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CD: Crotchet

Richard WAGNER (1813–1883)
Das Rheingold (1869) [194:00]
Wotan - Juha Uusitalo (bass–baritone)
Fricka - Anna Larsson (mezzo)
Alberich - Franz-Josef Kapelmann (bass)
Loge - John Daszak (tenor)
Fasolt - Matti Salminen (bass)
Fafner - Stephen Milling (bass)
Erda - Daniela Denschlag (mezzo)
Freia - Sabine Von Walter (soprano)
Mime - Niklas Björling Rygert (tenor)
Donner - Charles Taylor (baritone)
Froh - Germán Villa (tenor)
Woglinde - Silvia Vázquez (soprano)
Wellgunde - Ann-Katrin Naidu (mezzo)
Flosshilde - Marina Prudenskay (contralto)
Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana/Zubin Mehta
rec. live, Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia, April/May 2007
Staged by La Fura dels Baus/Carlus Padrissa. Stage Director: Carlus Padrissa. Video Creator: Franc Aleu. Staging and Acting Coordinator: Valentina Carrasco. Stage Design: Roland Olbeter. Lighting: Peter van Praet. Costumes: Chu Uroz. Video Director: Tiziano Mancini
Region Code: Universal. Video format: Full HD. Sound Formats. PCM Stereo. DTS HD MA 7.1 Bonus Track DD 2.0. Subtitles: Subtitles: German, French, English, Spanish: Booklet, English, French and German.
Bonus Track - The Making of Rheingold [27:00]
UNITEL CLASSICA 700604 Blu-ray [221:00]


Experience Classicsonline


Picture © Tato Baeza

The entire Valencia ‘Ring des Nibelungen’ of which this Rheingold is the first part, has been reviewed for Seen and Heard by José M. Irurzun - both as independent operas beginning with Rheingold in April 2007 and most recently as the vorabend for the first complete cycle given in June this year (review.) JMI was enthusiastic about both performances and concluded in the end that Das Rheingold was in fact the best part of the tetralogy in this new production. It’s by the Catalan theatre company La Fura dels Baus, and was commissioned jointly by Valencia’s Palau de Les Arts Reina Sofia and the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.

According to JMI’s account of the Götterdämmerrung though (review) a prominent Spanish critic is on record as considering the La Fura cycle to be one of the three most important ‘Rings’ ever staged, ranking in prominence along with those from Wieland Wagner and Patrice Chéreau, both given at Bayreuth. High praise indeed, and while JMI’s appreciation was less hyperbolic, he did rate the Valencia cycle as a very significant achievement and certainly one of the most interesting ‘Rings’ produced anywhere in recent years.

Having narrowly missed seeing the second Valencia cycle myself – I had tickets but was unfortunately unable to get there in the end – I am more than inclined to agree. On the strength of this recording at least, my personal rating puts the production on a par with Kasper Bech Holten’s ‘Copenhagen Ring’, the DVDs of which were reviewed very enthusiastically for MusicWeb International by both Tony Duggan and by Göran Forsling. I saw only part of that in live performance myself - Die Walküre back in December 2004 - but having subsequently obtained the discs too, I had no hesitation in endorsing GF’s and TD’s comments wholeheartedly. Even now, Holten’s idea still strikes me as one of the most intelligent readings of Wagner’s texts I have ever had the good luck to encounter.

So it is with this Rheingold. Spurred on even more by Colin Clarke’s equally glowing review of another La Fura dels Baus production, Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, at ENO in September of this year, and by the fact that this would be my first experience of opera in Blu-ray, I jumped at the chance of seeing La Fura in action. And action is certainly the right word here, because the visual interest is constantly so extraordinary, the casting so luxurious, the orchestral sound so compelling and the realisation of the text so engaging that I suspect that many more two–hour time slots will find their way into my evenings in the future. While some people may find the wealth of visuals distracting I dare say, I’m already certain that I won’t be one of them.
La Fura productions are expensive. They use extremely high definition back- projections, with four times the resolution of ordinary HD apparently, they invariably employ elaborate machinery, including enormous exoskeletons for the giants in this production and they need dozens (if not actually hundreds) of extras, dancers, acrobats and stage crew to move the machines around or to become part of the actual ‘sets’. There is no formal scenery either: everything is done with lighting and visuals to characterise the settings, which here remain extremely close to Wagner’s own visualisations although in 21st century guise. For Scene 1 we see the Rhinemaidens in tanks of water which can be raised on cables to tease Alberich, although he does get to swim with his ‘nixies’ here. Behind an otherwise bare metal stage, video projections show swirling waves and when the gold appears it is represented by droplets of golden liquid or golden eggs that eventually cohere into a huge homunculus-like baby or even Buddha figure. To emphasise the gold’s power, the baby/ Buddha picture turns into the spinning ring that Peter Jackson uses in his Tolkien films. In the end, to allow Alberich to seize the gold realistically, the Rhinemaidens ‘give birth’ to small transparent eggs containing small copies of the baby, from kangaroo pouches in their costumes. The water in the tanks - an enormous amount of it – pours down through the stage so that Alberich can collect the eggs from nets below the tanks before running off with them triumphantly.
One of Carlus Padrissa’s concerns, as he explains in the bonus film ‘The Making of the Rheingold’ is to differentiate clearly between the different worlds inhabited by the gods, humans and the Nibelungs. To portray the gods’ elevated status he has them appear on railed platforms at the end of see-saw pivoted cranes which are manipulated vertically and moved around on wheels by extras. According to Juha Uusitalo (Wotan) and Anna Larsson (Fricka) in the bonus film, the platforms from which they had to sing took them up to a height of 4 metres when fully extended, which they both found fairly unnerving at first. Loge however, half-god that he is and more than mercurial by nature, remains steadfastly earth-bound but he moves around with extraordinary agility on a Segway scooter, from which he never alights, even when descending into Niebelheim.
While the giants appear inside huge metal exoskeletons, once again propelled by extras, the most startling imagery (except for one other extraordinary example) is reserved for the journey to Niebelheim. As Wotan and Loge descend, the back-projected videos show a picture of the earth from space, a fiery and unpleasant earth at that, which draws ever nearer as the descent proceeds. Niebelheim itself is a dark and oppressive factory, in which the golden eggs are farmed for their living embryos – which are then manufactured into the objective gold for the aggrandizement of Alberich. The newly-hatched beings are suspended upside-down from meat hooks, and the theme of living creatures being used as objects is reinforced by the Niebelung workers testing and prodding them as they move along the conveyor belt.

Within this setting, Alberich’s taunting of Mime (there’s a real Tarnhelm and Alberich does become invisible) leads to his shape-changing – a fiery wurm made from a train of red carts propelled extras and a moving mechanical model toad. The return to the god’s realm is a masterpiece of theatrical mechanics, with Niebelheim apparently disappearing downwards at break-neck speed while the earth, once again back–projected, recedes rapidly into ever-widening space. The ultimate coup de théâtre is reserved for the representation of Valhalla (see disc label above) in which more human beings, suspended within a network of cables become the physical fabric of the gods’ new stronghold. Power it seems corrupts so completely that people inevitably become nothing but materials.
There is little to say about the singing, other than that this is a seriously luxurious cast, drawn from the ranks of the finest Wagnerians in the world. Salminen, Milling, Uusitalo, Larsson and John Daszak are all in first class voice but there is not a note out of place anywhere and I see that this cycle’s Walküre also includes Domingo (or ‘Superman’ as my colleague JMI calls him). Some may quibble about Chu Uroz’s peculiar ‘multi-media’ costumes if they like incidentally, but I am not one of them since the singers cope with them - and with the machinery - perfectly well.
The orchestra is also more than interesting. Consisting of young players recruited from all over the world – not a grey hair among them as someone said, the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana really is a first rate group especially under Zubin Mehta’s direction. Mehta himself is revealed to be a consummate Wagnerian and while some commentators have found his direction rather too measured - especially in the later parts of the tetralogy - the sound and sense of ensemble that he draws from his orchestra and the singers seem to me to be not only very satisfying but also wholly engaging and (if you like) somehow a truly intrinsic component of this remarkable production. It’s hard to imagine anyone fitting in with La Fura more confidently or comfortably.

Picture quality is excellent from this disc and the video direction by Tiziano Mancini is clean and unproblematic. To finish though, I should say something about the Blu-ray sound, particularly since my Blu-ray player cost only about 10% of the price for my main - and otherwise universal – disc player.

No, it’s not quite as good as the best CDs or even DVD-Audio discs played on the expensive machine: there’s not quite the same degree of instrumental definition or depth of image from Blu-ray, but it’s a remarkably close-run thing. And bearing in mind the old hi-fi adage, ‘Garbage In, Garbage Out’ then the Blu-ray sound is very impressive indeed and very much better than might be expected for the money, at least in PCM stereo. Mind you, having said all that and while I don’t run to DTS HD MA 7.1 I do remain a committed devotee of the UHJ Ambisonics sound encoding system still used by Nimbus. Played through four channels only in the Ambisonics decoder’s enhanced stereo mode, the sound from Blu-ray, on this disc at least, is seriously extraordinary for something less that £200.

Bill Kenny

Footnote: I have been intrigued for years about what La Fura dels Baus means in English. A quick trawl round the internet suggests that ‘Fura’ means ‘Ferret’ in Catalan and that ‘Baus’ is the name of a refuse tip in Moià, near Manresa, a town about 60kms north-west of Barcelona. ‘Ferreting through the Rubbish’ – for the gold in this instance – seems a pretty good description of what La Fura does.


This production has proved highly controversial and here is a totally different review from Jack Lawson

Using full 1080 progressive signal on the latest technology 55-inch LCD display the filmic quality of this Rheingold is its great merit but I auditioned the 16:9 Blu-ray format on PCM stereo. I am not equipped for the higher audio option – an aural treat which is called DTS HD Master Audio 7.1! The Mehta Ring could be the “killer app” which would tempt me into the decoder and seven channels plus a bass blower but when you buy the latest in Home Cinema, the makers are planning its obsolescence, and I was not impressed by DVD-Audio. Multiple channels of low resolution do not amount to high resolution.
McLuhan declared with powerful foresight that “the message is the medium”. However, the Ring cycle cannot be described adequately as four great operas. It is music, song, myth, poetry and drama fused into a credible world-view which is all-consuming. Wagner wrote for the theatre because it was the medium of his time; for his Gesamtkunstwerk.
Blu-ray is today’s quantum leap - much greater than Laserdisc over VHS, or DVD over both - therefore I watched the BBC documentary and re-read John Culshaw’s “Ring Resounding” in preparation for this review. What I wanted to refresh was the reasoning by which Culshaw justified his project as authentic Wagner. The LP record, and “full frequency range recording” were developed by Decca in the early 1950s but the invention that, by Culshaw’s reckoning, liberated Wagner’s conception was the arrival of stereo.
Throughout my career as a Hi-Fi Dealer, the Ring has always been my prime test and even my motivation. It is the “killer app” – music which demands High Fidelity; the dynamics, detail, natural sound and, yes, the three dimensions of space. Within this there can be movement as well as transparency and clarity of sound. I can enjoy Bach, Beatles and Beethoven on a car radio but I cannot scale Wagner down. I have always believed that Georg Solti’s Ring is the culmination of western music and of the recording industry.
The Decca/Culshaw/Vienna Ring stands supreme as a successful soundscape rather than a recorded and reduced stage event. Far better in pure audio, in my opinion, than any theatre production reduced through a DVD and a TV set. But now we have what C Major/ Unitel Classica sleeve-notes call A Ring for the 21st Century. Staged at the suggestion of Zubin Mehta the Catalan Theatre Company performed the works at the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in 2007. Now, in December 2009, the first instalment is released: Das Rheingold.
Can this new format Blu-ray High Definition with surround-sound break my experience of video as a diminution of Wagner’s creativity? Strangely enough, Solti fights back this very month as Esoteric announced on 21st December a Limited Edition remastering of Decca’s Vienna recordings. Based on the Japanese price, the cost of the fourteen SACD/hybrid discs will be as high as the fi! The UK importer reckons around £450 if he is not greedy. I for one will not hesitate: I have struggled for years with faulty LP pressings from Decca’s plant in New Malden, Surrey; then the sterile sound but quiet surfaces of the German Teldec LPs which I gave away. Don’t even ask me about the CDs.
This is a long explanation of why I select, not a video comparison for Mehta’s Rheingold, but a stereo reference. On video I would compare the Levine Metropolitan and Copenhagen Rings with Universal Classics issues on Blu-ray. The format’s capacity means that on one disc, the Unitel carries over three hours of material. At first I was disappointed by no libretto until I realised that subtitles are available in German (the sung language) and English, French and Spanish. Who needs a libretto? What, no Making of the Ring video available to buy? Not necessary: it’s included!
So much to introduce the medium in great detail. Welcome to Blu-ray. What about the programme content? You have a wide choice of Rings on physical media. You need to choose whether you wish to approach the work as singing or spectacle; as a sonic masterpiece or historical record; as an “authentic” period production (as Wagner envisaged) or as arty/contrived/avant-garde statement post 19th century.
The Fura Dels Baus production is arty; it is directed by Carlus Padrissa whom I have not heard of before but I am sure that he has not heard of me. I recoil from the arty stereotypes of modern opera but I admit that the best examples have won me. But can any human dare to retouch the gods? Read on.
Mindful of my obligations to all who created and furnished the disc, to the credibility of reviewers, and to MusicWeb, after twenty minutes the stop button was required to preserve sanity. Slick, smooth and sumptuous it may be but Wagner it is not. Instead we have the formulaic tricks of the 3-D computer graphics, the foetus in space, and three suspended tanks of glass filled with water depicting the flowing Rhine. The Rhinemaidens are semi-nude with the bonus of squirting nipples. It gets worse. I am not one who regards Zubin Mehta as a man who lacks the versatility for the great spectrum of music he conducts. He is always fresh and innovative; often he is profound in his observations. I am a devoted admirer, but here I found that the orchestra is merely competent and the conducting makes the music no more than enjoyable. Not even the highly-acclaimed Wotan (Juha Uusitalo) can save it.
The unique virtue of video over theatre, then, is the stop switch as the hasty exit. If you want finely sung, intimate Wagner revert to Keilberth or Karajan or Furtwängler. If you want a marvellous spectacle which stereo can present in sound, try Levine.
I am waiting on Esoteric because I have confirmed the truth. Here it is. Wagner was a genius and knew exactly how to achieve what he conceived. The Decca team served art and served Wagner from their knowledge and insight. There may be a newer and better way of doing it but somehow, I suspect, the debt of the world to the Viennese Ring may be eternal. Solti was right: the Philharmonic is the world’s finest Wagner orchestra by a very long margin. The sweet sumptuous strings, the evocative, powerful brass playing, and most of all the instinctive expression and phrasing; these formed the tradition of a very traditional orchestral society.
It is human nature to doubt and to strive to improve. But I am clear in my mind, having spent the evening with Solti’s Rheingold, that he achieved the Holy Grail because he had faith; because he prepared himself; because he humbled himself as a servant to the Master.
Blu-ray is a triumph of technology. The Mehta Ring is an expensive disaster.

Jack Lawson




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