Last year, the first Ring Cycle in the Deutsche Oper clearly showed progressive improvement and accordingly the Walküre was an altogether more satisfying experience than the Rheingold. This time, the development is far more difficult to understand. First of all, the issue of orchestral sound volume is more complex this year. The cast last time was made of substantially larger voices (with one exception), what made it easier for the conductor to give freer rein to his orchestra. Before someone points out that I have been pressing the same key: even if a large orchestral sound is not essential for Wagner, it is nonetheless the safer way of producing the right effect. Herbert von Karajan, for instance, opted for chamber-like sonorities for his Salzburg Ring – and one easily realizes that the level of craftsmanship required is far above average. One needs only a top-tier orchestra exhaustively rehearsed to draw on tonal colouring and accent. And some still find it a bit undramatic. Is it fair to expect that every Wagner performance in the theatre to be thrilling? Maybe not – but a Ring Cycle is supposed to be a special occasion and, if I have to be honest about this evening’s performance, the adjective is “boring”. I was afraid to use this word, but then a singer friend who was there agreed sotto voce “I was so afraid to call it boring, but that is what it was”. So, we both encouraged each other to express our feelings and the result is that I am writing it here. From the first bureaucratic bars, one could know what was coming. Not the last word in clarity, no tingle factor out of momentous orchestral sound, only occasional sense of forward movement: wherever you ran to, disappointment was waiting. Act II felt like as long as Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (the most uninteresting Todesverkündung scene ever shown to an audience included). After a messy Walkürenritt, only halfway act III seemed to catch some fire – the Deutsche Oper’s shining feature as a Wagnerian orchestra, its almost unique blend of brass and string sounds, was finally conjured, some emotion was put into the proceedings and, with the big-voiced singer in the evening alone on stage, Musikdrama made a fast but somewhat late appearance.
Jennifer Wilson seems to be one of those singers cursed with an exceptional vocal nature. God has really wanted her to be a dramatic soprano, but she has received very little help from her teachers. Basically, I don’t really think that the way she sings now is everything she can do. It is all right a big, bright, easy voice, but imperfectly supported. To start with, I know that the ho-jo-to-ho’s are assignments from hell, but she was audibly breathless in her first appearance and breathless she often was, chopping phrases more often than I am used to hear. Problematic breath support has many consequences – faulty legato, instances of dubious pitch, tonal meagerness, patches of reduced audibility (especially middle and low register), hootiness, lack of finish in long notes. This evening, there were examples of all that. Sometimes, seeing that an exposed high note would come, an extra effort would be made and a legitimate rich, full, vibrant note would be produced and one could see how exciting everything could be. It is clear that she has the right instincts but, if she was not in a very bad day, she should look into her technique, for her voice is really worth while the effort.
Petra Maria Schnitzer is almost the perfect opposite of her Brünnhilde: she is a lyric soprano with solid schooling who knows all the tricks to deal with dramatic roles without damaging her voice. Although she was not in any way exceptional , she was still a touching Sieglinde. Her voice is not very distinctive, but it is pleasant, round and healthily produced. As a result, it has a youthful appeal that, aided by unfailing sense of style and a very likable personality, puts you on her side. Predictably, the lower end of the tessitura proved to be more challenging than the high notes – and probably only in Der Männer Sippe one could feel some discomfort. Daniela Sindram is the Octavian/Komponist kind of mezzo and not someone would expect to find as Fricka. She knows that she is no Christa Ludwig and fortunately did not try to be that. With her focused, round mezzo she produced an elegant performance with some forceful high notes and a discrete use of chest register to pierce through in her low notes. She is also a very intelligent and charismatic singer. It is always a pleasure to see and hear her – even in a role not really meant for her.
Yes, Robert Dean Smith has sung Tristan – and, as our good friend Cavalier has reminded me – even at the Met – but Siegmund has a very special kind of difficulty. He is not the first lighter-toned singer in this role – Jonas Kaufmann at the Met is another example – and the comparison with Kaufmann is interesting. Vocally speaking, I find the JK basically more “interesting” than RDS – the voice is more immediately recognisable, the high notes are more incisive and he is more dramatically connected. But Dean Smith has one great advantage – he is more experienced and only steps on firm soil. His Siegmund was beautifully sung in flowing legato and – this is the first time I use Leontyne Price’s little concept for a singer in Wagnerian repertoire – joie de chant: one can feel he is enjoying himself there and, to keep quoting Price, if he were not, neither would we. I’ve seen that many members of the audience were truly satisfied with his performance – I was to a certain point. Beautiful as it was, it lacked some thrill, and the lack of volume was only part of it.
Greer Grimsley’s curdled and slightly unwieldy bass-baritone is not very seductive – and his emphatic and often rough approach to phrasing and unclear vowels don’t make it more appealing, but – and this evening this is a big “but” – he has a voice of truly Wagnerian proportions. When I was ready not to like him, I noticed that, whenever he was singing, the maestro could really relax and let his orchestra hit home. Then I remembered how uneventful last year’s otherwise more pleasant-toned Wotan had been and Grimsley’s performance began to have some interest. When he proved capable of some nuance in the closing scene, I’ve decided to consider him an asset in this performance. Finally, Reinhard Hagen was, as always, a most reliable Hagen.