Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Follow-up on Alex Ross review of Met Das Rheingold

These are two messages sent out to a few associates of ours, concerning Alex Ross's New Yorker review of the Met's current Das Rheingold.


Hi people --

I'm just so totally taken aback by this development that I truly have nothing to say this time (for some, that may be a blessing...........).

Look, here are three aural "snapshots" of three different Alberichs.  I honestly feel that one of these three is simply out of his depth completely, utterly, totally.  Please, is there something seriously wrong with my hearing?  Please tell me honestly: Do you sincerely find that all three are equally valid in their way?  Thanks.

Now if you don't feel that any one of these three sticks out like a sore thumb, a very sore thumb, then fine: I'm obviously clueless here.  Let Alex Ross be the taste-setter for today.  Here's something of what he said about the Alberich in this season's Met Rheingold that opened the current season.

This is how one of New York's leading critics appraises one of the less adequate Alberichs I've ever heard.  I know that others right here with just as much experience have also found this current Alberich perfectly acceptable.  Am I living in some alternate universe?  Please let me know frankly if you find all three of the audio files equally fine.  If you do, then it may be time for me to take a vow of silence; I'm plainly delusional.  There's plainly nothing wrong with this Alberich after all.  Right?  I've always known that no two sets of ears hear the same, but I still thought there were certain basic objective standards of musical definition like pitch, steadiness, line.  Are those standards bogus, or am I simply imagining deficiencies in these areas when none exist?


Geoffrey Riggs


It's past time to let everyone in on who the three Alberichs were whom I chose in my three recorded versions of the same Alberich solo, and why I made the choices I did.  At the risk of exasperating everyone yet some more, I'm first submitting here a reminder of the gist of my own recent (and exasperated) post to get everyone oriented.  That post was triggered by Alex Ross's unexpected rave for Owens' Alberich in The New Yorker.

Some may recall that previous to that New Yorker issue, on Opening Night of the current Met season, I was distinctly underwhelmed with both Eric Owens and Bryn Terfel as Alberich and Wotan, and I blogged accordingly (   But Ross's subsequent rave for Owens' Alberich has really mystified me and was the occasion for my follow-up post which I'm referencing here.   I have to wonder just what kinds of standards could Ross possibly be applying in rating Owens so highly.   I am frankly flabbergasted by his description of Owens' Alberich as "richly layered", sporting an awareness of the "word-music quality" in Wagner's writing in an "emotionally transparent" reading.  Candidly, I found the reading distinctly one-dimensional and unmusical.  Although his voice is clearly huge, the singing itself suggests a character singer to me in its crudeness.  I freely acknowledge that I only heard it in an HD transmission, not in person in the house.  And the fact that a lurker here whose opinions I happen to respect enormously wrote me that she saw/heard Owens' Alberich in person and that it "was a strong, well-sung Alberich, with a lot of energy and excellent vocal acting" only adds to my puzzlement.  Likewise, other positive notices from others who saw it in person seem oven odder to me.

This in-person response is not unanimous, though.  I do know of at least one long-time opera-goer with very sharp ears whose experiences of various Ring cycles is considerable, and she said bluntly to my wife Liz on the way out of the auditorium, "Worst Alberich I ever heard".   She was still in an apparent minority -- of those attending -- however.  Could hearing Owens' huge voice in person somehow ameliorate some of the wobble (I've known mechanical reproduction to exaggerate a vibrato)?   Maybe. Yet how could an in-person hearing ameliorate the distinct throatiness in the tone, the very curt phrasing, the uncertain pitch and the total absence of legato (even when describing the gods in Scene III)?

This is no longer a case of subjective impressions of the same singer from various perspectives.   It goes beyond that.   It is fundamentally different yardsticks being applied to what makes a singer of Alberich's music good and/or bad.   Yardsticks that just must be very different from mine, frankly.

Now I personally recognize two plausible reasons why Owens was hired and only two, and they are related: legitimately musical Alberichs like Richard Paul Fink (excellent in the role at the Met only last year and coming back for one performance this coming Spring) and Johannes Martin Kraenzle (who impressed me enormously with his musicality in the role at La Scala this past December) were probably not available, and so Owens was probably hired as a later choice, and he was also most likely hired because he does have a big sound.   There is no gainsaying the power and amplitude of that voice.   It's what he does with that voice that I find so questionable.   Ultimately, with a character-singer style and technique rather than with the legitimate musicality of an authentic principal singer, Owens does efficiently enough just about what a crudely effective character singer is capable of doing.   So I can't fault him for that (although I can fault his teacher and his coaching).  He was probably the only one available for this opening with the requisite power, so everyone had to make the best of it, including him.

But I do fault critics like Ross whose experience should tell them which attributes a leading Alberich at the U.S.'s leading opera house should ideally have.   How can any responsible critic claim that Owens is now a leading Alberich, when we have had not one but two examples just last year of authentic principal-singer Alberichs whose musicality dominated at the Met and at La Scala and reminded us of the full requirements for this role?   We're not talking in some fuddy-duddy way here of Golden-Age Alberichs of yesteryear; we're talking of two self-evidently musical Alberichs who are active and in their prime right now.   This is why the yardstick being applied by a critic like Ross is so strange to me.

I decided to check out which kinds of yardsticks would be applied by others here to three different readings of the same Alberich solo.   Had I simply lost my moorings and was I in a minority in applying certain basic musical standards to Alberich that other equally knowledgeable listeners simply don't apply?   I chose the crucial solo in which Alberich describes the gods in Scene III.   Here, if anywhere, basic musical standards do get involved in addition to characterization, since Alberich is not merely expressing his own feelings here, off-putting as they are, but is actually reminding us of -- and the music here makes this very, very, very plain -- another musical world in which loftiness and beauty are being overtly invoked.   In order for that loftiness and beauty to be invoked -- even if partly ironically -- the vocal style must match what the orchestra is clearly "saying".  Is the flowing orchestral line here matched in the singing in all three of the versions that I used here --

here --

and here? --

I wanted to ascertain how many responded to one of these far less positively than the other two.   I know there is one here that, for me anyway, sticks out like a sore thumb.  Without identifying any of the three singers, I wanted to see if others too would notice something amiss in one of the three while listening "blind".  The results, both from public and private responses, are now in.   Of course, one could always argue that the majority isn't always right.   But when a whopping majority feels that one of these is distinctly worse than the others, the contrary verdict of a respected critic, a verdict actually praising as notable the same Alberich singled out by others as the poorest of three(!), has to be challenged.   What does Ross mean when he writes of the "word-music quality" in Wagner's musical writing in such a context, when it's precisely on that count that this Alberich appears to be heard by many more here than just one as distinctly wanting?

These three excerpts were presented anonymously.   No indication was given as to who was who.   And here is how the choices panned out for the three.

None singled out AlberichA as the one who jarred with the rest.  Two singled out AlberichC as the least satisfying.  And a whopping nine respondents singled out AlberichB as the "sore thumb".  Whatever the vicissitudes of recording or of mechanical reproduction or of individual tastes, can one really write off such an overwhelming response as merely subjective?  It is plain to me, candidly, that whatever the exigencies, positive or otherwise, of AlberichB's impact in person, his singing does indeed come off as extremely crude on recording.

The two negative responses to AlberichC were "I like Alberich #3 least because his pitch gets sloppy and he slithers around" and "I found the last singer to be the most irritating what with the 'Bayreuth Bark,' sandpaper quality and goat vibrato".

The nine responses to AlberichB were "AlberichB was the poorest", "the middle one is wobbly, VERY WOBBLY, has a big  WOBBLY  bobbly ------voice", "#2 sounded distinctly more unsteady to me", "does display a substantial wobble in the voice during his first few phrases", "doesn't seem much attempt at getting a character developed, the ambition seems to be just to get the notes out ... B has the greatest failings", "B sounds like a goat", "has a wobble, and blusters, he does not sound threatening in the least, just huffy puffy", "the second one I don't know, but he's terrible", and "your sample shows him to be inferior to the two others you offered".

AlberichA is Richard Paul Fink with James Levine (2009); AlberichB is Eric Owens with James Levine (2010); AlberichC is Gustav Neidlinger with Hans Knappertsbusch (1956).  Ironically, some wrote in with the point that the conductor plays a big part in all this; yet those who singled out AlberichB as the least viable sometimes singled out AlberichA as the finest -- who is with the same conductor as AlberichB!  So plainly, that does not compute here at all, since we have the most acclaimed and the most criticized -- sometimes by the same respondent yet! -- heard with the same conductor.

I know now that just hearing these three without experiencing their presence results in pretty much the same response from others that I had myself.  It persuades me that I haven't lost my moorings or my hearing at all.  In fact, one extremely eminent critic wrote in privately to say "Nothing wrong with your hearing!", which -- my only being human -- frankly made my day, I can tell you.  I wonder if he knows just how much it meant to me.  Thank you.

Nothing here resolves the question of Owens' impact in the house, of course.  It's possible that the sheer amplitude of his tone in the house simply obliterates other problems because of its overall impact.  But I am still quite skeptical, and a critic of Alex Ross's presumed stature should still be able to tell the difference between the one-dimensional delivery of a character singer, however powerfully voiced, and an authentic principal musician.  Ross does note that Owens' voice is "more basslike than baritonal", pointing -- in my view -- to the distinct possibility that Alberich's music simply lies somewhat high for Owens and he was only intent on vocal survival.  I might well find him more viable as a Hunding or a Commendatore.  I might find less pervasive tension and unsteadiness in the tone in roles like those.  I'm only guessing, of course.

Look, these are the exasperated conclusions of an exasperated listener more baffled -- discouraged, frankly -- than I've ever been by an (?implicit?) complacency over musical values in Wagner, reflected in a readiness to acclaim a crude interpretation of a crucial Wagner part that strikes my ear as almost more spoken than sung.  If an Alex Ross can acclaim a character-singer Alberich as the very acme of Wagner interpretation, then I fear for the genuine musicians of the next generation caught up in the meat-grinder of a musical world in which dubious standards like Ross's become the norm and in which aspiring artists inspired by the evocative humanity in Wagner's music must trim their musical sails to conform to the crude expectations of a new generation scarcely able to tell the difference between a Fink and an Owens, and caring even less.

I am, though, grateful to Alex Ross for one thing: You see, the index of the English translation of the Cosima Wagner diaries is perfectly appalling, and thanks to it, I had given up any hope of ever being able to read again a remark that Wagner makes about Alberich during a train ride through sooty Victorian England.  I read it once when I read through both volumes many years ago.  But the index fails to mentions it, so I had shied away in later years from citing it due to my wanting to be sure as to Wagner's general gist at the time and my inability to find the remarks.  Ross, though, reaffirms what I had recalled by quoting from Wagner's remark on that occasion: Ross refers to Wagner himself having remarked that he could still feel a sneaking sympathy for Alberich in Alberich's yearning for beauty.  Now that is the remark of a master dramatist faced with the depiction, in Alberich, of a clearly warped soul.  However warped, the yearning that is still presented there must ring true -- and does -- if we are to be engaged in Alberich's story, his villainy and all, the same way we must be -- and are -- by yet another great tragic villain who also compels by the vividness of his humanity, Shakspeare's Macbeth.

Wagner's own sneaking sympathy for Alberich's warped yearnings vindicates my own feeling that there are indeed yearning aspects to Alberich's music (as in his Scene III evocation of the lofty beauteous gods) that must contrast with the hideousness of his ultimate choices, and if there are some here who feel that no understanding or stature at the Macbeth level must ever be allowed for the dwarf Alberich, then their quarrel is not with me but with the creator of this work.  Can Richard Wagner be wrong about his own Ring cycle?

Geoffrey Riggs


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