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Michael Scott Rohan
BBC Music Magazine, November 2014

Thrillingly so; this is the most exciting staging I’ve seen—slightly recalling Cirque du Soleil, perhaps, except that here the spectacle is wholly and intelligently at Wagner’s service.

Juha Uusitalo is an old-school Wotan, rich-voiced and imperious yet vulnerable. His confrontation with Anna Larsson’s full-voiced, Joanna Lumleyesque Fricka, hanging among starry skies, is memorable.

Least dazzling is Zubin Mehta’s conducting, sweeping rather than detailed… And it’s all beautifully recorded on DVD—but on Blu-ray it’s simply breathtaking, pin-sharp images and airy surround-sound drawing one into the Valencia stage with almost 3D effect. © 2014 BBC Music Magazine Read complete review

Kurt Moses
American Record Guide, May 2010

… stunning visual effects and props…cast is actually quite good. It takes all the razzmatazz in stride, and most of the singers are heard well. Zubin Mehta leads a steady and balanced performance.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Arnold Whittall
Gramophone, April 2010

Juha Uusitalo is a commanding, mellifluous Wotan and although Jennifer Wilson’s Brünnhilde is relatively un-nuanced dramatically, she sings strongly and sensitively. There are no disappointments from gods, giants or Nibelungs…The youthful Orquestra de la Communitat Valenciana obediently and expertly delivers the plushy textures and stagey rhetoric Mehta requires…The rest of this Ring will be released shortly, when an overall response will become possible.

Scott Cantrell
The Dallas Morning News, March 2010

Considering the cost of mounting a Wagner Ring cycle, and the current scarcity of singers up to its challenges, it's amazing that one new Ring after another keeps turning up on DVD. The best-sung of all may be this 2007-09 cycle from the Reina Sofia Palace of the Arts in Valencia, Spain, designed by Santiago Calatrava. (Each opera is introduced with sexy views of the building, which looks like some space-age nesting bird.)

Visually, the production mixes imagination with excess. How much must this have cost? More on that presently.

This isn't a star-studded cast. Indeed, the only names that jumped out are Matti Salminen, sonorously menacing as Fasolt, Hunding and Hagen; Peter Seiffert, a lyric Siegmund; and Stephen Milling, an imposing Fafner. But the sheer consistency of the singing is impressive.

This or that singer may not be your ideal for a given role: Juha Uusitalo's Wotan hasn't the hugely luxurious tone of James Morris in his prime. Nonetheless, this is the rare Ring that hasn't a single vocal dog. Even the Loge isn't the usual nasal character tenor, but the surprisingly mellifluous John Daszak.

I've never heard a Brünnhilde at once as vocally ample and as secure as Valencia's Jennifer Wilson, or a Siegfried who commands a kind of heroic bel canto as stirringly as Lance Ryan.

Apparently conductor Zubin Mehta suggested the Catalan theater company La Fura dels Baus, led by director Carlus Padrissa, to stage this Ring. As now seems the norm, the basic look is sci-fi. There's next to no physical scenery, but high-tech video projections keep the eyes very busy.

There are some striking gestures. The Rhinemaidens splash and dive in transparent boxes of water. The evil smith Mime is turned into a mad scientist, in a diabolical laboratory. The gods and Valkyries bob up and down on cranes visibly manipulated by stagehands. (The gods just think they're in control.)

Wotan looks like a mountain man in Masonic drag. Siegmund and Siegfried favor animal-skin attire, and in Hunding's house, a rope-bound Sieglinde creeps around on all fours. (Well, Siegmund does remember their father, Wotan in disguise, as "Wolfe.")

Emblazoned with euro and yen signs, Hagen and Gunther are portrayed as money-obsessed market manipulators, an apt current image for evildoers. Once Siegfried falls under Hagen's spell, he adopts the Gibichungs' Wall Street nerd look…Hardly a minute passes without all sorts of stuff happening on those video screens, from abstract swirls to speeding airplane views over mountains…It's sung with rare consistency, though, and it's not boring. Mehta tends to favor leisurely tempos and a low dramatic temperature…But the young-looking orchestra plays very well, and both audio and video standards are very high.

Anne Midgette
The Washington Post, March 2010

This fluid, futuristic production, filmed during a 2007 run in the new opera house in Valencia, is filled with eye-candy images (Franc Aleu did the videos), starting from the opening of the first curtain in "Das Rheingold," when sinuous shapes of streaming water arc across the back wall while the Rheinmaidens splash and sing in tanks.

Flights of birds; showers of gold; a vertiginous mountainscape; and a sinuous silvery tree, its branches illuminated with floods of changing color, form just a few of the backdrops to action carried out by gods in sci-fi costumes standing in large cranes (Loge rides around on a Segway) and humans in aboriginal garb. Sieglinde, in "Die Walküre," sports a bone corset covering her torso, and her son Siegfried, like his mother, has dreadlocks and tribal tattoos.

High-tech, in short, is the stuff of the immortals in this conception; human beings are the building blocks of the new world order. The Rhinegold is initially depicted as a giant, golden human embryo projected on the back wall; Alberich, after he steals it, uses it to create a factory in which he hatches an army of golden soldiers, hanging unceremoniously from meat hooks and later doing double duty as a tangible embodiment of the Nibelung horde.

Valhalla is first presented as a projection of a metallic mesh in human form, and then embodied by a curtain of live bodies suspended from above, linking hands and feet to form a kind of physical macrame. Clusters of bodies represent the dragon; hold the torches of Brünnhilde's magic fire; and load down a huge swinging wrecking ball over the carnage of battle during the Ride of the Valkyries, while a mammoth globe spins on the back wall.

It's seductive to look upon, despite the annoying cutaway shots of Mehta conducting the orchestra at random moments, thus breaking the narrative thread. The balance between the human and the monumental is also occasionally skewed when the director focuses too much on the big picture, leaving key moments - the unveiling of Valhalla, the death of Siegmund - to take place on an empty stage while he prepares for a big visual crescendo a few measures ahead.

The music is in generally capable hands, allowing for the tendency of live recordings to even out vocal discrepancies and make voices sound bigger. Jennifer Wilson, the Washington native, is an impressive Brünnhilde, and I finally understood what the fuss was about Juha Uusitalo, the Finnish bass-baritone whose Wotan here sounds firmer than the subsequent work of his that I've heard. Lance Ryan is, if not a discovery as Siegfried, certainly a tenor to watch; though his parents, Peter Seiffert and Petra Maria Schnitzer (Siegmund and Sieglinde), sounded slightly pushed.

You might wish for a more subtle or profound conductor than Mehta - some of the leitmotifs sound bright and bouncy rather than freighted with significance - but he conducts with an energy that matches the general tenor of the production and represents an antidote to some of the drawn-out readings favored by other conductors. And the orchestra sounds quite good. A benchmark it's not; but for "Ring" fans, this is a set worth seeing.

Jeffrey Kauffman, February 2010

The most visually audacious ‘Ring’ cycle in recent memory is off to a rousing start with this astounding ‘Rheingold.’

Contemporary entertainment has pushed the envelope in terms of its immersive quality to the point where it’s probably well nigh impossible for us to imagine what a theatrical experience in days of yore might have been like. Especially with regard to opera and music theater pieces, we’re so far removed from both the nascent, more courtly aspects of early performance, and the later, larger and more traditionally stagebound efforts that when some upstart director comes along to radically reimagine a vaunted work to make it more of a visceral experience for modern audiences, they frequently either come off as arrogant, misguided or both. I had just that kind of reaction to last year’s Blu-ray releases of the Staatskapelle Weimar Ring cycle, a gloriously sung and played event that nonetheless reeked of directorial hubris and had so many jaw droppingly strange moments in it that I sat weirdly transfixed for hours, not able to either fully grasp or, frankly, believe what I was seeing. (You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced Fafner as the Michelin Man, or, even better, Alberich as Dorf. But I digress). I fear those of you who have been reading my opera reviews here for some time will claim I’m being woefully inconsistent, and in fact I think I must concur, but this audacious new production of Wagner’s most gargantuan work is at once thrillingly different and brazenly modern and unafraid to exploit aspects of multimedia presentation. This is not to say it works one hundred percent of the time, for it most certainly does not. But unlike the Staatskapelle Weimar version, this audacious production featuring the Catalan theater troupe La Fura Dels Baus offers a consistent directorial approach that at least attempts to mine Wagner’s text for its visual flights of fancy, rather than imposing an external, and often completely nonsensical, “vision” from without that neither meets the needs of the work itself nor helps the audience to enter the world which is being created.

Wagner’s multi-evening Ring cycle typically kicks off with his prelude piece, Das Rheingold, a solemn and, yes, at times lumbering attempt to give the audience enough context and backstory so that they’re at least partially prepared for the onslaught which is about to overtake them in the “real” triptych which comprises the Ring proper. I have neither the scholarly discipline nor, frankly, the bandwidth to provide a proper penetrating synopsis for any of the four gargantuan jigsaw puzzle pieces which join together to form the Ring, but I will say that Das Rheingold seems more and more to me as I (hopefully) grow in wisdom with my advancing age, to be more or less about the repercussions of unrequited love. When the tragic dwarf Alberich is rebuffed by the three Rhinemaidens, whose task it is to guard a hoard of magical gold, Alberich flies into a rage, ultimately stealing the gold and forging the ring which (along with a helmet made by his brother Mime) provide him power over nature and the entire created universe. It’s like every jilted high school nerd’s fantasies come true and writ very, very large indeed.

That sets the stage for the unbelievably labyrinthine set of characters and plots which is about to unfold over the course of the subsequent three episodes, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung. In that regard, Das Rheingold, despite its near three hour length, is a model of concision and focus, spending its time following Wotan, the king of the Gods, and Loge, the fire god, who set off on a quest to the Nibelungen underworld to confront Alberich and reclaim the gold, now of course in a different form than when the opera began. When forced to relinquish his “precious” treasure (Alberich is, of course, one of the inspirations for Gollum, though J.R.R. Tolkein was loathe to admit it), he casts a curse on the gold which sets a long, tragic sequence of events in motion which culminates in the death throes of Götterdämmerung.

What I’d really like to talk about in place of a detailed synopsis is the astounding vision which director Carlus Padrissa has brought to this project. Though I have at this point only seen Das Rheingold, I’ll soon be tackling Die Walküre, with the final two installments to follow hopefully within a month, but I can already state quite positively that if the subsequent operas are even half as surprising as Das Rheingold, this is going to be one of the most talked about Ring productions ever, for better or worse. The most immediately dazzling aspect of this production is the amazing use of 3D computer graphics which often illuminate the backdrop behind the players. (Though it seems that the technology is largely back projection, from time to time various patterns of the projections play out on the singers’ faces, which is a bit distracting). Sometimes these projections can be quite literal, though no less exciting as a result of that fact, as when Wotan and Loge “fly” through the sulphurous cleft to reach Alberich’s hideout. At other times, they’re clearly symbolic, as when a sort of 2001-esque starchild appears behind Alberich and the Rhinemaidens, obviously a glyph for what the “gold” really portends—a new era for Man, and indeed a new kind of Man. When the bright, shiny green projection melts into a sodden, black ape-like mass, it’s about as clear a visual cue as to what is about to happen as any dark, altered dominant seventh chord in Wagner’s arsenal may be able to foreshadow in aural terms.

Some of the approaches seem either brilliantly innovative or, perhaps, over the top and downright silly, depending on your “purist” point of view. For example, one thing that did not work for me was Loge scurrying about the stage on a Segway (yes, you read that correctly). On the other hand, recasting Fafner and Fasolt as something akin to mechas from the world of animé seems wonderfully ingenious, if it creates some staging issues late in the evening when the brothers must fight, with one of them not surviving the battle. The costumes seem both redolent of the breastplate and horned helmet era, as well as sort of faux-forward leaning, in a quasi-Flash Gordon way. (In fact, Loge’s makeup and costuming is more than a bit reminiscent of Ming the Merciless). The gods and goddesses “float” in space on huge cranes which are pushed around by members of La Fura dels Baus, and that body of acrobats also does some astounding work that is very reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil at times, especially in the closing sequence when scores of the troupe make a sort of Valhallic cupola into which Wotan and his crew enter, ignoring the plaintive cries of the Rhinemaidens.

Musically this is an assured and confident reading of Wagner’s score, under the able direction of Zubin Mehta. The playing of the Orquestra de la Communitat Valenciana is never less than competent, and at times, especially (if somewhat anachronistically considering Wagner’s rightly lauded brass orchestrations) impressive in the string playing. John Daszak’s Loge is positively lugubrious, and Juha Uusitalo’s Wotan is appropriately commanding and full of gravitas. Fricka finds voice in the liquid abilities of mezzo Anna Larsson.

Too often these radical revisions of classic works devolve into excess and incomprehensibility. I’m sure that some (perhaps even many) will accuse this Ring of being guilty of the former, but I doubt few, if any, will be confused by the choices made here. While I wasn’t completely swayed by this approach, it has me more excited about this piece than I’ve been in a long time, and that certainly is a good sign. I frankly can’t wait to see what they’ve done with Die Walküre.

Video Quality

Das Rheingold arrives from C Major and Unitel Classics with a 1080i 1.78:1 AVC encoded image. For the most part, the results are spectacular. A lot of this prelude to the Ring proper is bathed in cool blue (with the exception of Loge, who is covered with a red follow spot most of the time, befitting his fiery demeanor). Colors, while on the dark side due to minimal stage lighting, pop nicely and show suitable gradations of hue. For the most part, the incredibly intricate costumes also resolve nicely on this Blu-ray, which at times is a bit suprising, considering the closely woven patterns which dot some of the futuristic apparel. That said, Freia’s cowl does devolve into shimmer pretty badly at times, but that was the only instance of really egregious artifacting I noticed throughout the near three hours of this piece. The backdrop projections are all astoundingly beautiful and really well rendered, providing some gorgeously saturated colors and some very “trippy” effects along the way. Greens and reds on these projections are especially impressive.

Audio Quality

Most potential purchasers of this title are of course going to be most interested in the soundtrack, and the DTS HD-MA 7.1 mix is wonderfully evocative about 99% of the time. Mehta leads a less than world famous orchestra (one must be honest, musn’t one?) through their paces with aplomb and the results are largely extraordinary. The DTS track reproduces the playing brilliantly, and offers a clarity and warmth that make Wagner’s brilliant orchestrations literally glimmer with excitement. I found a couple of Mehta’s tempi to be a tad on the anemic side, but overall this is a worthy addition to the Wagner catalog. The singing is uniformly excellent (though some of Alberich’s sprechgesang could have been better handled). My one qualm is very occasional balance issues. You’ll hear it quiet noticeably in the opening moments with the Rhinemaidens, when just so fleetingly you can’t quite catch what they’re singing. For the most part though, this is a wonderfully realized soundtrack supporting a top flight performance. The 2.0 folddown, which I sampled here and there, sounds just fine as well and should delight those who don’t have the surround option, but my recommendation is of course to go with the 7.1 track, which offers some really compelling low end and which utilizes the surround channels quite effectively, both in terms of orchestral “spill,” and, for example, in its nice discrete channel effects in the closing scenes with the offstage Rhinemaidens.

Special Features and Extras

The main bonus, aside from a trailer and photo gallery, is the excellent Making of featurette, which runs 26:59. This offers interviews with Mehta and the principals, as well as the production designers who frankly play just as important a role in this version as the onstage personnel.

Overall Score and Recommendation

This is most certainly not your father’s Ring cycle, so forewarned is forearmed. That said, for once a directorial vision is at least tied to the source material and this production offers one astounding visual moment after another. Well sung and well played under the nuanced direction of Zubin Mehta, this will most assuredly be a talked about offering.

Simon Thompson
MusicWeb International, January 2010

Move over Copenhagen! A new Ring is appearing to challenge your position among recent stagings on DVD. This is a production to cherish, brilliantly realised for DVD, which should be in the collections of all serious Wagnerians. While fully conscious that not all of my colleagues agree with me (see alternative reviews of the Blu-ray), I suspect the Valencia Ring may well turn out to be the classical DVD event of the year.

Housed in the ultra-modern (and staggeringly impressive) Palau de Les Arts “Reina Sofia” and staged by the hugely exciting Catalan theatre company La Fura dels Baus—who were also responsible for bringing Ligeti’s Grand Macabre to ENO—Valencia’s intentions of creating a proudly Spanish realisation of Wagner’s masterpiece could hardly be clearer. They succeed in creating a musically exciting, visually stunning and, for me, viscerally involving Rheingold that drew me further into the action than any other staging, live or on film, that I’ve seen.

La Fura dels Baus is a thumpingly physical company and they make full use of the facilities of the Palau de Les Arts to wrench the viewer into the action through some awesome visual effects. Their main tool is a vast video screen that stretches across the back of the stage and whose shifting projections are operated, interestingly, by a pianist who follows the conductor at the same time as the orchestra. The vast images often illustrate the action and sometimes comment upon it. During the transition to the third scene, for example, we are plunged all the way from outer space to the surface of the earth, through the sulphurous cleft and down the vast shaft into Nibelheim, a really startling effect. We see the earth’s destruction as a backdrop to Erda’s warning and Donner’s hammer-blow shatters a swirling vortex into thousands of shards which give way to the entrance to Valhalla. Most interestingly, the Rhinegold itself is projected as a living, foetal form which is transformed into a blackened corpse upon Alberich’s theft, and this then becomes a visual leitmotif to go alongside Wagner’s musical ones. Indeed one of the themes of the production is the humanising of objects in the opera, not just the Rhinegold. The Nibelung hoard is “acted” by a troupe of gold-clad dancers who writhe onto the stage as if drawn by the Ring’s demonic power. Likewise there is no rainbow bridge, but a nexus of performers suspended as a grid in the air forming what looks like a celestial elevator to propel the gods into their new home. The visual impact of these images is stunning, helped by their high-definition origins and their startling use of contrasting colours.

There is very little physical set in this production: instead, as illustrated above, performers tend to create and remove the staging as necessary. The major exception to this is the jaw-dropping opening scene where the Rhinemaidens actually swim in individual pods—what incredible breath control they must have had!—which are then suspended above the stage as they salute the gold. Alberich steals the gold by draining the pods, symbolically and physically ending the Rhinemaidens’ party. The Nibelheim scene resembles a horrific mechanical factory producing clones to fight in Alberich’s army, each of which bears a more than accidental resemblance to the original Rhinegold figure. The giants appear in huge metal exoskeletons, while the gods are mostly manipulated in devices that look like cherry pickers, emphasising their distance from the real world and their ultimate powerlessness. Loge whizzing around on a scooter provides a pertinent contrast.

So what impact does all of this have? Well, for this reviewer at any rate, I found it a tremendously exciting, repeatedly exciting ride which never flagged throughout the work’s whole duration. I kept on wondering what was going to come next, which is no mean feat for a score I know so well. It is far from traditional, and the Gods’ costumes look like leftovers from Blake’s 7, but in terms of insight and involvement I found it offered far more than Schenk’s view for the Met or Chéreau’s now somewhat dated Bayreuth staging. In fact I found it probably comes closest to Kupfer’s Bayreuth production of the 1990s because they share a sense of a whole world raped and corrupted beyond full repair. Importantly, though, the scale of La Fura’s perception retains an element of the spectacular as well as the myth so important to Wagner’s vision, something that many modern productions have lost in recent decades. In a fun though not especially informative accompanying “Making of” film, Carlos Padrissa claimed while his production was not naturalistic he was going back to the mythical spirit of Wagner: this surely is far more important.

All of this would count for little were it not for the truly outstanding musical performances. Juha Uusitalo’s Wotan is commanding and imperious, the role carrying no terrors for him. He shows supreme self-confidence in the opening scene, changing to desperate self-doubt after Fasolt’s murder, before recovering himself (or does he?) for the entry into Valhalla. John Daszak’s Loge is bright, quirky and clear and he has a marvellous way with the words. Franz-Joseph Kapellmann’s Alberich is only occasionally unsteady, but he captures the malice of the role in a thoroughly musical way, as does the nasty Mime of Gerhard Siegel. Anna Larsson’s Fricka is somewhat shrill, but this is not out of place for this character, while Sabina von Walther’s Freia is much sweeter and more sympathetic, as is Germán Villar’s Froh. Ilya Bannik has a luxuriously big voice for the role of Donner, characterful and sizeable, though in a completely different way to Uusitalo. The giants are marvellous too: Matti Salminen’s voice has weakened since he recorded Fafner for both Janowski and Levine, but his Fasolt shows that he can still dominate a stage. Stephen Milling’s Fafner is just as dark but with a telling bent towards cunning which his brother lacks. The Erda of Christa Mayer is powerful but surprisingly light, though no less effective. For their musicality as well as their swimming ability, the three Rhinemaidens are beyond praise.

Presiding over all is the experienced baton of Zubin Mehta. In an accompanying “Making of” film Mehta assures us that he has been preparing The Ring since 1954 and the years of experience show in a reading that emphasises the seamless. Some may find his reading contains too much legato, but he doesn’t lack energy in the great transformations, especially the tricky transition to scene two. He presides over an orchestra that was hand-picked by regular music director Lorin Maazel. They seem, from this performance, to be a crack Wagner team, playing every bar with energy, insight and sensitivity. The brass, in particular, are fantastic and Mehta brings every one of them on stage for a well deserved bow at the end.

The whole project is helped by first-rate filming and technical support. During the prelude the intelligent camera-work alternates between the swirling images on the stage curtain and a birds’ eye view of the orchestra pit, so we are brought up close to the horns and the undulating bows of the cellos. During the opening scene, when there is so much to look at, we often get merged pictures which I found very satisfying, and elsewhere in the piece we always feel that the eye is being placed where the ear says it should be, the only possible section being the moment after the toad Alberich’s capture where the camera rather bizarrely focuses on Mehta in the pit. The sound balance is spectacular in Dolby 5.1, though note that there is no DTS. The balance of singers to orchestra is just right and the off-stage Rhinemaidens in the final scene are captured to perfection.

In short, I found this a remarkably compelling, wonderfully entertaining DVD which I will return to more often than Schenk, Chéreau or Kupfer. In fact I think that Rheingold at least has the edge even on Copenhagen because where Holten focused on the human and down-to-earth, Valencia’s use of effects means that there is still a sense of the powerful, supernatural and indeed god-like about this production.

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