Das Rheingold on the Tiber

ItalyItaly Wagner, Das Rheingold in concert form. Orchestra dell’ Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Conductor, Kirill Petrenko. Parco della Musica. Sala Santa Cecilia 23.02.2013 (JB)


Gods:Wolfgang Koch (Wotan)
Martin Tzonev (Donner)
Endrich Wottrich (Froh)
Peter Galliard (Loge)
Ulrike Helzel (Fricka)
Nina Bernsteiner (Freia)
Andrea Bönig (Erda)
Nibelungen: Andrea Schiebner (Alberich), Kurt Azesberger (Mime)
Giants: Roman Astakhov (Fasolt), Dirk Aleschus (Fafner)
RheinMaidens: Talia Or (Woglinde), Dagmar Peckova (Wellgunde), Hermine Haselböck (Flosshilde)

As long ago as 1953, Wilhelm Furtwängler conducted and recorded a live Ring cycle in Rome for RAI (the state radio / television company) which became a twentieth century landmark performance. That was with the RAI Rome orchestra and has remained a defining moment in the history of Wagner performances: from that moment onwards there was no doubt in any Italian musician’s mind about Wagner’s unique lyricism.

If you would like to know about the response of today’s leading Italian orchestral players to Wagner, under the youthful and promising Russian conductor, Kiirill Petrenko (he conducts his first Ring at Bayreuth this summer) just look at this rehearsal video which the Accademia of Santa Cecilia sent us.

The intensity of the players is evident here. But isn’t it somewhat at the expense of the lyricism? I wonder if Furtwängler’s players would have recognised it as the same music they performed. Or is this a case of give-a-little, take-a-little? My own guess is that the equation is a little more complex.

Somewhere, Renzo Piano, the hall’s architect, has to come into the reckoning. Much thought and more cash went into the making of the three concert halls that make up the Parco della Musica. Acoustic panels were installed which could be adjusted to the music being played. Critics of the system declared that some things are just too clever for their own good. And further more, no one knew how to use the system. That may have been true in the early days (2002) and suitable adjustments were then made. I must report sheer acoustic perfection in every concert I have attended in the last few years. Until now.

For this Rheingold, all the orchestral detail was there: brilliantly so, with the possible exception of the six harps which make up the gods’ rainbow bridge. The harpists failed to deliver clearly. But all this detail was so sharp-edged, so meticulously defined, that it was impossible for it to hang together as a whole. Clinical is the word which comes to mind. The score has been wheeled into the operating theatre, the operation performed with impressive care, but the surgeon couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Whether the surgeon was Kirill Petrenko or Renzo Piano or both, I remain undecided.

A friend who was hearing her first Rheingold said she found the inclusion of Wagner’s stage directions (-the waters clear and gain greater luminosity towards the top- and such like) to be immensely useful. These were the Italian surtitles, beautifully done throughout. In particular, it is the music which spells out these directions of the composer. And maestro Petrenko, it has to be said, has a rather good spell-check.

All the same, the admirable detail not hanging together as a whole remained my greatest reservation of this performance. That is not a charge that could have been laid at Furtwängler’s door.

Vocally, matters were somewhat unsatisfactory. The three RheinMaidens looked and sounded like three washerwomen on their day off, though in their final brief appearance they fared better, expressing perfectly the anxieties of their concern.

Until he got to his final scene, Wolfgang Koch seriously lacked Wotan’s authority, so it was a pleasure to hear it burst forth where the composer hands it to him so abundantly. (He will repeat the role for the whole Cycle this summer at Bayreuth.) Ulrike Helzel’s Fricka was all bark and bite with very little that could properly be called singing. Anna Russell’s pastiche of her as the nagging wife comes to mind. To be sure, there is some of this in her music but there were also missed moments of genuine tenderness over the discussion about Freia –a role which Nina Bernsteiner threw away. Worst of all was the pipsqueak, mousy voice of Andrea Bönig’s Erda, which calls for a rich, earthy contralto, not Ms Bönig’s unusually light soprano.

The two tenor parts present unusual casting problems. Neither is a Heldentenor but both call for vocal agility and unique lyricism, unusual in Wagner. Kurt Azesberger is an excellent Mime; even his barking (and there is plenty of it) was delivered musically. Peter Galliard sounded uncomfortable with the musical demands which Wagner makes on the roll of Loge. This is a part which gains more than most when in costume with action but Mr Galliard seemed unable to convey even a hint of movement and costume. Roman Astakhov was a firm-voiced Fasolt, relishing the nastiness of his role and imparting the chill the audience should feel from this character. Dirk Aleschus had the right height and weight for Fafner, though his vocal delivery was not up to his colleague’s.

The Roman myths of the Tiber are arguably freer and less anthropomorphic than the Nordic myths of the Rhine (at any rate, as they are understood by Wagner). But don’t just listen to me. The Rome audience appreciated these Nordic visitors. And if the gold of the Rhine did not sparkle as alarmingly as Wagner wanted, that is perhaps a shortcoming which any reasonable person should only expect.

Jack Buckley