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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Das Rheingold (1854)
Wotan - (bass)  – John Tomlinson
Donner - (baritone) – Bodo Brinkmann
Froh - (tenor) – Kurt Schreibmayer
Loge - (tenor) – Graham Clark
Mime - (tenor) – Helmut Pampuch
Alberich - (baritone) – Günter von Kannen
Fasolt - (bass) – Matthias Hölle
Fafner - (bass) – Philip Kang
Fricka - (mezzo) – Linda Finnie
Freia - (soprano) – Eva Johansson
Erda - (mezzo) – Birgitta Svenden
Woglinde - (soprano) – Hilde Leidland
Wellgunde - (mezzo) – Annette Küttenbaum
Flosshilde - (mezzo) – Jane Turner
Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festpiele/Daniel Barenboim
Directed for the stage by Harry Kupfer
Designed by Hans Schavernoch
Directed for video by Horant H.Hohlfeld
rec. live, Bayreuth Festspielhaus, June/July 1991
WARNER CLASSICS UNITEL 2564 62318-2 [154:00]
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Having written something of a ‘rave’ review of Die Walküre last year (see review) – in fact nominating it as my DVD of the year– it seems slightly odd now to watch the follow-up release of what should come first, the ‘preliminary evening’, Das Rheingold. The Kupfer/Barenboim partnership was a supremely musical and intelligent one, and there is again much to enjoy. The problems of staging Rheingold are that much more in the way of special effects are needed and different directors get round them in different ways. Kupfer’s answers to Wagner’s many technical headaches are always clever and theatrical, but it has to be said that some work better than others.
There’s no doubt about the success of the opening scene. As the low E flat rumbles away like an organ pedal, Kupfer has his cast of characters stood motionless on the bare set dressed in modern outdoor clothes. They are survivors from some catastrophic holocaust, standing at a crossroads, the meaning of which will work its way full circle at the end of Götterdämmerung. They turn and walk slowly away into the black distance of designer Hans Schavernoch’s now-famous ‘highway to nowhere’. In that impressive visual coup, Kupfer encapsulates the essence of what is about to unfold.
As the E flat grows and swells into the first scene proper, the highway is transformed into the depths of the Rhine. This is imaginatively done with a mixture of lights, laser beams and projection and must have looked amazing in the theatre. By an ingenious use of different levels, the Rhinemaidens are able to appear and disappear at will, thus appearing magical yet flirtatious when Alberich comes into view. As is often the case on DVD, a bit too much is given away in close-up, and the camera also has technical problems with the lasers - (nothing terrible, and it is pointed out on the box - (but overall this scene is successfully staged and sung.
When we get to the Gods, the setting is more abstract, with a rather modernist-looking sculpture at the centre-back presumably being the newly-completed Valhalla. The Gods themselves are dressed in mainly modern dress, but again with hints of the abstract, such as perspex suitcases and a large see-through hammer for Donner. It’s less evocative than some stagings I’ve seen but is superbly sung. That said, I initially raised an eyebrow at the Loge of Graham Clarke, who’s on great form but is dressed like a cross between and a leather-clad teddy boy and a ’70s David Bowie. He loiters on the periphery, hands in pockets, observing events almost with disdain, and his portrayal is subtle and complex.
After this, Fasolt and Fafner are a disappointment. Directors seem to fall into two camps here; they either suggest the fact that they are giants (as Keith Warner did recently at Covent Garden) or try to ‘enlarge’ the singers in some way, as Patrice Chéreau did in 1976. There, the actors sat on the shoulders of two trained stilt walkers and, when draped in costume, looked roughly twice ordinary height yet were able to move swiftly about the stage. Here, Kupfer has lifted the two basses on to some huge mechanical contraption that’s more like three times normal height, so they look impressive as they lumber in from the distance but once on stage become cumbersome and look vaguely comical, those tiny heads poking out of the huge body. The mechanical arm movement is also severely limited, something that becomes important later on when they have to cart off Freia. It also means Fasolt’s slaying has to be played off-stage, again because of movement restrictions, which is a pity, as it’s a pivotal moment when the Ring’s curse claims its first victim.
These moments are few and far between, but another is the rather pathetic pantomime serpent that Alberich turns into when he dons the tarnhelm, though we could be kind and suggest that Kupfer is being ironic here...? Also the Ring itself actually looks more like a huge knuckleduster, but this could be so it would be visible from a distance.
Far better from a staging point of view is the actual descent to Nibelheim, where we get the full glory of the Bayreuth orchestra and a welter of anvil noise – though obviously coming from a separate soundtrack. Visually it’s a treat, and the Nibelungen are shown correctly as dwarf minions, but here they look as if they have been deformed by some sort of nuclear nightmare - (which perhaps ties in with the opening tableau. The final scene is also quite impressive – an amazing thunderbolt from Donner – but the thrill of the orchestral playing is not quite matched on stage, where the Gods simply walk into the futuristic structure and start cavorting about, a comment obviously on their behaviour but missing some of the grandeur Wagner obviously intended.
So, some staging compromises here, but extremely impressive on the vocal and musical front. All the principals are on good form, especially the ever-energetic John Tomlinson and the oily Graham Clarke. Sound quality is excellent and widescreen picture clear and sharp, apart from the previously mentioned distortion during the Rhine scene. Perhaps I’m being over-fussy in my criticisms of some of the staging – it’s still a tremendously vital and imaginative post-modern production that is wonderfully matched by Barenboim’s conducting. I certainly look forward to future instalments and though I feel that, as an individual production, the Chéreau Rheingold has the edge, when viewed as a whole cycle the Kupfer will be one of the most impressive on DVD.
Tony Haywood

See Das Rheingold
Die Walkure




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