The American soprano Jenufa Gleich has recorded a CD with arias and songs by Richard Wagner. And they are the ones closest to the bel canto profession in which she was trained. Accompanied by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Fabrice Bollon, she here presents her calling card; the result is a beautiful album.
Not entirely unexpectedly, she opens with a great aria from Wagner’s first opera, Die Feen. In many ways, this work is an embryonic Wagner, a recognisable prelude to his later work, much more than Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi. But the composer made the same high demands on his protagonists that would characterise his later works. The prima donna in Die Feen, the fairy queen Ada, needs to be a dramatic soprano of the calibre of a Brünnhilde.
This has not stopped Gleich from including the very long ‘Weh’mir, so nah’ die fürchterliche Stunde’ in her programme and the result is astonishing. I have not often had the opportunity to listen to this spectacular piece; twice in the theatre and only once on CD, but her apparent ease and certainty in the difficult passages with often very high altitude, suggest that this soprano certainly does not have to shy away from parts like Brünnhilde.
And later we hear her in this role again. But first she performs the aria of Elisabeth who, after years of waiting for her beloved Tannhäuser, finds out that he is not among the group of pilgrims returning from Rome. Hope has turned to despair, the will to live is fading away. She prays to the Holy Virgin to accept her into heaven as an angel so that she can pray for Tannhäuser’s salvation: ‘Allmächt’ge Jungfrau’. It sounds touchingly beautiful and in fact I think Gleich is here at her best, of course this aria is also relatively close to her bel canto craft.
Earlier, Elisabeth was still full of hope, when she entered the singing hall after so many years: ‘Dich teure Halle’. This is a favourite of many sopranos who cautiously venture into the Wagnerian repertoire without wanting to go further than the romantic operas. Excellently sung, but perhaps a slightly too obvious choice. I would have preferred an aria by Isabella from Das Liebesverbot.
Via ‘Traf ihr, das Schiff’ or Senta’s Ballade from Der fliegende Holländer we arrive at the big surprise I mentioned earlier: Brünnhildes’ ultimate attempt to (just a little longer) keep the testosterone-fuelled Siegfried off her back. She is overcome by melancholy and fear of the unknown: the definitive break with her existence as a divine being. In ‘Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich’, the part that many also know as the instrumental ‘Siegfried Idyl’, Gleich frees herself from any last shred of doubt that the listener might have regarding her possibilities as a Wagnerian soprano in the great opera houses. The very high notes form a stumbling block for many aspiring sopranos but she takes them with such an apparent ease that,especially through repeated listening, you will be able to experience the performance in peace and quiet without any undue stress.
Up to now, Gleich’s experience with Wagner is rather limited with, among others, a performance as Dritte Norn under Jaap van Zweden in Hong Kong, also on CD. But Gleich is authentic Wagnerian material’, someone to look out for in the near future.
Last on the programme are the Wesendonck Lieder. A very refined interpretation, but one can hardly distinguish oneself with them. But with those earlier pieces one certainly can! This album is very worthy of a heartfelt commendation.