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Tuesday, October 2, 2007

DVD Review: It's All About the Pants

The 1995 Bayreuth Götterdämmerung.
Mother Courage: Deborah Polaski as Brunnhilde. Image © 1995 Unitel.
A minor chapter in the history of Wagner Ring cycles at Bayreuth has finally arrived on DVD: a performance of Götterdämmerung from the infamous 1995 production of the Ring cycle directed by Alfred Kirchner and designed by German fashionista Rosalie. (That's "Roh-zal-yah" by the way, not "Rosalie")

I had read about this strange production over a decade ago, and like most Wagnerians, was curious to see if it was actually as bad as I had heard it was. Happily, the verdict, at least as far as this 2-DVD Götterdämmerung is concerned, is that the production is less than a total disaster. That is to say, musically speaking, it's pretty good, with one glaring exception.

Luckily, this is Deborah Polaski's Brunnhilde at a vocal peak, before her big soprano voice began to suffer from a regular wobble. She sings beautifully in comparison to her Siegfried, (considering that it's Wolfgang Schmidt, that's not difficult) and tries to act through the onstage silliness. Her apotheosis won't make anyone forget Nilsson (or even Anne Evans) but she sings well enough.

Vocally, Schmidt is the primary culprit here, although compared to a 1997 performance at the Met he is in passable voice. (That's not a compliment.) His is a tight, compressed instrument, given to stentorian shouts and squally notes, with very little legato and no room for the voice to expand and blossom. It's interesting that after he drinks the love potion in Act I, his singing gets worse! This is one of those performances where the audience feels pretty good about Siegfried getting speared in the back.

With a bad tenor and worse designer, Hagen becomes the hero of the evening, ('cos he gets to kill Siegfried!) I am happy to say that Icelandic bass Erik Halfvarson gives an iconic performance as the spear-wielding party-loving Son-of-a-Nibelung. His resonant tones and rolled deep notes are a welcome distraction--almost enough to make you forget that he is wearing roller-derby shoulder-pads and a fetching half-leather full-length black skirt.

Unfortunately, no one thought to hire Hagen to put a hit on Rosalie. Her strange costume ideas include:
  • A metallic "fake muscle" chestpiece for Siegfried, worn under an electric-blue vest with paper pants. (Little Lord Fauntelroy in disposable clothing?) I'm not even going to mention the sword which looks like a gigantic delta-vee cheese-grater. Mangia parmagiana!
  • Brunnhilde, decked out in four-foot-wide silver "diet pants" topped by a blue and white plasticized, fake-nippled corset. (This accentuates Deborah Polaski's considerable physical assets, inspiring the title of this review--I couldn't stop laughing.)
  • A quilted nylon mattress pad/cloak for Gutrune, which predicts the exact shade of Christo and Jean Claude's "The Gates," ten years before that project launched.
  • A single bright orange accordion sleeve for Gunther that looks like it will zip out at any moment like an Extend-O-Glove and pop Hagen on the nose.
  • The three Norns, looking like the inspiration for the forest critters in M. Night Shyamalan's The Village. However, these costumes appear to be made from brightly-tinted bubble-wrap with over-long sleeves. Eek!
Falk Struckmann (who has since graduated to singing Wotan) is an excellent baritone and a solid actor when not encumbered by his costume. Anna Linden's Gutrune is more erratic than erotic (blame the quilt) and Waltraute is the ever-reliable Hanna Schwarz. The Bayreuth choral forces are able and willing, no matter how silly the production.

One wonders if the rest of this cycle is slated to be released on DVD, or if this was the only one of the four operas staged that summer to be deemed worthy of posterity. It's worth hearing for Halfvarson, Polaski, and James Levine's superb, if slow reading in the famous Bayreuth pit. Given some of the strange fashion choices made by designer Rosalie, the other three operas might be worth seeing, if only on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

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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.