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Peter J. Rabinowitz
Fanfare, November 2010

WAGNER, R.: Gotterdammerung (Palau de les Arts "Reina Sofia", 2009) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 701204
WAGNER, R.: Siegfried (Palau de les Arts "Reina Sofia", 2008) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 701004

As should be obvious from my review of the first two chapters (Fanfare 33:6), I share Andrew Quint’s endorsement of this Valencia Ring. Yes, some may find that the production’s visual energy distracts from the music and the text (the stage is almost never at rest, and the camera moves constantly, too). But the imagery almost always serves to complement Wagner’s imagination, and even people who’d prefer less clutter and more patience (especially in the projected videos) are apt to appreciate the way stage director Carlus Padrissa and video creator Franc Aleu manage to goose along some of those scenes (and we all know that these operas have them) where matters threaten to bog down. And if you’ve ever felt that “normal” productions of the ending fail to do it justice (Chéreau’s is a dud, and even the Met production seems a bit creaky, in the manner of a 1930s film), you can’t lay the same charge against this one, which is truly apocalyptic.

Granted, too, as in Rheingold and Walküre, these two operas have their moments of silliness (I was especially disappointed that Hagen dispatches Gunther with a pistol). But as in the earlier installments, the insights more than outweigh the absurdities. I especially enjoy how, with terrifying ease, the Gibichungs transform Siegfried from an aboriginal hero-hunter (dreadlocks and tattoos) into something like a boastful low-level exec at a not-very-exclusive golf club—a transformation that retroactively illuminates the frat-boy smarminess behind the superficial “innocence” we’ve seen in Siegfried and that makes his betrayals both more despicable (he’s the kind of guy who can make out with Gutrune in the most sleazy way while Gunther is bringing in his new bride) and more understanding. And even some staging decisions that simply make no immediate sense—the orgy of writhing bodies into which Brünnhilde retreats at the end of Götterdämmerung’s first act—are so striking that it’s hard to complain.

In the end, this production succeeds in doing what any radical new production ought to do: to make the work seem new without trashing it. With its uneasy merging of the future and the past, the abstract and the concrete, the magical and the grimly realistic, the mythic and the political, the complex and the simple, this rendering of the tetralogy seems increasingly like a dreamscape. But it’s still Wagner’s world (as is not really the case with Christopher Marthaller’s Tristan, reviewed elsewhere), with the characters we’ve come to know from more traditional productions—characters with emotions, fears, and anxieties that, despite their special flavor here, are painfully familiar, and painfully human. Note, as but one instance, how subtly and even affectingly the production portrays both Alberich and Wotan as out of their depths in the beginning of Siegfried’s act II—and how well this sets up the Siegfried/Wotan confrontation in the last act. To put it differently: It may be an ontologically unstable world marked by kaleidoscopic visual shifts, but emotionally and ethically it remains anchored in the world we know, a world where the breaking of trust (arguably the motor for all the action) has real and poignant consequences. Even the more revisionist interpretive touches (Loge’s triumphant return at the end on his scooter, for instance) not only make sense, but also add to the coherence of the work as a whole.

The singing and acting are consistently excellent, even thrilling. Lance Ryan has a big, ringing voice that rarely turns shrill—and he gives us an increasingly unlovable Siegfried who can barely keep his smugness and his animal energies under control (note, for instance, his impatience during his love duet at the beginning of Götterdämmerung). Jennifer Wilson has a splendid voice that soars over the orchestra without straining; and while her stage movements are sometimes awkward, she manages to capture Brünnhilde’s trajectory from virginal anxiety to orgasmic glory to bitter outrage to wise composure as an inevitable arc of personal maturation. Juha Uusitalo, beginning as a man barely holding on to his once-considerable strength, poignantly illuminates Wotan’s final descent into despair. As for the Gibichungs: Elisabete Matos conveys Gutrune’s cluelessness with an artless conviction; Ralf Lukas is suitably self-deluded as Gunther; and Matti Salminen, who virtually owns the part these days, is an utterly pitiless Hagen.

The orchestra gives these operas both the small-scale detail and the huge sonic opulence they require, and while Mehta’s conducting is sometimes slack in rhythm and dull in articulation, especially in Siegfried (Levine has a much sharper edge), his concentration tightens as he moves through Götterdämmerung. Like Quint, I find the beginning of Götterdämmerung’s second act to be one of the most effective sections of this whole Ring; but in fact, as far as conducting goes, pretty much everything from that moment on holds you in its grip: Listen, for instance, to Mehta’s expert handling of the dark orchestral colors as Brünnhilde expresses her woe before her duet with Hagen. There are, arguably, a few too many shots of the orchestra, and, as I’ve suggested, there may be too much camera movement, but otherwise the Blu-ray production is as good as it gets, with engulfing sound and superlative visual clarity. To repeat: This is one of the great Rings. If you’re suspicious of such claims (and you have every right to be), try starting with the second act of Götterdämmerung—you’ll be hooked.

Andrew Quint
Fanfare, November 2010

WAGNER, R.: Rheingold (Das) (Palau de les Arts "Reina Sofia", 2007) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 700604
WAGNER, R.: Walkure (Die) (Palau de les Arts "Reina Sofia", 2008) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 700804
WAGNER, R.: Siegfried (Palau de les Arts "Reina Sofia", 2008) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 701004
WAGNER, R.: Gotterdammerung (Palau de les Arts "Reina Sofia", 2009) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 701204

Essential for video-collecting Wagnerians is the Valencia Ring, available in both DVD and Blu-ray versions. This production is at once endlessly inventive—the contributions of the cutting-edge theater troupe La Fura del Baus and Franc Aleu’s mind-blowing high-definition video in particular—and still fully in keeping with the composer’s intentions, whatever that means. Zubin Mehta leads a youthful but extremely well-prepared orchestra with firm dramatic purpose.

Andrew Quint
Fanfare, July 2010

WAGNER, R.: Siegfried (Palau de les Arts “Reina Sofia”, 2008) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 701004
WAGNER, R.: Gotterdammerung (Palau de les Arts “Reina Sofia”, 2009) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 701204

Now the complete tetralogy is available on both standard DVD and Blu-ray, and I’m here to tell you that what we’ve got is a potential top choice for someone acquiring their first video Ring—and an absolute necessity for those who collect them.

The musical values of this Ring are considerable but it’s the sensational visual panoply we’re treated to, hour after hour, that’s unique. The inventiveness of stage director Carlus Padrissa’s “dream team,” as he calls them in one of the appended bonus features—stage designer Roland Olbeter, costume designer Chu Uroz, and video creator Franc Aleu—never flags. Between the video projections and the quasi-acrobatic presence of La Fura del Baus, the one-of-a-kind Catalan theatrical company, there’s almost always something happening behind, above, or around the singers. Yet all this activity never distracts or seems the least superfluous. Aleu’s high-definition video, in particular, functions at almost a subliminal level, like a leitmotiv. A flock of birds soar and swoop as Siegfried makes his observations to Mime about the natural world; blood gushes prodigiously when the hero plunges Nothung into Fafner’s heart. The opportunity for stunning visual imagery during Mime’s hallucination, after the Wanderer’s departure in Siegfried’s first act, isn’t missed.

You won’t be surprised to hear that the dragon is a sophisticated mechanized affair—this production must have cost a fortune!—and the Rhinemaidens are back in their suspended water-filled Plexiglas tanks for their return in the final act of Götterdämmerung. Padrissa takes plenty of chances and usually comes away a winner. In act I of Siegfried, the hero is placed on a treadmill and his vital signs monitored to assess if he’s getting the concept of “fear”; in Götterdämmerung’s second act, the Heldentenor is actually suspended upside down by his feet to be interrogated by Brünnhilde and Hagan (and he’s expected to sing!). The deployment of La Fura in Siegfried demonstrates that the director hasn’t forgotten that this opera is a comedy, albeit a dark one. The close of the forging scene comes off like a Broadway production number, with a chorus line of Mime’s helpers aping Siegfried’s hammer strokes as the stage picture is increasingly dominated by flames, real and projected.

Lance Ryan’s Siegfried isn’t quite the loutish hothead he’s usually portrayed as. He’s a naive child of nature, primitive and inexperienced, dressed in pelts, with aborigine-like tattoos. This is in stark contrast to Mime’s technologically advanced mad scientist look, a tangle of bloody plastic tubes draped over the dwarf’s back and shoulders. In terms of pure vocalism, Ryan is a capable and well-trained singer though no Melchior, and his voice begins to fade by the end of Siegfried’s final act. But as a dramatic representation of Wagner’s problematic hero, Ryan is spot-on: He really sounds and looks like a lost little boy as he sits beneath the linden tree before battling Fafner.

Juha Uusitalo finishes off his superb realization of Wotan/Wanderer. Mehta takes the flowing chord progressions of the Wanderer’s music at a slower tempo than usual, increasing the calm majesty of Uusitalo’s performance. His chemistry with Mime (Gerhard Siegel), Alberich (Franz-Josef Kapellmann), and Erda (Catherine Wyn-Rogers) is excellent and those three scenes, like much else in Siegfried, proceed with a dramatic thrust that makes a very long opera seem not nearly so long. Stephen Milling completes an imposing representation of Fafner.

As Brünnhilde, Jennifer Wilson awakens refreshed, her voice clear, controlled, and beautifully colored for “Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!” Her performance in Götterdämmerung is one of gathering strength and nobility; she never turns bitchy or hysterical after discovering she’s has been betrayed. The passage in which she and Siegfried swear an oath on the tip of Hagan’s spear (“Helle Wehr! Heilige Waffe!”) is electrifying. Wilson’s Immolation Scene is humanely powerful.

Three excellent singers are cast for the Gibichung realm: Elisabete Matos as a vapid floozy of a Gutrune, Ralf Lukas as her pathetic brother, and the always magnificent Matti Salminen as a particularly malevolent Hagan. (These are “little nothings on the edge of society,” comments Lukas, in a “bonus.”) The beginning of Götterdämmerung’s act II, set in a decommissioned Nibelheim, gives us a palpable sense of what’s at stake for the bad guys, and it’s one of the most powerful 10 minutes of the entire Valencia Ring. Hagan’s men are bespeckled accountants—all the Gibichungs are clearly obsessed with money, status, and power—and the choral work is excellent. Another Götterdämmerung highlight is Waltraute’s visit to her sister, played out on Brünnhilde’s large, Las Vegas-style nuptial bed before a black star-studded backdrop. Catherine Wyn-Rogers communicates a rising sense of desperation, playing off Brünnhilde’s intransigence.

Zubin Mehta’s profound understanding of the score is apparent in every bar, and the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana, hand-picked by Lorin Maazel, is with him every step of the way. (“They are young, but they are extremely gifted,” declares Mehta.) The performance has been expertly filmed and edited, the high-definition video doing full justice to the spectacular stage pictures. C Major’s sound is naturally spacious in multichannel (7.1, if you’re so equipped; I listened with a more typical 5.1 loudspeaker complement) though there’s also a good sense of depth and excellent balances with the stereo program. Subtitles are offered in German, English, French, and Spanish.

Now there are nine complete Rings on video to choose among. Identifying them by conductor, they are: Levine, Barenboim, Boulez, Zagrosek, Haenchen, De Billy, Schønwandt, St. Clair, and now this one. Of the nine, only the wrong-headed Weimar production, the other cycle available on Blu-ray, is to be avoided (it’s not conductor Carl St. Clair’s fault); all the others have something going for them. My preferred versions have been Barenboim’s 1992 Bayreuth account, the fascinating Amsterdam Ring led by Michael Schønwandt, and, for its traditional production values and solid cast, James Levine’s Metropolitan Opera DVDs. But as noted above, Valencia’s production—the high-def video projections, the “articulated dragon, activated by numerical control,” and dozens of harnessed La Fura supernumeraries suspended high above the stage notwithstanding—is actually pretty traditional as well and, as nearly as anybody can say, true to the composer’s intentions. It will appeal, as suggests Helga Schmidt, the Intendant of the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia where these performances were recorded live in 2008 and 2009, to younger potential Wagnerians—and I’d say to old hands as well. It is, as billed, “a Ring for the 21st century.”

Stephen Habington
La Scena Musicale, April 2010

WAGNER, R.: Rheingold (Das) (Palau de les Arts "Reina Sofia", 2007) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 700604
WAGNER, R.: Walkure (Die) (Palau de les Arts "Reina Sofia", 2008) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 700804
WAGNER, R.: Siegfried (Palau de les Arts "Reina Sofia", 2008) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 701004
WAGNER, R.: Gotterdammerung (Palau de les Arts "Reina Sofia", 2009) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 701204

Dedicated Wagnerians with inquiring minds have a tough decision to make. Are they to rush out and purchase the individual issues of the latest video Ring cycle or gamble on saving a few bucks on the fall release of complete boxed sets (Blu-ray or conventional DVD)? These Valencia productions are terrific and certainly fine enough to justify acting in haste.

La Fura dels Baus is a versatile (and acrobatic) Catalan theatre company. Zubin Mehta caught them in performance at the Salzburg Festival and suggested their participation in staging the Valencia Ring. In this, and his stipulation that the new opera house recruit a world class Wagner orchestra (“Because a Wagner orchestra can play anything.”), house intendant Helga Schmidt fulfilled his wishes and also assembled a remarkable singing cast. La Fura’s stated intention was to show “the suicidal degradation of nature by technological man.” To achieve this goal,a great deal of high technology and gadgetry is employed. Stage scenery was largely replaced by giant screen 3-D animation designed and operated by Franc Aleu. The costumes by Chu Uroz make the gods look godly and evoke the development of primitive man to the decadence of the Gibichungs. Carlus Padrissa binds all of this together to produce something that reflects Wagner’s original (and until now impossible to realize) stage directions. There is a single, but psychologically apt, self-indulgence and scarcely an awkward pause in the entire marathon. Above all, Padrissa succeeds on the level of pure storytelling.

Maestro Mehta’s direction of the score can stand comparison with the best. A musician who has pondered the scores for a half-century gives us the performance of a lifetime. Mehta makes the music into a major protagonist in the drama. At the final curtain, he leads the entire orchestra onto the stage to take a well-deserved bow. The vocal cast is outstanding in the quality of singing and the ability to portray the characters. Juha Uusitalo (Wotan/Wanderer), John Daszak (Loge), Franz-Josef Kapellmann (Alberich) Gerhard Siegel (Mime), Peter Seiffert (Siegmund) and Petra Maria Schnitzer (Sieglinde) render landmark performances. The steadfastWagner veteran, Matti Salminen, takes on the roles of Fasolt, Hunding and Hagen with great distinction. But perhaps the greatest discovery of cycle is the pairing of Jennifer Wilson and Lance Ryan as Brünnhilde and Siegfried. A perfect matchup in these roles has been hard to achieve in recent years. Hopefully the Wilson/Ryan combination will continue to grace opera stages for the foreseeable future. There is not one weak link in the cast.

Collectors who insist on traditional staging of the Ring are probably best served by the Metropolitan Opera production conducted by James Levine (DG). For those who remain mesmerized by the Bayreuth productions of Boulez/Chereau (DG) and Barenboim/Kupfer (Warner), this Valencia Ring is very much in the same league. It surpasses by a vast margin last year’s award-winning Copenhagen Ring (Decca).

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