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Reviews: Wagner: Siegfried - Fisch

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Reviews: 2

Review by Christine Tham March 24, 2007 (16 of 19 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:    
I must confess that I have never really taken to Siegfried as much as the other operas in the Wagner Ring Cycle. Yes, I know, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and one is supposed to enjoy the tetralogy as a gigantic operatic drama, but Siegfried has always seemed to me to suffer from "middle child syndrome" (if we disregard Rheingold which is intended as an operatic prelude). Sandwiched between the emotional and lyrical intensity of Die Walküre and the tumultuous events of Götterdämmerung, Siegfried has always seemed like operatic filler material.

There's very little dramatic tension in Siegfried, the events unfold in an almost perfunctory, documentary style exposition. Siegfried reforges the sword that was broken, kills the dragon, finds the girl. No soul searching, or difficult decisions, or even cruel fate.

Wagner never intended it to be this way. Originally, he started with the core events of Siegfried and gradually worked his way backwards and forwards until he ended with the complete cycle. Siegfried was supposed to the crown jewel, where all the "action" is, and the "filling in the sandwich" (if you will excuse the metaphor). However, as all the really interesting dramatic developments moved elsewhere, so too did Wagner's creativity.

Obviously, State Opera South Australia disagreed with my views. In the highly acclaimed 2004 Adelaide production, a significant part of the budget was focused on Siegfried, with the dragon slaying scene (featuring Siegfried perched on a giant mechanical dragon paw) evoking "oohs" and "aahs" from the audience.

Still, I approached the the third installment of Melba Recording's well regarded Hybrid Multi-channel release of the Adelaide Ring Cycle with some trepidation and mixed feelings. Phil Rowlands (the recording engineer) sent me a nice email late last year encouraging me to look forward to Siegfried as in his opinion it is "the best recording of the four". I wondered if it will live up to those expectations, and whether my bias against the work will cloud my judgement.

Well, I shouldn't have worried. I don't know about it being the "best of the four" (since I have yet to hear Götterdämmerung), but I can confirm the recording quality of Siegfried surpasses even the extremely high standards set by the earlier releases.

And it's not only the recording. The cast and orchestra also managed to put out a truly superb performance, and made me revise my opinion about Siegfried being a "middle child". Perhaps my apathy towards Siegfried has been influenced by Solti's version, which I have never really warmed up to.

The problem with the Solti version is a rather uneven cast. Wolfgang Windgassen was past his prime, and Gerhard Stolze had a rather irritating whiny voice as Mime (yes, the character is supposed to be a whiny dwarf, but still ...). The result is that in the sword forging scene, the orchestra and the sound effects swamp out the thin voices, and my mental image was two old midgets surrounded by huge tools. Similarly, Joan Sutherland overpowers Windgassen in Act II and the love duet between Siegfried and Brünhilde sounded comical (try and imagine an Amazon embracing Gollum, if you dare!).

By contrast, the Adelaide production has one of the best and well balanced Siegfried casts I've come across in recent years. Gary Rideout sounds appropriately lusty and heroic as Siegfried, and Richard Greager gives us a very listenable Mime that somehow conveys not just his weakness and deceit but makes us pity the character as well. John Wegner and John Bröcheler are simply amazing as Alberich and Wotan respectively, and bring amazing depth into both characters. The love scene Siegfried and Brünhilde in Act III finally sounds like a conversation between equals, with Lisa Gasteen being suitably stirring and conveys a Brünhilde that is god-like even in her mortal state. The "minor" characters perform admirably, with Shu-Cheen Yu being a sweet sounding woodbird and Liane Keegan given a very "earthy" rendition of Erda.

Even the "boring" bits in the opera come alive (for example, I never noticed before that the dialogue between Wotan and Mime is a musical tour through some of the most significant lietmotives in the Ring cycle), and the set pieces (such as the sword forging and love duet) don't leave me wanting.

The recording can only be described as incredible. Not only I feel like I'm in the Adelaide Festival Theatre (particularly on the multi-channel version), but I feel like I'm sitting in the best possible seat. The recording captures the wonderful voices in perfect detail and richness (with reverb tails that seem to last forever), and the orchestra on this title is perfectly balanced with the singers (a significant improvement over the earlier releases). Gone is the slightly recessed sound in Rheingold and the somewhat "sunken" perspective in Walküre - the orchestra in Siegfried finally takes front stage alongside the singers. The orchestra playing sounded pacy, and at times scintillating, but never over-bearing. Most importantly, it did not have that "lethargic" feel (which kind of worked for Walküre but made Rheingold sound a bit boring).

I could almost taste the menacing undertones conveyed by the deep bass of the opening bars. The sound effects (metal clanging) accompanying the forging of Notung did not sound as loud (or as intrusive) as on the Solti version, but it did convey a sense of progress being made. The thunderstorm in Act III (as Siegfried confronts Wotan and smashes his spear) appropriately rolls around the room, taking good advantage of the surround speakers in the multi-channel mix.

Another thing that I quite liked about this recording is that it sounded less "antiseptic" and "clinical" than Walküre - I feel that it's a live performance, with footfalls, audience clapping at the end of each Act, and I can actually hear the audience gasping in the dragon slaying scene.

In summary, this is a "must own" recording (but you kind of knew that if you have already bought the previously released titles). But if you haven't, this is the perfect album to sample just how realistic a multi-channel SA-CD can sound. Finally, it's a wonderful performance that may just change your perceptions about this opera (it certainly changed mine).

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Review by threerandot April 16, 2008 (4 of 5 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
Asher Fisch and The State Opera of South Australia continue to reach new heights of Wagnerian excellence with this exciting recording of Richard Wagner's Siegfried.

For some, the opera Siegfried is not the most exciting part of Wagner's Ring Cycle. The most popular opera being Die Walkure. This recording of Siegfried is as exciting a recording of this opera as you are ever likely to find. With an excellent cast of singers, the mighty Adelaide orchestra, the impressive SA-CD surround sound and the control of Asher Fisch at the baton, this is truly a worthy Wagnerian performance.

Act 1 opens with a deliciously menacing prelude. Asher Fisch builds a slow and powerful climax, all while Mime works on the sword Nothung. The sounds of him working away help us to see in our minds eye, the on stage action, which really draws us into the drama. Richard Greager is an impressive Mime who creates a complex and rich characterization of the cunning little Nibelung dwarf who wants the power of the Ring and the Gold all to himself.

Gary Rideout is the hero, Siegfried, in this production and I don't know if a better Siegfried could be found anywhere. His is a lyrical voice but this seems all to the good. Rideout knows how to draw the character of Siegfried with great intelligence and a voice that has no trouble reaching the high notes. Just listen to his exchanges with Mime when he is asking where he came from and sings of the animals in the forest.

In Scene 2, John Brochelere returns as Wotan in disguise. He is the Wanderer who meets with Mime and their scenes together are also impressive. Brocheler's voice is impressive and the singing throughout this second scene is powerful and exciting. This scene can also become a little slow and tiresome in some conductor's hands, but Fisch keeps things moving along with plenty of energy.

In Scene 3, Siegfried returns to Mime and Asher Fisch really turns up the excitment level. Mime attempts to teach the young hero fear and the Adelaide orchestra's power and fury is unleashed. The sword forging scene is also full of thrust and excitment. Rideout sings of his new sword with great power and authority and the Adelaide orchestra is equally exciting. This entire first Act is a wonderful way to begin this opera, proving that Siegfried can be an exciting and visceral experience.

Act 2 is even more impressive with strong characterizations from all the players. Alberich confronts the Wanderer with his rage punctuated by the Adelaide orchestra and the Wanderer apathetic to his fate. As Siegfried ventures into the forest to face the dragon, the Adelaide orchestra paints a beautiful picture of the forest murmurs with plenty of atmosphere. Gary Rideout's voice is lyrical and sensitive as he sings of the death of his mother. In fact the whole forest scene has a magical and dreamy quality. His attempts to play the reed pipe to befriend the Woodbird is suitably comical, played by the Adelaide oboist. After Siegfried's Horn Call, you can hear the sound of the dragon slithering onto the stage. Siegfried's confrontation and killing of the dragon is a highlight.

Act 3 features some of the most exciting singing and action in this entire cycle beginning with Wotan summoning Erda for advice to heated exchanges between the Wanderer and Siegfried, with the Wanderer barring his way to Brunnhilde upon the Rock. Scene 3 is truly grand, with Asher Fisch leading the Adelaide Orchestra in a performance that builds up the tension between Siegfried and Brunnhilde. Rideout is simply fantastic as Siegfried with Lisa Gasteen's Brunnhilde equally matched. Listen for the Orchestra swelling and growing just before Brunnhilde awakens. The remainder of Act 3 continues to build in excitment with a grand close. Asher Fisch keeps the pace moving along with plenty of Drama and attention to dynamics. A memorable performance.

The packaging of these SA-CDs from Melba Recordings features a Jewel Case sized booklet with the SA-CDs inside cardboard pockets within the book. I did not really like the idea of taking my SA-CDs in and out of the sleeves, so I placed them in my own Jewel Cases. The problem with the cardboard sleeves is that there is sometimes a little glue on the discs themselves, which meant I had to wash them. I do understand that putting this package together did cut down on costs. However, my discs came in good condition and cleaning took a little work. The book is also covered in a kind of heavy clear plastic to protect the booklet, which I can appreciate. Overall I would have preferred a packaging more closely resembling the Harmonia Mundi operas. Nevertheless, this will not really detract from my final rating of these recordings. The book contains the synopsis, essays, photos, bios on the performers, a complete list of the performers in the Adelaide Symphony, recording information, as well as info on the Melba foundation. The Libretto features only German and English. A french version can be downloaded from the Melba website.

With an excellent cast and plenty of momentum that is never rushed, all concerned in this performace of Siegfried should be proud. The sound of the Adelaide Festival Hall is beautifully captured by the recording team in a warm and enveloping acoustic. Very highly Recommmended.

(This review refers to the Multichannel portion of this disc.)

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