With Melba's release of Wagner's opera Siegfried, we are one opera away from the conclusion of Melba's bold and super fine SACD project featuring Wagner's titanic Der Ring des Niebelungen. I can remember the excitement I felt after reading the news in early 2006 about a new recording project of these four massive operas on SACD. I am still lamenting the fact that Decca likely has no plans for remastering the benchmark Solti / Culshaw / Vienna Ring, but by now I can rest assured that while the Solti Ring still sits in some dark vault, we can all be happy with a truly fine Ring Cycle from Melba.
Siegfried, the third opera, is one of those truly LONG works. Four discs (whether CD or SACD) makes for some serious listening sessions. My hat is off to those who can sit for hours in a dark hall listening to this music, though thankfully, there are plenty intermissions to relieve the inevitable "posterior" pains. I think that it is safe to say that Siegfried is the most difficult opera of the four Ring operas for the sole reason that the Forging Scene in Act 1 is one of the most physically demanding roles for tenors. No bel canto tenors singing Puccini here, rather, but big voiced heldentenors. Even Wagner himself admitted to friends during the rehearsals that perhaps he was asking too much of his super hero. However, history has shown that there are plenty of tenors who have conquered the role (as well as some tenors who were overcome as well). The Solti / Decca Ring, with Wolfgang Windgassen, is just respectable as lamentably Windgassen was approaching the twilight of his career. The Melba tenor, Gary Rideout, is more than up to the role. It is rather incredible that at no time in the recording did I sense that Mr. Rideout was getting tired and maintains a hearty voice throughout. This to me is impressive as this was a live recording and NOT a studio session. However, Siegfried is not the only tenor in Act 1 to share in the pain. The role of Mime (very well sung by Richard Greager) is also quite demanding and requires a pretty stout singer as well. The nasty Alberich (John Wegner, superb!) makes another appearance and once again we see his nastiness as he taunts his brother Mime about the young Siegfried.
A little bit of the plot might help, though the story line in Siegfried is not quite as convoluted as the other operas. Mime has raised Siegfried to a young adult. Siegfried (the son of an incestuous relationship from Die Walküre) is an arrogant and cocky youth and is afraid of nothing. Siegfried comes in possession of the shards of the broken sword Notung (broken in Die Walküre) and is always badgering Mime to reforge the sword. An impossible task for the incompetent Mime, Siegfried unmercifully taunts him. Secretly, Mime wants the sword to kill the dragon Fafner (who is hoarding the Niebelungen gold) but until the sword is forged, Mime suffers the abuse of Siegfried. Siegfried finally reforges the sword (some truly spectacular music) and then sets off at the promptings of Mime to slay the wicked Fafner. During Act 1 we also see Wotan (John Bröcheler) who tells Mime he is called Wanderer. An interesting discussion between Mime and Wander ensues. In Act 2, Siegfried journeys to fight the Dragon, while Wotan and Alberich face off and exchange taunts. Wotan leaves and Alberich waits until Siegfried and Mime approach. While Siegfried fights and kills Fafner, Alberich and Mime exchange insults while waiting for Siegfried. Ah, brotherly love. Also in Act 2 we meet the Woodbird (soprano Shu-Cheen Yu) who accompanies Siegfried. After Siegfried kills the dragon he tastes the blood and then begins to understand the Woodbird. Meanwhile, Mime had prepared a poisoned drink for Siegfried in hopes that Siegfried, thirsty and tired after fighting the dragon will die, thus allowing Mime to secure the gold. However, the dragon's blood gives Siegfried the ability to truly understand the lies of Mime, who declares that he (Mime) hates Siegfried and that he only wants the gold. Finally, furious at the treachery Siegfried kills Mime. Siegfried then sets off at the Woodbird's behest. On the way, Siegfried encounters Wotan who soon argues with the youth about approaching the rock where Brünnhilde sleeps (another Die Walküre flashback). Siegfried and Wotan briefly fight and then the young hero goes and awakes the sleeping maiden. They fall in love and live happily ever after ...wait, this is opera …no, this is a WAGNER opera…
Act 3 brings us to a superb duet between Wotan and Erda (excellently sung by Liane Keegan). Once again we are treated to some superb music making as Wotan wakes Erda from a long sleep to ask her how to stop what will become the end of the gods. Erda tells Wotan what he must do, only to be horrified that Wotan has punished and exiled the one person to save the gods: Brünnhilde! Wotan tells Erda to return to her slumber and proceeds to meet Siegfried who is on his way to awaken the sleeping maiden. It is in this act where Wotan and Siegfried meet and then in a fit of childish anger, Siegfried attacks Wotan and shatters his spear. Wotan flees, leaving Siegfried to brave the fire and awaken his bride. Glorious music that incredibly trumps the Solti / Decca performance.
The fourth and final act (where Brünnhilde awakens) is some of Wagner's most spectacular music. And I have to say that Lisa Gasteen (whom we met as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre) is simply stunning in Act 4. Gary Rideout (Our Siegfried) is also incredible (after three killer acts) and I have to confess that I think that this Act 4 is actually MORE impressive than the Solti / Decca Act 4 with Windgassen and the towering Birgit Nilsson … and folks, I think that this is indeed a compliment. It is not just the singing that is sublime; Asher Fisch and the Adelaide Symphony forces play with serious fire and passion. In fact, until I hear Götterdämmerung I will say that this is some of the best playing the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra has done so far in the three operas! The passionate conclusion of Act 4 was well deserving of the cheers of the audience. BRAVO!
As per the other two operas, the sound is simply breathtaking. I need to someday see an opera performed in the hall where this was recorded to see if the space is a large as I suspect it is. Imaging is superb, space, dimension and crystal clear movement of the voices across the stage. I am afraid I am going to start sounding like a broken record with my constant praise of the operas as they simply are that good. Oh, I cannot wait until Götterdämmerung!
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