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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


 

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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Das Rheingold (1869)
John Bröcheler (bass-baritone) – Wotan; Jürgen Freier (baritone) – Donner; Albert Bonnema (tenor) – Froh; Chril Merritt (tenor) – Loge; Henk Smit (baritone) – Alberich; Graham Clark (tenor) – Mime; Peter Mikuláš (bass) – Fasolt; Carsten Stabell (bass) – Fafner; Reinhild Runkel (mezzo) – Fricka; Carola Höhn (soprano) – Freia; Anne Gjevang (contralto) – Erda; Gabriele Fontana (soprano) – Woglinde; Hanna Schaer (mezzo) – Wellgunde; Catherine Keen (contralto) – Flosshilde
Residentie Orchestra, The Hague/Hartmut Haenchen
rec. live, Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam, 1999
Stage Director: Pierre Audi; Set Design: George Tsypin; Costume Design: Eiko Ishioka; Light Design: Wolfgang Göbbel; Dramaturgy: Klaus Bertisch
TV Director: Misjel Vermeiren
Sung in German with subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch and Japanese
Includes “The Forging of the Ring”, Roland Hazendonk’s documentary introduction to Wagner’s Ring from Het Muziektheater Amsterdam, including interviews with Hartmut Haenchen, Pierre Audi and principal members of the cast.
OPUS ARTE OA 0946 D [2 DVDs: 68:02 + 80:45]

 

Having for the last half-year been under the spell of Stockholm’s deeply satisfying and enormously well-sung Das Rheingold (see review, Seen and Heard), set in Wagner’s own time and presented as a kind of fairy-tale, I was at first taken aback by this seven-year-old production from Amsterdam. It took me some time to adjust to Pierre Audi’s and George Tsypin’s concept. One feature is the orchestra, fully visible and placed so to speak centre-stage, half immersed in a kind of pit but surrounded by the stage with only a narrow cat-walk separating the orchestra from the auditorium. Part of the action takes place on this equivalent of the Shakespearean apron. The sets are not real sets, rather constructions in metal and glass with various floors folded down for specific purposes. There is a lot of walking and crawling on sloping surfaces, which presumably must have been rather trying for the actors. The whole staging is more of an engineer’s workshop and some of the constructions look like scaffolding.

The first scene, on the bottom of the Rhine, plays on a sloping glass-and-metal construction, lit from underneath. This metal construction is then transformed into “real” scaffolding, illustrating the newly erected Valhall in scene 2. The visit to Alberich’s Nibelheim, takes us to a fanciful subterranean factory with fire and smoke and in the last scene the Gods make their way to Valhall, not via the rainbow but on a high and seemingly frail bridge, making them look more like four Bellinian sleepwalkers.

The light design plays an important part in this production and I won’t spoil the pleasure (or dismay) for the prospective buyers to explore the fanciful costumes by describing them in detail. Suffice to say that the Rhinemaidens’ tights, may have been a good idea in theory, but since few opera singers are sylphs the effect registers as parody and, I would say, is degrading to the actors. Sexual allure? OK, but the Stockholm maidens’ modest 19th century long dresses don’t make them less alluring, leaving something to the viewers’ imagination.

The director’s aim with this production is surely to invite the onlookers to give their own interpretations of Wagner’s many-faceted drama. He can’t give any answers, he says in the documentary, but he helps Wagner to ask the questions – questions of the importance: of love and the evil powers of money. In a way he uses Brecht’s methods of breaking the illusion of reality by never presenting a believable world. Placing the orchestra in the centre of the action rather emphasises the importance of the music in relation to the words and, clearly well-rehearsed, they play impressively. There are drawbacks, not least the balance between singers and orchestra. Hartmut Haenchen conducts a fairly transparent and lean version, but of course Wagner’s score needs to be heard in all its glory. He can’t always avoid over-powering the soloists.

Which brings me to the cast. It takes some good actors in good shape to fulfil the director’s intentions and most of them are excellent. Maybe the best of the bunch is Graham Clark as a lively and expressive Mime, his facial expressions mirroring every facet of this complex character. He also sings well. His Nibelung partner, Alberich, is portrayed in all his evil, all his greed and all his sorrow by the excellent Henk Smit. On the godly side – well, half-godly anyway – Chris Merritt is a convincingly oily Loge. In the centre of the action John Bröcheler’s Wotan is appropriately stern. Vocally he has a certain authority, though he lacks the wide palette of colours some Wotans have mustered in the past. He feels rather monochrome. Still he has the powers to ‘ride’ the orchestra without having to press the voice beyond its natural limits; a problem with most of these singers. There is hardly a voice that is free from strain and this strain more often than not results in wobbling – to various degrees. Anne Gjevang as Erda is relatively free from it. The two giants, impersonated by Peter Mikuláš and Carsten Stabell, are both equipped with sonorous bass voices with enough power to make them stand out vocally.

The performance was recorded in surround sound, but I listened to it in 2-channel stereo and it sounded excellent. The video direction allows the watcher to experience both the full stage in all its disguises and to creep into the action in close-ups. As a visual and theatrical experience this became rather thrilling but for superior singing one has to look elsewhere. Why not the Barenboim set from Bayreuth, which is due for review before long and which I so far know from the sound-only version; there the singing at least is in a quite different class.

The booklet has some interesting essays on the drama and the music and the documentary gives some further insight into the production. Although there is a list of “chapter points” in the booklet “for ease of access” they are not numbered, which is a bit annoying. And once again I have to air my hobby-horse about small white print on black background. Fortunately the essays are conventionally printed (black on white) and I guess we have to be grateful as long as the designers haven’t reversed the printing process completely.

I wish the Stockholm production could be filmed - if it hasn’t already been done - and released on DVD; that would be a smash hit! I would also like one day to see a production where the director dares to follow Wagner’s detailed instructions literally. When there is so much care devoted to musically authentic performances, why couldn’t there be a corresponding scenic authentic movement?

To sum things up: As a visual and theatrical experience this became rather thrilling but for superior singing one has to look elsewhere.

Göran Forsling

see also Review by Anne Ozorio

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