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Wagner: The Ring Cycle(2008)
No synopsis for Wagner: The Ring Cycle.
For more about Wagner: The Ring Cycle and the Wagner: The Ring Cycle Blu-ray release, see the Wagner: The Ring Cycle Blu-ray Review
Wagner: The Ring Cycle Blu-ray Review
This ain't your father's Ring Cycle. Unless your father did a lot of drugs.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, September 19, 2009
It strikes me as rather telling that all but one of the pull quotes included on the slipcase of this new boxed set featuring the previously released standalone BD's of the four mega-operas which make up Richard Wagner's Der Ring Des Nibelungen are about conductor Carl St. Clair and the largely impeccable orchestral playing that accompanies these performances by Staatskapelle Weimar. I have reviewed each of the standalone releases as they came out (and this compendium utilizes parts of those previous reviews), and I repeatedly praised the musical side of things throughout the mammoth quartet, certainly one of the most epochal creations in all musical, let alone operatic, literature. Similarly, I was just as appalled by some of the staging choices, especially in The Ring's prelude, Das Rheingold, choices which, to my eyes anyway, cheapened the epic, even mythic, ambitions of Wagner and made the proceedings more often than not unintentionally funny. So it doesn't surprise me not to see critical acclaim for some odd (and I'm being generous) directorial choices in this Ring Cycle. Following are my ruminations on the individual releases of Der Ring Des Nibelungen.
I literally sat with my jaw agape for close to three hours watching Das Rheingold, uncertain whether this could actually be some sort of weird, quasi-classical edition of Punk'd I had stumbled into as the unwitting practical joke victim. After repeatedly checking my home entertainment environment for hidden cameras, I slowly came to the shocking realization that this production of Wagner's prelude to The Ring cycle actually was taking itself seriously, my reaction be damned.
I knew we were into a "Eurotrash reimagining" of this vaunted work when it started not with Wagner's famous Eb ostinato, but instead with a spoken introduction (in verse, culled from Wagner's own Prologue to Siegfried's Death, and promoted as Wagner's "original ur-scene") by three young Aryan lasses wearing hand sockpuppets. Though these puppets looked like dragons, all three girls were saying "Quack, quack, quack." I thought for a moment Shari Lewis had dropped acid and directed this fascinating, little known bit of Wagneriana, at long last found and restored to its rightful place before the piece really begins. Once the opera actually began, I literally could not believe what I was seeing. Alberich and Wotan, wearing more or less modern dress, stared at each other as the famous four minute musical prelude gathered its fury. And then the Rhinemaidens actually appeared above the dwarf and the gods, standing on a sort of cardboard cutout that, while visually interesting, made loud "thunk" noises every time the women's undulating arms mistakenly hit it. Now that's hard water.
But wait, it gets better. Alberich, who appears to be standing at full height, despite his dwarf status, is then suddenly a precursor to Tim Conway's Dorf character. He dons little red boots, attaching them to his knees, and then hobbles around for most of the first scene with his little fake legs flailing in front of him. I half expected him to take Wotan's spear and turn it into a golf club. It is one of the most patently hilarious things I've ever seen, all the more incredible when you consider what a tragic character Alberich is supposed to be.
But the hilarity doesn't end there. When we get around to meeting Fasolt and Fafner, the putative giants, it's yet another one of a growing number of "WTF" moments that become ever more outrageous. I'm not quite sure what the visual intent for these characters was supposed to be; suffice it to say they're evidently on stilts (it's hard to tell exactly), wearing big fat suits which make them look like rejects from the old "Culhane" sketches on Hee Haw, and are both adorned with large foam rubber hands and ears, with both of them wearing quasi-Kabuki makeup. Poor Richard is probably turning over in his grave.
The sad thing about this is this is one of the more magnificently sung and played Rheingolds I've heard, especially in the sumptuous orchestral work of Staatskapelle Weimar under the splendid direction of Carl St. Clair. This is some of Wagner's most deeply burnished music, and it is played here with élan and often magnificence. The singers are uniformly excellent as well, from Mario Hoff's towering Wotan to Christine Hansmann's incredibly languid yet forceful Fricka. But how are they to overcome the rampant stupidity of Michael Schulz's stage direction?
I am all for "re-visioning" any kind of classic theater, including classic opera, to give it a new and sometimes unexpected vantage point. But when something like this mess dribbles across the stage, it simply points to an excess of directorial hubris. When Valhalla becomes nothing more than a wooden frame in which the Gods form a sad final tableaux, you know there is definitely something wrong with this picture.
If I may be permitted to channel none other than Susan Powter for just a moment, please excuse me while I scream to whatever Gods (Teutonic or otherwise) may be listening, "Stop the insanity!" Well, to paraphrase another pop culture icon of sorts, Poltergeist, "They're baaaaack," meaning those crazy cutups at Staatskapelle Weimar, this time doing Die Walküre, the first opera proper of The Ring cycle after Das Rheingold's prelude. Unfortunately, while many of the ridiculous staging elements of Rheingold are thankfully jettisoned this time around, the recording on this effort is hampered by having to deal with a dynamic range of more than 50 dB. As producer Rainer Mockert shared with me in a series of very kind and concerned emails after this review first appeared, the more bombastic levels of this score meant that in balancing overall amplitude, the softer sections became really soft, by which I mean (to my ears anyway) virtually impossible to hear.
Die Walküre is the grand edifice upon which so much of Wagner's mythology is built. As strange as it may sound, anyone who has seen or read anything from the Star Wars films to T.H. White's The Once and Future King is going to be familiar with at least a few of the elements of the labyrinthine plot of this piece. We have twin siblings, Siegmund and Sieglinde (Luke and Leia, anyone?), who at least initially have no clue they're related to each other. Siegmund is on the run after having gotten involved in a little family squabble where quite a few people ended up dead. He takes refuge in Sieglinde's home, where her husband Hunding turns out to be part of the posse searching for Siegmund. Sieglinde drugs her husband and tells Siegmund about a magical sword buried in an ash tree that only a true hero can remove and use to his benefit (King Arthur, anyone?).
True to Wagner's somewhat darker aspirations, the plot takes a decidedly grimmer turn in the two subsequent acts, especially when it turns out the siblings are actually progeny of the god Wotan, and that they have embarked on a love affair. That sets up the central tragedy of the piece, as Wotan must balance his love for his children against the moral prescription against incest and adultery.
What this production gets right (at least most of the time) is exactly what sank Das Rheingold. The physical production here is spare and lean. No craggy rocks, no Norse costuming, just basically a blank stage with flats that open to reveal various characters. It's minimalist, to be sure, but strangely it works. (I must forewarn you that Albericht as Dorf does make a cameo appearance). Costumes are sort of middling 19th to 20th century, nothing ornate, but again, I'd much rather have something less flashy like this than some of the ridiculous adornments which accompanied the Rheingold singers.
What sinks this production, at least partially, are the occasionally anemic recording levels. You'll hear it immediately in the prelude and, though it gets a bit better in Act II, it hampers the entire production and robs this epochal piece of music theater of its very lifeblood—the music! And when you consider that it's the music more than the staging that I at least am finding compelling with this Ring, it's a trade off I fear few opera lovers are going to go for.
As with both of the preceding entries in this series, this is one of the most gloriously sung and played Rings I've experienced. I doubt even a Bayreuth or Berlin musical interpretation (emphasis mine) could match that of the Deutsche Nationaltheater and Staatskapelle Weimar. Carl St. Clair, an American conductor who served as Staatskapelle Weimar's Music Director for three years (2005-08), guides the gargantuan orchestral forces with ease (the brass is especially resplendent in all of these performances), and maintains good balance between the accompaniment and vocalists, something that must be difficult considering the disparities between the two forces.
The production design is, as it was in Walküre, minimalist and quite engaging—most of the time. Two elements however stuck out like gigantic, stuffed sore thumbs. One of them actually contains a gigantic, stuffed sore thumb (well, I'm not sure about the sore part, but you get the idea)—the simply ridiculous Jabba the Hut meets Sumo wrestler meets the Michelin Man meets the Pillsbury Doughboy getup that is Fafner's costume. When Siegfried plunges his sword into the folds of fabric that surround singer Hidekazu Tsumaya, I have expected the hapless giant to start flying around the stage like a deflated balloon. The other patently strange element is the gigantic teddy bear that adorns center stage for most of the first act's repartee between Mime and Siegfried. I would just like a little clarification—is that a bra festooning the beast's chest? I'm not sure if these two issues tip the scales into what I've decried previously as "Eurotrash" reimaginings of classic works, but one way or the other, they certainly don't help. I had to wonder if there was a subtext for Siegfried and Brünnhilde putting on blindfolds as this massive opera lumbered toward its conclusion.
Siegfried took Wagner around a quarter of a century to finish, and at times it may seem like it's taking that long to actually watch the damned thing (this particular production comes in at slightly over four hours). No one ever faulted the Germans for a lack of national will, whether that be a will to power or simply the fortitude to sit through several nights of overwrought emotion, mythical hyperbole and Wagner's none too subtle philosophizing on what exactly has forged the Aryan soul. If Siegfried moves at least slightly away from some of the tragic elements of Walküre, Wagner's music in this episode only magnifies the frankly overpowering emotional and psychological aspects of the characters as Siegfried seeks to find out where he's come from and what cosmic forces are leading him to his betrothed, Brünnhilde. Wagner's genius in elucidating these characters cannot be understated, though for an audience member unaccustomed to the earth shattering forces Wagner brings to bear on his subject, it may seem like the compositional equivalent of "Whack a Mole"—there's very little left standing, at least from an audience perspective, by the end of this gargantuan piece.
And so from a listening standpoint, I wholeheartedly recommend this Siegfried. Alternately gorgeously lyrical and triumphantly bombastic, this production will provide sonic delights galore, especially if you're a Wagner fan. From a production design standpoint, this is certainly better than Rheingold, with the exception of the two elements mentioned above. For those moments, you may want to have your own blindfold ready.
The phrases "Wagnerian music drama" and "leaving it all to the imagination" may seem like strange bedfellows, to say the least. If there ever were a descriptive composer (and librettist—maybe, in fact, especially librettist), it's Richard Wagner, a man who almost obsessive compulsively crafted leitmotifs for virtually all of his characters, and then forged massive tapestries from them, each character thread woven miraculously into the others to make a gargantuan whole which can frankly seem more than a little overwhelming at times. I've joked, perhaps more than bit politically incorrectly, that it's little surprise the Germans had the fortitude to conquer large swaths of Europe not once, but twice; after all, they had been sitting through the Ring cycle for decades before they even tried it for the first time. It takes an intestinal fortitude of the strongest order to wade through the literally scores (no pun intended) of characters Wagner brings to this largest of his mythic opuses, but even beyond keeping the mere plot line straight (no easy task, I can tell you from personal experience), there's the simple (or not so simple, as the case may be) fact of the immensity of Wagner's music.
What typically, or at least usually, happens in mountings of the Ring cycle are either tried and true, breastplate and horned cap reiterations that harken back to the 19th century productions, or, alternatively, tarted up modern interpretations that can recast the godly goings on in something like the Valhalla Starbucks. What virtually every production of the Ring I've seen offers, though, is an abundance of stagecraft, where Wagner's sometimes opaque stage directions are given fanciful life, sometimes quite miraculously so. They are, in fact, rather similar to Peter Jackson's filmic CGI-fest in that other Ring cycle, you know, the one with Hobbits (and one which Tolkein adamantly argued had anything--anything--to do with Wagner's magnum opus): that is, everything is on display, virtually nothing is left to the imagination, and that mere fact often helps anchor the story to at least allow the visuals to offer some semblance of meaning to a multi-night saga that can sometimes seem like the fevered dream of a madman (I'm not casting aspersions, only similes).
And so we've finally reached the finale of The Ring, Götterdämmerung, The Twilight of the Gods. For those of you unfamiliar with the labyrinthine world of Wagner's Ring, I can only urge you to do a bit of internet research or actual textbook reading, as there is simply no way to sum up the plot either of this particular episode, or more especially the work as a whole, in a neat little package. Suffice it to say that Wagner has taken elements of Norse mythology, notably Ragnarok, the Norse version of the ending of the "old order." One might think of an analog in the procession of the Equinoxes, that astronomical (and astrological) fact that some occultists insist portends a major gestalt shift every 2000 years or so (think of the Piscean age as being synonymous with Christianity, and our newly dawning Aquarian age as being synonymous with—well, you decide).
What Götterdämmerung brings to the table is a culmination of several themes, notably, as has been famously mentioned, the dialectic between the power of love and the love of power. If lovers Siegfried and Brünnhilde are tragic in that they're never totally in control of their fates, or even in fact fully aware of them, they're not alone. The rest of this mythic crew, from virtually the very first moment of the opera's Prologue, is lost in a world where nothing is as it was, and omniscience has scattered literally to the four winds. Götterdämmerung more importantly offers themes of retribution, the saving grace of love in the face of deceit, and, after several nights of almost too much sturm und drang to handle, the barest glimpse of the salvation of a new beginning.
I've taken this Ring to task for some of its staging decisions, the most troubling of which were in the piece's prologue, Das Rheingold. I breathed at least a partial sigh of relief when the subsequent episodes were decidedly more minimalist, and, frankly, more successful as a result. Well, I'm sure some people will be rolling their eyes in "this guy is never satisfied disbelief when I say that part of this Götterdämmerung's lack of impact is its erring too much on the side of minimalism. There's virtually nothing on the stage of any import throughout the four and a half long hours of this production—simply a curtain and a raked stage. Virtually everything sung about, described, even explicitly mentioned and more or less pointed to in the libretto, is, indeed, left to the imagination. It may play to Götterdämmerung's mythic setting and characters (after all, some of the more representational versions of the opera are equally silly on the other end of the spectrum), but it makes for curiously ineffective theater most of the time.
When this version does finally engage in a little visual treat, a beautiful moment at the close of the opera I won't spoil for you here, it's like the saving grace of a beautiful rain after a long draught (and you'll know how apt that comparison is once you've seen this, if indeed you choose to see it). While Wagner purists will probably find other versions they prefer from a musical standpoint (I've received scores of emails from fans mentioning their own favorite singers in various roles), over all this is a floridly and beautifully sung Ring, and Götterdämmerung in particular. Norbert Schmittberg brings an athletic prowess to his vocal interpretation of Siegfried that is quite compelling, and the famously taxing final scene for Siegfried he pulls off without a hitch. Likewise, Catherine Foster's Brünnhilde is robust, in fact lusty, with a deeply burnished timbre that can explode into near ear shattering high notes. Renatus Mészâr makes a suitably hiss-worthy Hagen, with a commanding bass that is both forceful and expressive. And, as usual, Carl St. Clair leads a virtuosic orchestra through their paces. The horn playing, as might be expected, is breathtaking throughout this production, and the slow morphing of Siegfried's motive and horn call is, as always, a joy to listen to.
But I still find myself even more disconnected from this piece than I sometimes am, due mostly to the curious lack of "fireworks" in the staging department. If you're going to spend time making Fafner into something like the Norse equivalent of the Michelin Man, why not take advantage of Götterdämmerung's literally fiery finale and do something spectacular? The choices made here seem almost deliberately off-putting, as if stage director Michael Schultz wants us all to know that he has a different conception, and by gum, he's going to follow it through to its bitter end, no matter how at odds it may be with Wagner's original conception of the piece.
As I mentioned in Siegfried, your own use of blindfolds may be all you need to really enjoy this particular Ring cycle. While I doubt longtime aficionados will put this in the league of Nilsson/Solti, for example, there are sonic delights galore here. Maybe my expectations were low to begin with, but I have been stupendously and pleasantly surprised with the singing of this Ring and most especially with the lustrous orchestral playing. Unfortunately, I can't offer the same degree of rapture about the visual presentation, which is both odd and at odds with the Ring's grandiose ambitions and themes.
Wagner: The Ring Cycle Blu-ray, Video Quality
All four of these operas sport clean and crisp 1.78:1 images with an AVC encode. The bulk of the complete Ring is cast in various shades of blues and grays, as you will notice from many of the screenshots. At other times, the piece is rather oppressively dark, as befits its subject matter. Black levels and contrast are extremely strong throughout the many hours of the story. When brighter purples and reds are offered they pop accordingly and flesh tones are always accurate. Detail is extremely precise, so much so that pores are easily visible on faces and the hair on the children's arms and legs can be seen quite easily. There are no crushing or blooming artifacts throughout this 1080i live presentation. That said, there's nothing here that screams "high definition," so videophiles may be underwhelmed by this Ring.
Wagner: The Ring Cycle Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Luckily, the sonic side of things is where this Ring shines, and shine it does. Both the DTS HD-MA 5.1 and PCM 2.0 mixes are brilliant, though you'll want to stick with the 5.1 for its added live ambience and the brilliance it provides to the orchestral accompaniment. Hearing Wagner's overpowering orchestrations in an environment this immersive can be daunting, to say the least, but the DTS mix is astoundingly sharp and clear, bringing a gorgeous warmth to brass tones, so important throughout the four works. As noted, there are some volume issues in the softer sections of Walküre which bothered me perhaps more than they will other listeners. Overall, balance issues are handled exceedingly well, with all singers miked properly and easily cutting through the protean orchestral forces. I can't highly recommend the orchestral playing and St. Clair's conducting highly enough. This is a most impressive Ring from a musical standpoint and the DTS soundtrack supports that with impressive fortitude.
Wagner: The Ring Cycle Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Probably due to the extreme length of all of these operas (take a gander at the running time at the top of this review), no real extras (aside from some trailers on Rheingold) are offered on the BD's themselves. Each release comes with a very nice illustrated insert booklet, all four with excellent essays and some with reproductions of Wagner's scores.
Wagner: The Ring Cycle Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
I'm not suggesting we need to return to the breastplated and horned helmeted Brünnhildes of the past, but there certainly must be something better than a lot of the choices Michael Schulz has made with this production. It's too bad, really, because musically this is one of the better Rings in recent memory, with robust, florid singing and simply superb orchestral accompaniment. It boils down to whether you're prone to put more emphasis on the visuals than the aural delights. If you are, you may be disappointed with this Ring. If you're "only" listening, you may very well be remarkably impressed.
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