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Wagner: Das Rheingold(2008)
Legendary conductor Zubin Mehta leads world-class Wagner singers such as Peter Seiffert, Petra-Maria Schnitzer and Matti Salminen, and promising young talents that include Jennifer Wilson (Brünnhilde), John Daszak (Loge) and Juha Uusitalo (Wotan), whom the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung hailed as a new 'Number One among the opera gods.' Equally outstanding is the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana, an ensemble of top musicians hand-picked by Music Director Lorin Maazel.
For more about Wagner: Das Rheingold and the Wagner: Das Rheingold Blu-ray release, see Wagner: Das Rheingold Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on February 13, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: Juha Uusitalo, Stephen Milling, Anna Larsson
Director: Lorin Maazel
» See full cast & crew
Wagner: Das Rheingold Blu-ray Review
The most visually audacious 'Ring' cycle in recent memory is off to a rousing start with this astounding 'Rheingold.'
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, February 13, 2010
Contemporary entertainment has pushed the envelope in terms of its immersive quality to the point where it's probably well nigh impossible for us to imagine what a theatrical experience in days of yore might have been like. Especially with regard to opera and music theater pieces, we're so far removed from both the nascent, more courtly aspects of early performance, and the later, larger and more traditionally stagebound efforts that when some upstart director comes along to radically reimagine a vaunted work to make it more of a visceral experience for modern audiences, they frequently either come off as arrogant, misguided or both. I had just that kind of reaction to last year's Blu-ray releases of the Staatskapelle Weimar Ring cycle, a gloriously sung and played event that nonetheless reeked of directorial hubris and had so many jaw droppingly strange moments in it that I sat weirdly transfixed for hours, not able to either fully grasp or, frankly, believe what I was seeing. (You haven't lived until you've experienced Fafner as the Michelin Man, or, even better, Alberich as Dorf. But I digress). I fear those of you who have been reading my opera reviews here for some time will claim I'm being woefully inconsistent, and in fact I think I must concur, but this audacious new production of Wagner's most gargantuan work is at once thrillingly different and brazenly modern and unafraid to exploit aspects of multimedia presentation. This is not to say it works one hundred percent of the time, for it most certainly does not. But unlike the Staatskapelle Weimar version, this audacious production featuring the Catalan theater troupe La Fura Dels Baus offers a consistent directorial approach that at least attempts to mine Wagner's text for its visual flights of fancy, rather than imposing an external, and often completely nonsensical, "vision" from without that neither meets the needs of the work itself nor helps the audience to enter the world which is being created.
Wagner's multi-evening Ring cycle typically kicks off with his prelude piece, Das Rheingold, a solemn and, yes, at times lumbering attempt to give the audience enough context and backstory so that they're at least partially prepared for the onslaught which is about to overtake them in the "real" triptych which comprises the Ring proper. I have neither the scholarly discipline nor, frankly, the bandwidth to provide a proper penetrating synopsis for any of the four gargantuan jigsaw puzzle pieces which join together to form the Ring, but I will say that Das Rheingold seems more and more to me as I (hopefully) grow in wisdom with my advancing age, to be more or less about the repercussions of unrequited love. When the tragic dwarf Alberich is rebuffed by the three Rhinemaidens, whose task it is to guard a hoard of magical gold, Alberich flies into a rage, ultimately stealing the gold and forging the ring which (along with a helmet made by his brother Mime) provide him power over nature and the entire created universe. It's like every jilted high school nerd's fantasies come true and writ very, very large indeed.
That sets the stage for the unbelievably labyrinthine set of characters and plots which is about to unfold over the course of the subsequent three episodes, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung. In that regard, Das Rheingold, despite its near three hour length, is a model of concision and focus, spending its time following Wotan, the king of the Gods, and Loge, the fire god, who set off on a quest to the Nibelungen underworld to confront Alberich and reclaim the gold, now of course in a different form than when the opera began. When forced to relinquish his "precious" treasure (Alberich is, of course, one of the inspirations for Gollum, though J.R.R. Tolkein was loathe to admit it), he casts a curse on the gold which sets a long, tragic sequence of events in motion which culminates in the death throes of Götterdämmerung.
What I'd really like to talk about in place of a detailed synopsis is the astounding vision which director Carlus Padrissa has brought to this project. Though I have at this point only seen Das Rheingold, I'll soon be tackling Die Walküre, with the final two installments to follow hopefully within a month, but I can already state quite positively that if the subsequent operas are even half as surprising as Das Rheingold, this is going to be one of the most talked about Ring productions ever, for better or worse. The most immediately dazzling aspect of this production is the amazing use of 3D computer graphics which often illuminate the backdrop behind the players. (Though it seems that the technology is largely back projection, from time to time various patterns of the projections play out on the singers' faces, which is a bit distracting). Sometimes these projections can be quite literal, though no less exciting as a result of that fact, as when Wotan and Loge "fly" through the sulphurous cleft to reach Alberich's hideout. At other times, they're clearly symbolic, as when a sort of 2001-esque starchild appears behind Alberich and the Rhinemaidens, obviously a glyph for what the "gold" really portends—a new era for Man, and indeed a new kind of Man. When the bright, shiny green projection melts into a sodden, black ape-like mass, it's about as clear a visual cue as to what is about to happen as any dark, altered dominant seventh chord in Wagner's arsenal may be able to foreshadow in aural terms.
Some of the approaches seem either brilliantly innovative or, perhaps, over the top and downright silly, depending on your "purist" point of view. For example, one thing that did not work for me was Loge scurrying about the stage on a Segway (yes, you read that correctly). On the other hand, recasting Fafner and Fasolt as something akin to mechas from the world of animé seems wonderfully ingenious, if it creates some staging issues late in the evening when the brothers must fight, with one of them not surviving the battle. The costumes seem both redolent of the breastplate and horned helmet era, as well as sort of faux-forward leaning, in a quasi-Flash Gordon way. (In fact, Loge's makeup and costuming is more than a bit reminiscent of Ming the Merciless). The gods and goddesses "float" in space on huge cranes which are pushed around by members of La Fura dels Baus, and that body of acrobats also does some astounding work that is very reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil at times, especially in the closing sequence when scores of the troupe make a sort of Valhallic cupola into which Wotan and his crew enter, ignoring the plaintive cries of the Rhinemaidens.
Musically this is an assured and confident reading of Wagner's score, under the able direction of Zubin Mehta. The playing of the Orquestra de la Communitat Valenciana is never less than competent, and at times, especially (if somewhat anachronistically considering Wagner's rightly lauded brass orchestrations) impressive in the string playing. John Daszak's Loge is positively lugubrious, and Juha Uusitalo's Wotan is appropriately commanding and full of gravitas. Fricka finds voice in the liquid abilities of mezzo Anna Larsson.
Too often these radical revisions of classic works devolve into excess and incomprehensibility. I'm sure that some (perhaps even many) will accuse this Ring of being guilty of the former, but I doubt few, if any, will be confused by the choices made here. While I wasn't completely swayed by this approach, it has me more excited about this piece than I've been in a long time, and that certainly is a good sign. I frankly can't wait to see what they've done with Die Walküre.
Wagner: Das Rheingold Blu-ray, Video Quality
Das Rheingold arrives from C Major and Unitel Classics with a 1080i 1.78:1 AVC encoded image. For the most part, the results are spectacular. A lot of this prelude to the Ring proper is bathed in cool blue (with the exception of Loge, who is covered with a red follow spot most of the time, befitting his fiery demeanor). Colors, while on the dark side due to minimal stage lighting, pop nicely and show suitable gradations of hue. For the most part, the incredibly intricate costumes also resolve nicely on this Blu-ray, which at times is a bit suprising, considering the closely woven patterns which dot some of the futuristic apparel. That said, Freia's cowl does devolve into shimmer pretty badly at times, but that was the only instance of really egregious artifacting I noticed throughout the near three hours of this piece. The backdrop projections are all astoundingly beautiful and really well rendered, providing some gorgeously saturated colors and some very "trippy" effects along the way. Greens and reds on these projections are especially impressive.
Wagner: Das Rheingold Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Most potential purchasers of this title are of course going to be most interested in the soundtrack, and the DTS HD-MA 7.1 mix is wonderfully evocative about 99% of the time. Mehta leads a less than world famous orchestra (one must be honest, musn't one?) through their paces with aplomb and the results are largely extraordinary. The DTS track reproduces the playing brilliantly, and offers a clarity and warmth that make Wagner's brilliant orchestrations literally glimmer with excitement. I found a couple of Mehta's tempi to be a tad on the anemic side, but overall this is a worthy addition to the Wagner catalog. The singing is uniformly excellent (though some of Alberich's sprechgesang could have been better handled). My one qualm is very occasional balance issues. You'll hear it quiet noticeably in the opening moments with the Rhinemaidens, when just so fleetingly you can't quite catch what they're singing. For the most part though, this is a wonderfully realized soundtrack supporting a top flight performance. The 2.0 folddown, which I sampled here and there, sounds just fine as well and should delight those who don't have the surround option, but my recommendation is of course to go with the 7.1 track, which offers some really compelling low end and which utilizes the surround channels quite effectively, both in terms of orchestral "spill," and, for example, in its nice discrete channel effects in the closing scenes with the offstage Rhinemaidens.
Wagner: Das Rheingold Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The main bonus, aside from a trailer and photo gallery, is the excellent Making of featurette, which runs 26:59. This offers interviews with Mehta and the principals, as well as the production designers who frankly play just as important a role in this version as the onstage personnel.
Wagner: Das Rheingold Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
This is most certainly not your father's Ring cycle, so forewarned is forearmed. That said, for once a directorial vision is at least tied to the source material and this production offers one astounding visual moment after another. Well sung and well played under the nuanced direction of Zubin Mehta, this will most assuredly be a talked about offering.
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