Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin with the Staatskapelle Berlin,
conducted by Daniel Barenboim
Bryn Terfel with the Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by Claudio Abbado
German Opera Arias
Thomas Quasthoff with the Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin, conducted by Christian Thielemann
German Romantic Arias
Karita Mattila with the Staatskapelle Dresden, conducted by Sir Colin Davis
Scenes From “The Ring”
Placido Domingo with the Orchestra
of the Royal Opera House, Covent
Garden, conducted by Antonio Pappano
A season or so back, I remember luxuriating at a Met performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. The casting was as near to perfection as any Wagner fanatic could wish: Ben Heppner, Karita Mattila, James Morris, and a roster of terrific supporting singers, all bathed in the glow of James Levine’s state-of-the-art Met Orchestra. But as glorious as the singing may have been, nothing beat the satisfaction of hearing an ensemble so defiantly refute the chorus of naysaying critics who insist we’re living in a Wagnerian dark age.
That’s been the standard critical cant for as long as I’ve been reading about music: that the art of singing Wagner plummeted precipitously from the ’60s onward and has never recovered. I’ve read over and over that the bel canto tradition that peaked in the ’30s—essentially, the ability to produce a beautiful tone, spin an unbroken vocal line, color words precisely and idiomatically, and create the drama through subtle musical inflections that don’t disrupt the integrity of the score—had disappeared, leaving little more than crude phrasing and dogged competence in its place.
But just how golden was that supposed golden age? Granted, there were more sublime voices to go around during the first half of the 20th century than the second. But those legendary Wagnerians shared the stage with a slew of mediocre house singers, not to mention wobblers, barkers, and screechers of every stripe. And even the best of the best had their Achilles’ heels. Think only of Lauritz Melchior’s famously loose treatment of note values, Kirsten Flagstad’s matronly reserve in roles that called for erotic heat, or Friedrich Schorr’s wince-inducing lunges at high notes during the later years of his career. None of this is to denigrate singers who, I think we’d all agree, belong in the operatic pantheon. It’s just to remind ourselves—as Wagner himself did in Der Ring des Nibelungen—that even the gods are sometimes, well, human.
And if the ground hasn’t been quite as thick with godlike voices over the last 30 years, Valhalla hasn’t exactly gone up in flames, either. After all, it wasn’t unusual in the ’70s to encounter a Parsifal with Jon Vickers, Christa Ludwig, and Martti Talvela; or a Die Walkure with Birgit Nilsson, Rita Hunter, and Thomas Stewart; or a Tannhauser with Leonie Rysanek, James McCracken, and Grace Bumbry. The ’80s brought blissful evenings spent with Jessye Norman, Brigitte Fassbaender, and Kurt Moll, to name but a handful of the fine Wagnerian talent then on tap at the big opera houses. Dark age? So far, it’s sounded pretty damn golden to me.
And things are only looking up, with the new generation of singers who came of age in the ’90s having established themselves as our postmillennial Wagnerian elite. A new recording of Tannhauser under Daniel Barenboim’s baton showcases some of the best of them in a performance that can go spear to spear against the great recordings of the past.
Tannhauser has one of those librettos (by Wagner himself) that only a fundamentalist could love: Randy medieval knight Tannhauser skips out on his tightass, holier-than-thou social circle and career-virgin girlfriend, Elisabeth, to spend a moist eternity with the goddess Venus; but Catholic guilt sends him on a humiliating (though ultimately successful) quest for salvation. Fortunately, Wagner’s knockout score spins this haircloth of a story into a gorgeous bolt of silk.
Conducting a conflation of the earlier, more traditional Dresden version of the score and the lusher, harmonically daring retread Wagner prepared for the opera’s Paris premiere, Barenboim plays to the music’s strengths. Lyrical moments, such as the Tannhauser/Elisabeth love duet in Act 2, are given plenty of room to breathe, but the music never loses its compelling forward momentum. Aided by lucid and full-bodied engineering, Barenboim makes the Staatskapelle Berlin sound like a German orchestra from a good half-century ago, with brass and winds gutsy, prominent, and unfailingly expressive.
His casting speaks well for our current state of Wagnerian good health. You’d be hard-pressed in any age, golden or otherwise, to find a baritone with the flawless emission of sound, beautifully calibrated phrasing, and meltingly smooth timbre of Thomas Hampson, who portrays Tannhauser’s best friend and romantic rival, Wolfram. I’m convinced that, were Hampson’s performance transferred to a scratchy 78, it would garner the teary approval of codgers who claim his ilk is no longer to be found. Ditto Rene Pape, who plays Hermann. Pape, though still a young singer, has laid claim to the Wagner bass repertoire around the globe. His is not the sort of black-browed, bottomless sound that made, say, Gottlob Frick incomparable during the postwar years. Pape’s instrument is altogether subtler and more mellifluous. Like Hampson, he is a singer in the true bel canto tradition.
Jane Eaglen maintains a good bel canto line in her singing, as well, though her big-guns, Brunnhilde-sized soprano is tough to shoehorn into the lyrical role of Elisabeth. Against expectation, she pulls it off a good deal of the time, fining down the trumpeting tone that knocked critics flat during her Met appearances as Isolde and actually managing to suggest the callow glow of youth. Arguably, hers is still too unwieldy a voice for the role, but there’s less of the abrasive edge on high notes, less of the reticence in the chest register that has sometimes compromised this otherwise impressive instrument.
Waltraud Meier has sung some thrilling Isoldes herself, and she’s also made her mark as an ardent Sieglinde in Die Walkure. In addition to her successes in these daunting soprano parts, she remains the world’s reigning Wagner mezzo, and Venus has become something of a signature role for her. Happily, her soprano excursions haven’t taken much of a toll on her voice—a bit of strain here, some troubling thinning of tone there—and her sultry, flashing-eyed interpretation sizes up well against her own previous recordings of the part.
Indeed, the test of wills between Venus and Tannhauser in Barenboim’s second scene is anything but a fair fight: Venus is clearly the one opening the can of whupass here. That’s because Peter Seiffert is a more even-keeled Tannhauser than most. That’s not to say he lacks strength or presence in the role. Rather, he shows us a poet working his way through a crisis of conscience—not the more typical borderline psychotic. His tenor has become a bit more nasal and narrow of bore over the years, but it’s still a voice of clarion power, informed by intelligent attention to the words. It’s staggering how many recordings of this work have fallen down badly in their casting of the title role, but Seiffert provides a rock-solid center for this performance, resulting in one of those rare recordings of Tannhauser that keeps the listener’s attention riveted by the composer’s tumble of gorgeous ideas—not, as is so often the case, by a nagging worry that the tenor is going to blow his carotid artery before the end of the second act.
First-rate as Barenboim’s Tannhauser is, though, a veritable avalanche of recent Wagner CDs suggests that Barenboim could have cast it three or four times over with great success. Listen to Bryn Terfel and Thomas Quasthoff knock off “The Song to the Evening Star” on their respective new recital discs—Wagner and Evening Star: German Opera Arias—and your mouth will water at the prospect of hearing their Wolframs recorded complete. Both bass-baritones offer more passion and extroverted character (though less purity of line) than Hampson in the part, and both possess remarkably similar voices: weighty, incisive, emotionally communicative instruments with grainy, dark-hued finishes.
But whereas Terfel broods and storms arrestingly through his recital, Quasthoff heads to sunnier pastures. Taking on a slew of comic, pre-Wagner bass arias by light-opera composer Albert Lortzing, Quasthoff gambols with each of these charmers, his agility and avoidance of shameless vocal mugging succeeding in ways usually not heard in this music. Throughout, conductor Christian Thielemann backs his soloist with sensitivity and vigor.
Not so Sir Colin Davis, whose poised and respectful podium work on Karita Mattila’s new German Romantic Arias fails to ignite as it should. Thank goodness Mattila supplies enough fire for the two of them. The moving, wonderfully instinctual sense of drama that characterizes her acting onstage comes through vividly on CD, as does the glowing silver core of her soprano, the soaring high notes, and the emotion throbbing through the vocal line. She is both involved and involving throughout this program of music by Beethoven and Weber that was much loved by, and influential upon, the young Wagner as he wrote Tannhauser. Her registers don’t always blend uniformly, but these imperfections lend her voice real character and a touch of vulnerability. Unlike Eaglen, Mattila is a born Elisabeth who demands to be recorded in the role.
Placido Domingo’s own recording of Tannhauser still ranks as one of the best, and he is in impossibly fine voice on his new CD, Scenes From “The Ring.” His tone is as refulgent as ever, his German natural and assured, and his command over the punishing tessitura in the role of Siegfried magisterial. Of course, recording excerpts from Siegfried and Gotterdammerung in controlled studio conditions reduces the unnatural burden stage performances of these five-hour-long monsters would make even on the seemingly bionic Domingo. Still, the very fact that a man in his early 60s can produce sounds this good makes you slap your forehead in amazement.
For all the great singing on these discs, there are dozens of other top-drawer artists doing distinguished work in the field, with a whole ‘nother generation of little-known young singers poised to inherit their mantles. But with the classical-music industry abandoning gifted young artists in favor of stepping up reissues for the nostalgia junkies, many of today’s worthy Wagner voices might well go unrecorded. So posterity could be denied the opportunity to savor their unique talents and compare their work with that of their
But it’s important that our singers be heard. Because, you see, we may just be living in a Wagnerian golden age. Of course, we won’t know it until the musical press, a half-century from now, declares our era the best and damns its own as the darkest of dark ages. CP