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Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold
27 Jul 2006

WAGNER: Das Rheingold

Was it so many years ago that lovers of Wagner's titanic multi-part opus, Der Ring Des Nibelung, focused their passion principally on audio versions?

Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold

John Bröcheler, Henk Smit, Graham Clark, Reinhild Runkel, Chris Merritt, Jurgen Freier, Residentie Orkest, Hartmut Haenchen (cond.)

Opus Arte OA0946D [2DVDs]

$35.99  Click to buy

Even when video tape and laser discs ventured into operatic fare, Ring cycles didn't exactly crowd the market. Not so today. The classic Boulez/Chereau set is in its second DVD incarnation, and lovers of the traditional have had the Metropolitan Opera's versions on silver disc for a while. The Barenboim cycle is emerging, and the last couple years have seen a controversial Stuttgart set and a recent Barcelona production. Now OpusArte offers on DVD a Pierre Audi-directed Ring, with sets by George Tsypin, which De Nederlandse Opera staged in 1999. At this rate, avid Wagner lovers will soon have so much of their master's work on DVD to contemplate that they may need social services to drop by and remind them to eat, bathe, change their diapers....

Das Rheingold, the so-called prologue to the three-opera Ring, can fit onto one DVD disc, but Opus Arte has included a worthy bonus feature of 50 minutes length, covering the production of the entire cycle, requiring an additional disc. Most remarkable for its candid interviews, this bonus has glowing remarks from the Wotan, John Bröcheler, on the rewards of participating in the production, and somewhat more ambivalent comments from Jeannine Altmeyer (who appears as Brunhilde, and therefore is otherwise not to be seen here). The soprano found one of the key features of some of the stagings - having the orchestra basically on stage with the performers - necessitated less detailed singing than she would like to have offered. That cannot be judged on the basis of this Rheingold, but she also suggests that the direction had her lost between very specific blocking and otherwise ambiguous, undefined instructions.

Perhaps that last attribute explains why the opera as filmed, while quite impressive in its individual elements, fails to achieve the grander, deeper impact that a fine production of Rheingold can. Some broader integral vision might have pulled together the striking moments into an impressive whole. Instead, this intermissionless opera feels episodic, rambling.

The staging is dominated by a huge platform of metallic scaffolding with a Plexiglass surface. This tilts at various angles, rising and lowering (sometimes alarmingly so, with respect to the singers' safety). A secondary structure intersects at times to suggests different planes, or locales. On the one hand, each different setting does have its own design, in a way. At the same time, the set never really looks all that different, just shifted around, and no real sense of "scene" develops - with the exception of Alberich's underworld, with its amazing explosions of fire and the slaves, looking like chubby versions of the aliens from Close Encounters, scurrying about.

Eiko Ishioka's costumes manage to be striking without assisting in developing character. The gods wear brightly colored robes of vaguely Greek design, and also rather silly looking rubber headpieces where hair should be. The giants appear to be made of stone, with something of an Aztec warrior look. Loge wears black, and Chris Merritt has been directed to strike vogue-ish poses, for no discernible reason. The trolls have misshapen, bald heads, and their gold-tinted clothing sprouts unruly hair. Of course, the various populations of Wagner's world must be differentiated, but whatever alchemy that makes them all part of a larger, coherent universe remains absent here.

The performers make valiant efforts. Graham Clark, a stellar Loge in the Barcelona cycle, offers his trademark energy as Mine. Henk Smit's Alberich lacks that edge of pathos which makes the character come alive. Merritt seems constricted by the odd directorial vision of Loge, but sings more than capably. Impressive vocally, Reinhild Runkel has no glamour as Fricka, but still manages to impress more than John Bröcheler does as Wotan. He lacks both the character's seedy grandeur and an attractive, powerful voice. Smaller roles are aptly done, and Hartmut Haenchen conducts with authority if not imagination.

Later releases of this cycle may offer more than the Rheingold. For many, the Boulez/Chereau staging will remain the benchmark for this "prologue."

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy

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