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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876)
Günter von Kannen (Alberich)
John Tomlinson (Wotan)
Anne Evans (Brünnhilde)
Siegfried Jerusalem (Siegfried)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
rec. Bayreuth 1991-2
Stage production by Harry Kupfer
Region codes: NTSC 2,3,4,5; Picture format 16:9; Sound: LPCM stereo, Dolby digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 Surround; Subtitles in English, Français, Deutsch, Español, Italiano
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 62317-2 [7 DVDs: 154 + 237 + 243 + 270 min.]

Warner has now boxed up the DVDs of the Barenboim/Kupfer Ring cycle made in Bayreuth during the early 1990s. Göran Forsling and Tony Haywood have already reviewed the individual issues with considerable enthusiasm (see below). Apart from a handy box to keep the four cases in, the only difference between acquiring the operas separately or in this package is price. At the time of writing, the difference on one UK website was approximately £94 separately versus £66 together. Interestingly, Barenboim’s complete cycle on CD costs £85 and the famous Decca/Solti traversal £125 on the same website. That this is a considerable bargain should therefore be obvious. I don’t have the CD set for comparison but the sound on DVD played through a stereo amplifier is excellent. Provided you have such connections, this package could serve all your audio-visual needs in relation to the Ring. The only thing missing would be the libretti but you could probably find these on the web using this useful link. For newcomers to the work, I can strongly recommend Deryck Cooke’s introduction with musical examples by Solti & the VPO on a Decca recording.
One point I should make right away is that these are not live performances in the sense that an audience was not present. But they do seem to have been recorded “as live” and I would regard the absence of audience and applause as an advantage. In this respect it seems to be different to alternative DVD versions yet available.
My purpose here is to reflect on the cycle as a whole. The watchwords in this respect are “consistency” and “excellence”. This is a cycle which really does hang together, and which grabs one’s attention and never lets go. I thought it would take me some time to watch it but once started I found myself blocking out the next available evenings in the diary. The most credit for that must surely go to Barenboim. Hidden away in the Bayreuth pit, the only appearance he makes is in the supplementary interview (see below) but he inspires the orchestra to great heights. There is detail but not at the expense of structure, excitement but not at the expense of lyricism. There was nothing I felt to be controversial in his direction, simply music at the service of the drama.
Next on list for recognition must be the principals. Before naming names I should make the point that this is not a Ring that one must hear or have because of a particular singer in one of the roles – I simply would not be able to choose between the principals. The four biggest roles, in order of appearance are Alberich, Wotan, Brünnhilde and Siegfried though none of them sings in all four operas. Günter von Kannen, John Tomlinson, Anne Evans and Siegfried Jerusalem - must be a handy Christian name to have if you want to be a heldentenor! - take these roles. Each sings and acts consummately and was completely inside the role by the time the recording was made. There are no real weaknesses in the smaller parts and the Graham Clark who takes Loge in Rheingold and Mime in Siegfried is a major plus giving highly characterised performances. Swapping Mime’s between these two operas is a minor blemish and, when Clark appears in Siegfried, I didn’t find myself spotting any likeness with Loge. Linda Finnie also takes multiple roles – most importantly Fricka in the first two operas, and re-appearing as Siegrune in Act III of Die Walküre and as first Norn in Götterdämmerung. This is luxury casting indeed and equally fine is Philip Kang, especially as a rather subtle yet evil Hagen. He also takes the role of Fafner in both his incarnations.
I have already mentioned the fine acting of the principals. Göran Forsling felt that at times there was too much acting involved, a view I can understand but don’t entirely share. The Kufper staging was intended to be timeless and the sets seem to achieve that with transitions being effected very well indeed. There are a few potentially controversial touches in the form of visual effects not specified by Wagner, for example Wotan controlling the Woodbird and a well-dressed audience watching the end of the gods on television at the very end. Personally I could have done without them but I did not feel they were a major drawback.
The subtitles are worth a comment because they are pithy and in the modern idiom, at least in English. Whilst occasionally blinking at them disbelievingly, I liked the style. As far as I can tell from sampling, the German sub-titles provide the authentic text. There is one extra on the first DVD of Götterdämmerung – an interview with John Tomlinson and Daniel Barenboim lasting 13 minutes and clearly recorded within the last few years. The former describes working on this Ring as the greatest experience of his professional life. The written documentation provides synopses of each opera and there are additional articles in the booklets including a conversation and an interview with Harry Kupfer.
When writing the Ring over a period of around 25 years from about 1850 Wagner refused to compromise in relation to practicalities. Presumably he believed that one day it would all be possible. Technology has doubtless since facilitated producing the work in the theatre but has it become more practical for the audience? Spending many hours in the theatre and travelling to a major city, and hundreds of pounds makes this as impractical as ever for most people. But on DVD, with the advantages of your own living room, the impact is not far behind. Wagner would have been ecstatic without doubt. I’d love to go Bayreuth but, aside from the cost in money and time, I would have to wait years and get lucky in a ballot. Now I feel like I have been.
My own experience of the Ring in the theatre is limited to the recent ENO cycle in London. I have also seen the Boulez version and part of the recent Covent Garden cycle on the small screen. The CD sets I own are Solti and Goodall, famous for dramatic effect and being slooooooooooow respectively although I love them both. Insofar as I can make comparisons from that background, I feel that Barenboim and Kupfer beat them all hands down to provide a central “must-see” and “must-have” experience. Given that this set is one of the cheapest ways of acquiring the Ring in any format at the moment, it is an obvious one-stop shop for the work. Snap it up soon because it will be an investment and acquire legendary status, if it hasn’t already. In fifty years time people will look back on this in the same kind of way they are now doing on the 1955 Keilberth Ring, of that I am sure. I expect that DVD will have disappeared by then but, if physicists have worked out how to teleport us back in time – akin to an ancillary facility of the Tarnhelm – a trip to Bayreuth in the early 1990s to see this may have become hottest ticket in the universe.
Patrick C Waller
Individual opera reviews
Das Rheingold Die Walküre Siegfried Götterdämmerung

Other useful links:
Wagner resources on the internet
All You Need To Appreciate Wagner’s Ring
Wikipedia article on the Ring (useful for a list of recordings)


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