There are so many great recordings of the final instalment of Wagner's Ring that any new version must have something to make it stand out from the crowd. In the case of this issue, indeed of the whole Adelaide Ring, that unique selling point is the recorded sound. This is one of the first recordings of the opera to be available on SACD (Melba have just been pipped at the post by Hartmut Haenchen's new recording on Et'Cetera) and despite the fact that it was taped live at the Adelaide Festival Theatre (in late 2004), there's very little in terms of stage noise or other problems to affect one's enjoyment of it in pure sonic terms.
The playing of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under Asher Fisch is also very fine. Although they inevitably lack some of the sheer luxuriousness of sound of say the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonics in the famous Solti or Karajan accounts, they play with considerable virtuosity and commitment in what's a very impressive account of the score (there's consistently excellent work from the trumpets, in particular). And the detail that is available when listening as an SACD is, at times, breathtaking. It offers the opportunity to marvel anew at the sheer imagination of Wagner's orchestration, picking out details that you'd be hard-pushed to hear even at a performance in the opera house. I don't know how they managed it, either, but there's very little indication that the singers themselves moved around much. In most live opera recordings the singer might turn the other way and then the microphone will lose them, here this hardly happens at all.
The question remains, then, as to whether this recording offers more than just impressive sonics. And I'm glad to be able to report that it definitely does. First of all, plaudits must go to Fisch who draws a highly fluid and convincing account of the score from the Adelaide orchestra. His is a naturally paced reading which, although not quite as incandescent as some, is refreshingly free of mannerism and artifice.
The cast is headed by Lisa Gasteen, captured three years ago in much better form as Brünnhilde than, by all accounts, at her recent reprisal of the role at Covent Garden. She might not have quite the steely edge that Nilsson brings to the role but is all the more human sounding for it. Her voice has heft and penetration but retains a distinctly womanly character; it's not the most agile instrument but she manoeuvres it with skill. And although she inevitably tires towards the end of the immolation scene, this is a vocally impressive account. She also brings out the human side of the character so that in the exchanges of the second act, she comes across as simply the wronged wife, touchingly detached from the epic narrative that's unfurling around her. Her horror at Siegfried's appearance as Gunther in the first act's final scene is similarly real.
American Heldentenor Timothy Mussard is not the most vocally attractive Siegfried, sometimes sounding strained, but gets through the role admirably. He's full of swagger in the early scenes, suitably naïve in the second act and is urgent and moving in his death scene, helped by Fisch's affecting reading. His German doesn't always sound totally idiomatic but it's a solid performance.
I was a little disappointed by Jonathan Summers' Gunther. He has a slightly generic vocal snarl for much of the opera and does little to flesh out the character. Duccio dal Monte, who sings Hagen, has an appropriately dark voice and certainly sounds evil. For me though, he also sounds almost too thug-like and his Italianate, sometimes buffo tone slightly serves to undermine the guile and scheming that make character such a threat. That said, though, there is an unsmiling darkness to his voice and delivery that still makes this a thoroughly chilling and convincing portrayal.
John Wegner, himself an experienced Wotan, makes a brief contribution as Alberich but is the only member of the cast to have his singing undermined by the actual sound; the staging at this point seems to prevent the microphones picking up his voice as well as the others'. Many of the other parts are taken by members of the State Opera of South Australia, including some names that are new to me. Elizabeth Campbell makes a good impression in her short but pivotal appearance as Waltraute, painting a moving picture of Wotan's pathetic state and portraying convincingly her character's despair. Gutrune is obviously a far less interesting character, but Joanna Cole does as good a job as any of her more illustrious predecessors in fleshing out the role even though she does sound a little out of her depth in the second act. The Rhine maidens and norns are also well represented.
One could easily get bogged down in lengthy comparisons with illustrious singers and conductors of the past and it's probably fair to say there's no single performance on this present version that comes close to eclipsing performances the great Wagnerians of yesteryear. Solti's famous Götterdämmerung, probably the most universally successful recording in his Ring cycle, is in no danger of being dislodged from its perch as the standard, 'library' choice for this work. This is still, though, a very fine achievement and also seems to capture some of the pioneering spirit of Solti's own recording of the cycle. In a time when recordings of opera are becoming increasingly thin on the ground it is particularly encouraging to have a new Ring from Australia, on an independent Australian label, generously supported by that country's government. This is also an enjoyable performance that is recommendable for more than its exemplary sound quality.
One slight reservation regards a couple of editorial choices in the luxuriously presented booklet. First is the decision to publish a singing translation which, inevitably, loses much of the sense of Wagner's original. Second is the fact that Wagner's detailed and pivotal stage directions have been ommitted. Both these decisions will make it more difficult for anyone getting to know the work through this recording to follow the action.
By Hugo Shirley