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Steven Ritter
Audiophile Audition, December 2010

First the disclaimer—this is a judgment of the highlights disc, not the entire cycle.

“Have you heard the Valencia Ring?” “This is one of the great Ring cycles.” “A Ring for the 21st century.”

And on and on it goes. It must be admitted that if any production of Wagner’s extraordinary lifelong mythic-fantasy cycle is going to thrust itself into the popular imagination and make headway into areas outside the classical world, this one is it. This is certainly the most talked about Wagnerian production in 80 years, and there have been a lot of Rings showing up on DVD and Blu-ray in just the last several years. All are interesting in their own way, and Bertrand De Billy’s version and that of Carl St Clair (Weimar Ring), along with the “Copenhagen Ring” all have supporters and detractors, while many critics are still sticking with BBL—Boulez, Barenboim, and Levine.

One thing remains true—there is not now, nor will there probably ever be, a satisfactory Ring cycle that is to all tastes. It just won’t happen. Boulez is quite “political” in tone, though sung well, and the colors have begun to fade, let alone the sound, while Barenboim has been hailed as perhaps the best performed. Levine’s is surely the most traditional—at least until he tries it again—and beautifully shaped, though all of the singing is not the best to be found. De Billy sounds great, St Clair is not pretty though makes some interesting musical points, and the Copenhagen is rather, well, beautifully acted (it is a film version, not a stage event) though musically not on par with BBL.

So now we have Valencia, and the complexities evolve even more for two reasons: the production itself, and the presence of Zubin Mehta. To address the last first, Mehta has solid Ring credentials, and his NY Phil performances of excerpts on Sony remain some of the most glorious ever recorded, and they still sound fantastic. But Mehta in the pit seems to be another animal, and at least in these limited excisions he pulls the music around quite strongly in places seemingly to accommodate his singers in the same way he might while conducting Tosca. It’s not bad, and I suppose it is acceptable, but it is also noticeable. The orchestra plays extremely well while lacking the last bit of heft that one would desire in the strings and might get in Vienna or the Met, but there is nothing to be alarmed about. Emotionally this production is hard to fathom—many of the big tunes, the get-all-choked-up moments are diluted because of the stage goings-on, which brings me to the former point.

This is a blow-you-away, technology-driven cycle like no other to have ever appeared, and for those raised on Star Wars up to Inception will not only feel right at home, but indeed might be expecting just this. The stage antics are truly remarkable, using eight projection surfaces that support a wide range of video images, to high-tech mechanical contraptions that allow the singers and acrobats (yes, you heard me right) float across the stage, manipulating various riding vehicles, and highlighting the varied devices with unusual lighting. The dragon in Siegfried reminds me of a long basement heating duct, but its size it so formidable that the point is made. Likewise Brunnhilde’s encapsulation by the magic fire at the end of Die Walkure, done with a surround circle of acrobats lying on their backs and holding torches. While I certainly get it, I had hoped that in this Ring with all it wizardry we might be able to experience some real magic fire instead of a circle of torches. The Rhine maidens actually swim in this production, in body-sized fish tanks, and I wondered if they ever, while going under water briefly, accidentally got a mouthful! I am sure they are all professionals…

This is a very visually busy production, so much so that there is never a break and your eyes are always being attracted to something happening on the stage. Whether this is good or not will be up to the opinions of those who have varying degrees of familiarity with Wagner’s music—those new to it will be enthralled, while those who know it well will be enthralled first, and then grow tired of it. The dramaturgy of the Ring allows for a lot of “down” time when our eyes are undistracted, and I think that the directors have missed this important element in the creation of this production—we need time to absorb, and here there is so much fluid flowing in that the sponge is incapable of collecting it all.

But this is only half of the story. This version is, for all intents and purposes, probably the best-sung of any Ring on video, and the importance of that statement cannot be overemphasized. Peter Siegfert’s Siegmund is dramatic and passionate, while the Siegfried of Lance Ryan is easily the most projected and on-target voice in many years. Jennifer Wilson’s Brunnhilde is fluent, balanced, on-pitch, and effortless in the way it soars over the orchestra, a real pleasure to hear. The rest of the cast, at least as appears on this excerpts disc, is equally fluent.

You can assemble a recording of Wagnerian “bleeding chunks” fairly easily on an audio recording, but for video it doesn’t work, and that is the case here. We get the complete “Ride of the Valkyries”, “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey”, the last few minutes of the close of Die Walkure, and the final moments of Gotterdammerung, but they all run into one another and do not provide a satisfying experience. As such, and since I am technically reviewing only this one disc of excerpts and not the entire cycle, I do not recommend it even though it sells for about nine bucks and is designed to give a perspective purchaser a sampling of the goods. That it does, but I would save the money and put it towards the whole cycle if you are interested in this at all.

Those new to the Ring or to Wagner will no doubt find this fascinating, and the quality of the singing cannot be overstated. But with this curious mixture of fantasy, medievalism, modern, ancient, techno-driven and earthbound, it will not be for everybody over an extended period of time. Yet it remains quite the experience, a bold if flawed visual experiment that casts doubts as to whether any ultimate meaning can be assigned to it, which I think is not in keeping with Wagner’s very concrete and philosophy-driven ideals. As theater it is first rate; as a musical experience you will not find it better done on video, and that alone might be enough for some people. Yet I think we are still in search of a production that captures all of these elements to perfection, and that is perhaps illusionary. This is indeed one of the great Rings on video—if that is enough for you, go for it. The Blu-ray looks as though it was made for this production, and the surround sound is superb.



Lawrence Devoe
Blu-rayDefinition.com, December 2010

The Performance

Wagner’s titanic Der Ring des Nibelungen has dominated the opera world for more than a century. Its timeless elements of human and superhuman struggles lend themselves to a wide variety of interpretations. The basic story unfolds the ultimate disintegration of the world order and the demise of the ancient Norse gods, all due to the theft of gold from the Rhinemaidens. The four Ring operas cover more than 17 hours, during which human and divine characters share many memorable scenes. This disc presents about 90 minutes of some of the Ring’s very best moments and 30 minutes of interviews with the stage and video directors. The production was filmed over 3 years in the ultra-modern opera house of Valencia, Spain. It incorporates innovative sets and a plethora of digital visual effects. Symbolism abounds and those who are familiar with more traditional Ring Cycle videos are in for something completely different.

Video Quality

The stage acts as a backdrop to amazing special computer-generated lighting effects. The opening sequence of Das Rheingold shows three nubile Rhinemaidens suspended in individual water tanks, singing between their dives. The final scene of Rheingold has a human arielformation that hovers over the gods on their entry in their new home, Valhalla. Conversely, the famous ride of the Walkures is an awkward affair with a suspended centerpiece of dead heroes while the Walkures roll around the stage on high platforms. The ring of magic fire at the end of Die Walkure offers redeeming visual value. In Siegfried, there is a manic forging scene while the final encounter between chief god Wotan and the ancient earth spirit Erda is set against a cosmic backdrop. Gotterdammerung, the cycle’s final opera, concludes with the Brunnhilde’s immolation on Siegfried’s funeral pyre and the destruction of Valhalla. This scene is truly spectacular on a scale unlike anything you have ever seen, even if you are a veteran Ring goer.

While the stage is basically dark, the special lighting effects are often spectacular to the point of being occasionally distracting. The camera work is slightly uneven with oversaturation of color in some of the brighter scenes in Das Rheingold, and less than pristine clarity in many of the darker scenes. When the lighting is adequate, the images are very lifelike. Costumes vary from Star Trek futuristic to hyper-naturalistic. Be prepared for some nudity but this was probably in Wagner’s original playbook. With the exception of the Rhinemaidens, Fricka, and Sieglinde,most of the other protagonists are, charitably stated, on the heavy side, looking like the proverbial “fat ladies” of old-fashioned opera. The camera work is close enough to see them sweat through their arduous roles.

Audio Quality

The DTS-HD Master Audio (96kHz/24-bit) surround in 7.1 HD is awesome. The balance between voices and orchestra is superb and close to what you hear in a real opera house. As for the vocal performances, you get a sampling of some of the best Wagnerian singers out there (Juha Uusitalo as Wotan, Jennifer Wilson as Brunnhilde, and Lance Ryan as Siegfried), some of the over-the-hill gang (Peter Seiffert and Petra Maria Schnitzer as Siegmund and Sieglinde), and some routiniers. For the most part, the singing is never less than competent but the vocal competition for video ring cycles is very stiff. Zubin Mehta is a veteran operatic conductor although Wagner has never been his strong suit. While Mehta skirts the hard-driven pacing of other conductors, his tempi do favor the deliberate side. The Orquestra de la Communitat Valenciana are, by their appearance, a youthful group that plays well enough but not in the league of the Met or Bayreuth opera orchestras.

Supplemental Materials

  • Booklet: Contains cast and credit listings, a brief background of this production in English, French, and German and a couple of cast pictures.
  • Disc: There are interviews with the stage director Carlos Padrissa and lighting director Franc Aleu which convey the rationale for the avant-garde and quite nontraditional production of this ring cycle. Both short films are well done and introduce the two very distinct personalities that came together for this towering achievement.

The Definitive Word

Overall

There is one other Blu-ray Ring cycle from the Staatskapelle Weimar but it is simply not competitive with any of the competing versions. Those wishing a DVD ring cycle have lots of choices ranging from the up-dated Copenhagen Ring as well as the venerable cycles from the Metropolitan opera (James Levine) and Bayreuth (Daniel Barenboim). The current set has the strengths of a striking visual presentation which will excite newcomers but probably not win any brownie points from traditional Ringophiles. I would submit that the greatness of Wagner’s Ring lends itself to many varied interpretations. Those, like myself, who love this music will never own just one set. The nice thing about this highlights disc is that you get the best parts of Wagner’s cycle and, if you like what you see, you can “put a ring on it.”



Jeffrey Kauffman
Blu-ray.com, December 2010

Opera lovers who have flocked to Blu-ray know that those of us who enjoy the classics have often been treated to astoundingly wrongheaded “reinterpretations” of the some of the greatest treasures of the operatic repertoire. Regular readers of my Blu-ray.com opera reviews know that I probably err on the side of staunch traditionalism, though truth be told I don’t mind it when directors who pay attention to what the libretto and music call for “gussy up” a production with their own “vision.” I can even forgive a poorly executed idea if the motivation behind it was sound. But having been exposed to so many just plain odd operatic productions over the past couple of years I’ve been reviewing for Blu-ray.com has made me more convinced than ever that there are directors out there that are simply out for their own ego, and the composers and librettists be damned. I was therefore beyond thrilled when a production I was fearing turned out to be one of the best surprises of this past year, and one which instantly jumped to the front of my Top 10 list. Wagner’s Ring cycle is never an easy piece for interpreters or perhaps especially for audiences. The composer-librettist, who is certainly among the most opaque to ever work this particular genre, packs so much information into the three operas (plus prelude) that make up Der Ring des Nibelungen that some audience members may feel they’re drowning under the onslaught of altered dominant seventh chords and Teutonic breastplates. The fact is I had already suffered through what I perceived to be a deadly version of Wagner’s Ring on Blu-ray and I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be revisiting yet another director’s “new, improved” version. How absolutely wonderful, then, to find that La Fura dels Baus, Zubin Mehta and Carlus Padrissa have crafted such an exceptional Ring, which this highlights disc provides a nice preview of, in case you’re shy about plunking down a chunk of change for what you might expect would be a less than riveting production.

Unitel Classica and C Major initially released this Ring cycle as four separate Blu-rays, which I reviewed in greater length here:

Das Rheingold
Die Walküre
Siegfried
Götterdämmerung

Recently the label has released a boxed set containing all four discs:

Der Ring des Nibelungen

No doubt some consumers are a bit hesitant to be spending well over $100, especially in this economy, on a set where they may not be convinced that the production will be worth watching or, perhaps more importantly, worthy of being in their permanent collections. To those people I can only say, take a chance, at least on this budget priced highlights disc and journey into a Ring unlike any other you’ve ever seen—and I mean that in a good way, for a change.

La Fura del Baus is a Spanish theatrical troupe which specializes in acrobatically themed productions a la Cirque du Soleil. Their mounting of Der Ring is astoundingly visual. Acrobatics don’t really play a huge part in any of the productions (mostly in Das Rheingold), but the entire visual sweep of this Ring simply must be seen to be believed. For anyone who thinks that a Spanish group is particularly ill equipped to handle the demands of Wagner, this astounding production should quell those fears rather handily. Aided by some unbelievably evocative projections, which propel this Ring squarely into the 21st century, director Carlus Padrissa, unlike some of his contemporaries, doesn’t “tart up” the proceedings, technologically or otherwise, simply to magnify his own ego. For once, and thankfully so, virtually every directorial decision in this production stems from a deep and abiding concern for what the music and libretto demand.

Musically this is an extremely assured production, again perhaps against all odds. Zubin Mehta is a surprisingly febrile conductor here, managing to bring a fair amount of bombast and vigor to his interpretation. The singing here is uniformly excellent, with particularly brilliant work from Juha Uusitalo as Wotan and Anna Larsson as Fricka. But really the entire cast shines here, all the more remarkably so in that they are surrounded by such an audacious physical production which really could have overwhelmed less capable artists.

This highlights disc contains the following pieces from each of the four operas:

Das Rheingold

Prelude
Lugt, Schwestern! Die Weckerin lacht in den Grund
Auf, Loge, hinab mit mir!
Weiche, Wotan, weiche! Flieh des Ringes Fluch!
Bruder, hieher! Weise der Brücke den Weg!

Die Walküre

Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater
Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond
Siegmund heiss’ ich, und Siegmund bin ich!
Nun zäume dein Ross, reisige Maid
Walkürenritt: Hojotoho! Heiaha!
Wer meines Speeres Spitze fürchtet

Siegfried

Nothung! Neidliches Schwert!
Haha! Da hätte mein Lied mir was Liebes erblasen
Vorspiel zum Dritten Aufzug (Prelude to Act III)

Götterdämmerung

Heil dir, Brünnhilde, prangender Stern!, Siegfrieds Rheinfahrt
Mein Erbe nun nehm’ ich zu eigen

Video Quality

I refer you to the individual, in depth reviews linked above for detailed impressions of the video quality of the four discs which this Highlights disc culls its extracts from, but suffice it to say this particular AVC encoded transfer in 1080i and 1.78:1 displays both the overarching strengths, as well as a few of the very minor weaknesses, of the original release. The colors and sharpness here are often jaw droppingly beautiful, and the projections are brilliantly clear and evocative. Due to a perhaps unwise decision to use “front projection,” occasionally parts of the projections spill over onto the actors’ faces, and that can be temporarily distracting. Very occasionally there are some contrast and crushing issues, but they are so minor as to be virtually negligible. This is simply one of the most visually audacious productions of any opera you’re ever likely to see, and this Blu-ray represents that audacity brilliantly.

Audio Quality

Again, please refer to my individual reviews for more in depth analysis of each individual opera, but this Highlights disc offers the same two lossless options, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 2.0, as the original releases. Some Wagner lovers may have occasional, very minor, qualms about certain interpretive issues, but no one should have any complaints at all about this recording. Wagner’s gargantuan orchestra is brilliantly dispersed throughout the soundfield here, and as a result the listener is “inside” this music as perhaps never before. Fidelity is simply outrageously effective, and the horn work here is especially robust and palpable. Mehta is a more measured conductor than some might want for a Wagner performance, but he has crafted an extremely nuanced performance from both the orchestra and the international cast of singers.

Special Features and Extras

One of the best reasons to pick up this Highlights disc is for the two excellent, if too brief, supplements, both new to the set and grouped under the title Wagner Furioso:

  • Carlus Padrissa, The Visionary (1080i; 16:50) gives some great insight into the history of La Fura del Baus.
  • Franc Aleu, Painting With Light (1080i; 15:48) is a similarly excellent look at the artist behind the astounding projections utilized in this production.

Overall Score and Recommendation

Run, walk, or otherwise gambol to your nearest online emporium (there’s a handy dandy Amazon link above) and pick up this brilliant Highlights disc whether or not you’re ultimately interested in the complete Ring cycle by La Fura del Baus. For once, a reinterpretation manages to meld the modern with the traditional in an exceptional new production which will leave you astounded. Very highly recommended.






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4:13:10 AM, 22 August 2014
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