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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Das Rheingold (1854)
Wotan (bass) – Wolfgang Probst
Donner (baritone)– Motti Kaston
Froh (tenor)– Berhhard Schneider
Loge (tenor)– Robert Kunzli
Mime tenor)– Eberhard Francesco Lorenz
Alberich (baritone)– Esa Ruutunen
Fasolt (bass)– Roland Bracht
Fafner (bass)– Phillip Ens
Fricka (mezzo)– Michaela Schuster
Freia (soprano)– Helga Ros Indridadottir
Erda (mezzo)– Metta Ejsing
Woglinde (soprano)– Catriona Smith
Wellgunde (mezzo)– Maria Theresa Ulrich
Flosshilde (mezzo)– Margarete Joswig
Staatsorchester Stuttgart/Lothar Zagrosek
Recorded live at the Staatsoper, Stuttgart, 28-29 December, 2002
Directed for the stage by Joachim Schlomer
Directed for video by Janos Darvas and Thorsten Fricke
TDK 10 5206 9 (Running time 152 minutes)
Die Walküre (1851-6)
Siegmund (tenor) – Robert Gambill
Hunding (bass) – Attila Jun
Wotan (bass) – Jan-Hendrik Rootering
Sieglinde (soprano) – Angela Denoke
Brünnhilde (soprano) – Renata Behle
Fricke (mezzo) – Tichina Vaughn
Gerhilde (soprano) – Eva-Marie Westbroek
Ortlinde (soprano) – Wiebke Goetjes
Waltraute (mezzo) – Stella Kleindienst
Helmwige (soprano) – Magdalena Schaeffer
Siegrune (soprano) – Nidia Palacios
Rossweisse (mezzo) – Margit Diefenthal
Staatsorchester Stuttgart/Lothar Zagrosek
Directed for the stage by Christoph Nel
Directed for TV by Janos Darvas and Thosten Fricke
Recorded live at the Staatsoper Stuttgart, 29 Sept. and 2 January 2003
TDK Euroarts 10 5207 9 DV-OPRDNW [2 discs: running time 229 minutes]
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Ever since Patrice Chéreau’s trailblazing centenary Bayreuth Ring in 1976, there has been an increasing trend towards modernising Wagner’s great tetralogy. This is, as with all updating of grand opera, fraught with difficulties, and this Stuttgart Ring has more problems than others I’ve seen. It is not helped by the fact that rather than one guiding artistic light, the four operas were given over to four different directors. Certainly as far as the first two operas go, one does not sense any real continuity, either in design or approach.

The basic design concept of Das Rheingold is a dilapidated public spa, with a large circular pool at its centre that houses the treasure. All the action takes place here, with characters coming and going from cubicles, using the large staircase or lift etc. This works quite well at the start, with the gold glinting in the water, and the image serving as an ever-present reminder of the ‘ring’. It becomes more problematic when it has to serve as Nibelheim as well as Valhalla, and lines of definition become blurred. The costumes are also modern(ish), or perhaps 1930s - it’s hard to tell as we also get a smattering of track suits, trainers and mobile phones. The singing is also patchy, with some good support from the Giants (not really giants at all) and the Rhinemaiden trio, but disappointing contributions from the principals. Wotan is cast as an ageing Don, directing action from his balcony in Godfather style. Wolfgang Probst’s voice is unsteady and his acting bland, though he brings across the hypocritical side of the character well enough. Esa Ruutunen is an experienced Alberich but the voice lacks any depth, and the Loge of Robert Kunzli makes far less impact than he should.

With this approach from director Joachim Schlomer, don’t expect any real magic in this first instalment. The Tarnhelm is simply a tiny mirror, the descent to Nibelheim a non-event (the anvils are pathetically feeble) and the final entrance into Valhalla a (by now predictable) let down. Donner brings what looks laughably like a toffee hammer from his pocket (these are the sort of anachronisms a modern dress production brings) and overall we miss a big dimension of awe and spectacle in this production,

One saving grace is the orchestral contribution, which under the expert hand of Lothar Zagrosek, is superb. He keeps things moving swiftly along, and points up many beauties in the score along the way.

Die Walküre, this time from director Christoph Nel, is even more stark and modernist. A darkly lit, basic wood-panelled box is the general setting, and Hunding’s Hut simply has a table, some chairs and a grotty shower in the corner. Presumably his angle on the piece, as with Schlomer’s Rheingold, is to concentrate on relationships, motivation etc. and forget all the Nordic fairy tale claptrap. This is fine to a degree, but when Siegmund (a light-voiced but intelligent Robert Gambill) comes staggering in from the ‘storm’ in jogging pants and hooded top, as if he’s been in training for the London Marathon, the credibility of the approach starts to falter. There is certainly a tangible chemistry between his angst-laden character and the skimpily dressed Angela Denoke, who is also in good voice, as she was in Rattle’s recent Fidelio. But when they are on the run from Hunding in Act II, dressed like the lovers out of Brief Encounter, complete with shabby suitcases, the gleaming full-size sword he has to carry looks plain daft. The climactic battle with Hunding is played out by giant puppets at the back of the stage (the sort of models who chime the hours in a Swiss clock) and again one is left feeling cheated.

The second Wotan, Jan-Hendrik Rootering, is in better voice than Probst, but is played as an idle layabout, his mighty spear becoming a grass-stalk. Worst of all are the Valkyries. Renate Behle’s Brünnhilde is a bovver-booted rebellious teenager (fair enough in this conception) but with her large frame, she looks mightily ill at ease dressed like this. Her Valkyrie sisters at the start of Act III look even worse, decked out as tarty urban call-girls, except they have ridiculous wings strapped to their backs. They cavort around, giggling as broken models (the ‘heroes’) float by on a conveyor belt, like something out of The Generation Game. Revisionist productions have their place, but it’s at times like this one realises how hard it is to think it all through. Getting to the psychological heart of the piece is one thing; marrying the vision up to a staging concept that is in tandem with that is quite another. As we know, many other illustrious directors have failed trying this in the Ring.

Zagrosek and the orchestra just about save the day again. Splendid brass playing, a lush, uniform string section and well-judged speeds are some compensation for the visual mess.

If you want modern, the Chéreau/Boulez vision still takes some beating, though I, like many, am impatient for the Barenboim/ Kupfer Ring to come out on DVD; it must rank as one of the most visually arresting and thought-provoking of recent cycles, as well as being one of the best sung and played. Presentation, camera work and sound quality are all good on the Stuttgart discs, but on the evidence of these first two instalments, it’s hard to see why this particular Ring was picked for posterity.

Tony Haywood

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