Das Rheingold, composed as the first opera in Wagner's titanic Cycle, Der Ring des Niebelungen, was released out of order (following Melba's release of Die Walküre in late 2006. I do not know the reason (nor am I really concerned) for this but Melba is following in the footsteps of Die Walküre with the next stage in the cycle. I suspect that I (like many) will make the inevitable comparison between my benchmark set of the operas (Solti / Vienna / Decca) and we will jump right into the fray with the opening prelude. The first sound we hear is a deep pedal note which is then followed by numerous measures of ascending arpeggios in the French horn section. I have talked to horn players who state that this opening horn section is quite terrifying as any mistake will clearly be heard. On the Solti recording, the horns of the Vienna Philharmonic are quite audible, and play with aplomb. Here is my only real nit with the Melba recording: where are the ascending horns? I have listened to this on several systems (including one in surround) and most of the time, the Adelaide horns are barely audible. Were there a few mistakes that were removed during the final editing? That is it ...my only quibble. Now we can get on the rest of the opera, which is a winner.
The opening music is intended to make you think of the Rhine River, gently flowing on its merry way and Asher Fisch and his orchestral forces do a fine job portraying this. However, warning flags went up when the voices entered. There was a strange sheen, a plastic quality to the otherwise stunning Rhine Maidens. Even the nasty character Alberich had a strange quality to his voice. I was so confounded by this that I immediately e-mailed Melba, asking them to offer an explanation. Well, I received a most excellent explanation: the opening scene is either along the Rhine River (or, depending on who is directing the production) in the Rhine itself. The Melba production used some plastic sheeting (with water running down the sheets) to simulate the river. This, I was told, is the cause for the slightly plasticy sound. The singing between Alberich and the three Rhine Maidens (Natalie Jones, Donna-Marie Dunlop and Zan McKendree-Wright) is absolutely superb and I have to say that I enjoy the Melba Rhine Maidens as much as I do the Solti maidens. John Wegner (Alberich) pleads his desire for the maidens and the three vixenish ladies offer a stunning portrayal of petty frivolity and down right nasty treatment of Alberich (who is already lusting after the Rhine gold). The ladies unfortunately reveal the secret of the gold and to their chagrin (and to our delight for an act that causes three more operas!!) Alberich steals the gold.
The next scene introduces us to a bunch of cranky immortals, Wotan (chief god-John Bröcheler in fine form), his wife Fricka (always crabby and hacked at Wotan and nicely sung by Elizabeth Campbell) and the rest of the Valhalla gang (Donner, Froh, Loge and Freia) We also meet the two giants, Fasolt and Fafner, who have just completed the construction of the new Valhalla. Folks, I am not going to offer a blow by blow detail of the story, so let's see if we can condense the story. Wotan has the two giants build his new castle. The two giants demand payment and Wotan, who promised the fair Freia to them, decides to trick the giants out of paying them. We meet the entire ensemble in the opening of Scene 2, where we see a furious Fricka fussing at Wotan. Freia is horrified at what is happening and Donner and Froh are promising violence to save their sister. The treacherous Loge tells Wotan about Alberich's gold and suggests that Wotan take Alberich's cache and use that gold to pay the giants. The giants agree, but still take Freia as a hostage until the gold appears. Wotan succeeds in the theft, and when the giants appear to claim their gold, the two fight and Fasolt dies. Pretty sordid stuff, but that is grand opera. While I enjoyed most everything about Die Walküre, this installment from Melba is extremely fine ... I have no quibbles with any of the singing. I have already mentioned the three maidens and Alberich, but Donner (Timothy DuFore), Froh (Andrew Brundson) and Loge (Christopher Doig) are all equally impressive. I found Fasolt (Andrew Collis) and Fafner (David Hibbard) to also be of the highest quality and at times, almost threatening.
The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra is in top form ... and offers some truly exciting playing. As with Die Walküre, the sound is expansive and offers a wide and deep soundstage with plenty of transparency. Detail is superb and it is easy to "see" the singers as they move across the stage.
This second release is simply fantastic. I am delighted so far with the results and I now expect the Melba Ring Cycle to take its place in the annals of recorded history as one of the very top Ring Cycles ever produced. Siegfried is in my library now and though I am halfway through it, it is even better than the first two releases! More to come!
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