Wagner Notes

Ako Imamura
January 2021

This radio broadcast of the Paris Ring took place in four installments: December 26, 28, 30, 2020, and January 2, 2021. The documentary (in French) followed the recording process with excerpts of music interspersed with interviews with musicians and singers.

The announcement of a new production of the Ring cycle at Opéra National de Paris was greeted with much excitement in early 2019. Tickets went on sale shortly afterwards, and Wagnerians worldwide rushed to secure their seats at the Bastille for one of the two cycles planned for November/December 2020. Some were apprehensive of the director Calixto Bieito, but most chose to focus on the occasion as their music director Philippe Jordan’s last major assignment before he assumes the same position at Vienna State Opera. (He conducted the Met’s 2019 Ring cycles.) The cast featured many of today’s reigning Wagner singers, including veterans from Bayreuth and elsewhere. What better excuse to spend a week in Paris?

Then the pandemic hit the world in 2020. Rumors of cancellations began to circulate, but a surprising announcement was made in July: a concert performance of the Ring would take place as scheduled. Apparently the idea of cancellation was contested by Jordan himself, who insisted that the Ring be performed. In the meantime, the corona crisis showed little sign of abatement as many Europeans took their annual summer holidays. An email came in early October stating that, while the concert performance of the Ring would still take place as scheduled, given the limited number of audience members who could be admitted, it was necessary to refund the existing tickets before one could repurchase (a smaller number of) tickets. Many of us from outside France had abandoned the trip to Paris by that time, but it was bittersweet to receive a refund. This alternative arrangement also came to naught, as Paris Opéra announced at the end of October that due to the government’s decision to close down theaters and other public establishments to combat the pandemic, even concert performances were not possible. But soon after, a new decision was made: to record the Ring without audience, and broadcast it a month later via internet radio. There were a couple of last minute cast cancellations in November, namely the Wälsung twins, but worthy replacements were soon found, and the recording of the Ring proceeded under the most challenging of circumstances.

As the world hunkered down to a solitary holiday season, the broadcast of the Paris Ring took place in four installments: December 26, 28, 30, 2020, and January 2, 2021. I do not believe I was the only one whose heart was warmed by what it was yearning for during all these months of isolation without live music. Jordan’s conducting was fresh, lithe, and transparent. He was keen to bring out fine textures and colors in the score, with each instrument weaving leitmotifs in a continuous stream of music. Jordan’s tempi seemed very fast, especially early on: he finished Das Rheingold in less than two and a half hours, and the first act of Die Walküre took just about sixty minutes. However, he knew when to take a long pause and where to caress long lines of music. The orchestral endings of Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung were splendid. As Martina Serafin, who sang Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, said eloquently in an excellent companion documentary, “Une odeseé du Ring,” the ending of Götterdämmerung was “full of hope.” Instead of the usual heavy brass proclaiming the demise of the gods and their Valhalla, we heard the glorious flowing of the river Rhein, the theme earlier heard in the splendid singing of Lise Davidsen’s Sieglinde in Die Walküre, Act III, played with delicate beauty.

Philippe Jordan at the Paris Opéra Bastille, January 2019, taken by Ako Imamura.

The documentary (in French) followed the recording process with excerpts of music interspersed with interviews with musicians and singers. It was clear that, despite the fear of COVID infections, everyone involved was there because he/she wanted to make music together. Jordan showed consideration for everyone involved, including the backstage crew who moved equipment. He thanked the musicians for their hard work and dedication and was presented with a bouquet of flowers by the concertmaster as a farewell gift.  There was also an informative interview of Jordan by the new director of Opéra de Paris, Alexander Neef, in which Jordan explained his apprenticeship with many Wagner conductors, and his professional coming of age in Zurich. He explained his fast tempi, stating that he feels that the Ring should be performed as a series of “dialogues.”  One may agree or disagree with this interpretation, but the attempt to reach out to the audience, through this interview as well as the documentary, was commendable.  The Opéra house and its staff went out of their way to embrace the audience worldwide.

It is not easy to comment on individual singers, as the balance and mix of sound were not always optimal.  Suffice it to say that all of the singers, including the chorus (who sang facing the stage during Hagen’s call scene in Götterdämmerung as they were scattered in the auditorium for social distancing), did a superb job of making Wagner’s music come alive, with clear German diction as well as vocal color and nuance.  Iain Paterson as Wotan/Wanderer exceeded expectations with his committed and heroic singing.  Ekaterina Gubanova’s Fricka was well schooled and sung, but I would have preferred more variety of color and phrasing to express Fricka’s frustration and manipulation. Stuart Skelton, a late replacement for Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund, showed his vast experience with the tragic hero and with memorable highlights including “Wälse, Wälse!” and the high note concluding Die Walküre, Act I.

Other notable male singers included Jochen Schmeckenbecher, who sang Alberich as a noble soul led astray by greed for power, Norbert Ernst as a veteran Loge, and the two giants: Wilhelm Schwinghammer’s yearning Fasolt and Dimitry Ivashchenko, a versatile singer luxury cast as Fafner. Günther Groissböck’s Hunding was another star turn, his deep and velvety voice making us regret that the role was so short. It is a shame that the world must wait for his Wotan/Wanderer for several more months, as his role debut in Bayreuth in 2020 had to be postponed. Gerhard Siegel’s splendid tenor makes every hearing of his Mime a special and pleasurable occasion. Ain Anger as Hagen showed off his marvelous bass (perhaps another possible Wotan/Wanderer) as he dominated his scenes with malevolent snarls. Johannes Martin Kränzle as Gunther added gravitas to this often overlooked but sympathetic character with his nuanced singing.

Andreas Schafer, one of a handful of tenors who can assay the role of Siegfried today (another such tenor, Stephen Gould, said Siegfried is far more challenging than Tristan), excelled in tender moments: in Siegfried, Act II and in Siegfried’s farewell to Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung, Act III when his tendency to sing forte was held in check. Two sopranos split the role of Brünnhilde. Martina Serafin in Die Walküre brought warmth and sympathy to the role with her rich middle register, although she sometimes sounded stressed in her high notes. Ricarda Merbeth as Brünnhilde in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung sounded shrill at times, but she sang on pitch with power and understanding of the character. Her immolation scene was deeply moving.

Two female singers were absolute revelations, adding excitement to the already strong cast of singers. Wiebke Lehmkuhl as Erda in Das Rheingold has a dark yet clear and profound voice:  everything you would ever want for this mysterious earth goddess. The Wanderer/Erda scene in Siegfried, Act III was a masterpiece. The young Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen replaced Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde. While Davidsen had made a role debut as Sieglinde at Deutsche Oper Berlin in the fall, only a few lucky German audience members could experience her Sieglinde live, under restricted conditions. Already hailed as the next great Wagnerian soprano, her luxurious voice poured forth with ease and power, and with the overwhelming immediacy of a young woman’s perplexity and sincerity. Sieglinde’s most important phrase, “O hehrstes Wunder!” rang out with “hope” that is to come at the end of the cycle.  And we salute and join all the musicians and singers who dare to hope for a brighter future, as Richard Wagner promised almost 150 years ago.

© Wagner Notes, January 2021, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.

Ako Imamura,

a Society member and reviewer for Bachtrack, has continued her Wagner-oriented travel throughout European cities.