Theorin, Samuil, Meier; Ryan, Grochowski, Kränzle, Petrenko; Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala Milan, Barenboim. Production: Cassiers. Arthaus Musik 101 696 (2 DVDs), 292 mins., subtitled
Guy Cassiers's Ring, a Scala–Staatsoper Unter den Linden coproduction, looks messy and pointless on Arthaus's video issues. A beyond-pretentious booklet note makes dramaturgical claims for the allusiveness and "lisibilité" of Enrico Bagnoli's video-saturated designs (Leopold of the Belgians, Joseph Conrad, a lurid sculpted frieze in Ghent, Gulf War coverage — enough said). Seen here as filmed by Patrizia Carmine, rather awkwardly for the television format, there is little visual power, but much confusion is transmitted. The sets' main pleasures come from Daniel Barenboim's architecturally disciplined if typically stately work with the fine Scala orchestra, its strings and brass differently sonorous than Bayreuth or Met forces.
Siegfried comes from October 2012. The bad news is that Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's omnipresent dancers, who helped torpedo Das Rheingold, are back in force. More bad news: Canadian tenor Lance Ryan (Siegfried) makes a steady diet of Tannhaüser, Énée and other Unsingable Guys; he sounds like it too — one never feels he won't stay the course. But who wants to endure such a dry, nasal, undistinguished sound for so many hours? (He puts Boulez's lumpen but vocally tolerable Bayreuth Siegfried into perspective.) That Brünnhilde could not recognize his cawing tone when he is disguised as Gunther challenges credibility. Tim von Steenbergen has decked Ryan out in the all-purpose black-leather rock-star duds — yes, with dyed Fabio hair — that so many costumers today seem to equate with the word "tenor." Scowling seems to be part of his voice production, and his eyes frequently seek out Barenboim's baton.
In Siegfried, Peter Bronder takes over as Mime from DasRheingold's Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, proving very accomplished, though Ryan's singing and Terje Stensvold's tired-sounding Wanderer allow but little enjoyment in Act I. The supporting cast and orchestra bring Act II to a higher level vocally. Fafner — Timo Riihonen in Rheingold — gets replaced by the steadier-voiced Alexander Tsymbalyuk, and Rinnat Moriah sounds bright and lovely as the Woodbird. The hero of this whole Ring may well be its Alberich, the sonorous and vivid Johannes Martin Kränzle. Sometimes the camera work makes it hard to judge how Cassiers staged particular scenes: Anna Larsson's worthy Erda is superimposed by means of a second camera for her scene with Stensvold, vocally nearing exhaustion. Fortunately, Nina Stemme continues from Die Walküre as Brünnhilde and, despite some awkward close-ups and her unpleasing duet partner, upholds her Wagnerian reputation with style and a free, ringing top.
Götterdämmerung was filmed in 2013. Ryan remains distressing as Siegfried, but Brünnhilde is now Iréne Theorin. Their Prologue duet finds Ryan in particularly unattractive voice. Theorin makes a sound of a different caliber, though the bottom of her soprano sounds occluded as things get going. Hemmed in by an awful dress and unflattering makeup — evoking Albin from Cage aux Folles playing Bianca Castafiore — Theorin does what she can, and she's a reliable, idiomatic interpreter. Her voice grows in steadiness and appeal for the rigors and splendors of Act II. If she is neither Nilsson vocally nor Jones or Behrens dramatically, Theorin provides dignity and the great role's vocal scope, rising (as does the orchestra) to the immolation with considerable distinction. Other holdovers from the previous "evening" are Kränzle's Alberich, superb in his one haunting scene, and two of the satisfying Rhinemaidens (Aga Mikolaj's Woglinde and Maria Gortsevskaya's Wellgunde; Anna Lapkovskaja supplants Marina Prudenskaya as Flosshilde).
Anna Samuil, Freia in 2011, here takes on the Third Norn and that tricky part, Gutrune; neither succeeds stylistically or vocally. In the first assignment — next to the plaintive-timbred Margarita Nekrasova (First Norn) and luxury-cast Waltraud Meier (Second Norn), Samuil sounds brittle and edgy in a part usually awarded to a future Brünnhilde. Gutrune starts the evening with her head in the lap of Gunther (Gerd Grochowski) and — wearing a bear-print dress that evokes Fanciulla's Nina Micheltorena — is directed into a gauche characterization, smiling with coy banality and sounding more like Musetta. With Meier — whose Waltraute, if tonally variable, remains a riveting, complete portrayal — the handsome Grochowski is the sole principal flattered by close-ups. As is often the case, he's been cast a bit beyond his vocal range (lyric bass), but at least he phrases German effectively, unlike his onstage sister and half-brother. Mikhail Petrenko certainly projects a character as Hagen. His brand of detached-from-colleagues facial mugging suits the scheming loner in picturesque ways; but isn't it time for the bass-baritone, so often cast in Wagner these days, to bring his sung German up to international grade? His bass-baritone lacks the traditional resonance on either end of Hagen's music; perhaps to compensate, he whispers many lines stagily and overindulges in parlando. This may have been an interesting approach in the theater — Petrenko, like Grochowski, figures in the reflex European critical pantheon — but it doesn't consistently read well on video. What is clear about Cassiers and Bagnoli's work is that it's genuinely ugly almost throughout, though an occasional green or fire-red lighting effect strikes home. The ruinous dancers appear in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung as the Tarnhelm, ravishing Brünnhilde in a group grope as Siegfried stands apart. One might want to sample the two Brünnhildes' scenes and Kränzle's fine Alberich; but approach this whole enterprise with caution.
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