Das Rheingold

will have some experience of the abundance of recordings, spanning the whole
of the twentieth century, that preserve an infinity of Wagnerian nuances,
inflections, performance styles, and interpretative conceits. For
inexperienced ears and eyes, the stakes are higher. Until recently the
available DVD printings of Wagner’s works were a small and motley
assortment. The options ranged from superb documents like Claudio Abbado and
Wolfgang Weber’s Vienna Lohengrin (1991), through middling
successes like Charles Mackerras’ and Michael Hampe’s Die
Meistersinger von N¸rnberg
for Opera Australia (1991), to chilling
miscarriages like Peter Konwitschny’s and Zubin Mehta’s
Tristan und Isolde for the Munich Opera (1999). Scattered, valuable
historical performances are to be had on DVD such as Karl Bˆhm’s
1973 Tristan und Isolde featuring Nilson and Vickers singing at
Orange’s Roman theater, but this is the eviscerated remains of what
looks to have been a rapturous performance, and is easy neither to watch nor
hear in its current preservation. The situation has changed rapidly in the
last year or so, with releases of a host of superbly staged and sung
interpretations, many from the Metropolitan Opera (Meistersinger,
Tristan), and the options continue to expand rapidly. The
Ring has been blessed with a relatively kind fate: one could choose
the splendid, museum-quality James Levine and Otto Schenk Metropolitan Opera
cycle or its smarter, sexier, and better sung predecessor by Pierre Boulez
and Patrice Chereau for Bayreuth. The release on DVD of the Theatre de
Liceu’s Ring cycle, directed by the prolific and widely sought
director Harry Kupfer, and conducted by Bertrand de Billy, since 1999 General
Music Director of the Liceu, contributes significantly to the choices
available to the experienced and, more importantly, neophyte listener. Kupfer
originally produced this new Ring for Berlin’s Staatsoper
Unter den Linden in 1995 (with sets by frequent collaborator Hans
Schavernoch), and this Opus Arte DVD (OA0910D) gives us its subsequent
incarnation at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. This is the second of
Kupfer’s Ring productions to be filmed. The first was created
for Bayreuth in 1988 and distributed on laserdisc by Teldec. Teldec’s
audio CD of this performance remains available, but the laserdisc disappeared
from the firm’s catalogue, and the curious listener may find it
difficult, as I did, to locate a copy. The Bayreuth production, however, is
to appear on DVD this year starting with the June release of
Rheingold (Warner Classics 2564-62319-2).

It is difficult to examine Kupfer’s Barcelona Rheingold
entirely on its own merits. Inevitably raised are questions as to how
Kupfer’s earlier, tendentious reading of the work has evolved; how
Kupfer’s direction and de Billy’s reading of the score advance or
complement what Kupfer’s and Barenboim’s collaboration; and what
interpretation of the Ring’s meaning has now been fixed in
this DVD. Preserving the performance on DVD, after all, gives the production
heightened authority to shape our understanding of the work: witness the
powerful impact of the Boulez and Chereau Ring on an entire
generation of Wagnerians.

Kupfer’s career needs no review in here; suffice it to recall the
directorial agility and evident respect for music and performers demonstrated
by his Orfeo ed Euridice (created for the Berlin Komische
Oper’s 1987 season and filmed in its production at Covent Garden in
1991), with its contemporized setting in a fluid architecture of urban
projections and mirrors, and his smothering, reptilian Elektra for
Vienna (1989). Bertrand de Billy has recorded Tristan excerpts and
the Wesendock Lieder for Oehms Classics, but does otherwise not have
a high profile as a conductor of Wagner. Nonetheless, under his direction the
Liceu orchestra renders much of the Rheingold score in long strokes
of orchestral melody with a broad palette of instrumental colors.

Kupfer’s new Ring sets out with a creaky pantomime of Wotan
loosening a branch from an already moribund World Ash. The camera stays close
up, and too dim lighting denies us the larger stage context. When the branch
is taken, a red light glows within the tree’s new wound—it is
bleeding, or angry. A crime has evidently been committed. This Ring,
one infers, will exact Nature’s revenge for violations against her, and
we have witnessed in this pantomime a primordial violation, though perhaps
not the first. Kupfer seems inclined here to draw from the Ring a
linear eschatology: an original sin followed by inheritance of guilt, ending
only with tragic expiation. The focus on the assault on the World Ash calls
attention to Wotan’s despoliation of nature and reckless ambitions, and
de-emphasizes Alberich’s subsequent theft of the gold. In a significant
way, then, the Liceu production departs from Kupfer’s Bayreuth
Rheingold. There, the Ring began with a soundless vision of
an apocalypse, lit like a James Turrel installation and—unlike the
present production—beautifully filmed. (This moment of profound silence
is ensured in the privacy afforded the viewer by the video medium). The
prelude then began with a flash of green laser light slowly propagated to
define the murky bed of a putrescent Rhine. In Bayreuth, the end was
emphatically the beginning, and Kupfer thus emphasized the tetralogy’s
cyclic nature, and the inevitable, iterative unfolding of humanity’s
progress and self-destruction.

The Bayreuth production, with its convincingly sexual Rhine daughters,
made much of the erotic catastrophe in scene one. There, Alberich made a
marked transition from physical longing through despair to lust for power:
“Erzw‰ng’ ich nicht Liebe, doch listig erzw‰ng’ ich mir
Lust?” In Barcelona, Kupfer has turned his sight on Wotan’s
complicity. This decisive difference between the productions is underlined in
Barcelona by the gripping mise-en-scËne at Alberich’s warning in scene
four that Wotan will be guilty of a greater crime should he take the ring
(“an allem, was war, ist und wird, frevelst, Ewiger du”), one of
the most compelling and best shot moments on this DVD. Wotan’s breaking
of the branch is here a predecessor and counterpoise of Alberich’s
crimes. Whether and how this apparent new focus will play out in the
subsequent parts of the Barcelona Ring can only be known later.

Singers from the Bayreuth performance resume their roles here: Graham
Clark returns as Loge, G¸nther von Kannen as Alberich, and Matthias Hˆlle,
Fasolt in Bayreuth, is now heard as Fafner. Clark’s Loge, a cynical,
athletic lout but an insinuating, ingratiatingly lyrical voice at Bayreuth,
has changed physically and vocally. In Barcelona a single jumping jack stands
in for his Bayreuth antics; vocally, we hear depravity rather than cynicism.
He creates a very dark-hued character, a fire god with a good deal of smoke
and ash. Von Kannen’s Alberich remains both a powerful actor and voice
in the new Ring, although the Barcelona costuming—first grungy
amphibian, later, gold lame–leave one nostalgic for the stylish lab coat of
the Bayreuth production.

Apart from the apparently shifted focus of interpretation at Barcelona,
much of the paraphernalia of the Bayreuth production is retained. The ring
itself in both productions is an ostentatious bauble: visible, and visibly
cheap. Scene one is quite differently conceived, a Rhine choking with the
roots of the World Ash, populated by Rhine daughters more carp than minnow.
The aquatics of the Rhine daughters are shot too close up, and awkward
gestures are too apparent. Their most beautiful moment arrives as the light
fades on the scene, when the three bow their heads in sorrow, clinging like
lichen to the tree. The arrival of the gods in scene two takes place in dimly
lit, nondescript ruins of what might be a modernist cloister or a warehouse
interior, the stage floor patched with slag or pools of stagnant waste.
Behind the ruins stands a scaffold supporting the lights that will later
fluoresce to indicate the icy of blue of Erda’s subterranean realm and
the rainbow bridge to Walhall. In Bayreuth the gods entered scene two decked
in green garlands; the same garlands have now flowered in Barcelona. The gods
still carry luggage, in Bayreuth transparent pieces, in Barcelona metal and
opaque. If it was earlier clear that they carried nothing substantial with
them, now they may have something, concealed … or the luggage might
mean nothing at all. Reinhold Heinrich’s costumes approximate a generic
Norse mythological style, perhaps touched by elements of timeless
1930’s or 40’s fashion. Wotan wears only half the sunglasses he
wore in Bayreuth.

As Wotan, Falk Struckmann is all biker-dude, projecting vanity and
arrogance without, after Erda’s warning, ever really becoming possessed
by the paralyzing fear displayed by John Tomlinson at Bayreuth. Struckmann is
entirely awake vocally as Freia rouses him at the opening of scene two; there
is no slow emerging from dreams of “Mannes Ehre, ewige Macht.”
Kupfer likewise rejected Wagner’s directions at Bayreuth (Wotan begins
to sing “forttr‰umend”—while continuing to dream), perhaps
to make the point that Wotan’s obsessions are manifested in full

Lioba Braun’s Fricka sings with a cloudy diction, but otherwise
within the boundaries marked by predecessors such as Kirsten Flagstad in
Solti’s (Decca, 1958) or Josephine Veasey in Karajan’s (Deutsche
Grammaphon, 1967) Rheingold. Flagstad produced a model of a
bickering, stentorian, and somewhat frightening Fricka (a kind of Ortrud in a
second marriage), and Veasey created a Mozartean, delicate, even sensual
Fricka, with fleeting recitative rhythms and gentle lyricism in “Um des
Gatten Treue besorgt.” Braun’s vocal characterization opts for
neither of these sharply delineated characterizations, but hovers between
them as a put-upon, disgruntled, but ultimately subdued wife. But Fricka
delivers vitally important ideas in her exchange with Wotan:
“Liebeloser, leidigster Mann! Um der Macht und Herrschaft m¸fligen Tand
verspielst du in l‰sterndem Spott Liebe und Weibes Werth?” That shocked
question, whether Wotan would treat love and women with such contempt, is
prescient of Loge’s later inquiry into the special value of women
(“Weibes Wonne und Werth”) and decisive for the action of
Rheingold, indeed, of the whole Ring. The listener should
be drawn to this verse by a Fricka who is deeply shaken by Wotan’s
frivolous attitude. Braun does not quite carry this off vocally, but the
camera gives the moment its needed intimacy, and the viewer is reminded that
Wotan’s frivolity is another form of Alberich’s brutal rejection
of love.

Elisabete Matos’ Freia is pleasing to hear but unengaging (there is
little in the role to engage—Freia, much like like Notung, is hardly
more than the tangible embodiment of an orchestral motive). Francisco Vas
offers a convincing vocal characterization of the beleaguered Nibelung Mime,
and his convulsive acting conveys pain and wile at the same time. It will be
interesting to see how Vas develops the character’s sinister aspect in
the soon to be released Siegfried. Andrea Bˆnig as Erda appears in
stylized eighteenth-century coiffure and a diaphanous blue gown; the effect
is striking but not more than decorative. An elevating rear stage takes the
gods out of view, leaving Wotan to experience what might be a private vision,
though Wagner’s poem makes it clear that all witness the Wala’s
warning. (Kupfer’s Bayreuth production was more literal and made sense,
with Erda rising through an exaggeratedly baroque mechanism: a pivoting stage
floor simulating up-turned strata of earth. Kwanchul Youn (Fasolt) and
Matthias Hˆlle (Fafner) sound good; they look helpless in their costumes, all
hydraulics, pistons, and pincers that suggest the bane of mechanized

The Rhine daughters are fine, but lack refinements we know from other
performances. For example, Solti’s Woglinde (Oda Balsborg) sang a
dazzling crescendo on the close of “flieflt sein strahlender
Stern” that was answered by the glisten of a trumpet before the Rhine
daughters join in their hymn to the glittering gold. In Barcelona, there are
no such subtleties. Many telling details like this are neglected in scene
one, which is the weakest of this performance. The music sometimes feels
rushed, and the unleashed energy encourages the Rhine daughters to let their
praise of the gold drift perilously close to a drinking song.

Indeed under de Billy the Liceu orchestra generally inclines toward fast
tempi. Some passages, like the prelude, only seem fast because of a lack of
control. This prelude, which in the Solti Ring, for instance, is a
subtly variegated, gradual expansion of tone color, becomes in the Liceu
orchestra’s reading an uneasy transit from bare octaves and fifths to a
raucous contest of irritable horns, anxious woodwinds, and overwhelmed
strings. De Billy may be aiming for a more aggressive, disturbed prelude. In
the famous opening of scene two, with its broad Walhall motive and rich
scoring, de Billy emphasizes the staccati that punctuate the second and third
beats of measures in the Walhall theme, which in other recordings are
missing. Leaning toward faster tempi, he takes the accompaniment of
Wotan’s “Vollendet das ewige Werk!” considerably faster
than Solti’s luxuriant treatment. De Billy paces Alberich’s
dialogue with Loge and Wotan (the “sehr lebhaft” in scene three)
especially well, and the scene struck me with particular force in this
performance. It is one of those strange hybrids found in the early acts of
the Ring that preserves lineaments of the older ensemble style of
Der Fliegende Holl‰nder shot through with Wagner’s newer
motivic and orchestral practices. The unobscured A major tonality, the
regular, scalar figuration of the bass line, and the recapitulatory design
all hint at his older, vanishing style. But an ingratiating solo violin
variant of the Freia motive and its return, slightly inflected by clarinet,
clamber from the orchestra to display one of the most chilling motivic
transformations in Rheingold, and the whole episode is wonderfully
executed here by orchestra and singers.

The Barcelona Ring is, as I’ve been suggesting, not
entirely flattered by comparison with the 1988 Bayreuth production. It is in
many details crude compared to the best extant audio recordings, and there is
much to complain about with respect to the filming. Too many close-ups are
miscalculated, including a long shot of Alberich that features one of the
flood lights; lighting is often too dark, the set unintelligible. The magical
moments are almost uniformly weak: on its introduction the gold itself is not
visible (in any case I couldn’t see it) and Alberich too seems unsure
where it is. The rainbow bridge is created with the thin device of gradually
lengthening links of fluorescent light (the grid of lights that does this
will be put to many uses throughout this cycle). And Alberich’s
transformations into a giant serpent and frog are absurd: as far as we can
tell, he becomes a large metallic lobster claw, and a rubbery frog is tossed
about by a visible hand. But there are felicitous moments, such as the
stretch in scene three when Wotan stands to the rear of the stage, arm
outstretched, gazing at his newly captured ring, while Alberich bitterly
laments the loss of the ring in the foreground, Loge between them.

On balance this Rheingold is a valuable contribution to the
Ring options available to listeners. Its fine cast is accompanied by
an interesting conductor and an orchestra who reveal–in patches–new and
captivating aspects of Wagner’s score. The selective or harried viewer,
forced to choose, might wait and be better served by Kupfer’s Bayreuth
Ring. Some of the larger issues I raised at the outset of this
review, meanwhile, may be better addressed at a later time in my comments on
the forthcoming DVDs of this Ring cycle.

Anthony Barone

product_title=Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold
product_by=Falk Struckmann, Graham Clark, G¸nter von Kannen, Lioba Braun, Kwanchul Youn. Symphony Orchesta of the Gran Teatre del Liceu. Conductor: Bertrand de Billy. Stage Director: Harry Kupfer
product_id=Opus Arte OA 0910 D [2 DVDs]