René Pape: Gods, Kings & Demons

Staatskapelle Dresden/Sebastian Weigle (DG 001223902)

14 November 2008 3 stars

PapePerhaps more than is the case with any other voice type, the repertoire included on solo recital discs by basses tends to overlap substantially with those by other artists.

Virtually all will offer the arias from Gounod's Faust for instance, and all seem to pull from the same relatively limited pool of Verdi and Wagner excerpts, plus Boito's Mefistofele and Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. Some effort has been made with this disc to differentiate it in this regard, by including, as well as the above, numbers from Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust, Rubinstein's Demon and Dvorak's Rusalka, but in so doing, Pape's disc has ended up with excerpts from 6 roles in common with those assumed by George London on his famous 'Of Gods and Demons' record. The sleeve notes to the CD do explicitly cite London's record as the inspiration for this project, but it seems a peculiar and rather bold point of departure, inviting, as it does, comparison with one of the twentieth century's most gifted and complete operatic artists. Samuel Ramey's 'Date With The Devil' in the 1990s was also not dissimilar.

This disc therefore represents Pape's takes on what will be very familiar repertoire to anybody who appreciates the bass voice, and the question raised is whether it is worth people duplicating the renditions of these scenes that they will already have in their collections.

The disc opens all guns blazing with a vigorous account of 'Le veau d'or', the first of the two selections from Gounod's Faust and shows off an assertive vocality, propulsive energy and idiomatic French, although the latter attribute occasionally threatens to disrupt the vocal placement. The tessitura of this role actually lies high for a bass, and although Pape manages to surmount it admirably, he is unable to maintain the sense of authority and suavity that Méphistophélès should ideally have in the face of these vocal challenges. The Sérénade which follows would benefit from a little more seductive velvet, although it is loaded with character and the laughter, always difficult to pull off, is brilliantly done.

The real bass test piece on the disc is the great scene from Verdi's Don Carlo, here given in Italian as Filippo's 'Ella giammai m'amò!'. We are told that this comes from the five-act 1886 version of the opera. As far as I am aware, the only aspect of this particular aria (when extracted in isolation), which varies according to which of the many possible incarnations of the opera one presents, is whether the text is sung in French or Italian. The citing of the version is therefore unnecessary, but does imply that some thought has gone into the matter so it is disappointing that this resulted in a decision to give the piece in Italian. Pape's Italian is accurate, but sounds highly coached rather than natural and fluent. Every word is clear, but too many of the consonants are enunciated with the kind of strength and weight which one would expect to hear in sung German.

The results lack grace and detract from the consistency of the legato, so necessary to an idiomatic performance of Verdi's music, and the overall impression is of a series of demarcated sections rather than an overarching shape, although the depth of emotion within each passage is sincere and touching. As noted above, Pape's French is impressive, and his 'Elle ne m'aime pas' is likely to be beautiful and mesmerising. It could be that Pape has more stage experience with the Italian version and did not want to record the aria in French. But it could also be that Deutsche Grammophon were motivated to ask for it in Italian in order to justify their own description of Pape as 'the world's most versatile bass' on a disc which otherwise would include only one other Italian selection.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the items which are the most successful are those in Pape's native language. We get an interesting foretaste of Pape's Wotan in 'Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge' which has an impressive breadth of line and beautifully pointed text. The huge top F is a thrilling sound with plenty of weight behind it, although it does make one wonder how Pape will fare with the tessitura in other parts of the role when he takes it on in 2010. Pape's stage experience as King Mark in Tristan und Isolde is evident in his excellent delivery of the great monologue. This long scene hangs together as a coherent whole throughout all of Mark's psychological probing and although others go deeper with it, I cannot think of anybody currently performing who sings it better.

The role of the Demon from Rubinstein's opera of the same name appears to suit Pape very well in vocal terms, and plays to his strengths, namely long legato lines couched in beautiful timbre that is essentially fairly light in colour. Ideally, he would relish the Russian a little more, but these arias, particularly the first of the two, are the highlight of the disc, and hint that, all the big Wagner plans notwithstanding, Pape might be ideal for the Bellini and Donizetti bass roles.

The Dresden Staatskapelle under Sebastian Weigle make the most ravishing sound, particularly in the Verdi, Wagner and Rubinstein excerpts, and provide all the high drama needed as a backdrop to Boris's death scene from Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. It is therefore unfortunate that the voice is unrealistically favoured in the recording, with the orchestra feeling quite remote.

It has to be said that all of the repertoire on this disc receives a solid performance from Pape, with many special moments. But it must also be acknowledged that I don't think there is a track on the disc that has not been surpassed, from a vocal point of view, by other commercially available recordings of the same pieces.

By John Woods