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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Das Rheingold (1869)
Mario Hoff (Wotan); Alexander Gunther (Donner); Jean-Noel Briend (Froh); Erin Caves (Loge); Tomas Mowes (Alberich); Frieder Aurich (Mime); Renatus Meszar (Fasolt); Hidekazu Tsumaya (Fafner); Christine Hansmann (Fricka); Marietta Zumbult (Freia); Nadine Weissmann (Erda); Silona Michel (Woglinde); Susann Gunther-Dissmeier (Wellgunde); Christiane Bassek (Flosshilde); Luise Grabolle; Marie-Louise Winde; Luisa Wollner (Three Norns).
Staatskapelle Weimar/Carl St. Clair.
Directed by Michael Shulz.
rec. Deutsches Nationaltheater, Weimar, 2008.
Sound: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1. Picture Format 16:9. DVD
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101 353 [166:00]
Experience Classicsonline

How many Rhinemaidens does it take to make a "Rheingold"? Three? Wellgunde, Woglinde and Flosshilde? Exactly. Now brace yourselves. At one point in this new production on DVD of "Das Rheingold" from Weimar there are eleven. That's right eleven Rhinemaidens. And one of them is bald. Her hair ripped off in high abandon and donned by Alberich to turn him into a kind of Late Romantic Ozzy Osborne. I know what some of you are thinking now. I read customer reviews on a well-known web-based book and disc site and I see contributions from especially American opera-lovers. Some of you are muttering "Eurotrash", aren't you? I can spot the high dudgeon of opera-lovers across an ocean. Well, stop it now. This is the first instalment of a 2008 Ring from Weimar that promises to be more than worthy of consideration among all the others on DVD. The product of excellent direction by Michael Shulz, casting and musicianship led by conductor Carl St. Clair. A sharp, albeit particular, view of the great work that has a point of view and is prepared to stick with it. Honest, confident and comfortable in its own skin. Not to everyone's taste, I will admit. But for those who relish the challenge of a new concept, are not stuck in a time-warp when opera productions stopped developing somewhere in the middle 1950s, who regards the term "Eurotrash" with considerable offence, this is well worth consideration. The other instalments are following very quickly so I think it is right I review this not just in isolation but in anticipation of what is to come.

Many Ring directors like to establish their style from the very first scene of Rheingold and Michael Shulz is no exception. The visual tone is one of austerity and this is maintained to the end and, presumably, in the whole cycle to come. Wotan and Alberich stare across a bare table at each other with only a pair of shoes between them while the Rhinemaidens - sometimes more than three, as I say - stare at them over a wall. At the stealing of the gold we see Alberich make a hole in the wall to emerge on the other side, but we don't actually see any gold or even Alberich running off with it. So this is a production where gold remains metaphor. A word on the shoes before we pass on. Alberich will put these on his knees from time to time in order for him to assume the role of dwarf. Once again, we are in the realm of metaphor.

In the second scene we are in a claustrophobic box-like room where the gods sit round a long table. They look like a tired, tawdry family business run out of a portakabin and this is certainly in keeping with the stated aim in the notes to portray the gods as "a petty-bourgeois clan" to show a "merging of family conflict with wider destiny". There is no Valhalla to be seen out of the windows. All remains ordinary and everyday, apart from Donner holding his hammer. The ordinariness of what we see is, almost aggressively, clearly meant to run counter to everything that we have come to expect from the Ring, even in the first instalment, and to become part of our response. Not seeing what we expect to see we are therefore led further in. So no magic, no spectacle, and the acting of the ensemble cast perfectly suited to this. But note the childhood imaging of Freia who comes over as a kind of Red Riding Hood figure with her basket and little girl hair. The liner notes tell of an early childhood game that was a formative experience for Wagner when a thunderstorm ruined an outdoor puppet theatre. Keep that childhood image in mind. For example, when the giants Fasolt and Fafner lift the roof and look down on the gods beneath them it is as though they were puppet masters. The feeling of events in the real world being influenced negatively by an outside world that is beyond our control keeps getting reinforced.

There are no outstanding single performers in the family or in the rest of the cast. The direction is always to stress the collective role of the gods and therefore a real ensemble cast has been used. You have probably never heard of any of these actors. Stress is always on their interaction which is always excellent. Wotan carries his spear and sports an eye patch. His long coat has a tawdry, shop-bought grandeur. Loge wears a smart suit and sports a neat beard. He is every inch the spin doctor: British readers might be reminded of Peter Mandelson but I could not possibly comment. Fricka is the intense trophy wife, all materialistic intensity. It is possible in productions that strike such a determined concept approach as this for too many ideas to clog up our understanding. But Michael Shulz has great discipline and does know when to stop and leave our thoughts to fill in the gaps, draw us in, make us think. The giants, for example, do have make-up which suggests Boris Karloff's Frankenstein's monster, but this is not an image taken too far, a suggestion only.

Nibelheim is assembled before us by stage hands as the room set rolls away. Not even this director is able to resist a bit of Brechtian framing with the reinforcement for us that this is a theatre all the time. We can even see the walls of the building and the wing electrics if we were in any doubt. In keeping with what is now established, Nibelheim is an ugly bare cellar containing what appear to be four huge cargo pallets covered in canvas. It's another place of business like the first, only this time Alberich is a manic store-keeper and his brother Mime a cleaner with a mania for sweeping up. Expect no magic even for the Tarnhelm. This still remains a production concept where magic is banished. Just a bag over the head and the rest left to our imagination stands in for Alberich's trickery. There is a little more detail for the "gold", but it is of the mundane and earthly as you would expect. As Alberich counts his money it soon becomes clear the bank notes represent the gold and so it is the concept of money and wealth that this production is aiming for. Hardly original, I know. But perhaps good to have something to hang on to that is recognisable and finding modern equivalents is often the name of the game in productions like this. As with the previous scene, the acting is superb. I can imagine the rehearsals for this production were long and intense and concentrated on the dramatic more than the musical. No complaints from me if that is the case. Opera is drama where the acting and direction and design must be coequal with the musical aspects. Indeed, I would venture to suggest that in the era of opera on DVDs maybe we are at the point where they should be more important.

Stage-hands assemble the next scene also. A red carpet, two huge baskets suspended from ropes into the flies, a long table and a white tab. Alberich is in his knee shoes and the children of Nibelheim crawl under the table with the "gold" as the dwarf is held on the table by ropes. To get the Ring from him Wotan chops off Alberich's finger. Is dismemberment at this moment in the story becoming the fashion? In the Danish Ring that I reviewed last year, Alberich lost his whole arm at this point. Notice how Loge recoils at this moment of ring taking by Wotan. This is the first moment that we really do see Wotan with new power. It is a key and telling moment and well-made here. A very good example of how Shulz has been careful not to use too many ideas and so when he really wants to make a clear point he can. Freia is then balanced against the weight of the "gold" rather than obscured by it to decide her fate: the girl is in one basket, the loot is in the other. One nice production touch is how it is clear that Freia cannot decide for sure if she really would like to go with the giants or not. After seeing her gruesome family in their true light, life with two big men and some large bags of money must seem pretty tempting. But, of course, in the end she sees sense and stays with her nearest and dearest. Silly girl - she'll burn with the rest of them in the end.

The Erda scene plays in front of a main curtain. Wotan and the Earth goddess alone, but when the curtain opens we are in the final scene. This is the place where we have come to expect the most spectacle of all in this music drama, but you will not be surprised to hear that the fierce concentration on the mundane by this director is kept up to the end. There will be no lightning, no rainbow bridge. In fact, as if to accentuate just how much the director eschews all of that, at the moment that Donner should bring down his hammer to summon the elements he just pulls a rope and the back tab drops to reveal a box-set at the rear with a real orchestral harpist at the side. And the rainbow bridge? It's a plank carried on by some stage hands. When the gods have ascended the box to make a family portrait they even take it away to leave the gods stranded: stranded in their predicament, stranded in the world which is still out of their control, but bottom-clenchingly smug/happy for now.

As the gods are aboard their new kingdom the Rhinemaidens and the left-behind Loge make a particular gesture with one hand. Take a good note of this gesture as it is clearly important, not just to this Rheingold but for the whole Ring to come. Clearly mimicking Wotan's missing eye, they hold the palm of their right hands, fingers outstretched, over one eye. If you had not already noticed it, this is not the first time this gesture is made. Indeed when ever anyone wants to invoke Wotan, or show him contempt, this gesture is used. Looking at stills from forthcoming instalments of this Ring production this is clearly a visual leitmotif. Whilst some might find it irritating, I thought it was a master-stroke. I will find it hard not to imitate it from time to time and I bet the cast members were always doing it to each other during rehearsals. 

As I have already indicated, this is very much an ensemble cast where the acting and interacting are paramount. Everyone is sound and secure in their musical contribution and that really is all that matters. I thought Carl St Clair delivers a pretty neutral interpretation from the pit, though. Whether this is because he wanted to fit with the production on the stage or because of any shortcoming of his own, it is frankly hard to tell. Do not expect to be thrilled by this orchestral contribution, then. For one thing the sound balance is far from ideal. The orchestra appears rather small and backward in the sound picture. I was not aware of any special contribution from soloists or sections, therefore. The strings are adequate, but for the sweep of magic and grandeur from the orchestra you would need to look to Bayreuth, for example.

The soundtracks offer PCM Stereo and DD 5.1 and there are the usual subtitles. Picture quality is excellent and TV direction is good, though certainly not outstanding. The Decca Ring from Denmark is almost virtuoso in that department. Liner notes are absorbing with some good production notes and the opera is contained on one disc. Not for this production the disaster of two discs that you find in the, otherwise very good, de Billy/Kupfer Rheingold from Barcelona on Opus Arte. There is a Blu-Ray version available but this review was made from the DVD and heard in PCM Stereo.

You will either dislike this production intensely or you will be interested by it. This is very much a Rheingold heralding a Ring cycle that is for those wanting an alternative to their main versions. Maybe you already have Levine's far more traditional production on DG or, better still, Barenboim's slant on Wagnerian magic on Teldec (2564 62317-2) as your first Ring. You may also have Boulez/Chéreau on DG (00440 073 4057) or Schønwandt/Holten on Decca (074 3264) as your second, more off-the-beaten-track version. In the latter case you may not want a third version and this new production will be a Ring too far for you. I would still put in a good word for it.

I like the stress on the acting above all, the themes of family and childhood that overarch it too. Eschewing magic and grandeur is a price worth paying for the intense concentration and for the way in which one can be sent back to more familiar productions with new insight. So I am looking forward to the rest of this new Ring with great interest.

Tony Duggan


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