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Recordings

Rheingold
11 Sep 2005

Das Rheingold

Experienced listeners gain nothing but lose very little when a mediocre, even bad performance of Wagner’s stage works is released on DVD.

Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold

Falk Struckmann, Graham Clark, Günter von Kannen, Lioba Braun, Kwanchul Youn. Symphony Orchesta of the Gran Teatre del Liceu. Conductor: Bertrand de Billy. Stage Director: Harry Kupfer

Opus Arte OA 0910 D [2 DVDs]

 

They will have some experience of the abundance of recordings, spanning the whole of the twentieth century, that preserve an infinity of Wagnerian nuances, inflections, performance styles, and interpretative conceits. For inexperienced ears and eyes, the stakes are higher. Until recently the available DVD printings of Wagner’s works were a small and motley assortment. The options ranged from superb documents like Claudio Abbado and Wolfgang Weber’s Vienna Lohengrin (1991), through middling successes like Charles Mackerras’ and Michael Hampe’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg for Opera Australia (1991), to chilling miscarriages like Peter Konwitschny’s and Zubin Mehta’s Tristan und Isolde for the Munich Opera (1999). Scattered, valuable historical performances are to be had on DVD such as Karl Böhm’s 1973 Tristan und Isolde featuring Nilson and Vickers singing at Orange’s Roman theater, but this is the eviscerated remains of what looks to have been a rapturous performance, and is easy neither to watch nor hear in its current preservation. The situation has changed rapidly in the last year or so, with releases of a host of superbly staged and sung interpretations, many from the Metropolitan Opera (Meistersinger, Tristan), and the options continue to expand rapidly. The Ring has been blessed with a relatively kind fate: one could choose the splendid, museum-quality James Levine and Otto Schenk Metropolitan Opera cycle or its smarter, sexier, and better sung predecessor by Pierre Boulez and Patrice Chereau for Bayreuth. The release on DVD of the Theatre de Liceu’s Ring cycle, directed by the prolific and widely sought director Harry Kupfer, and conducted by Bertrand de Billy, since 1999 General Music Director of the Liceu, contributes significantly to the choices available to the experienced and, more importantly, neophyte listener. Kupfer originally produced this new Ring for Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden in 1995 (with sets by frequent collaborator Hans Schavernoch), and this Opus Arte DVD (OA0910D) gives us its subsequent incarnation at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. This is the second of Kupfer’s Ring productions to be filmed. The first was created for Bayreuth in 1988 and distributed on laserdisc by Teldec. Teldec’s audio CD of this performance remains available, but the laserdisc disappeared from the firm’s catalogue, and the curious listener may find it difficult, as I did, to locate a copy. The Bayreuth production, however, is to appear on DVD this year starting with the June release of Rheingold (Warner Classics 2564-62319-2).

It is difficult to examine Kupfer’s Barcelona Rheingold entirely on its own merits. Inevitably raised are questions as to how Kupfer’s earlier, tendentious reading of the work has evolved; how Kupfer’s direction and de Billy’s reading of the score advance or complement what Kupfer’s and Barenboim’s collaboration; and what interpretation of the Ring’s meaning has now been fixed in this DVD. Preserving the performance on DVD, after all, gives the production heightened authority to shape our understanding of the work: witness the powerful impact of the Boulez and Chereau Ring on an entire generation of Wagnerians.

Kupfer’s career needs no review in here; suffice it to recall the directorial agility and evident respect for music and performers demonstrated by his Orfeo ed Euridice (created for the Berlin Komische Oper’s 1987 season and filmed in its production at Covent Garden in 1991), with its contemporized setting in a fluid architecture of urban projections and mirrors, and his smothering, reptilian Elektra for Vienna (1989). Bertrand de Billy has recorded Tristan excerpts and the Wesendock Lieder for Oehms Classics, but does otherwise not have a high profile as a conductor of Wagner. Nonetheless, under his direction the Liceu orchestra renders much of the Rheingold score in long strokes of orchestral melody with a broad palette of instrumental colors.

Kupfer’s new Ring sets out with a creaky pantomime of Wotan loosening a branch from an already moribund World Ash. The camera stays close up, and too dim lighting denies us the larger stage context. When the branch is taken, a red light glows within the tree’s new wound—it is bleeding, or angry. A crime has evidently been committed. This Ring, one infers, will exact Nature’s revenge for violations against her, and we have witnessed in this pantomime a primordial violation, though perhaps not the first. Kupfer seems inclined here to draw from the Ring a linear eschatology: an original sin followed by inheritance of guilt, ending only with tragic expiation. The focus on the assault on the World Ash calls attention to Wotan’s despoliation of nature and reckless ambitions, and de-emphasizes Alberich’s subsequent theft of the gold. In a significant way, then, the Liceu production departs from Kupfer’s Bayreuth Rheingold. There, the Ring began with a soundless vision of an apocalypse, lit like a James Turrel installation and—unlike the present production—beautifully filmed. (This moment of profound silence is ensured in the privacy afforded the viewer by the video medium). The prelude then began with a flash of green laser light slowly propagated to define the murky bed of a putrescent Rhine. In Bayreuth, the end was emphatically the beginning, and Kupfer thus emphasized the tetralogy’s cyclic nature, and the inevitable, iterative unfolding of humanity’s progress and self-destruction.

The Bayreuth production, with its convincingly sexual Rhine daughters, made much of the erotic catastrophe in scene one. There, Alberich made a marked transition from physical longing through despair to lust for power: “Erzwäng’ ich nicht Liebe, doch listig erzwäng’ ich mir Lust?” In Barcelona, Kupfer has turned his sight on Wotan’s complicity. This decisive difference between the productions is underlined in Barcelona by the gripping mise-en-scène at Alberich’s warning in scene four that Wotan will be guilty of a greater crime should he take the ring (“an allem, was war, ist und wird, frevelst, Ewiger du”), one of the most compelling and best shot moments on this DVD. Wotan’s breaking of the branch is here a predecessor and counterpoise of Alberich’s crimes. Whether and how this apparent new focus will play out in the subsequent parts of the Barcelona Ring can only be known later.

Singers from the Bayreuth performance resume their roles here: Graham Clark returns as Loge, Günther von Kannen as Alberich, and Matthias Hölle, Fasolt in Bayreuth, is now heard as Fafner. Clark’s Loge, a cynical, athletic lout but an insinuating, ingratiatingly lyrical voice at Bayreuth, has changed physically and vocally. In Barcelona a single jumping jack stands in for his Bayreuth antics; vocally, we hear depravity rather than cynicism. He creates a very dark-hued character, a fire god with a good deal of smoke and ash. Von Kannen’s Alberich remains both a powerful actor and voice in the new Ring, although the Barcelona costuming—first grungy amphibian, later, gold lame--leave one nostalgic for the stylish lab coat of the Bayreuth production.

Apart from the apparently shifted focus of interpretation at Barcelona, much of the paraphernalia of the Bayreuth production is retained. The ring itself in both productions is an ostentatious bauble: visible, and visibly cheap. Scene one is quite differently conceived, a Rhine choking with the roots of the World Ash, populated by Rhine daughters more carp than minnow. The aquatics of the Rhine daughters are shot too close up, and awkward gestures are too apparent. Their most beautiful moment arrives as the light fades on the scene, when the three bow their heads in sorrow, clinging like lichen to the tree. The arrival of the gods in scene two takes place in dimly lit, nondescript ruins of what might be a modernist cloister or a warehouse interior, the stage floor patched with slag or pools of stagnant waste. Behind the ruins stands a scaffold supporting the lights that will later fluoresce to indicate the icy of blue of Erda’s subterranean realm and the rainbow bridge to Walhall. In Bayreuth the gods entered scene two decked in green garlands; the same garlands have now flowered in Barcelona. The gods still carry luggage, in Bayreuth transparent pieces, in Barcelona metal and opaque. If it was earlier clear that they carried nothing substantial with them, now they may have something, concealed … or the luggage might mean nothing at all. Reinhold Heinrich’s costumes approximate a generic Norse mythological style, perhaps touched by elements of timeless 1930’s or 40’s fashion. Wotan wears only half the sunglasses he wore in Bayreuth.

As Wotan, Falk Struckmann is all biker-dude, projecting vanity and arrogance without, after Erda’s warning, ever really becoming possessed by the paralyzing fear displayed by John Tomlinson at Bayreuth. Struckmann is entirely awake vocally as Freia rouses him at the opening of scene two; there is no slow emerging from dreams of “Mannes Ehre, ewige Macht.” Kupfer likewise rejected Wagner’s directions at Bayreuth (Wotan begins to sing “fortträumend”—while continuing to dream), perhaps to make the point that Wotan’s obsessions are manifested in full consciousness.

Lioba Braun’s Fricka sings with a cloudy diction, but otherwise within the boundaries marked by predecessors such as Kirsten Flagstad in Solti’s (Decca, 1958) or Josephine Veasey in Karajan’s (Deutsche Grammaphon, 1967) Rheingold. Flagstad produced a model of a bickering, stentorian, and somewhat frightening Fricka (a kind of Ortrud in a second marriage), and Veasey created a Mozartean, delicate, even sensual Fricka, with fleeting recitative rhythms and gentle lyricism in “Um des Gatten Treue besorgt.” Braun’s vocal characterization opts for neither of these sharply delineated characterizations, but hovers between them as a put-upon, disgruntled, but ultimately subdued wife. But Fricka delivers vitally important ideas in her exchange with Wotan: “Liebeloser, leidigster Mann! Um der Macht und Herrschaft müßigen Tand verspielst du in lästerndem Spott Liebe und Weibes Werth?” That shocked question, whether Wotan would treat love and women with such contempt, is prescient of Loge’s later inquiry into the special value of women (“Weibes Wonne und Werth”) and decisive for the action of Rheingold, indeed, of the whole Ring. The listener should be drawn to this verse by a Fricka who is deeply shaken by Wotan’s frivolous attitude. Braun does not quite carry this off vocally, but the camera gives the moment its needed intimacy, and the viewer is reminded that Wotan’s frivolity is another form of Alberich’s brutal rejection of love.

Elisabete Matos’ Freia is pleasing to hear but unengaging (there is little in the role to engage—Freia, much like like Notung, is hardly more than the tangible embodiment of an orchestral motive). Francisco Vas offers a convincing vocal characterization of the beleaguered Nibelung Mime, and his convulsive acting conveys pain and wile at the same time. It will be interesting to see how Vas develops the character’s sinister aspect in the soon to be released Siegfried. Andrea Bönig as Erda appears in stylized eighteenth-century coiffure and a diaphanous blue gown; the effect is striking but not more than decorative. An elevating rear stage takes the gods out of view, leaving Wotan to experience what might be a private vision, though Wagner’s poem makes it clear that all witness the Wala’s warning. (Kupfer’s Bayreuth production was more literal and made sense, with Erda rising through an exaggeratedly baroque mechanism: a pivoting stage floor simulating up-turned strata of earth. Kwanchul Youn (Fasolt) and Matthias Hölle (Fafner) sound good; they look helpless in their costumes, all hydraulics, pistons, and pincers that suggest the bane of mechanized industry.

The Rhine daughters are fine, but lack refinements we know from other performances. For example, Solti’s Woglinde (Oda Balsborg) sang a dazzling crescendo on the close of “fließt sein strahlender Stern” that was answered by the glisten of a trumpet before the Rhine daughters join in their hymn to the glittering gold. In Barcelona, there are no such subtleties. Many telling details like this are neglected in scene one, which is the weakest of this performance. The music sometimes feels rushed, and the unleashed energy encourages the Rhine daughters to let their praise of the gold drift perilously close to a drinking song.

Indeed under de Billy the Liceu orchestra generally inclines toward fast tempi. Some passages, like the prelude, only seem fast because of a lack of control. This prelude, which in the Solti Ring, for instance, is a subtly variegated, gradual expansion of tone color, becomes in the Liceu orchestra’s reading an uneasy transit from bare octaves and fifths to a raucous contest of irritable horns, anxious woodwinds, and overwhelmed strings. De Billy may be aiming for a more aggressive, disturbed prelude. In the famous opening of scene two, with its broad Walhall motive and rich scoring, de Billy emphasizes the staccati that punctuate the second and third beats of measures in the Walhall theme, which in other recordings are missing. Leaning toward faster tempi, he takes the accompaniment of Wotan’s “Vollendet das ewige Werk!” considerably faster than Solti’s luxuriant treatment. De Billy paces Alberich’s dialogue with Loge and Wotan (the “sehr lebhaft” in scene three) especially well, and the scene struck me with particular force in this performance. It is one of those strange hybrids found in the early acts of the Ring that preserves lineaments of the older ensemble style of Der Fliegende Holländer shot through with Wagner’s newer motivic and orchestral practices. The unobscured A major tonality, the regular, scalar figuration of the bass line, and the recapitulatory design all hint at his older, vanishing style. But an ingratiating solo violin variant of the Freia motive and its return, slightly inflected by clarinet, clamber from the orchestra to display one of the most chilling motivic transformations in Rheingold, and the whole episode is wonderfully executed here by orchestra and singers.

The Barcelona Ring is, as I’ve been suggesting, not entirely flattered by comparison with the 1988 Bayreuth production. It is in many details crude compared to the best extant audio recordings, and there is much to complain about with respect to the filming. Too many close-ups are miscalculated, including a long shot of Alberich that features one of the flood lights; lighting is often too dark, the set unintelligible. The magical moments are almost uniformly weak: on its introduction the gold itself is not visible (in any case I couldn’t see it) and Alberich too seems unsure where it is. The rainbow bridge is created with the thin device of gradually lengthening links of fluorescent light (the grid of lights that does this will be put to many uses throughout this cycle). And Alberich’s transformations into a giant serpent and frog are absurd: as far as we can tell, he becomes a large metallic lobster claw, and a rubbery frog is tossed about by a visible hand. But there are felicitous moments, such as the stretch in scene three when Wotan stands to the rear of the stage, arm outstretched, gazing at his newly captured ring, while Alberich bitterly laments the loss of the ring in the foreground, Loge between them.

On balance this Rheingold is a valuable contribution to the Ring options available to listeners. Its fine cast is accompanied by an interesting conductor and an orchestra who reveal--in patches--new and captivating aspects of Wagner’s score. The selective or harried viewer, forced to choose, might wait and be better served by Kupfer’s Bayreuth Ring. Some of the larger issues I raised at the outset of this review, meanwhile, may be better addressed at a later time in my comments on the forthcoming DVDs of this Ring cycle.

Anthony Barone

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