Ever wanted to hear a Wagner opera performed with smooth singing: little or no barking, effortful huffing, or slow wobbling? Sure, there have been individual singers who have managed the trick, such as Plácido Domingo in Giuseppe Sinopoli’s famous Tannhäuser recording. But I mean the whole cast, from the biggest roles right down to the smallest. Well, here’s your chance: a complete Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg that is a near-constant pleasure to the ears. The only problem is that it’s sung in Italian: hence I maestri cantori di Norimbega. But don’t let that you put you off. Opera houses in many countries have developed their own national traditions of Wagner singing in the vernacular. Opera enthusiasts cherish certain recorded Wagner excerpts sung magnificently in French by soprano Germaine Lubin or tenor Georges Thill.
The names of Belfast-born soprano Heather Harper and Kansas-born tenor James King may not resonate for younger music lovers, but they sure do for folks my age. Harper was the glowing, nimble soprano in Colin Davis’s renowned 1966 recording of Handel’s Messiah and in Davis’s top-flight recording (ca. 1978) of Britten’s Peter Grimes, featuring Jon Vickers. James King was a steady, sturdy singer, though less magical in sound than Harper. Among his memorable recordings are Das Lied von der Erde (with Fischer-Dieskau, Bernstein conducting) and Solti’s Ring Cycle (in which he sang Siegmund to Régine Crespin’s utterly lovable Sieglinde).
There have been dozens of capable, and more than capable, recordings of Lohengrin. Among the most-often praised are the Sawallisch/Bayreuth (1962), Kempe (1963), Solti (1985), and Abbado (1991). Recording a major Wagner opera involves heavy costs that a record company may be unable to recoup. Hence the appeal of recording a concert performance. This CD set was edited from two such performances in Amsterdam’s famed Concertgebouw (literally: “concert building”) on December 18 and 20, 2015. The performance was semi-staged, i.e., done without costumes and sets. Some evocative lighting was employed. Characters made entrances and exits through various doors, and characters and (I gather) brass players appeared on balconies.
Hans Knappertsbusch was one of the most renowned Wagner conductors who ever lived. His recordings of Parsifal, especially, are near-legendary among confirmed Wagnerians. It was thus with some excitement that I opened a new 3-CD set from Orfeo, consisting of the first release ever of any performance of Lohengrin conducted by the conductor sometimes known among musicians and opera-goers as “Kna.”
Let me say first of all, as editor and publisher of New York Arts, how fortunate I consider myself that I was able to spend a few minutes chatting with Jefe Anglesdottir, the renowned Danish architect, familiar to anyone who has so much as glanced through Metropolis or The New York Times's T Magazine for his malls, museum car parks, and the cutting-edge houses of worship he has designed for what he calls "oddball sects," for example the Positivist Temple in Częstochowa and the South Beach Rosicrucian Center. In recent years his restless creativity has led him into other art forms, most recently opera production. His first effort in the field is ambitious, nothing less than Wagner's Ring des Nibelungen for the Launceston Opera in Tasmania. For this interview I flew to Abu Dhabi, where I met with Mr. Anglesdottir in the Al Dar Lounge, said to be the most luxurious VIP lounge in the world.
For Bostonians, getting to hear a live performance of Wagner’s ambitious third opera, Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen (“Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes”) was surely a once in a lifetime experience, which is what Odyssey Opera, Boston’s newest opera company, must surely have been counting on. Too bad that even in Wagner’s bicentennial year, and for the landmark inauguration of a new company, only some 600 of Jordan Hall’s 1013 seats were filled (the top ticket price was $200) for Rienzi’s Boston premiere, in a complete concert version. But those present certainly got their money’s worth (and probably so did the local restaurants, which filled up during the two-hour dinner break in between the two parts of the five-hour opera).
It was James Levine’s many cancelations that most directly led to his (perhaps forced) resignation as the Boston Symphony Orchestra music director in the spring of 2011. But Levine has no monopoly on health problems and accidents. The glow of the two superlative concerts I attended at Tanglewood (July 19 and 20) was clouded over by the startling announcement that Levine’s young and healthy replacement, 34-year-old Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, was unable to conduct the July 27 Verdi Requiem, his first scheduled concert since his appointment, because he had suffered a “severe concussion” after being “struck in the head by a door that unexpectedly swung open at his residence in Bayreuth, Germany.”
L'Opéra national de Paris, like most of the major opera houses around the world, with the notable exception of Bayreuth, have been building their new production of the Ring work by work over several years. I attended their Rheingold in 2010 and reviewed it in the Berkshire Review. Although I found the proleptic reference to Albert Speer's Germania questionable, I rather liked Günther Krämer's production at the time (The current French approach to Wagner favors native Germans both on the stage and behind it.); I was pleased with the cast; and I was deeply impressed with Philippe Jordan's conducting. The son of the renowned Swiss Wagner conductor Armin Jordan, he has an individual and thoroughly grounded vision of Wagner, which he can only have developed on his father's knee. Now three years later, on the eve of the Opéra's complete performances of the Ring in June, I saw and heard the same intelligences and imaginations take on Siegfried, often considered the most difficult of the music dramas as far as audience involvement is concerned, for reasons that are both obvious and bemusing.