Picture © Tato Baeza
The entire Valencia ‘Ring des Nibelungen’
of which this Rheingold is the first part, has been reviewed
for Seen and Heard by José M. Irurzun - both as independent
operas beginning with Rheingold in April 2007 and most
recently as the vorabend for the first complete cycle
given in June this year (review.)
JMI was enthusiastic about both performances and concluded in
the end that Das Rheingold was in fact the best part
of the tetralogy in this new production. It’s by the Catalan
theatre company La Fura dels Baus, and was commissioned jointly
by Valencia’s Palau de Les Arts Reina Sofia and the Maggio Musicale
According to JMI’s account of the Götterdämmerrung
a prominent Spanish critic is on record as considering the La
Fura cycle to be one of the three most important ‘Rings’ ever
staged, ranking in prominence along with those from Wieland
Wagner and Patrice Chéreau, both given at Bayreuth. High praise
indeed, and while JMI’s appreciation was less hyperbolic, he
did rate the Valencia cycle as a very significant achievement
and certainly one of the most interesting ‘Rings’ produced anywhere
in recent years.
Having narrowly missed seeing the second Valencia cycle myself
– I had tickets but was unfortunately unable to get there in
the end – I am more than inclined to agree. On the strength
of this recording at least, my personal rating puts the production
on a par with Kasper Bech Holten’s ‘Copenhagen Ring’, the DVDs
of which were reviewed very enthusiastically for MusicWeb International
by both Tony
Duggan and by Göran
Forsling. I saw only part of that in live performance myself
- Die Walküre back in December
2004 - but having subsequently obtained the discs too, I
had no hesitation in endorsing GF’s and TD’s comments wholeheartedly.
Even now, Holten’s idea still strikes me as one of the most
intelligent readings of Wagner’s texts I have ever had the good
luck to encounter.
So it is with this Rheingold. Spurred on even more by
Colin Clarke’s equally glowing review of another La Fura dels
Baus production, Ligeti’s Le
Grand Macabre, at ENO in September of this year, and by
the fact that this would be my first experience of opera in
Blu-ray, I jumped at the chance of seeing La Fura in action.
And action is certainly the right word here, because the visual
interest is constantly so extraordinary, the casting so luxurious,
the orchestral sound so compelling and the realisation of the
text so engaging that I suspect that many more two–hour time
slots will find their way into my evenings in the future. While
some people may find the wealth of visuals distracting I dare
say, I’m already certain that I won’t be one of them.
La Fura productions are expensive. They use extremely high definition
back- projections, with four times the resolution of ordinary
HD apparently, they invariably employ elaborate machinery, including
enormous exoskeletons for the giants in this production and
they need dozens (if not actually hundreds) of extras, dancers,
acrobats and stage crew to move the machines around or to become
part of the actual ‘sets’. There is no formal scenery either:
everything is done with lighting and visuals to characterise
the settings, which here remain extremely close to Wagner’s
own visualisations although in 21st century guise.
For Scene 1 we see the Rhinemaidens in tanks of water which
can be raised on cables to tease Alberich, although he does
get to swim with his ‘nixies’ here. Behind an otherwise bare
metal stage, video projections show swirling waves and when
the gold appears it is represented by droplets of golden liquid
or golden eggs that eventually cohere into a huge homunculus-like
baby or even Buddha figure. To emphasise the gold’s power, the
baby/ Buddha picture turns into the spinning ring that Peter
Jackson uses in his Tolkien films. In the end, to allow Alberich
to seize the gold realistically, the Rhinemaidens ‘give birth’
to small transparent eggs containing small copies of the baby,
from kangaroo pouches in their costumes. The water in the tanks
- an enormous amount of it – pours down through the stage so
that Alberich can collect the eggs from nets below the tanks
before running off with them triumphantly.
One of Carlus Padrissa’s concerns, as he explains in the bonus
film ‘The Making of the Rheingold’ is to differentiate clearly
between the different worlds inhabited by the gods, humans and
the Nibelungs. To portray the gods’ elevated status he has them
appear on railed platforms at the end of see-saw pivoted cranes
which are manipulated vertically and moved around on wheels
by extras. According to Juha Uusitalo (Wotan) and Anna Larsson
(Fricka) in the bonus film, the platforms from which they had
to sing took them up to a height of 4 metres when fully extended,
which they both found fairly unnerving at first. Loge however,
half-god that he is and more than mercurial by nature, remains
steadfastly earth-bound but he moves around with extraordinary
agility on a Segway scooter, from which he never alights, even
when descending into Niebelheim.
While the giants appear inside huge metal exoskeletons, once
again propelled by extras, the most startling imagery (except
for one other extraordinary example) is reserved for the journey
to Niebelheim. As Wotan and Loge descend, the back-projected
videos show a picture of the earth from space, a fiery and unpleasant
earth at that, which draws ever nearer as the descent proceeds.
Niebelheim itself is a dark and oppressive factory, in which
the golden eggs are farmed for their living embryos – which
are then manufactured into the objective gold for the aggrandizement
of Alberich. The newly-hatched beings are suspended upside-down
from meat hooks, and the theme of living creatures being used
as objects is reinforced by the Niebelung workers testing and
prodding them as they move along the conveyor belt.
Within this setting, Alberich’s taunting of Mime (there’s a
real Tarnhelm and Alberich does become invisible) leads to his
shape-changing – a fiery wurm made from a train of red
carts propelled extras and a moving mechanical model toad. The
return to the god’s realm is a masterpiece of theatrical mechanics,
with Niebelheim apparently disappearing downwards at break-neck
speed while the earth, once again back–projected, recedes rapidly
into ever-widening space. The ultimate coup de théâtre
is reserved for the representation of Valhalla (see disc label
above) in which more human beings, suspended within a network
of cables become the physical fabric of the gods’ new stronghold.
Power it seems corrupts so completely that people inevitably
become nothing but materials.
There is little to say about the singing, other than that this
is a seriously luxurious cast, drawn from the ranks of the finest
Wagnerians in the world. Salminen, Milling, Uusitalo, Larsson
and John Daszak are all in first class voice but there is not
a note out of place anywhere and I see that this cycle’s Walküre
also includes Domingo (or ‘Superman’ as my colleague
JMI calls him). Some may quibble about Chu Uroz’s peculiar ‘multi-media’
costumes if they like incidentally, but I am not one of them
since the singers cope with them - and with the machinery -
The orchestra is also more than interesting. Consisting of young
players recruited from all over the world – not a grey hair
among them as someone said, the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana
really is a first rate group especially under Zubin Mehta’s
direction. Mehta himself is revealed to be a consummate Wagnerian
and while some commentators have found his direction rather
too measured - especially in the later parts of the tetralogy
- the sound and sense of ensemble that he draws from his orchestra
and the singers seem to me to be not only very satisfying but
also wholly engaging and (if you like) somehow a truly intrinsic
component of this remarkable production. It’s hard to imagine
anyone fitting in with La Fura more confidently or comfortably.
Picture quality is excellent from this disc and the video direction
by Tiziano Mancini is clean and unproblematic. To finish though,
I should say something about the Blu-ray sound, particularly
since my Blu-ray player cost only about 10% of the price for
my main - and otherwise universal – disc player.
No, it’s not quite as good as the best CDs or even DVD-Audio
discs played on the expensive machine: there’s not quite the
same degree of instrumental definition or depth of image from
Blu-ray, but it’s a remarkably close-run thing. And bearing
in mind the old hi-fi adage, ‘Garbage In, Garbage Out’ then
the Blu-ray sound is very impressive indeed and very much better
than might be expected for the money, at least in PCM stereo.
Mind you, having said all that and while I don’t run to DTS
HD MA 7.1 I do remain a committed devotee of the UHJ Ambisonics
sound encoding system still used by Nimbus. Played through four
channels only in the Ambisonics decoder’s enhanced stereo mode,
the sound from Blu-ray, on this disc at least, is seriously
extraordinary for something less that £200.
Footnote: I have been intrigued for years about what
La Fura dels Baus means in English. A quick trawl round
the internet suggests that ‘Fura’ means ‘Ferret’ in Catalan
and that ‘Baus’ is the name of a refuse tip in Moià, near Manresa,
a town about 60kms north-west of Barcelona. ‘Ferreting through
the Rubbish’ – for the gold in this instance – seems a pretty
good description of what La Fura does.
This production has proved highly controversial
and here is a totally different review from Jack Lawson
Using full 1080 progressive signal on the latest technology
55-inch LCD display the filmic quality of this Rheingold
is its great merit but I auditioned the 16:9 Blu-ray format on
PCM stereo. I am not equipped for the higher audio option –
an aural treat which is called DTS HD Master Audio 7.1!
The Mehta Ring could be the “killer app” which would
tempt me into the decoder and seven channels plus a bass blower
but when you buy the latest in Home Cinema, the makers are planning
its obsolescence, and I was not impressed by DVD-Audio. Multiple
channels of low resolution do not amount to high resolution.
McLuhan declared with powerful foresight that “the message is
the medium”. However, the Ring cycle cannot be described
adequately as four great operas. It is music, song, myth, poetry
and drama fused into a credible world-view which is all-consuming.
Wagner wrote for the theatre because it was the medium of his
time; for his Gesamtkunstwerk.
Blu-ray is today’s quantum leap - much greater than Laserdisc
over VHS, or DVD over both - therefore I watched the BBC documentary
and re-read John Culshaw’s “Ring Resounding” in preparation
for this review. What I wanted to refresh was the reasoning
by which Culshaw justified his project as authentic Wagner.
The LP record, and “full frequency range recording” were developed
by Decca in the early 1950s but the invention that, by Culshaw’s
reckoning, liberated Wagner’s conception was the arrival of
Throughout my career as a Hi-Fi Dealer, the Ring has
always been my prime test and even my motivation. It is the
“killer app” – music which demands High Fidelity; the dynamics,
detail, natural sound and, yes, the three dimensions of space.
Within this there can be movement as well as transparency and
clarity of sound. I can enjoy Bach, Beatles and Beethoven on
a car radio but I cannot scale Wagner down. I have always believed
that Georg Solti’s Ring is the culmination of western
music and of the recording industry.
The Decca/Culshaw/Vienna Ring stands supreme as a successful
soundscape rather than a recorded and reduced stage event. Far
better in pure audio, in my opinion, than any theatre production
reduced through a DVD and a TV set. But now we have what C Major/
Unitel Classica sleeve-notes call A Ring for the 21st
Century. Staged at the suggestion of Zubin Mehta the Catalan
Theatre Company performed the works at the Palau de les Arts
Reina Sofia in 2007. Now, in December 2009, the first instalment
is released: Das Rheingold.
Can this new format Blu-ray High Definition with surround-sound
break my experience of video as a diminution of Wagner’s creativity?
Strangely enough, Solti fights back this very month as Esoteric
announced on 21st December a Limited Edition remastering
of Decca’s Vienna recordings. Based on the Japanese price, the
cost of the fourteen SACD/hybrid discs will be as high as the
fi! The UK importer reckons around £450 if he is not greedy.
I for one will not hesitate: I have struggled for years with
faulty LP pressings from Decca’s plant in New Malden, Surrey;
then the sterile sound but quiet surfaces of the German Teldec
LPs which I gave away. Don’t even ask me about the CDs.
This is a long explanation of why I select, not a video comparison
for Mehta’s Rheingold, but a stereo reference. On video
I would compare the Levine Metropolitan and Copenhagen Rings
with Universal Classics issues on Blu-ray. The format’s capacity
means that on one disc, the Unitel carries over three hours
of material. At first I was disappointed by no libretto until
I realised that subtitles are available in German (the sung
language) and English, French and Spanish. Who needs a libretto?
What, no Making of the Ring video available to buy? Not
necessary: it’s included!
So much to introduce the medium in great detail. Welcome to
Blu-ray. What about the programme content? You have a wide choice
of Rings on physical media. You need to choose whether
you wish to approach the work as singing or spectacle; as a
sonic masterpiece or historical record; as an “authentic” period
production (as Wagner envisaged) or as arty/contrived/avant-garde
statement post 19th century.
The Fura Dels Baus production is arty; it is directed by Carlus
Padrissa whom I have not heard of before but I am sure that
he has not heard of me. I recoil from the arty stereotypes of
modern opera but I admit that the best examples have won me.
But can any human dare to retouch the gods? Read on.
Mindful of my obligations to all who created and furnished the
disc, to the credibility of reviewers, and to MusicWeb, after
twenty minutes the stop button was required to preserve sanity.
Slick, smooth and sumptuous it may be but Wagner it is not.
Instead we have the formulaic tricks of the 3-D computer graphics,
the foetus in space, and three suspended tanks of glass filled
with water depicting the flowing Rhine. The Rhinemaidens are
semi-nude with the bonus of squirting nipples. It gets worse.
I am not one who regards Zubin Mehta as a man who lacks the
versatility for the great spectrum of music he conducts. He
is always fresh and innovative; often he is profound in his
observations. I am a devoted admirer, but here I found that
the orchestra is merely competent and the conducting makes the
music no more than enjoyable. Not even the highly-acclaimed
Wotan (Juha Uusitalo) can save it.
The unique virtue of video over theatre, then, is the stop switch
as the hasty exit. If you want finely sung, intimate Wagner
revert to Keilberth or Karajan or Furtwängler. If you want a
marvellous spectacle which stereo can present in sound, try
I am waiting on Esoteric because I have confirmed the truth.
Here it is. Wagner was a genius and knew exactly how to achieve
what he conceived. The Decca team served art and served Wagner
from their knowledge and insight. There may be a newer and better
way of doing it but somehow, I suspect, the debt of the world
to the Viennese Ring may be eternal. Solti was right:
the Philharmonic is the world’s finest Wagner orchestra by a
very long margin. The sweet sumptuous strings, the evocative,
powerful brass playing, and most of all the instinctive expression
and phrasing; these formed the tradition of a very traditional
It is human nature to doubt and to strive to improve. But I
am clear in my mind, having spent the evening with Solti’s Rheingold,
that he achieved the Holy Grail because he had faith; because
he prepared himself; because he humbled himself as a servant
to the Master.
Blu-ray is a triumph of technology. The Mehta Ring is
an expensive disaster.