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Richard WAGNER (1813 – 1883)
Das Rheingold

John Tomlinson (bass-baritone) – Wotan; Bodo Brinkmann (baritone) – Donner; Kurt Schreibmayer (tenor) – Froh; Graham Clark (tenor) – Loge; Günter von Kannen (bass) – Alberich; Helmut Pampusch (tenor) – Mime; Matthias Hölle (bass) – Fasolt; Philip Kang (bass) – Fafner; Linda Finnie (mezzo) – Fricka; Eva Johansson (soprano) – Freia; Birgitta Svendén (mezzo) – Erda; Hilde Leidland (soprano) – Woglinde; Annette Küttenbaum (mezzo) – Wellgunde; Jane Turner (contralto) – Flosshilde
Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele/Daniel Barenboim
Staged and directed by Harry Kupfer; Stage design: Hans Schavernoch; Costume design: Reingard Heinrich; Video director: Horant H. Hohlfeld; Artistic supervision: Wolfgang Wagner
Filmed at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, June-July 1991
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 62318-2 DVD [154:00]

The complete Barenboim Ring, which was originally issued as a sound recording on CD and subsequently also as a Unitel video production - which I never saw - has some claims to be the best of latter-day Rings musically. It is good to have it in this format making it possible to view Harry Kupfer’s thought-provoking staging in harness with Barenboim’s organic interpretation of these many-faceted scores. It is here presented in surround sound although I have viewed and listened to it in two-channel stereo only, which sounded well enough. The only black mark is some metallic distortion to Birgitta Svendén’s voice in Erda’s Warning, something I also detected on the sound-only recording. It doesn’t diminish the total listening pleasure, though. The booklet also mentions the visual distortions during the first 25 minutes, i.e. the scene with the Rhinemaidens and Alberich, “caused by the on-stage laser technology ... The laser frequencies caused interference in the circuitry of the video cameras. This was already noticed during the recording, but at the time this problem could not be overcome.” It should also be mentioned that although filmed in the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth this is not a live recording, which means that there are no disturbances from the admittedly well-behaved Bayreuth audience and of course no applause. There is however a real feeling of occasion. Whatever reservations one may have about the production the whole cast was undoubtedly greatly inspired.
I am often in two minds about going into detail about the sets and direction, which often robs the viewer of the surprise; that sensation of the first time experience in the theatre. With a DVD production I should be able to judge the lasting effect, the lasting value. However I have not been able to see the performance more than once straight through, plus a preliminary look a week or so earlier when I skipped through the disc to get a clue to the production. Anyway the first scene is green, the water of the Rhine possibly less muddy in Wagner’s time. I don’t know how it works, but the Rhinemaidens and Alberich suddenly disappear into the water, only to pop up somewhere else a little later. The maidens are dressed in tight half transparent costumes and they move about, now swimming, now dancing, now making sexually alluring movements to tease poor Alberich. They are a good-looking and well-singing trio.
Alberich appears again in the third scene, again mainly green with an enormous metal construction, symbolising the industrial activities in the underworld. The evil Alberich is dressed in blinding white – as is his bullied brother Mime, here portrayed as a laboratory engineer with a magnifier as a third eye. Scenes two and four, outside the newly erected Valhalla, are sparsely lit and greyish, the Gods dressed in sundry costumes from times hard to date. Wotan in slouch-hat and carrying his ubiquitous spear, Froh a pale dandy type from the roaring ’20s and the giants six metres high with pin-sized heads and long clumsy arms which they wave limply from time to time. All this makes it hard to believe that they have been able to build Valhalla. The Gods also carry suitcases, seemingly made of glass - they are to move in soon! - and Donner’s hammer, also of glass, is of super-size, and he swings it more or less constantly, showing his constant hot temper. In general they seem to be a bunch of neurotics, having short fuses and giving full expression to their feelings, the only exception being the stoic, well-organized Loge. He is acted with chilly precision and elegance by Graham Clark who makes a real character of the half-god that stays in one’s memory long after the show is over. Erda is the cool worldly-wise visitor from the lower regions, so low in fact that she sings her warning half descended in the ground.
Vocally most of the cast are on a very high level. Linda Finnie’s Fricka can be shrill and unsteady but she is also capable of an exquisite pianissimo. Helmut Pampusch is a whining Mime, very much in character and he, like all the rest, is a convincing actor. A real stage presence and an imposing bass voice make Gunter von Kannen one of the best Alberichs imaginable, his face catching all the various feelings in this composite character. The giants sing well enough, good Germanic basses not too difficult to find. Bodo Brinkmann’s baritone is a pliant instrument for this hot-spur. Birgitta Svendén’s unaffected, beautiful singing of Erda’s monologue reminds me of two other important Swedish Erdas: Anna Larsson from the current Stockholm production and Kerstin Thorborg from the inter-war years.
But the hub around which everything rotates in this opera, is Wotan, warts and all. His weaker sides, especially the almost fanatic greed, are highlighted in this production. John Tomlinson’s bass voice has enough baritone quality to make him a near ideal Wotan and what he sometimes lacks in vocal colours and sonority he more than compensates for by the identification and intensity of his delivery. This is a portrait that is difficult not no admire, whether one likes the concept or not, and that also goes for the whole production. I recently reviewed the Amsterdam production conducted by Hartmut Haenchen (see review) and found much to admire there too. This is another way of regarding Wagner’s inexhaustible masterpiece and while I wouldn’t like to play either of them that frequently, I will be happy to return to both when feeling in the right mood, always aware that this Rheingold has the best singing. The true Wagner freak needs both, of course. If forced to make a choice I would opt for the Barenboim.
Göran Forsling

see also review by Tony Haywood

See Das Rheingold
Die Walkure



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