A WORK OF ART SO GREAT IT IS IT'S OWN METAPHOR
Josef Bush | Phoenix, AZ | 02/18/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"tThis is the first complete Ring I ever saw, and I remember that it bowled me over. I was completely captivated then, and I remain captivated today. I'm aware of the growing number of handsome productions of this Opera and others of the Ring, but this is the most comprehensive, in my mind, and the most effective whether or not one cares for the costuming or the sets. After all, in producing any opera the production staff makes choices about well, drag, and how much of it the singer/actors will stagger about with on stage. Costume is a secondary consideration, like decors. Let's face it, a too elaborate costume can smother characterization. I've seen the portfolio of the original designs for the first production, and they were indeed amazing, and would be equally amazing and beautiful today, if anybody cared to mount the opera that way. But, having grown up in a generation that hooted and slighted what little we knew of German and certainly Wagnerian opera -- reacting to film clips of Melchior and Flagstadt -- I can appreciate the choice made here by Boulez-Chereau and Wagner.
Originally, people grew up with and were accustomed to the sight of well-fed and sometiems beared singers in stage armor waving their arms before painted canvas scenery, while standing on paper-mache mountain tops. The technology of Theatre was far simpler then. World War II changed all that, and probably because the Wagners and Germany at large, faced a wall of hatred and resentment, as well as the palpable slur of anti-semitism, the original visual concept was radically altered. Immediately fter the war the characters were dressed in simple, almost architectural robes and nearly naked sets were flooded with dramatic, colored lighting. The Helen Traubel - Astrid Varnay years. Everything abstract. Nothing historical. Nothing to offend anybody. (Hopefully the Wagners stored all the original sets and costumes somewhere; we'd all enjoy to see them again.) And then, when the time came to stage the Ring afresh, they gave it to the present team. Their artistic decision was radical; it was rather a neo-socialist concept: they decided to concentrate on the meaning of the music/drama, not the pageantry, intending to make it comprehensible to the widest number of people world-over. It was a revolutionary concept, and they succeeded in spite of initial outrage.
In Boulez, Bayreuth found one of the world's best conductors with excellent credentials in Romantic and Modern German music. His one remarkable trait is that he is able to remove himself from the music, and to offer to the public, music as the composer might have first experienced it; music as thought. No podium glamor boy, Bulez shared that characteristic with Fritz Reiner, who was also able to remove all traces of the effort to produce the music expertly, and to present the sound with unexpected spontaneity and freshness. The score of The Ring is so formidable, so daunting -- it is after all, one great operatic masterpiece -- that it is a testament to Boulez' intellectual and artistic grasp that he is able to capture and present the totality of the enterprise with orchestral balance and color; without any straining for effect or any vulgarity. The entire production, the direction, the singers and stage effects, all elements rest securely on Boulez' firm orchestral control.
The show begins, as Anna Russel exclaimed and my libretto says, IN the Rhine River. IN IT! Rather than resort as Wagner did, to fat sopranos in mermaid outfits being wheeled about on gurneys, pretending to swim behind a green scrim, Chereau chose to focus on the meaning of the river itself. It is, and has been for centuries, a great commercial waterway, originating in Switzerland and proceeding north through Germany, to form that delta land that is now Holland, and then to empty into the North Sea. Transport=Commerce=Power.
Instantly, as the curtain rises, we are confronted with the spillway of what looks like a hydro-electric dam. Night. There's a thin metal catwalk above this construction, and a woman in a long sparkling dress like an evening gown appears. She stretches and begins to sing. She is the first of the three Rhine Maidens, and it is to these eminently atractive females that Alberecht, the first male on stage, is drawn. In the original he's described as a Gnome. This production strips that conceit away and presents him as a man of the people; a rather crudely dressed individual; a drifter, a casual working man, a poor and lonely man, and not a very attractive one. But he is a man who is attracted to pretty, flirting women. And the show beneath Wagner's original metaphor becomes something we've all seen in big cities; lonely, unskilled men trying to mate with wanton women unded the bridges, aqueducts and train tressels of commercial big-city reality. It's love among the homeless.
This is one of the most effective scenes in RHINEGOLD, not only because it is well sung by all four participants, and acted well too, but because of the exceptional acting of Hermann Becht. What a peformance, noble in its pathos! Anyway, the sluts tease Alberecht unmecifully, humiliate and torment him, but won't have him. The reason? They do give him a glimpse of the Rhine's gold -- money is gold and a girl's got to work -- and it's meaning sticks in his mind. He's gold-struck. They can't stop him from stealing it.
next, dawn. Now, we meet the Family; Wotan, Sky god, his wife, Goddess Frica, and their two companions -- bully boys of Wotan's -- Donner (Lightening) and Froh (Thunder.) In the original they're all sleeping in the grass like vagrants in a public park, until Frica wakes, rises and looks about. On the other side of the valley she sees something that disturbs and amazes her. In this production Frica, acted by Hanna Schwartz, wears a 19th century dress, and hair-style, and looks not unlike any high-class lady of he period, but reminds one of Cosima Wagner. It's a wonderful portrayal, all violet cologne, and one by one after Wogan wakes, the actors assume their roles and fall into an ensemble so convincing, one cannot help but focus on their situation and wonder how they're going to deal with it. We almost forget they're singing, the acting's that good. Donald McIntye is flawless; a brilliant characterization. It reminds you, if you need it, how good they all are. Some say he looks like Wagner. Maybe. But you are forced to keep your eyes on Martin Egel. He's incredible: a lesson on how to keep your character important even when you don't have many lines.
What Fricka's looking at is a kind of castle that appears to have grown up overnight in god-time. Wotan says he dreampt it into existence, and is delighted to see it. The trouble is, he doesn't know how to pay for it. Fricka is happy too because she says that now he has a proper home, Wotan won't go tomcatting around the world anymore. The trouble is, Wotan's promised to pay for the labor of the Giants by giving them Fricka's sister Fria, goddess of youth and beauty. (Beautiful Carmen Reppel plays the role here, in a dress that has to be seen. And she can sing as good as she looks.) She runs onstage screaming bloody murder because she can't stand the Giants. Then the giants appear in wonderful costumes, like Medieval festival figures. Big basso voices. Great singing, all 'round, and by now you're so used to the 19th century convention of dress, and architectural detail, you've accepted it and are caught in the story. The costuming has actually helped us to focus the motivations of the characters.
Fed up, the Giants take Fria away with them and, strangely, one is affected in spite of oneself. The visuals are incredible. But, the Gods begin to age; they weaken. With his last gasp, Wotan calls for his handler, his point man, the ultimate schyster, Loge; Fire. Frica thinks him declassee -- he's not a god, after all, only an elemental force -- but intelligence is his primary attribute, and after some sly reasoning, Loge comes up with a solution. Now, somebody might think this is Loge's opera because Heinz Zednik in this role surpasses all expectations. Is he the best actor of them all? He sings like a dream, but his acting is a wonder; so detailed. Hypnotic. He tells Wotan to go to the Nibelungens deep in the earth, and steal the gold Alberecht stole from the Rhine Maidens. And they go.
In the scenic vernacular down there proves to be down a mine. The miners are the Niebelungen dwarves; stunted and scurring about like moles in goggles and helmets. The adventure is something like an English Hammer Films horror show, but with Loge's help, Wotan bamboozles Alberecht, captures him, takes the gold and steals the ring of power from him. He relinquishes it with a terrible curse, but what else can he do? Alberecht is the hero here, not Wotan.
When Wotan and Loge return to the surface of the earth -- which looks like the patio of an industrial park -- they pile up the gold. The Giants return Fria, but quarrel with Wotan about her, and money and everything else. Eventually they get all the gold and even the ring Wotan stole. Wotan is as angry in his way as Alberecht was in his. But, fighting about details, one of the giants, Fafner, kills Fasolt. But hey, says Loge! You've got Walhalla. Top of the line. You have got to see Zednik the hunchback, dancing about in Fria's veil: the highest camp; the most sordid comedy. He is their facilitator and they all hate him, as do we, because he does not pretend, but speaks truthfully. However, all ends well as all must that's based on lying, swindling, theft and murder, and as Egel opens his golden mouth to summon the clouds, they arrive and Wotan drags his godhead off, hands linked, over a rainbow bridge, to inhabit as grandiose a Post-Modern schloss as Wagner in his time, could have imagined. And that's it.
If your libretto is like mine, the english translation of the text is so literal you'd think German was a language for apes. Terrible. A great disservice. You'll either have to make your own translation or find a good paraphrase, because once you do, you'll find that the language is as easy as English to understand. German is similiar enough that you'll actually come to think you're hearing the show in English, after a while. The director has worked with the actors so well that the differences vanish. You can understand the story simply by watchng it and depending on the orchestral schore. It's clear as crystal. And this is just the beginning; the prelude!
One last note: watch Hanna Schwartz carefully. Her Fricka is so life-like; on the surface all graciousness and elegance, but underneath a scheming, manipulative canine. (Remember Susan Hayward?) Schwartz has learned to a good degree, that skill some German singers have of being able to sing without looking as though they were. Schwartzkopf had it to perfection. I saw her last Marchelin at the Met, and she sang it as though she were merely having a chat. The sound was there. That wonderful voice was there, but no facial distortion. The body was held in check by her technique. Now, everybody can't do that, but this production shows fairly well, how it should be done; and though there are many good german-singing performers, and a few now as good as those in this cast of twenty years ago, at this high professional level, what's to quarrel about? For a viewer new to the Wagnerian canon, this presentation is an ideal way to experience the entirety of the drama. It familiarizes one easily with the characters, and makes subsequent viewings of this material familiar and more accessible. You will enjoy other productions more because of this one."
Fluent production that is quite brilliant
waldmar | 01/13/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The staging is amusing. In fact, I was slightly shocked at the beginning where the depths of the Rhine is represented by a hydro-electric dam and those Rhine-maidens become "call-girls". Yet, in some strange way, the production works. And it grows on you with each successive viewing. The direction of Patrice Chereau is fluent. Indeed, it's so fluent that one feels that the 2.5 hour work lasts only for slightly more than an hour. Maybe it's because Chereau's clever direction (and Brian Large's wonderful video direction) made viewers focus on the dramatic strengths of this opera. Or maybe the staging is so full of interesting (and dramatically valid) strokes that one is totally engrossed by the viewing experience. The performances of the singers are fine, too.Despite initial reservations, I must say I like it a lot now."
Wagner sans Cliches
T. Grim | 11/30/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I've seen the Met version and EuroArts version, too, and while all three of these DVDs offer a different view, this is the one I actually sit down and watch again and again. It's also the one on my mp3.
If you've been inundated with the popular culture versions and other parodies of Wagner's ring, as most mature US viewers have been, this production will reset all your expectations and anticipations from the Bugs Bunny and Anna Russell flavor to the Adult/Growed Up kind. All the cliches that trigger the satires are gone.
The music is unsurpassed in the others. The Met version seems to me to have too many scenes where the orchestra intrudes on the pacing of the voices; this version just has both overwhelming you at the proper moments, with no seam between the two that even makes you notice instrument and voice are not being used together to tell the story.
The production on stage has human 'gods', without fake armor or other such silly appurtenances. The Rhinemaidens are obviously Sirens and not some silly sprites on a Sponge-Bob Square-Pants set. Valhalla is an imposing structure with both 'classical' decoration and commercial concrete structures visible.
The lack of tinny flash is reflected in the earth tones and subdues lighting. No over-elaboration, just what is needed.
No fairy story pretense, just the facts. A Hamlet in music instead of a Disney Narnia musical."