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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Das Rheingold (1869)
John Bröcheler (baritone) (Wotan); Henk Smit (bass) (Alberich); Graham Clark (tenor) (Mime); Reinhild Runkel (mezzo) (Erda); Chris Merritt (tenor) (Loge); Jürgen Freier (baritone)
Residentie Orchestra, Amsterdam/Hartmut Haenchen
Pierre Audi (director)
rec. 1999.
Bonus: 50 minute documentary about the production
DVD-all regions
OPUS ARTE OA 0946D [68:02 + 80:05]

This joint venture between Opus Arte and De Nederlandse Opera was originally made for television in 1999. Thus its filmic values are strong. This is excellent because here is a production meant to be seen and experienced, not merely listened to. The production, by the acclaimed Pierre Audi adds immensely to the impact; indeed, I would go so far as to say it brings deeper meaning to it than the performance itself, which is adequate but not exceptional. "Concept" is a much maligned word, because any artistic effort has a kernel of concept somewhere. Audi’s concept is brilliant. Because the Ring is a universal human drama, he wants to involve the audience physically as well as emotionally. The stage extends via a walkway just above the audience, and the singers move "into" the audience without actually being part of it.

Audi’s team created a "no set" set, constructed of huge plates of glass and suspended metal, light and darkness. For a modern set it is remarkably organic: the materials are "of the earth", natural glass, natural steel, crafted and operated by hand. One of the themes of the opera is, after all, construction and architecture on a grand scale. Despite the darkness, there is a strong sense of natural transparency – the huge glass plinth, lit from below, shines and sparkles like the Rhine, and you forget how profound its depths are. Similarly the open plan nature of the set.

Most interestingly, Audi wanted to bring out the integral drama in the music. At Bayreuth, Wagner hid the orchestra in a pit below the stage. For Audi, the music is so important that he wants the orchestra to be part of the action in a visible, physical sense, too. The audience thus is seated around the orchestra who are visible at all times. This creates a different, but very dynamic acoustic. Surprisingly, the singers found it enjoyable even though they were facing the orchestra. Graham Clark said that when you’re "eyeball to eyeball" with audience and musicians, your focus adapts. The conductor, Hartmut Haenchen adds that many Wagnerian singers shout and ruin their voices. This new arrangement allowed them to sing "with" the orchestra. Moreover, the orchestral players loved it, as they could hear better what was going on on-stage and gauge their responses more sensitively. Indeed, this was a very well played Rheingold, the prelude and non-vocal passages illuminated by the extra prominence, and the clear enthusiasm of the musicians.

Woglinde, played by Gabriele Fontana, was outstanding. So well did she characterise her part that she made the Rhinemaiden seem much more than an irresponsible airhead, as the text makes out, but a sort of embryo Norn. This is a wonderful insight, the implications of which are fascinating to ponder. It was a pity that she should be forced to wear such a humiliating costume. Graham Clark as Mime was in his element, creating a powerfully dramatic character, in a costume like an underground grub, with tail, hair and pasty torso. He paces about with contorted grub-like movements, so you can almost feel the trail of slime a grub might leave. His voice, of course, captures intense, almost hysterical resentment of life: how he will carry this on to Siegfried will be worth watching. Alberich, in a shell-shaped Tarnhelm, rules this world of maggot-like creatures who toil for him without hope. Played by Henk Smit, he is a brooding presence, full of menace, and yet, somehow pitiful because he has become so blinded by greed. In the subterranean setting, as if under the ground, is there perhaps a clue to the nature of the giants, Fasolt and Fafner? They, too seem to be made of lumps of mud crudely piled together. They too, like Alberich, have aspired to beauty and better things beyond their station. Do they symbolise some kind of Earth force? It is an aspect of the drama that doesn’t often get much attention. Or is it just in contrast to the rarefied beauty of the "shimmering, radiant race" of Gods? The Gods themselves, resplendent in jewel-like Greek costumes are anything but earthy or organic. They wear cold plastic helmets instead of hair – one of the few inorganic touches in this staging. Their movements are deliberately stiff and formal. Wotan, sung by John Bröcheler, is vocally impressive, as he should be. Chris Merritt’s Loge is a kind of alternative Wanderer, half man, half God, a mediator without "hearth or home". In this amusing new translation there are delights like "Ruddy gold!"

In all, this is a production to study for its insights. The spare set and the visible orchestra concentrate attention on what is happening in the drama, and on its psychological, philosophical ideas. Ultimately, this is much more in keeping with Wagner’s dearest wish, that his operas should make people think, than any amount of Teutonic kitsch.

Anne Ozorio

 

 



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