Kitchen Sink Drama, Living Room Opera
I'm listening to Act 3 of Siegfried - Karajan's DG recording and the melting tones of Orielia Domingez as Erda in dialogue with Thomas Stewart's Wotan. Its a side piece to the drama in some senses but I was reminded of something important about Karajan, opera on record and criticism of his recordings.
Back in the 1950's Karajan worked with EMI's Walter Legge to produce recordings of great clarity and presence and many of those have stood the test of time despite being in mono. The recordings were produced for reproduction on gramophone records and at the time across Europe the gramophone sat in the living rooms of the middle classes. Karajan and Legge produced some magical recordings of Mozart operas during that time. But the did so with a purpose - the recordings were made with reproduction in those living rooms in mind. I dare say every record company had that in mind, but Karajan and Legge sought to scale the drama down to an intimate setting a long way from the idea of musical theatre.
As a result the recordings I believe were constantly cast with smaller voices which could convey that intimacy. Karajan used only the finest orchestras which could play quietly but with full tone. He relied on engineers to balance the result and sometimes the scale of the score - such as Tosca's Act 1 ending precluded this technique. Sometimes the balance engineers couldn't get things right (and no doubt Karajan didn't help that - Turandot on DG being a notable train wreck). And sometimes the operatic writing went counter to the character's conception.
But listening to Siegfried on headphones on a train rushing into London, I'm reminded that Karajan's stage performances differed (sometimes radically) from those captured on recordings issued by both EMI and DG. His Decca recordings were, to my ear even less like the stage presence - but effective as products of a new way of reproducing the score in stereo.
In criticism of Wagner on record/disc often the Bohm's, Knappertsbusch's and the like are lauded as capturing the theatrical experience: frequently live Wagner is preferred to studio recordings. And where studio recordings are preferred it is because they sound like theatrical reproductions. I'm pretty sure Karajan wasn't trying to do to reproduce the theatre. I think he was reverting to his 1950s vision and trying to make opera recordings which existed for the most part in living rooms. They work pretty effectively in your head too - on headphones. They are not the same animal as Solti's proxy-theatrical tour de force. And to an extent the "weakness" often cited in the voices is a nature consequence of this approach and to judge these voices against theatrical norms is to miss the point. That’s not to say there aren’t problems with some casting: no recording is perfect and no Karajan recording ever set out to break that rule - indeed as one gets to know them imperfects reveal themselves - Karajan never got a perfect recording I don’t believe he sought that. At its extremes it reveals problems not in recording or casting but in the writing: the naive, angry and scared Princess Turandot should not be sung with the vigour and maturity of a singer like Brigit Nilsson - though she does it very well. Karajan's Ricciarelli - so knowing as Tosca - could never be both vulnerable and vigorous as Puccini instructs, so Karajan opted for vulnerable and the result didn’t please anyone.
It doesn’t work all of the time, but there are times when the sheer beauty and intimacy of this way of recording is magnificent. One such is the meeting of Erda and Wotan discussing the fate of the Gods: she is bewildered, wary and distant, the engineers see that her voice is "removed" but with minimum intrusion of the effect. He is arrogant and strong willed, certain of his own fate and that of his kind. The orchestral writing is placatory and calm. I will never know how this sounded on stage, but I'd wager the recording dynamics and contrivances wouldn't work on stage. This is a recording for personal enjoyment and reflection - the singers are but one part. The star of this set is undoubtedly the orchestra - as has often been said, but more than that, it is the way the orchestra play their part in teh drama, that is to say it is the way Wagner's writing supports the mood and line of the narrative. Wagner emerges, the story emerges and more importantly the allegory is all the more tangible for those who seek it. These may be Gods, heroes, dwarves and giants but they play out a series of human relationships which come out of the speakers (big or small) as emotions on a very human scale. Karajan's triumph is to make these not chamber operas, but family dramas played out by voices next to you in your easy chair.....or in my case the 08:52 to London Fenchurch Street.