Surprisingly, the Ring is not all that well represented on DVD. Until the Chereau/Boulez/Bayreuth cycle was reissued, Levine and the Met dominated the field with a wooden production whose main virtue is that it was "traditional". Yet the Ring is meant to be Gesammtkunstwerk, a visual as well as musical experience. My own favourite Ring cycle on DVD is the Sawallisch Stuttgart production currently only available in Japan, though the CD version is readily available elsewhere. Thus, any new Ring cycle on DVD is worth checking out. This Rheingold is the first in the series. The pedigree of this cast is in no doubt. Graham Clark, Gunther von Kannen and Falk Struckmann are all Ring veterans. The producer, Harry Kupfer also needs no introduction - he's done many a Ring before. Indeed, this particular version was originally staged by him in Berlin. A safe bet then, although any Kupfer production is bound to be challenging.
The first Act is stunning. The floor appears to be mirrored, to create the illusion of water. Light reflects off it, making vivid the image of "Rheingold" sparkling in the depths. The Rhinemaidens really do seem to be swimming, bathed in the glow of their golden treasure. How beautiful this must have appeared in the gorgeously baroque settinng of the Liceu! The singing was effective, too, high spirited and seductive as it should be. No wonder Alberich - no dwarf, he's von Kannen - was so taken. An ingenious change of flooring makes for the change of scene. The Gods enter with suitcases - a classic Kupfer touch. Conservatives need not worry, for the styling is surprisingly traditional. The Gods' garb would not have been out of place in 19th century Bayreuth and they're even garlanded. The real touches of modernism are in the stage set itself, and even this is totally in the service of the plot. Hölle and Youn become the giants Fafner and Fasolt in costumes that evoke feats of industrial engineering. Their huge robotic legs seem to be made of riveted sheet metal. Yet they are builders of vast edifices, after all. Both have the vocal heft to match. If their movements are cumbersome, it's evoked in the music, too.
The stage set itself plays a major role. It uses the whole stage area, vertically as well as horizontally, opening up space in ways never available to Wagner himself. He would have loved this, for it vividly conveys a sense of multi layered worlds, the Rhine, the earth, and Valhalla all existing together on different planes. The levels are linked by the World Ash rrees, whose enormous roots grow out of the Rhine where the Rheinmaidens cavort. At times it is obscured by a giant, tubular corridor that crosses the stage diagonally. This creates an interesting mix between the organic and the artificial, freedom and servitude, symbolised by the industrial underworld where the Nibelungs toil. As Kupfer himself has said, the Ring is a universal fable, one valid reading of which focuses on the destructive effects on Nature of man's aggression and preoccupation with material greed. Stage lighting, too, plays an major role in this production. The sets are great works of engineering - floors rise and fall - but the lighting adds subtle comment throughout. A gridlike screen covers the back of the stage. The lighting makes it illustrate many purposes. In the finale, for example, it is backlit with coloured lights, portraying Wagner's Rainbow Bridge, as the Gods enter Valhalla.
Nonetheless, it is the music we come back to, again and again. Absolutely outstanding is Graham Clark as Loge. Here Loge is a streetwise dodger, vaguely resembling a character from A Clockwork Orange, or a demented Struwelpeter. His mastery fills his singing with strange, understated menace. He makes treachery alluring, conniving Mime and Wotan to do no good, and fooling Alberich into losing the Ring and Tarnhelm. He reaches a kind of sinister apotheosis in the scene where he dangles a fresh apple before the Gods, who will die without its sustenance Clark sings and moves with snakelike venom, evoking yet another primeval tale with resonance to this reading of the Ring. He alone is worth the price of this DVD, for he is one of the immortal Loges.
The rest of the cast are strong, too. Gunter von Kannen is a powerful, hypnotic Alberich, whose voice conveys a sense of strength and authority which makes his curse on the Ring convincing, even though he is outwitted by Loge and Wotan. He is no weakling, and his revenge is great. Falk Struckmann as Wotan sings and acts with grandeur, but in this opera his character is not as well developed as it will become later in the cycle. Lioba Braun makes Fricka a surprisingly rounded and vivid personality, coquettishly playing up to Wotan even though she is by no means a passive wife. Occasional weaknesses appear in some of the lesser roles, but as part of a greater whole, they do not detract.
Another criticism is that however breathtaking this production may have been in real life, it does not translate completely on film. I suspect that this is a matter of film direction, for some angles might be better presented, and there is too much overall darkness, unrelieved by brighter film focus. However, recorded in "surround sound" this is a musically satisfying experience even though the orchestra may not be one of the greatest. The singing is well above average, as is the acting and presentation. Traditionalist need not fear Harry Kupfer and his team (set design: Hans Schavernoch, lighting: Franz Peter David). There's enough convention to be familiar and the modern touches are highly appropriate to the plot and its development. I am looking forward very much indeed to the next three parts of this cycle. It may well prove to be the definitive Ring cycle on film.