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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 7, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 49
Bayreuth in Blu-ray
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Bayreuth in Blu-ray

A Ring cycle from 1992 gets a marvelous video update

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

WAGNER: DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN
BAYREUTH FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA
Kultur Video


Back in the early '90s, a group of friends and I rented LaserDiscs (the predecessor of DVDs) from Scarecrow Video to watch Wagner's Ring cycle of four operas. It was a production at Bayreuth by Harry Kupfer, conducted by Daniel Barenboim. The cast was uniformly excellent for the period, and there was much buzz about the extensive use of lasers to create lighting effects. (I later saw the same team of Kupfer/Barenboim, minus the lasers, live in Berlin when all ten of Wagner's mature operas were presented at the Staatsoper.) But those discs were far from high-definition as we know it today, and the laser beams in particular did not come across well at all.

But the re-release of that same 1992 Ring production, updated to true HD video and sound, sheds an entirely new light on this show. These Blu-ray discs, seen and heard on a state-of-the-art home theater system, allow one to see at last what all the fuss was about. In Das Rheingold in particular, sheets of slime-green laser light cover the floor of the whole stage, thus hiding holes and stairways in and under that floor. Thus, when a singer pops his/her head up through the sheet of light, it does indeed look like something emerging from water - effective visual magic as the Rheinmaidens tease Alberich.

MUSIC, SINGING EXCELLENT
Overall, the production has much to recommend it. The sound of the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra (mainly members of the Vienna Philharmonic) is glorious, even if it does lack the ultimate dynamic range of, say, the Valencia Ring Blu-rays. The singing is generally outstanding, with top praises to John Tomlinson as Wotan, Siegfried Jerusalem in his prime as Siegfried, and vocally spectacular Philip Kang as Hagen. Indeed, the forging scene in Siegfried is the best overall that I have ever seen or heard. Anne Evans as Brünnhilde is more than adequate but lacks the power in the middle range to be truly effective. She visibly prepares for almost every high note, often taking a breath just before hitting it.

Visually, the highlight was the second act of Siegfried with the most interesting set and a decent dragon, even if the camera was too close in to give a real sense of its total effect. Otherwise, the sets tended to dark metal and black stone - grim, and a little boring. Lasers were used effectively in Gotterdämmerung and whenever the Rhein River returned.

The biggest drawback of this video is the acting. Perhaps the audience in the Festspielhaus was far enough away to lessen the effect, but to us watching the hi-def video, it was so overdone that it provoked laughter. Somehow the exaggerated motions seemed more natural and integrated in Jerusalem's acting. The one place where it fit perfectly was in the portrayal of Mime by Graham Clark, who almost always overacts, no matter what role he's singing. He made Mime a tour de force, lacking any depth but irresistibly fun to watch.

TOO MANY GIMMICKS
Modern 'concept' Rings almost always have some elements that don't seem to make sense. Here were the Norms in a forest of TV antennas, dressed like Death in Bergman's The Seventh Seal complete with white-face makeup. At first they seemed to be nuns in black habits, counting beads on the 'rope of destiny'! Kupfer is not above changing the story, despite what the libretto says. (In Berlin he changed the ending of Lohengrin so Eva's brother never returns and the swan is dead and bloody.) Here, the glory of the music that closes the four-night Ring cycle is totally robbed of any exaltation by modern-dress members of a cocktail party carrying onto the stage many TV sets, which they watch with blasé expressions as they drink their champagne. If there is any meaning to Brünnhilde's immolation, they certainly don't get it.

The other main drawback, to my tastes, is the complete lack of any sense of what it's like to actually attend a live Ring cycle. These performances were apparently not filmed live. You never see or hear the audience or the conductor. There are no curtain calls. I've been to many Rings; it's always a big occasion. Most more recent Ring videos (such as at Valencia and the Met Opera) are recorded live and convey an added excitement as a direct result. I missed that here.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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