one of the leading Wagner stages of Europe.
The singers are generally very good in this recording. Albert Dohmen (Wotan) has a strong, steel-like voice that is perhaps better suited to the maturing Wotan. Werner van Mechelen (Alberich) has an evil ring to his voice, ideally suited to the role. Just listen to his "Habt acht!" in the third scene and you know what I mean. Graham Clark is good as Mime here, although it doesn't quite match up to his inspired performances in the later parts of the Amsterdam Ring. Anne Gjevang (Erda) has a very distinct, deep voice which matches her mysterious character nicely, although her voice may not be the most beautiful. For me, the real discovery of this performance was Doris Soffel as Fricka. Her voice is strong, beautiful and has so much expression, just perfect.
The Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra was in the orchestra pit for this performance. This orchestra has grown the last decade into being the best Wagner orchestra of The Netherlands, and in this recording you can hear why. They play technically very good, but above all inspired, with a clear and fresh sound. There has always been something to the brass of the Netherlands Philharmonic that I haven't heard in any other orchestra around the world, what an amazing sound.
But the real hero of this performance is conductor Hartmut Haenchen. This underrated conductor really drives the performance from beginning to end. He takes a more "light-weight" approach to Wagner than is common, but the music soars and catches fire when needed. As a previous reviewer mentioned, Haenchen is convinced that the tempi of performances of Wagner's work have become too slow over the last decade, and so in this recording he takes his tempi generally fast. All-in-all an inspired performance!"