Richard WAGNER (1813–1883)
Das Rheingold (1869) [194:00]
[image] 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
[image] 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]

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.