Daniel Barenboim gave a series of great performances of The Ring
at Bayreuth in the 1990s, and his interpretation in Harry Küpfer’s production remains among the very best on disc in any format. When he gave a cycle at this year’s Proms, I found an unwelcome element of routine in his reading; everything was perfectly in place, but the sheer sense of excitement was too often somehow missing. Not so here. His command of the pulse of the music is always responsive, and although sometimes his changes of speed seem disconcerting they are always enlightening as a reaction to the dramatic elements of the music. The screen shows us the orchestra in close-up during the Prelude - no attempt to ‘stage’ the music in this production - and again cuts back to him at the very end, clearly exhausted by the marathon and failing to bring the orchestra off quite together. We hear many details in the score that can all too easily go ‘missing’. He grades his climaxes with a sure sense of the music’s architecture and the orchestra plays for him with a will. I love the way in the opening scene he pulls back the tempo for Wer der Minne Macht versagt
, bringing the correct sense of doom to the words which chill the blood in just the right way.
Küpfer’s Bayreuth production unfortunately made a number of alterations to Wagner’s dramatic directions, few of them to the advantage of overall cohesion. The worst of these was his introduction of all the gods onstage from the beginning of Scene Two, an innovation which goes back to Patrice Chéreau in 1976 and is wrong for a number of reasons, five of which I explored last year when reviewing
his later production for Barcelona. One is delighted to say that this La Scala production by Guy Cassiers commits none of these solecisms. Wagner’s instructions about what the drama is saying, which is so closely reflected in the music, is nowhere interfered with. Also we have a real sense of nature, not only in the presence of real water on the stage but also in the often very beautiful back projections which conjure up the atmosphere of the music perfectly. However there is a downside to this. The projection screens fill the whole of the back of the stage and the only way in which characters can enter or leave the scene is by ramps rising from the floor at the back. In order to get into position they often have to anticipate the music by getting onto the stage too early, with the result that the change in the orchestra which announces their entry seems to be - well, unmotivated. It would appear that a deliberate decision has been made by the production team for DVD to attempt to mask this by not
showing us the characters on their entry, often moving the cameras away to something else, which seems perverse. It also means that the changes in camera angles often seem fussy. One notes that 42 people are credited as the ‘TV production team’; perhaps they were just trying to find something for all of them to do.
The main innovation in this production is the introduction of a team of ballet dancers, who first appear somewhat mysteriously as the physical manifestation of the Rhinemaidens as they try to seduce Alberich - although the singers are also present on stage and visible in a different location. Thereafter they emerge fully during the first orchestral interlude, and are hardly ever absent until the end, shadowing the various characters and reflecting their emotions as portrayed in the music. Since the orchestra is already doing this, it would seem to be over-egging the pudding. The dancers also appear as silhouettes during the scenes with the giants, two vast figures projected onto the backcloth towering over a diminutive Freia. On the other hand, their voices come from two very human-scaled singers on the stage - one of whom is distinctly taller than his brother. They become semi-naked Nibelungs in Scene Three, and also take on the role of the Tarnhelm, surrounding Alberich and concealing him from sight as required.
Which brings us to the other problem with this production: its distortion of Wagner’s symbols. It is perhaps most surprising that in a Ring
cycle the Ring is here conspicuous by its absence. Instead we have a jewelled gauntlet which lights up when Alberich first uses it, but then remains strangely dormant thereafter. One wonders why all the characters on stage continue to refer to a ‘ring’ when the object itself is nowhere to be seen. The Tarnhelm, too, is never seen except as part of the manifestations of the dance troupe - and when Loge has to throw it onto the hoard he is just going through the motions; a couple of the dancers prance dutifully over and hang onto the hoard, but it isn’t the same thing at all. Wotan’s spear is much in evidence, but he makes the peculiar error of passing it on to Loge to hold at certain moments, which would seem to be quite out of character. Although we are told he has only one eye - and one of the dancers covers his eye at one point to illustrate this when the fact is mentioned - we can clearly see René Pape glaring psychotically out of both
eyes at the moment when he contemplates the gauntlet on his hand which he has just taken from Alberich; not that we actually see him undertake this critical action. The costumes are generally nineteenth century rather than mythical, but we do not have anything too ugly foisted on us and it forms part of the producer’s declared aim (in his booklet notes) of a ‘historical’ rather than a ‘mythic’ production.
There are some nice original touches, Wotan’s megalomaniac lustful glaring at the ‘Ring’ being just one of them. I particularly liked the way in which Loge stirs up the waters at the end to provoke the Rhinemaidens into their lament. The appearance of Erda is extremely impressive, rising from the depths to a great height above the stage - although she takes too long to disappear after giving her warning. Taken as a whole the persistent presence of the dancers becomes more irritating than enlightening; and although one is very grateful that Guy Cassiers takes the music seriously in his staging, the distracting niggles remain.
The singing cast is really very good indeed, and most of them are good actors too, which helps when we are shown so many close-ups of their faces. René Pape is a bass Wotan rather than the usual bass-baritone, but there is no sense of strain even on his highest notes. His tone is however more lyrical than heroic. Johannes Martin Kränzle has a voice which might be just a size too small for Alberich’s curse but he is superb up until that point and he handles the text with plenty of understanding and even a disturbingly ironic sense of humour. In the opening scene the three Eastern European ladies make a fine trio of Rhinemaidens, blending well with each other and bringing real venom to their teasing of Alberich.
Stephan Rügamer starts out sounding as though he is going be a Loge in the ‘character tenor’ mould but when he launches into his narration he has a nice lyrical line and fills out the notes well. He is a real bundle of activity, not only paralleling the movements of the dancers but also indulging in some athletics of his own. Marco Jentzsch is an unusually positive Froh both vocally and dramatically; this is a role that is often used to ‘bring on’ future Heldentenors
, and one looks forward to his future career with keen anticipation since his tall stature and expressive features would surely be an asset in more substantial roles. By his side Jan Buchwald is a rather podgy Donner, looking with his permed hair distractingly a bit like a young James Levine. His voice is fine although he seems to miss his hammer - another one of Cassiers’ suppressed symbols. Doris Soffel and Anna Samuil as the two goddesses for once look like the sisters they are supposed to be, and both sing firmly and expressively.
The two giants, Kwangchui Youn and Timo Riihonen, are an ill-matched pair, and not just in their disparate heights on stage. The former sings with expression and considerable warmth, but the latter sounds uncomfortable in German - his consonants are not always clearly delivered. Although he is considerably larger in size his voice sounds smaller. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke is a personable Mime, with plenty of body in the voice and a good stage presence. One is not quite sure what to make of Anna Larsson as Erda. When she begins to sing it sounds as though her voice is being piped in from offstage, amplified in an echo chamber; but then the cameras pan in on her face halfway up to the proscenium, and she certainly looks
as though she is singing from on stage. Maybe there was a stage double miming, but if so she did it very well. The warning is delivered in a less stentorian fashion than usual, with some nicely shaded singing which enables us for once to hear the first appearance of the Götterdämmerung
motif when it arrives. Indeed, the clarity of the sound is a major plus in this DVD, even though there appears to be a slight element of favouring the voices over the orchestra. One or two of the climaxes, such as the baleful appearance of the Love motif after the anvil passage in the Ascent from Nibelheim, seem to be a bit recessed.
Altogether this is a performance and production of Rheingold
that one would be pleased to encounter in the theatre. It avoids the fallible hi-tech features of the set for the latest Met production - for which many thanks. It also avoids the glosses which positively detract from the music in so many ‘concept’ productions. There are some things in the production which one would wish to change - aren’t there always?. Although some of the allusions which Wagner placed in the music are missing, there is nothing that fights against the score itself and that score is very well delivered by Barenboim and his team, especially when one considers that it was taken from just one performance with no opportunities for patching or editing. The subtitles are good - apart from German and English, they come in French, Spanish, Italian and Korean, although I cannot comment on the latter - but there are no extras. The booklet note says quite a lot about Wagner production over the years, but tells us little about Cassiers’ approach and nothing about the use of dancers.
Alternatives on video? Küpfer’s earlier Bayreuth production is similar to his later Barcelona one, but the singing is better and generally preferable. The Barcelona set comes uniquely spread over two DVDs, which rules it completely out of court anyway. Chéreau’s centenary production is too quirky for repeated viewing and he completely ducks the forging of the Rainbow Bridge, one of the highlights in this production. The new Met version - with an interpolated ‘patch’ at the end where the complicated stage machinery failed on the first night - is quite spectacular, but the set tends to hold the attention when it should be on the action. The old Met version, in a pseudo-realistic set, is a bit bland in dramatic terms and the Rhinemaidens don’t even begin to swim realistically. Apart from this new version it is the only one of these sets to make any effort to depict the natural world which Wagner reflected in his music. In terms of sheer musicality and drama this La Scala video is about the best around, and despite the expressed reservations it is not at all bad visually either.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Masterwork Index: Das Rheingold