Opus Arte's set of Wagner's 'Ring' cycle is mainly masterful, though uneven

By Joe Banno
Sunday, March 28, 2010

From the opening tracks of Opus Arte's new 14-CD set of Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" ($126) -- recorded live at the 2008 Bayreuth Festival -- Christian Thielemann shows himself a masterful Wagner conductor. Calibrating inner voices to illuminate the drama and building climaxes of sweeping power, he paces the four-opera cycle with a balance of expansiveness and forward motion, symphonic cohesion and molded phrasing. The brass is weighty and fat-sounding, string attacks are incisive and the woodwinds often sound engaged enough in the emotion of the piece to qualify as characters in the drama.

Thielemann is helped by recording engineers who have caught the famous glow of the Festspielhaus acoustic -- the opera house that Wagner built -- while providing orchestral sound of thrilling immediacy and punch. Voices, too, sound very present and register with a welcome roundness and clarity. And, in contrast to some recent, less-than-distinguished "Ring" recordings from provincial Central European houses, the voices here are worth preserving.

The Opus Arte "Ring" enters a crowded field, dominated by the legacy of legendary postwar recordings -- most iconically the much-lauded 1955 Bayreuth cycle that appeared recently on the Testament label. A terrific set, quite deserving of its elevated status, the '55 cycle is, nevertheless, not without its share of vocal idiosyncrasies and fallibilities. Those Testament CDs are chock-full of great interpreters with acquired-taste voices -- a point that often gets lost in the critical rush to tout its golden-age credentials.

If the 2008 Bayreuth cast also is uneven, the singers here really know what this music is about, and possess enough considerable strengths to nudge the new set into the upper echelon. As Brünnhilde, Linda Watson's jackhammer high notes are compensated for by the fullness and clarion power of her soprano, the tenderness of much of her singing and her affecting vocal acting. And while Stephen Gould may lack the nuance and outsized upper register of the greatest Siegfrieds, he offers something few of them have -- a genuine ring of youth in his clear and forthright tenor. Albert Dohmen's Wotan, urgently acted and handsomely sung in a wide-ranging bass-baritone, brings to mind the classic Wotans of George London, Thomas Stewart and James Morris.

In fact, the quality of voices here is consistently high, as is the level of passion and color in those voices. Vibrant characters -- not simply singers trying to cope with Wagner's demands, as one hears on some of the most recent "Ring" recordings -- leap from the speakers in a way seldom heard since the great recorded cycles of the '50s and '60s.

Eva-Maria Westbroek's shimmering Sieglinde and Gutrune, Endrik Wottrich's gutsy Siegmund (his muscular timbre reminiscent of James McCracken's), Hans-Peter König's splendidly dark and menacing Hagen, Andrew Shore's memorably vivid Alberich -- all of these are portrayals as confident and authentic as the best we've heard. Together with Thielemann's imposing work in the pit, this fine ensemble of contemporary Wagnerians make Opus Arte's "Ring" a worthy shelf-mate for the best recordings of generations past.

Banno is a freelance writer.

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