Skeptics will be reluctant to believe that this performance is as good as it is. To be most sympathetic to Gergiev's Wagner, you have to consider the almost total ban on Wagner's operas in the Soviet era, part of a well-earned antipathy to Germany after two annihilating wars. Using his power as czar of music in St. Petersburg, Gergiev has been rehabilitating many dropped strands of the standard repertoire, but it can't be said that his Ring cycle shows a lived-in quality so far as reaching into a deep tradition. Of course, I may just be rationalizing a favorite conductor - Gergiev's lumpish, slack Walkure, which opened this ongoing cycle based on live concert performances with the superb Mariinsky orchestra, seriously let down a world-class singing cast.
Here we move on to a much easier opera, Das Rheingold, which can be successfully mounted by any established opera house (no worries about underpowered Brunnhildes and Siegfrieds struggling to be heard). My complaints are few but not minor: I get the old fish-out-of-water feeling from Gergiev as the performance begins, where the Rhinemaidens sound jaunty rather than seductive, the rhythms skip along, and Alberich seems miffed rather than tantalized, outraged, and finally despairing. Gergiev skates over the wrenching moment when Alberich steals the gold by renouncing love forever - why isn't this a deeply moving moment? Certainly the stable of Mariinsky singers, who must have sung in several staged Ring cycles, are very fine; the Alberich of Nikolai Putilin is vocally very satisfying, but he hasn't been spurred to create a compelling character.
In the second scene a very mild-mannered Fricka (Ekaterina Gubanova) awakens her husband almost timidly. There's no denying the beauty and authority of Rene Pape's Wotan, but backed by Gergiev's uninvolved conducting, he comes off at first as a great voice searching for a dramatic reason to sing. Once the alarmed family of the gods enter, however, threatened by Fafner and Fasolt, Gergiev perks up, and I must say that all the singing is impressive, with an especially engaging portrayal of Loge from the sweet-voiced Stephan Rügamer. As for the giants, who could better the two superlative Mariinsky basses, Evgeny Nikitin and Mikhail Petrenko? You can forgive the cast for not being great vocal actors; in our era of diminished Wagner singing, this cast is like a return to paradise.
The best news is that the performance continues to warm up, and the singers are consistently superior to the cast on the most recent rival, Marek Janowski's Berlin recording, also done in concert, which I liked for its dramatic momentum. When a bitter, defiant Alberich is released from his bonds, Putilin's singing is thrilling and dramatically riveting. There are many moments like this, and they serve to cover Gergiev's tracks. He still fails to deliver the great orchestral passages at the heights of Furtwangler, Karajan, and Klemperer (and Donner's hammer is unforgivably silent). In the end, however, this is the best modern Rheingold for its glorious singing, beautiful playing, and ear-ravishing recorded sound. On balance, I might even rank it above one of the recognized classics, Solti's 1959 Vienna recording on Decca.
René Pape (Wotan), Nikolai Putilin (Alberich), Stephan Rügamer (Loge), Ekaterina Gubanova (Fricka), Viktoria Yastrebova (Freia), Zlata Bulycheva (Erda), Andrei Popov (Mime), Evgeny Nikitin (Fafner), Mikhail Petrenko (Fafner), Sergei Semishkur (Froh), Alexei Markov (Donner), Zhanna Dombrovskaya (Woglinde), Irina Vasilieva (Wellgunde), Ekaterina Sergeeva (Flosshilde)
Mariinsky Orchestra, Valéry Gergiev