René Pape – Gods, Kings & Demons

0 of 5 stars

Faust – Le veau d’or est toujours debout; Sérénade: Vous qui faites l’endormie
Mefistofele – Ballata: Ecco il mondo, vuoto e tondo
La Damnation de Faust – Voici des roses
Don Carlo – Ella giammai m’amò! … Dormirò sol
Les Contes d’Hoffmann – Scintille, diamant
Das Rheingold – Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge
Tristan und Isolde – Tatest du’s wirklich? Wähnst du das?
Anton Rubinstein
The Demon – Romance: Na vozdušnom okeane; Romance: Ne plac’, ditya
Rusalka – Běda! Běda! … Celý svet nedá ti
Boris Godunov – Death of Boris [original version of 1868/69]

René Pape (bass)

Staatsopernchor Dresden

Staatskapelle Dresden
Sebastian Weigle

Recorded February 2008 in Lukaskirche, Dresden

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: December 2008
CD No: DG 477 6408
Duration: 66 minutes



In the last few years René Pape has inherited the position of leading international operatic bass formerly held, in sequence, by Boris Christoff, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Ruggero Raimondi and Samuel Ramey. He sounds mightily impressive in broadcasts, nobility of tone being combined with penetrating interpretations.

This is an adventurous collection. It appears to be intended as a showcase for the singer’s versatility, linguistically, vocally and dramatically. Five different languages, arias for bass rubbing shoulders with some which have been undertaken by bass-baritone or even baritone, roles for lyric bass, others for a singing actor. He claims to have been inspired by a 1952 LP “Of Gods and Demons” by the Canadian-born bass-baritone George London and indeed several of the arias included here are shared with London’s record. London was, however, much more baritone than bass, an Amfortas rather than a Gurnemanz, an Onegin rather than a Gremin. Pape seems uncomfortable with his own lack of true bass resonance and to be searching for another string to his bow. Unfortunately he cannot encompass with equal success the whole repertoire that he essays here; I doubt whether any singer could.

First the Demons. Pape’s Mefistofele I find more idiomatic than his Méphistophélès. Gounod’s villain needs either a more colourful characterisation or an ironic presentation. Both solos recorded here leave a pallid impression, though vocally he is more at home in the high tessitura and winding vocal line of the ‘Serenade’. He seems to find more stimulation in Boito’s character; certainly the ‘Ballata’ emerges as an original and challenging piece. His approach to the music is pithy; he relishes the text and creates a figure that fully merits his status at the centre of the opera. Outward menace is created by his peremptory delivery and snarling inflections, supported orchestrally by Iago-like brass trills and triumphant trumpets and timpani that underpin the ending. The moments of sinister sotto voce planning are also given their due.

Pape’s selections from the Slavonic repertoire favour the high baritone seat of his voice. The two romances from Act Two of “The Demon” and the aria of the Water Sprite from Dvořák’s “Rusalka” are more seductively melodic than menacing but they afford him opportunities for smooth legato singing. The first of the Demon’s two song-like arias is sung in a perfect partnership between voice and orchestra; the voice never rising above mezzo-forte within the great arch of string sound.

Now to the Monarchs. Pape excels as König Marke (in “Tristan und Isolde”). His strategy for the long monologue is to observe the natural division into episodes, treating each as a scene in a theatrical narrative with its natural rhythm, building to the climax of the act in the last “Nun, da durch solchen Besitz”. En route his observation of Wagner’s markings is painstaking and appreciative of the reasons for changes of tempo or dynamics. Examples of his colouring of individual words are numerous: the contrast between the tender regret audible in “den freundlichsten der Freunde” and the fury injected into his tone at “mit feindlichstem Verrat” shows poetic as well as musical understanding. Marke’s bewilderment is consistently portrayed, while his human reactions to the two lovers are encapsulated in the heart-breaking cantabile of “Dies wundervolle Weib” and the loathing-packed denunciation of Tristan in the word “Unseliger”.

Verdi’s King Philip is another signature role. The positioning of the voice several degrees of the scale above that of its customary performers is disconcerting: one expects the king’s feelings to well-up from the depths – here the lack of tonal weight suggests superficiality, not helped by a routine performance of the orchestral writing. In exchange Pape chooses to emphasise the importance of words; on occasions he even resorts to parlando. Where elsewhere in the recital one admires the crispness of his enunciation, here he has made a misguided choice in the old debate about Ton and Wort.Departure from tradition is a definite plus in the ‘Death Scene’ from “Boris Godunov”. Chaliapin and Christoff left us expecting self-pity from the start and overplayed histrionics throughout. Pape’s Boris remains lucid until late in the proceedings. He is positive with his son about the succession and strong in his political advice. The appeal to God to protect his offspring is not abject, though the voice contains plenty of pathos. Only when the funeral-bell tolls does life start to palpably drain from the dying Tsar. He rails against oncoming death but without slobbering and his final assertion is a convincing end to a scene in which narrative can be lost to excessive emphasis on character.

Should the word “Masters” have been added to the title of this release? Pape seems to want to demonstrate his mastery of skills both within and well outside his Fach. It is something of a virility symbol among baritones to end Dappertutto’s aria up a third on a G sharp. Pape takes the interpolated high ending but he cheats by singing the aria down a tone-and-a-half!

There is only one God on this roster but it provokes the most interesting response from the singer. Wotan’s greeting to Valhalla confirms the statements Pape makes in the accompanying booklet about singing Wagner. He is not the first singer to express his intention to adopt a lyrical line; I often feel this amounts to no more than paying lip-service to a fashionable idea but in Pape’s case he turns theory into real action. Adopting a slow, stately tempo, he gives the vowels their full value and in certain significant cases – “Glut”, “Nacht”, “Neid” – and most importantly with “Walhall” he makes a steady crescendo through the utterance of the word; and all this without neglecting the consonants.

So perhaps this recital, variable in itself, is a signpost for Pape’s future: rather than establishing the right of succession to the great basso cantante tradition as originally thought, he ends by suggesting that his future may lie as an international Wotan, the path trodden in recent years by bass-baritones Donald McIntyre and James Morris. Confirmation comes from his engagement calendar: His debut as Wotan is pencilled in for 2010. I imagine he will thereafter be much in demand.

Staatskapelle Dresden under Sebastian Weigle only occasionally seem wound-up for their assignment. The recording is admirable but a couple of verbal slips have been allowed to go uncorrected. Texts and translations are provided.

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