|Site review by Christine Tham June 2, 2006
|It is not often that a reviewer gets to review an album that represents recording history in the making. This 4 disc set represents the first installment of the world's first multi-channel Hybrid SA-CD release of the complete Wagner Ring Cycle. Not only that, but the recordings are based on live performances from the first truly Australian production of the Ring, staged by State Opera South Australia in Adelaide in November-December 2004. I was fortunate enough to be one of the attendees of the well-received performances (third and final cycle).
For those of you not familiar with Wagner's Ring, it is a set of four operas (or, more properly, three operas plus a two and a half hours operatic prelude) composed by Richard Wagner. The prelude is entitled Das Rheingold, and the following operas are called Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Together, all four are collectively called Der Ring des Nibelungen (or The Nibelung's Ring) but is commonly referred to as the "Ring cycle" or even simply "the Ring." The story is about a magical ring that allows it's owner to dominate and rule the world, and it's impact on gods, men, giants and dwarves who tried to possess it.
Everything about the Ring is gigantic in scope and scale. A full performance of all four works takes over 15 hours and requires extraordinary stamina on the part of the singers and orchestra (not to mention the audience!). The orchestration is so rich and complex that many opera houses do not have a pit large enough to hold all the musicians. A complete performance of the Ring demands a lot from the opera-goer: not only is it very emotionally overwhelming but it's also intellectually and musically stimulating, with a full appreciation requiring familiarity with dozens of lietmotifs (recurring themes or melodies often tied to a particular character, motive, action or even abstract concepts that are weaved into all the operas).
As can be imagined, it takes a very brave and dedicated opera company to attempt to stage the entire Ring cycle. What is amazing about the Adelaide Ring Cycle 2004 is that it represents the second successful Ring cycle performed in Australia, both by a relatively small opera company in one of Australia's smaller capital cities. The first attempt (in 1998) was largely based on a French production, but the 2004 version (which forms the basis of this recording) is a genuine Australian production (costing over A$15 million partially funded by the State government as well as the Australia Council), with sets and costumes sourced from all over the country, and a young(ish), energetic, mostly Australian cast under the baton of Israeli conductor Asher Fisch and the direction of Elke Neidhardt.
The recording itself is equally ambitious, involving 65 microphones, over 60 hours of captured performances of 129 orchestral players, 70 chorus members, 27 principal singers (of which all but 3 are Australian), on a SADiE PCM-H64 multi-channel recorder/editor and a SADiE DSD8 mastering and authoring system. It is the largest single recording project undertaken to date in Australia, by a relatively small and obscure label (Melba Recordings, an offshoot of the Melba Foundation, partially supported by grants from the Australian government).
The release of a complete Ring Cycle on SA-CD is a defining moment for the fledging high resolution audio format, and parallels the first stereo recording of the Ring Cycle in the 1950s-60s (an ambitious studio undertaking by legendary producer John Culshaw on the Decca label, featuring the Vienna Philharmonic under Sir Georg Solti) which proved to the world that the Long Playing record was a viable audio format for large scale operas.
Comparisons with the Solti recording are inevitable, and Melba seems to be almost inviting or challenging the listener to put the two side by side. I suspect it's no coincidence that very first release in the Melba set also happens to the the last opera released in the Decca/Solti set. I own the Solti Die Walküre on LP as well as CD (both the version released in the 80s as well as the more recent 1997 remaster) so I am very familiar with the Solti version.
But enough of the hype. How does the recording sound? How does it compare to the live performances? And how does it compare to the Solti version?
I must admit, the opening bars of the Act I Prelude had me worried. The overall tone was a bit darker than Solti, and the performance seemed a bit subdued and lacking in excitement compared to the electrifying strings in Solti's dramatic opening. The pacing seemed somewhat ponderous and lackadaisical.
Fortunately, the opening is probably the weakest part of the whole recording, so if you are tempted to switch off at this point, don't. The orchestra picks up after the initial drum rolls (which interestingly, are also panned to the rear speakers on the multi-channel version) and by the time Siegmund sings the opening lines of the opera ("Wes Herd dies auch sei, hier muß ich rasten") my frown had turned into a smile.
Quite simply, this has to be the clearest and most well-balanced operatic recording I have heard. There's a sense of infinite depth and detail, with a nice reverb and ambience around the singers, and I definitely had the feeling that I could hear every single instrument in the orchestra, plus every nuance of expression in both voices and orchestra. Part of the detail no doubt comes from close miking of the orchestra, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much detail and depth there were in the voices, particularly since the recording captures them with a lot of reverb.
The overall recording level is fairly low, which is a good sign, for it means little or no dynamic compression has been applied. I would guess there's around 20dB of headroom between average and peak levels.
Curiously, in terms of imaging, the voices tend to float around eye level but the orchestra (particularly the strings) seem to sound as if they are emanating from the floor. Of course, this would approximately match the relative positioning of the singers vs the orchestra at the Adelaide Festival Theatre. I suppose I shouldn't really be surprised by a recording matching reality, but I didn't think the relative imaging would come through in a multi-mic recording.
I was also surprised by how quiet the background noise was (I remembered ambience noise in the hall was relatively high during the performances). Apart from various footfalls and scuffling as the characters move about on the stage, and the occasional subdued cough (I had a sneaking suspicion some of them could well be mine), the recording was eerily quiet and I wonder whether some noise removal processing had been applied.
Sometimes I think the engineers may have gone overboard in avoiding background noise. There is a loud raucous cheer of approval from the audience at the conclusion of the Ride of the Valkyries in Act III Scene I - in the recording, you can hardly hear them. Similarly at during Wotan's farewell to Brünhilde in the final scene, most of us in the audience could hear the hiss and crackle of the very real Magic Fire that Wotan conjured around his daughter (and indeed, feel the heat!), but on the recording there is nothing, nada, zip.
In the multi-channel version, all 5.1 speakers appear to be utilized, with all front three speakers actively used to reproduce the bulk of the music, and the rear speakers used to subtly extend the soundstage to envelop the listener. The subwoofer is used to subtly enhance the low end (and there's a few instances in the recording with significant low frequency usage). Discrete panning to the rear speakers are limited to the occasional drum roll, or off stage voices (in the case of the Valkyries in some parts of Act III), so those that can't stand instruments and voices coming from behind them can rest assured that they won't be offended.
The stereo versions (DSD and CD) are more conventionally mixed. Overall, I prefer the multi-channel version - I like the enveloping ambience. The CD version noticeably loses a lot of the detail in the instruments and dampens a lot of the reverb in the voices, but is still very listenable. I ripped the CD tracks onto my mp3 player and they sounded quite enjoyable even on earbuds.
How does the recording compare to the live performances? Very well, I must say. The venue is wider than it is deep, and the extremely wide soundstage in the multi-channel version captures the spatiousness well. I may even go as far as to say the recording sounded better than being there! I am certain I did not hear as much detail in the hall as I can in my living room, but I must also point out I was not sitting anywhere near the best seats (which were very pricey, and sold out by the time I bought tickets). On a good system, I would assert the recording faithfully captures (perhaps with a touch of hyper-realism) exactly what someone who paid thousands of dollars for the best seats would probably have heard.
Don't try playing the Solti version after playing this recording. The Solti version was a great recording in its day, and still is (with the LP version sounding noticeably better than either of the two CD remasterings) but will sound a bit shrill and boomy compared to this recording, with noticeable loss of detail due to harmonic distortion from the analog master tapes.
OK, but what about the performance? Is this a better interpretation of the opera than the Solti version? I have a soft spot for the Solti version, and I suspect it will forever remain the definitive reference performance of the Ring in my books, but there is a lot to like in this recording, and I may even suggest it's probably a better introduction to the Ring for a neophyte.
The first thing that struck me when comparing the two is that they represent very different approaches to Wagner's music. Solti has great dramatic flair, and impeccable timing, and under his baton Die Walküre reminds me a bit of a big budget action movie - I can almost imagine exciting chase scenes between Hunding and Siegmund, plus a brilliant swordfight, and the Ride of the Valkyries conjures up the kind of thrill that Industrial Light and Magic would supply. However, the singing is rather uneven in the Solti version, with some singers clearly past their prime.
In comparison, Asher Fisch's version transforms Die Walküre into an emotional, rather than a physical or intellectual, experience. We don't necessarily see the action, but we certainly feel and emphatise with the characters. It transforms the opera into a very human drama rather than a mythical epic. We sense the longing of two soul mates, the jealousy of a husband, the frustration of a god bound by his own rules and prevented from doing what he wants to do, the outrage of a goddess shocked by what she believes is morally wrong, and above all the love, hope, confusion, fear and stubbornness of a daughter who feels she is saving her father whilst disobeying him.
Asher's pacing is a lot slower than Solti, which doesn't work in the preludes to Acts I and III, where the orchestra seems to plod along, but very rewarding for the love duet at the end of Act I and the father and daughter farewell scene in Act III - both of which brought tears to my face.
I almost feel that the Vienna Philharmonic is the real star of the Solti version, but in the Adelaide Ring the orchestra is very much in the background, and the singers are the focus of the performance. This is probably one of the strongest and most well-balanced cast I have come across in recent years (and here I am mainly comparing to the recent ENO production of the Ring at the Coliseum, plus Opera Australia's production of Die Walküre in Sydney several years ago). Both John Bröcheler (as Wotan) and Lisa Gasteen (as Brünhilde) are superb, with lots of stamina and energy to last entire Acts without faltering, and we are very sympathetically drawn to Stuart Skelton as Siegmund and Deborah Riedel as Sieglinde. For me, Elizabeth Campbell's performance as Fricka was probably the weakest link, as her rather thin voice does not carry the depth of an imperious goddess that I would have liked.
Melba Recordings is smart to release Die Walküre as the first installment in the cycle. It is the most accessible and listenable of the operas, and perhaps not by coincidence was the last opera released in the Solti version. It is due to be released by Melba in mid June 2006, followed by Das Rheingold (October 2006), Siegfriend (February 2007) and Götterdammerung (June 2007). This review is based on an advance copy supplied by Melba Recordings in mid May 2006.
|Review by threerandot April 14, 2008 (5 of 5 found this review helpful)
|Asher Fisch and the Adelaide Symphony prove that they are worthy Wagnerian performers in this, the second opera in Richard Wagner's Der Ring Des Nibelungen.
In this recording of Wagner's Die Walkure, Asher Fisch continues to prove he is an intelligent and powerful Wagner conductor. He usually knows how quickly to pace things and doesn't usually let the action lag too much. There is however, a few moments where the action does slow somewhat, but for the most part, things are kept moving along nicely.
In Act 1, we are introduced to a trio of powerful and expressive Wagnerian singers, Stuart Skelton (tenor), is an excllent and poweful Siegmund, Deborah Riedel (soprano), is a beautiful and sympathetic Sieglinde and Richard Green (bass), is an imposing and characterful Hunding. A highlight in the first Act is the moment where Siegmund and Sieglinde meet. The strings of the Adelaide symphony enhance Sieglinde's sympathy for Siegmund's predicament. The removal of the sword from the Ash tree is a highlight.
After a stormy and exciting Prelude, Act 2 starts off with a somewhat shaky Brunnhilde in Lisa Gasteen. She seems to have a little trouble pulling off the high notes, but soon she finds her voice and sings impressively for the remainder of the Act. As for the exchange between Wotan (John Bröcheler, baritone) and Fricka (Elizabeth Campbell, mezzo soprano), I wish there was just a little more tension and drama between the two singers. The pace seems to slow somewhat, but quickly picks up in Scene 2, when Wotan and Brunnhilde meet up and Wotan performs his monologue, not only reminding us of what has happened so far, since the beginning of Das Rheingold, but also of his anxieties over what may happen if he is unable to have a hero obtain the ring for him, but without his coaxing. This is a difficult scene to pull off as it can stop the action. Instead, Bröcheler actually draws strong characterization of Wotan in this scene. Brunnhilde is also excellent. I should mention that Fisch keeps the pace moving and pays close attention to dynamics.
Scene 3 of Act Two features Siegmund and Sieglinde on the run and Sieglinde's nightmare is visceral. The gentle brass and tympani marking the entry of Brunnhilde upon Siegmund and Sieglinde in Scene 4 are excellently crafted, setting the tone of this scene beautifully. The Act ends with an exciting battle between Siegmund and Hunding.
Act 3 opens with an exciting and impressive Ride of The Valkyries. All of the Valkyrie singers in this production are impressive and the Adelaide Festival Theatre has an ideal acoustic to enhance their voices. Brunnhilde's fear of Wotan is palpable and in Sieglinde we find a powerful voice. This whole scene comes together beautifully controlled by Fisch.
I had my concerns about the ability of John Bröcheler to handle the role of Wotan, since he seemed to have trouble keeping his voice steady in a few places, particularly in Das Rheingold. However, as Act 3 progresses, we soon hear what he is capable of and he delivers an impressive performance. The emotions are turned up in Scene 3 with plenty of expressive and passionate singing between Wotan and Brunnhilde.
The closing minutes of this live performance are truly exciting. The Leb' wohl is beautifully sung by Brocheler with only slight uneveness in his voice which really does not distract. The orchestral climaxes that Fisch gains from the Adelaide Orchestra are awe-inspiring, with Wotan and Brunnhilde's embrace made all the more thrilling. Brocheler's voice is both powerful and tender as he lays Brunnhilde to rest upon the rock.
The brass are very exciting as Wotan summons Loge. The sound effect of Wotan's spear pinging the Valkyrie rock is like a giant anvil smacking solid concrete. A remarkable effect that will make you jump!
The Adelaide orchestra play the Magic Fire music beautifully with delicate harps in the surround channels for effect. Then the brass literally comes right into your living room! This is truly an exciting example of what Surround Sound can do. The closing moments of this recording are a highlight in this performance and indeed, this entire cycle.
This is an impressive live performance of Die Walkure. I did have some concerns that Brocheler and Gasteen would have problems in the closing moments of this performance, but they pull it all together wondefully. Fisch leads the Adelaide Orchestra who prove themsleves capable of some amazing playing.
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.
The recording here is even better than that for Das Rheingold. The sound is nice and deep without too much reverberation. There is some impressive panning effects in a few places to emphasize stage action. There is also a very pleasing amount of air around the sound, which I always look for. A worthy recording of Die Walkure! Very Highly Recommended.
(This review refers to the Multichannel portion of this disc.)
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