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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Das Rheingold - opera in four scenes (1869)
Rene Pape (bass) - Wotan; Doris Soffel (mezzo) - Fricka; Anna Samuil (soprano) - Freia; Stephan Rügamer (tenor) - Loge; Johannes Martin Kränzle (baritone) - Alberich; Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (tenor) - Mime; Jan Buchwald (baritone) - Donner; Marco Jentzsch (tenor) - Froh; Kwangchul Youn (bass) - Fasolt; Timo Riihonen (bass) - Fafner; Anna Larsson (contralto) - Erda; Aga Mikolaj (soprano) - Woglinde; Maria Gortsevskaya (mezzo) - Wellgunde; Marina Prudenskaya (mezzo) - Flosshilde
Dancers of the Eastman Ballet Company
Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala/Daniel Barenboim.
rec. live, Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy, 26 May 2010
PCM Stereo Region 0; 16:9
ARTHAUS 101693 DVD [163:00]

Daniel Barenboim seems to be everywhere these days, from a complete Ring cycle at the Proms last year (see reviews) and La Scala (here) to the Vienna New Year's Day concert 2014. Here he conducts the first part (or the “Vorabend”) to the Der Ring des Nibelungen in a 2010 performance with production by Guy Cassiers.
The first thing that strikes one as at odds with Wagner's conception is the use of dance. Dancers from time to time mirror or expand on the emotions of the on-stage characters. They appear between scenes, unnecessarily. They also, interestingly, act as the Tarnhelm, enabling the physical metamorphosis of characters. Fasolt and Fafner, the giants, are normal sized. It is only their shadows that dominate the backdrop and the shadows take on a mind of their own. Dress is of the moment (2010), generally, but the backdrop - which changes easily via projections - tends to be more primordial as the very essence of Rheingold might seem to dictate. Props - and the Rhine is a prop (read on) - are minimal. Wotan does indeed tote a spear, but the vital Rhine is more of an on-stage puddle. The Ring itself appears to be a sparkly oven-glove that Wotan wears. The Rhinemaidens, dressed darkly and dimly lit, are shadowy water spirits; a projection of black water at the back places them in context, initially at least. It is near dark when Alberich dismisses them and we move on to the Rhinegold itself. Curiously, the Rhinemaidens' cries of “Rheingold!” are deflated, but this is thanks to Barenboim's surprisingly rather lacklustre conducting at this point. “Surprisingly”: because elsewhere, Barenboim's conducting is exemplary.
His pacing of the entrance of the giants is slow, ponderous and mightily impressive; his pacing of the Prelude - with its impeccable upward string scales - and of the final scene is a marvel. The orchestra clearly loves him, as they provide a warmth of sound and a level of accuracy that can only surely spring from affection.
The Second Scene finds Doris Soffel as Fricka, in rather shaky voice initially. Her work with Tennstedt holds altogether more pleasant memories. Later, she does provide some magically floated notes, but it takes her a while to get there. René Pape is in superb voice from the off, and continues to mesmerise through the entire performance. His voice is focused, his authority (vocally, at least) never in doubt. He sports no patch for his eye: rather, it is blackened in the manner of a panda. Yet his “Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge” in the final scene against a projected background of a stone carving (a Biblical scene?) is one of the finest anywhere. After this, the gods simply exit via the back of the stage as the Rhinemaidens sing of their plight. Wotan returns to the stage, joined by Loge to be tormented by the sound of the Rhinemaidens. Loge it is who is last seen, holding and delaying the descending curtain for a moment before a final shrug and his exit.
As Alberich, Johannes Maria Kränzle is superb, creepy, evil and clearly intelligent. Casting is, in fact, good throughout, with Anna Smuil's Freia as fresh-voiced as she is beautiful to behold. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke is a simply wonderful Mime who acts as a brilliant counterfoil to Kränzle's Alberich. The Third Scene is arguably the highlight of the performance; it is certainly where the drama and music seem to gel. The interaction between this Mime and this Alberich is a constant pleasure.
The “rough giants” are actually the impeccably dressed and coiffured Timo Riihonen and Kwanchal Youn, both on superb form. As Loge, Stephan Rügamer is admirably clarion of voice. Anna Larsson adds a class Erda - if not the most contraltoish one might encounter.

Camera-work is generally excellent, and apt: rapid changes of camera angle to suggest Alberich's disorientation at the hands of the Rhinemaidens in the first scene, for example. The increased clarity offered by the Blu-ray experience makes this the preferable medium. This remains a stimulating and impressive beginning to Barenboim's most recent cycle.
Colin Clarke

Previous review (Blu-ray): Paul Corfield Godfrey

Masterwork Index: Das Rheingold