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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

DVD Review: Das Rheingold--When The Bough Breaks...

At the start of this Das Rheingold, Wotan (Falk Struckmann) appears on a mirror-black stage before the mighty World-Ash tree, and breaks off a branch to fashion into his spear. This act, which Wagner described (but did not stage) in Götterdämmerung starts what one might call an "environmental" Ring Cycle, a heavy-handed (though in some ways brilliant) staging of the operatic cycle in Barcelona, courtesy of German director Harry Kupfer.

Kupfer has staged multiple Rings in this same post-apocalyptic manner since 1988--his superb cycle for Bayreuth has just been released by Rhino DVD. So is this new Rheingold (filmed at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in 2004) worth the time taken to watch it? The answer is, yes, if only to see what new wrinkles have been added to his "comic books meet Mad Max" style. Here, the action of the opera is set before a gigantic grating that looks like a cross between the Met's Don Carlos and Disney's Tron. Much of the opera features the heavy roots of the World-Ash, and the journey to Nibelheim is down an enormous plastic mineshaft--emblematic of the violation of the natural order which is a central theme to this production.

In the pit, Bertrand de Billy gives a transparent, Boulez-style reading of the score that never lingers. He leads the Symphony Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu with a brisk, energetic style that is in keeping with this whole production's comic-book spirit.

Gunther von Kannen reprises his terrifying Alberich, his cavernous baritone is in good shape here. His opposite number Falk Struckmann--who sings well enough but seems eager to expose the character's vulnerabilities. We never get a chance to like this Wotan before quickly learning what a jerk he is. His fellow gods sing well, particularly Lioba Braun as Fricka and Andrea Bönig as Erda. In a marvelous twist, Erda does not pop out of the ground, but pulls Wotan down to her subterranean cavern to address him like some mad Versailles dowager.

Fasolt and Fafner brandish huge mechanical claw arms and catepillar treads like an operatic Transformer robot. But it's hard to love a robot, and where is the pathos in Fafner's transformation into a dragon if he starts the story as some kind of cyborg monster? Also, the singers seem "switched"--the harsher tones of Youn are better suited to Fafner. The more mellifluous, round-edged bass of Matthias Hölle would sound great singing Fasolt's "Freia" arietta in the second scene--something he did on the aforementioned Bayreuth version.

Loge can often make or break a Rheingold and Graham Clark is terrific. Here he puts a fresh, maniacal spin on the fire-god. ne expects him to burn the theater down with his nervous energy. It is his job to look the audience in the eye at the opera's close, pulling the curtain shut as the egotistical Gods ascend into their new home, strewing confetti and glitter on themselves as they proceed to their eventual doom.

Photos: (top) Falk Struckmann (center, with spear) directs traffic in a post-Apocalyptic Das Rheingold.
(bottom) Wotan (Falk Struckmann) is menaced by Fricka (Lioba Braun).
© 2005 Antonio Bofill/Opus Arte.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.