This concert performance in the Hong Kong Kong Cultural Centre marks the beginning of an ambitious project: the first official international recording of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen made in Asia*. The first concert two days before was actually the Hong Kong première of Rheingold. Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden, the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s musical director, is confident that this is going to establish the HK Philh’s reputation as a world-class orchestra. The audience, at least, proved to be truly international (and the level of concentration and silence in the hall is certainly exemplary).
In a hall of modest size, Maestro van Zweden decided to out-Karajan Karajan in the chamber-like orchestral sound, emphasis rather in dynamic and colouring rather than articulation and clarity and the choice of some light-toned voiced in key roles. Although the Hong Kong Philharmonic cannot compete with the Berlin Philharmonic in exuberance or richness of sound, it faithfully followed the conductor’s intent of producing different colors to establish an aural “setting” for each scene. The performance lacked the sense of building tension (it worked rather on “terraced” levels of loudness – purely orchestral passages ON in loudness and OFF when the singers were there), but the sense of theatre was furthermore guaranteed by the prominence given to vocal soloists, who felt comfortable to scale down to conversational volume whenever they deemed appropriate. Something van Zweden has not in common with Karajan is his keenness on having woodwind upfront in almost Mozartian interplay with singers. This all could have meant that the performance was particularly exciting, which unfortunately is not the case: most key moments lacked any sense of climax, especially Alberich’s curse, where the conductor proved rather reticent than propelling, or in Donner’s Heda-hedo, which turned out quite polite. Most surprisingly, the six harps on stage sounded a bit off focus in the context of the aural picture and failed to produce the crystalline effect of the rainbow bridge. However, I do not want to sound blasé: this evening was certainly fun, and the contrasted and characterful cast has a big share of responsibility in that.
I have to confess that I was not entirely idea convinced by the idea that Matthias Goerne could do justice to the role of Wotan, even in Das Rheingold. I had seen him only once in a Wagner opera, as Wolfram, and found him lacking volume and projection. In this evening’s ideal circumstances, that was definitely not the case. Although his voice often has a muffled sound in his middle register (which translates as “velvety” in a Hermann Prey-ish way when the repertoire is either Bach or Schubert), he has healthy low notes and could gather his energy to deal with heroic high notes reliably if not truly freely: pressed by the needs of piercing a loud orchestra, his high register lacks roundness and color and often sounds tenor-ish in sound. His interpretation is that of a Lieder singer, working on details rather than on the big-picture. While this could make him sink in the background when dealing with his colleagues’ more flamboyant personalities, it has also given his Wotan a very particular atmosphere, as if he ran on a different rpm than all other characters. That distance was in itself an interesting “theatrical” effect, one that made Wotan some sort of outsider in his own game. In any case, I would be surprised if he accepted to go further in Die Walküre.
The very international cast meant that the accent in some singers were a bit more evident than in others. In any case, with one exception, every member of the cast seemed to be completely in control and able to use the text with craftsmanship. For instance, Egyptian-born baritone Peter Sidhom has exemplary diction and truly crispy enunciation of Wagner’s libretto. He also seemed to be having the time of his life playing a 100% bad-guy Alberich. His voice is a bit soft-centered in its middle register, but he relies on a very bright and forceful edge to produce the necessary ping in this part’s difficult full-intensity, angular phrasing. His sharp sense of humor was a welcome tool to add dimension to a role often made too uncongenial. In that sense, his interaction with Kim Begley’s Loge was in the core of this performance. The English tenor is a veteran only in age: his voice – a Charaktertenor with a nasal sound à la Robert Tear albeit with Spitzentöne to make some Heldentenors envious – proved to be in excellent shape once it warmed after a fluttery start. There is indeed a splash of Gilbert and Sullivan in his Loge, but very aptly so. The two other tenors in the cast proved to be very well cast: Charles Reid (Froh) has a beautiful voice with spontaneous and firm high notes and David Cangelosi is simply the best Rheingold Mime I have ever seen or heard, his approach refreshingly three-dimensional and varied. As always, Kwangchul Youn steals the show as Fasolt, here ideally partnered by Stephen Milling’s dark-toned, perfectly-focused Fafner.
The ladies were also uniformly excellent. Michelle DeYoung is a rich-voiced Fricka who uses her registers provocatively. At some point, she lost a bit concentration, and this is a role that needs constant engagement. In any case, it is always a pleasure to hear a singer with riches of voice and personality in a role often cast “from the ensemble”. Deborah Humble’s Erda is very classy throughout the whole range, and Eri Nakamura, Aurhelia Varak and Hermine Haselböck were perfectly cast as the Rheintöchter.
* I use the word “international”, because Takashi Asahina’s recorded a complete Ring for Fontec with the New Japan Philharmonic and an all Japanese cast in the 1980’s.