The first opera (the prologue) in Wagner's Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold, is a beautifully conducted and thoughtfully staged performance. As soon as the clouds of mist have dissipated, while the daring, long-held opening chord... more » is still reverberating, the screen clears to show not only the River Rhine and the three maidens (dressed like prostitutes in this production) assigned to guard the gold hidden there. It also shows an enormous dam (not mentioned in Wagner's text). This is the underwater base of a hydroelectric plant, and its presence tells us two things immediately: that this production takes the story out of the vaguely medieval fantasy world in which Wagner had placed it, and that a basic theme of the four-opera cycle would be power. Alberich, the Nibelung, is willing to renounce the love of women, after stealing the gold from the Rhine, to become the ruler of the world. Another basic theme is greed. The cast is uniformly excellent. The approach of stage director Patrice Chereau carefully balances realism, symbolism, and fantasy. The two giants (Matti Salminen and Fritz Hübner) tower over the gods who are waiting to enter the newly constructed Valhalla; Loge (brilliantly played by Heinz Zednick) appears in a burst of flame; the subterranean lair of the Nibelungs looks something like a prison and something like a mass-production sweatshop. In contrast, the gods look like members of a rather aimless leisure class. Freia, the goddess of youth (Carmen Reppel), whose fate is one of the basic items in the plot, is presented as a lovely but helpless beauty queen. Pierre Boulez conducts this episode. like the entire cycle, with power and precision. Wagner's ideas of "racial purity" reach a logical conclusion in Act I of Die Walküre. Siegfried, the tragic hero of the cycle, is begotten in an adulterous, incestuous mating of Siegmund (Peter Hoffmann) and Sieglinde (Jeanne Altmeyer), a twin brother and sister. No miscegenation here. Siegfried will not be seen until the next opera in the cycle. For now, the Valkyries (after their famous, musically spectacular ride) are asked to protect Sieglinde, his pregnant mother-to-be, until he can be born. His father is killed in a fight with Hunding, Sieglinde's brutish husband, with Wotan intervening against his will to help the wronged spouse. Wotan has been forced by his wife Fricka, who is the goddess of marriage, elegantly played by Hanna Schwartz. Her victory is a striking display of Wotan's diminishing powers. Brunnhilde, Wotan's daughter and leader of the Valkyries (Gwyneth Jones), disobeys a paternal prohibition, rescues Sieglinde and hides her in safety to wait out her pregnancy. For this, she is punished by losing her divine status and being left asleep for years, surrounded by a circle of magic fire, until a hero (Siegfried, who has not yet been born) will come to rescue her. This episode is extremely well-sung, with particularly notable work by Hoffmann, Altmeyer, Schwartz, Jones and Donald McIntyre as Wotan, while conductor Pierre Boulez and director Patrice Chéreau work smoothly together to define the opera's overall form and continuity. Siegfried is the most eventful of the four Ring operas: the hero of the cycle grows to maturity, forges his father's broken sword Notung, kills the dragon Fafner and the dwarf Mime, takes the cursed ring, frees Brunnhilde from the spell that has kept her asleep, and falls in love with her. It is all presented, powerfully and as efficiently as the self-indulgent text will permit. Not seen in the cycle's previous operas are Manfred Jung (Siegfried) and Norma Sharp (the Forest Bird), the central figure of the cycle and one of the most peripheral. Sharp is lovely in her brief appearance. Jung is the most controversial bit of casting in the cycle; his voice and acting have been criticized, but they seem to be up to the standard for this role, Perhaps the criticism really applies to Siegfried, who is neither intelligent nor compassionate, but a naive youth who knows nothing of the world and has never seen a woman. Jung conveys these qualities effectively. Wagner's ideal hero turns out to be a bit of a proto-Nazi in his own naive way, swaggering arrogantly, killing the dragon Fafner and the dwarf Mime with hardly a second thought, and blithely assuming that he deserves all the good fortune that comes his way. Wagner may have thought he was inventing another sort of hero, but this Siegfried rather faithfully reflects his creator's personality. Jung's characterization faithfully follows the text of the opera and it is compelling for those who can take their Wagner without illusions, those who have come to terms, for example, with the self-centered, unsympathetic personality that emerges from his wife Cosima's voluminous and blindly adoring diaries. According to director Patrice Chereau, "Götterdämmerung undoubtedly presents a world in which no values exist any more... a world in which it is difficult for anyone to believe in anything any longer." It is truly, as its title proclaims, "The twilight of the gods." Siegfried is tricked, drugged, and treacherously murdered by power-hungry humans, deceived into betraying Brunnhilde, who remains faithful without hope. An air of weariness and decadence pervades the action and much of the music (though the score includes two of Wagner's finest instrumental inventions: Siegfried's Rhine journey and his funeral music.) A new note is the introduction of a chorus of humans (effectively used by Chereau) for the first time in the cycle. The heyday of the gods is over; now, world domination is sought by a human family, the Gibichungs. The cursed ring is stolen from Brunnhilde, who has kept it as a token of Siegfried's love. Siegfried, who has taken the ring in disguise, has been drugged and deceived into wooing Gutrune, a Gibichung. Brunnhilde is forced to marry Gunther, another Gibichung, but still faithful to Siegfried she commits suicide on his funeral pyre. The fire spreads to destroy Valhalla. The ring, snatched from Siegfried's dead hand, is dropped into the Rhine, where it is restored to its rightful place, and the situation returns to the normality of the time before Das Rheingold. The Gibichungs, new to the cycle, are well-portrayed by Franz Mazura and Jeanne Altmeyer, and Fritz Hübner is impressive as the treacherous Hagen. Gwemdolyn Killibrew stands out as Brunnhilde's ally Waltraute. As always, Pierre Boulez conducts with a clear vision of the total work. --Joe McLellan« less
"As much as this production detracts from the teutonic tradition that Wagner designed the Ring for, this centenniary production of the Ring with Patrice Chereau as the director, Pierre Boulez as conductor, and Brian Large as the very talented producer, is possibly the best in the market. No, it doesn't have a cast that has the dimension and experience of the Solti or Karajan rings, but without a doubt, it is the most visually engaging and dramatically correct rendition of Wagner's tetralogy. Others would say that the Levine Ring provides the most traditional and faithful production with respect to Wagner's score, and I have no doubts that the sets used in the Met are very beautiful. This set, however, changes the concept from a legendary setting of mountains and god-palaces to a more French social hierarchy environment. The interpretation makes sense, but it isn't only this which makes this Ring come to life. It is the involvement of a very talented conductor and a cast of marvelous singers which make this Ring a most memorable moment.
Donald McIntyre may not have Hans Hotter's great voice or James Morris' great bel canto interpretation of Wotan's role, but it certainly exudes a nobility and a richness absent from other recordings. Gwyneth Jones is a marvelous Brunnhilde. For her alone would I see this Ring day after day. It is note perfect, powerful, and very dramatic. I'd say that she has the best Brunnhilde overall of the ones I've heard.
Modern staging that makes sense
Wouter | The Netherlands | 01/03/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"The first part of this Ring I owned was Gotterdammerung. In that production I noticed that the story, the impact of the drama, was made by the staging of Patrice Chereau and the acting prestations in the first place followed by the vocal performances of the singers. A kind of the other around considering the premise of opera. Having seen all four parts of the Boulez-Ring I stay with that first impression. Expecially Gwyneth Jones and Donald McIntyre are far better actors then they are singers. Their voices cannot bare the weight of the drama required in Die Walkure Act 3 (Brunnhilde and Wotan) and Gotterdammerung Act 3 (Brunnhilde)for example.
The staging, however, is superb. The great thing from this production is that Chereau, not just ripped Wagners Ring from the old German mythology, but replaced it with a world that looks like a combination of Jules Verne and ancient Greek in which an insight in the characters and their motives are given in a way that I did not see before. It is as accessible as an average arthouse movie. Many modern staging just seem to want to get away from the old bearskins and teuton heroism so much that nothing else is offered instead (except leaving the audience with Brunnhilde looking like Christiane F. for instance - Stuttgarter Opera). What I appreciated in the world of the Chereau Ring is it's own atmosphere and use of images and elements that are not just post-modern but also functional. The Wotan-monologue in Act 2 from Die Walkure and the love-duet from Act 3 between Siegfried and Brunnhilde are so cleverly directed that every line sung here is important instead of just asking time from the audience.
Another big plus for me is the conductorship of Pierre Boulez. Fast without rushing, modern with great insight, he lets the music do its work. Personally I prefer that very much over conductors who emphasis to much on the so called dramatic moments and by that destroying the natural flow of the music. With his approach Boulez shows us the richness of Wagners score, instead of converting it into something more one-dimensional.
This is a great Ring cycle and I think a great version to have if you are interested in owning a Ring on DVD."
TWO MAJOR DEFECTS MAR AN OTHERWISE SPLENDID PRODUCTION
Paco Rivero | Miami, FL | 07/02/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I enjoyed this Ring cycle a great deal, but I had two huge problems with it. First, this Ring cycle rips all four installments out of their mythological context and sets them in the 19th century. The result is an absurd mish-mash of mythological and realistic elements that obscures the cycle's meaning and, above all, its magic. Take the great set-piece with Hagen's men in "Gotterdammerung." Hagen's vassals are here a citizen militia rounded up from the local proletariat. How absurd is the sight of these French-looking working class townspeople singing in German and wielding long, primitive spears while being instructed by Hagen, dressed in suit and tie, to "kill a boar for Froh, and sacrifice a goat to Donner, but slaughter sheep for Fricka"? What are these mythological gods doing in this setting, and why are 19th century working class people sacrificing to them? The result is ridiculous. The sets are equal parts realism and surrealism, making for a confused locale. The hunting scene where Siegfried is murdered by Hagen happens in front of a drab, industrial-looking hydraulic dam. Are we in industrial France, in pastoral Germany, in the legendary world of mythology, or in some strange dimension that weaves in and out of all three? The result is neither one thing nor the other, very half-baked and confusing. According to Chereau, the director, he was working from two principles. First, being primarily a director of nonoperatic theater, he wanted to intensify the music drama's dramaturgical elements--which in my opinion he does splendidly for the most part. For example, the emotionally charged finale where Brunnhilde has the body of Siegfried burned and jumps into the flames is wonderfully staged; I couldn't have asked for better. (Although I did have some problems with the lovers rolling around on the floor and with some histrionic hand gestures.) But Chereau is led astray by his second working principle. He explains in the documentary (it's part of the box set and worth watching), "Wagner used mythology to tell the story of his time, the politics of his time." Starting from this (in my view dangerous) premise, Chereau brings out the latent political content that he (Chereau) claims is implicit in the text. I feel this is where Chereau, probably under the spell of George Bernard Shaw, goes astray. As I understand it, Wagner's main concern was in creating archetypes rather than "real" people in "real" settings. The Ring cycle is not "verismo." If Wagner wanted to set the Ring in his own time and place, he would have done so. Wagner wasn't shooting for "realism," but Chereau IS shooting for it (hence so many of the conflicting tendencies of his production). It's very unfair for Chereau to categorically state that Wagner's "real" intention was to tell the political story of the late nineteenth century, as if the mythology were merely a pretext. Making the Ring about the class warfare and ills of the industrial revolution sinks the play into the morass of a politics that I suspect is more Chereau's than Wagner's. The former has the Rhinemaidens literally crawling out of the gutter (as prostitutes), rather than simply letting them personify the Rhine. Another problem with this Ring cycle is the casting of Siegfried, who here looks more like a middle-aged Barney Rubble from "The Flintstones" than a young mythological hero. Manfred Jung, who plays Siegfried, has a great voice, but lacks the stage presence to pull off the role. The result is a Siegfried that is more comic than heroic, though I do recognize that I'm being a bit unfair to Mr. Jung. If this had been audio-only, I might not have objected to him as he sings the role quite well.
Despite its setbacks, this production still holds its own, thanks above all to the strong cast. There is no weak link in any of the major roles. Gwyneth Jones, as Brunnhilde, brings an otherwordly quality that is just what the part requires. If the production had stuck to a mythological setting and not tried to transpose it to the 19th century, making it about the class struggle between the aristocracy and bourgeoisie and then between the bourgeoisie and proleteriat, and if it had dramatized a more heroic Siegfried, I would undoubtedly be giving this Ring cycle five solid stars. As it is, it's definitely worth watching and even owning, but the staging remains muddled in artistic conception. On the other hand, the quality of this production is undoubtedly high. After listening to the Levine and Barenboim Cycles on DVD, this Boulez Cycle remains my favorite, although it can be argued that both Levine and Barenboim are more spectacular in the large orchestral moments, while the sound Boulez strives for isn't as rich or grand. To some listeners, Boulez's light touch might sound understated. This isn't one to blast from your ten foot high speakers."
Groundbreaking production, but is it a classic?
Pekinman | Illinois | 11/20/2009
(3 out of 5 stars)
"I remember watching this Boulez/Chéreau Ring when it was broadcast (!) on American tv (!!) around 1981 or 82. I was glued to the tv for 4 nights as this visually arresting and musically compelling cycle unfolded. This was before the era of video taping so I did not see this production again until it was released on commercial videos several years later. I was less smitten by this event than before, noticing a few flops in the production and being more critical of some of the singing, though I liked Boulez's conducting more than I had before. I have a set of recordings from the premiere season (1976) with a very different cast of singers and a very disgruntled orchestra which played pretty crudely for Boulez who they did not like at all. The eruption of hissing and booing at the start of Act 3 of Götterdämmerung was really shocking to me. The audience was expressing HATRED for the hydroelectric dam appearing again, something they had expected to be finished with after the opening scene of Rheingold. It's reappearance was too much for them and they erupted.
Now it is all very mild. By the end of the run in this production was greeted with cheers of approval. How fickle public opinion is. It is refreshing to see new viewpoints expressed in telling Wagner's mythological epic but,sadly, things have gone off the rails with the ascendence of the 'Konzept' producers who are more interested in themselves than Wagner, or us.
Chéreau and Harry Kupfer were the granddaddies of Konzept productions. Whereas Kupfer slid into a rut of predictable imagery Chéreau has continued to grow in a more a imaginative fashion, note his 'From the House of the Dead' currently showing at the Met. It's modern and bleak but so is the story. Some of the other current wunderkinds of Konzept productions could easily have set Janacek's opera in a grocery store or shopping mall or something like that. Chéreau has more self-control, and sense.
His early Ring at Bayreuth is a sensible production within the framework of non-traditional settings for Wagner's masterpieces. And he does not offend, but the original illusion of sure-footedness has started to crack and the production now looks slightly gimcrack.
The sets are beautiful and the direction of the singers is tightly controlled but not so tight as to thwart freedom of movement, especially with some of the better singer-actors like Gwyneth Jones' Brünnhilde and Hermann Becht's Alberich.
Overall the singing is very good, if not in the same league as the casts from Bayreuth's Golden Age of the 1950s and early 1960s when Wieland Wagner was hiring the best possible singers from around the world. By the 1980s things had deteriorated in that department and Wagnerians found themselves settling for make-do singers and conductors, with the occasional brilliant production, notably 'Der fliegende Holländer' in the late '70s.
I mention Gwyneth Jones right off the bat because she is the star of this production. Many complain about her vocal inconsistencies but I hear a soprano who has the measure of this huge part, and the voice to sing it and, even more of an asset, a great theatrical sense and ability to express it in her fine acting. She is the main reason to see this production on film. There are other important performances in this show, notably the Siegmund and Sieglinde of Peter Hofmann (his world debut for all intents and purposes) and Jeannine Altmeyer. Act 1 of Walküre is white hot, though the staging is pretty disappointing, beyond their impassioned embraces which are very convincing, almost blush-making.
Matti Salminen makes his international debut as the giant Fasolt. Sadly the giants' costumes are one of the glaring failures of this production, but Salminen and Fritz Hübner sing through these impediments with great power. Salminen's Hunding is one of the great vocal assumptions of this role on record (film) and his performances are another compelling, if comparatively minor reason to view these films. Hermann Becht is an outstanding Alberich, vocally and histrionically. And Heinz Zednik's Loge carries the first opera almost solely upon his shoulders, which are draped in a long white sheet. The other great singing comes from Ortrun Wenkel's Erda.
Donald McIntyre is a good Wotan, within the limitations of his less-than-Wagnerian baritone. It's an attractive voice, he's an attractive man and he fits perfectly into Chéreau's Konzept as the 19th century landed gentleman/god who is stricken by a guilty conscience for his treachery against the working classes (Chéreau took G.B. Shaw's book 'The Perfect Wagnerite' to heart and has based this production on that Marxist point of view and hatred for the aristocracy).
There is one galvanizing moment, in particular, that has stuck in my mind since the first time I saw it; the moment in the last act of Walküre when Wotan scoops the sleeping Brünnhilde up into his arms where she dangles limply like a dead child. It is a deeply moving moment. The singing up to this point in this cycle has been of a consistently high level.
It is with the last two operas that problems begin to intrude with the cast. Manfred Jung sings well but he was a disappointment compared to the original Siegfrieds in this production (who quit after the first season), René Kollo and Jess Thomas. Jung had a nice, strongish lyric tenor and he pushes enough to be credible in the louder moments, like the Forging Scene, but he is pushed to the limits and it shows. He's an unusual looking man, not unattractive, just unusual, the one-browed type (not an inapposite thing for a Siegfried) but he also exudes the air of a certified accountant that is out of tune with his primitive character. He's a make-do singer who does not detract but neither does he satisfy. He's also a mediocre actor. Heinz Zednik's vivid Mime saves the first act of Siegfried with his lively and subtly nuanced performance.
The casting of Götterdämmerung is good if not outstanding. Franz Mazura stands out as Gunther and Jeannine Altmeyer is luxury casting as Gutrune. Fritz Hübner is not in the same league as the original Hagen (Karl Ridderbusch, who also quit after the first season) but he does what he can, hobbled a bit by the Konzept of the Gibichungs being a parvenu family of rich businessmen, Plutocractic peers if you will.
There are some gorgeous sets by Peduzzi; notably the 2nd scene of Rheingold with its sunken columns and giant clock, the 3rd act of Walküre with the Pironesi-like broken wall upon which Brünnhilde is lain to rest, and the forest in Siegfried with the toy-like dragon hauled by stagehands (something you wouldn't think would work but it does). I also happened to like the hydroelectric dam that the Rhine Daughters frolic upon in their glad rags. It's a powerful, potent image that evokes great masses of water and was, at the time, a relief from the usual dark green rocky riverbed with 3 middle-aged singers attempting to allure by waving their arms and jumping around all over the place. These 3 prostitute daughters are more dignified than that, and therefore sing more in-tune than the usual lot.
Boulez is a swift Wagnerian, occasionally a bit glib, but he doesn't gloss over the profound bits, he simply eschews lingering in the often somnolent manner of James Levine.
Having seen this film again 30 years after the tv broadcast I have to say that I wouldn't spend the money on the dvds. What I did instead was to go to Ebay and snag an original un-opened set of the lps that came in that red and black cardboard carrying case just before the era of the cd blew vinyl out of the stores. I think listening is the best way to experience this good performance as the production becomes more of an incumbrance, unlike the theater of my mind."
Read ALL of the ORIGINAL Amazon Reviews for this Chereau/Bou
Aanel Victoria | USA | 06/20/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Remember to read ALL of the original Amazon customer reviews for this DVD set. This new DG release is merely a re-release of the first 2001 DVD release by UMVD Labels. Please enjoy the 50 excellent and thoughtful reviews of this Chereau/Boulez Ring before you make your purchase decisions: Wagner - Der Ring des Nibelungen / Patrice Chéreau - Pierre Boulez, Bayreuth Festival (Complete Ring Cycle).
All in all, I'd say this Chereau/Boulez Ring is an excellent starter Ring -- the one which takes characters which look, sound, and act as they should, and tells a very relatable and human story that is easy to follow and super-easy to get wrapped-up in and mesmerized by."