Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra/Christian Thielemann (Opus Arte OA CD9000B D; 14 CDs)

6 January 2010 3 stars

RingThis new Ring from Opus Arte seems coloured by tacit criticisms. Most obvious is the fact that there's no mention that this cycle, recorded at the 2008 Bayreuth Festival, was a revival of Tankred Dorst's 2006 production. The box cover for each work in the tetralogy is all we have to give us a hint of what the production was like, while the booklets themselves are rather austere, text only affairs.

It would be interesting to know whether the visuals and the usual Opus Arte DVD format were eschewed for artistic reasons or for more prosaic, contractual reasons. As it stands, this is Opus Arte's first CD release – and the first of a new agreement with Bayreuth; Christoph Marthaler's Tristan is released on DVD this month – and the emphasis naturally shifts onto the purely musical side of things. Or rather the conducting: the booklet essays gush effusively about Christian Thielemann's role while declining to mention a single singer by name. This is, we are told, the 'Thielemann Ring'. The problem, though, is the fact that the other Rings we refer to by conductor – the Furtwängler, the Karajan and the Solti are cited – were all also distinguished by some outstanding singing. Even if one doesn't subscribe to the clichéd view that the golden age of Wagnerian singing is long gone, Bayreuth has assembled a cast that is some way off the best that one could have seen in New York, London or Vienna over the last five years.

Thankfully, at least Thielemann is up to the billing. Always a controversial character, whose recent appointment in Dresden was greeted with excitement and dread in almost equal amounts, it can be difficult to argue with his achievements in the core Austro-German repertoire. His account of the Ring, then, fully deserves to have been captured and as he sailed majestically through the Götterdämmerung's magnificent final forty minutes I almost forgot the long passages earlier in the cycle where I'd waited impatiently, sucking my teeth and shaking my head, for some singing of real quality. This was worst during the final two operas, where there really is very little to admire from the cast, Albert Dohmen's Wanderer notwithstanding. Stephen Gould's achievement as Siegfried should not be made light of – he gets through the role manfully and rises to a fine death scene – but he is hampered by a total lack of heroic ring in the voice, and the basic sound needs more of a solid, steely core to help it through the tiring tessitura. His rather shouty exchanges with Gerhard Siegel's over-emphatic Mime are something of an ordeal in Siegfried Act One. Matters hardly improve with the reappearance of Linda Watson's Brünnhilde in Act Three. Hers is a powerful voice, and she obviously inhabits the role, but it is unsteady and approximate above the stave. As a result, we feel little of the ecstasy we should in their extended duets, even if Watson captures the character's pain well in Götterdämmerung Act Two and gets through the Immolation Scene with dignity.

If Bayreuth has trouble with some of the principals, you'd at least them to be able to call upon strength in depth for the smaller roles, but, particularly in Götterdämmerung, this is unfortunately not the case. Ralf Lukas's woolly Gunther would be passable in a small German house, but surely not at Bayreuth, especially when one thinks that recent recordings from the Bayreuth archives have included singers of the ilk of Hans Hotter in this role. Hans-Peter König has all the notes as Hagen, but none of the menace; his voice is simply too avuncular. Edith Haller makes a plangent, hesitant Gutrune but there's nothing Valkyrian about Christa Mayer's plummy Waltraute.

Thankfully, the earlier instalments fare much better, with Dohmen's Wotan at their centre. His dry bass-baritone is not a voice to give much sensual pleasure, yet he sings with nobility and powerful, sturdy authority, even if the effort on certain notes makes for some indistinct vowels. Endrik Wottrich's Siegmund is similarly more sturdy than steely, but opposite him Eva-Maria Westbroek's Sieglinde is a breath of fresh air: ardent and lyrical. Michelle Breedt makes a well sung, serious Fricka.

Thielemann's conducting of Rheingold manages to fuse drama with epic expansiveness and I've rarely heard such menace in the Niebelheim music. As such, Andrew Shore's Alberich gets a considerable helping hand, but it is still a portrayal that relies more on verbal dexterity than vocal power. At the other end of the spectrum, the orchestral accompaniment to Wotan's 'Abendlich strahlt' is ideally stirring. Lukas is better cast as Donner, but still worryingly woolly, ill-matched to Clemens Bieber's Froh. Arnold Bezuyen makes a wily, lyrical Loge. König is better suited to Fafner, too, with Kwangchul Youn as Fasolt; neither booms as one might like, but they are very respectable, with Youn later making a fine Hunding.

Throughout, the playing of the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra is truly excellent, particularly the luminous brass. The orchestra, with Thielemann, therefore ensure that there's always something in Wagner's orchestra to enjoy, whilst unerringly nailing all the big set pieces. Thielemann's approach tends towards the lyrical and relaxed more than the hard-pressed, often reminiscent of Karajan's sometimes under-appreciated recording, and is not without some minor eccentricities (a sudden shift down a couple of gears at Siegmund's 'Auf lacht' ich' before 'Winterstürme', for example). Ironically, the accompanying contributions of the singers would be less of an issue, I suspect, had we had the Gesamt-shooting-match on DVD. As it is, with just the sound, we are left in a very un-Wagnerian position of judging things in purely sonic terms, where the inadequacies of too much of the singing cannot be ignored.

It's also difficult to ignore the state of the market. The casts of other commercially available Bayreuth Rings are significantly better – indeed, those from the 50s and 60s are in a different league entirely – and this new Ring is not cheap, although Opus Arte's sound is excellent for a live recording. Nevertheless, Thielemann's legion fans will want to snap it up, and all Wagnerians will want to give it a listen.  For lesser record-buying mortals, it can hardly be counted as competitive.

By Hugo Shirley