Samuil, Soffel, Larsson; Rügamer, Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Jentzsch, Kränzle, Buchwald, Pape, Youn, Riihonen; Teatro alla Scala Chorus and Orchestra, Barenboim. Production: Cassiers. ArtHaus Musik 101 695, 163 mins., subtitled
The most impressive element of this 2011 filming of the first installment of the recently completed Guy Cassiers Ring is not the Belgian director's overbusy, video- and dance-laden production but the musical side under Daniel Barenboim. In the opera house, Wagner is by a huge margin the conductor's best fach; keeping very tight control of dynamics, he draws a more than usually propulsive reading from the fine orchestra, though tension lessens after Alberich's curse.
The cast is relatively strong, too. René Pape has also been recording Wotan for the Mariinsky's slipshod ongoing CD Ring. Here he looks dour, detached; loud high notes can be effortful, but his singing is highly attractive. Classy mezzo Doris Soffel remains a handsome Fricka with a solid technique and refined, expressive musicianship; one wishes her busy career had brought her more frequently to North America. Stephan Rügamer, as Loge, is a relatively lyrical Spieltenor, suiting his music well; both verbal delivery and facial expression get nuanced treatment. Anna Samuil's blonded Freia works a strapless off-the-shoulder gown, dealing capably with her less-than-grateful music. Anna Larsson — rising above the stage — makes an impression as Erda. As is so often the case, Donner (Jan Buchwald) and Froh (Marco Jentzsch) look ridiculous; neither singer compels much interest vocally. No Valhalla finally welcomes the immortals. There is nothing supernatural about Johannes Martin Kränzle's Alberich, an aging working-class guy with aspirations and a scar-extended Joker-like mouth; not possessed of the darkest, most powerful baritone, Kränzle works with color and verbal point. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke's slightly campy Mime also offers much detail, singing more than some artists have done in this role. The giants — doubled effectively by huge shadows behind an upstage scrim — are Kwangchul Youn, idiomatic, attractive of timbre and dignified as Fasolt, and the truly giant Timo Riihonen, whose Fafner is reminiscent of his countryman Matti Salminen, albeit with some pitch uncertainty. Less sharp verbal articulation but very alluring sounds issue from the attractive, all-Slavic Rhinemaidens (Aga Mikolaj, Maria Gortsevskaya, Marina Prudenskaya).
The stage is usually dark and ugly. The Rhine scene suffers from an excess of greenish video projection (river waves and giant blowups of the singers' faces included). The gold — again, a projection — looks like a huge ingot, under some actual water. Half-naked ballet dancers doing Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's lamentable Jazzercise choreography inexplicably cavort with the Rhinemaidens after the dwarf steals his prize, until the fancily dressed gods — fully awake, despite the text, and looking a bit like Wagners — start singing. Even then, the dancers do not disappear; rather, doubling the singers, they prove a constant distraction. Their writhing throughout — the descent to Nibelheim evokes the Venusberg, and they also embody the Tarnhelm — proves a substantial demerit. Did Cassiers think Milanese audiences needed sexy flesh to endure two and a half hours of Wagner?
One post-production quibble: why must any music be played over the opening titles before the performance begins? Given this work's famous E-flat-major chord opening, that's just a mistake, especially when the chosen "soundtrack" is a collection of snippets from the entire opera, up through the Nibelung hammers — an inspiration too wonderful to spoil for first-time Rheingold listeners.
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