|Hammer time: Vladimir de Kanel as Donner.|
This fascinating 1973 film of the first opera's of Wagner's Ring provides a window into another era of Wagner singing, while detailing Herbert von Karajan's lyric approach to the score. Intended as the first film of a complete cycle, Das Rheingold combines cinematic techniques and crude Star Trek-style special effects to give us a detailed version of the first night of the Ring in all its spear-carrying glory.
Although Thomas Stewart sang Wotan on Karajan's recordings of Die Walküre and Siegfried, he was replaced by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau for Das Rheingold. So this is the sole record of his collaboration with Karajan in this opera. Stewart is an imposing, noble Wotan, using his fine baritone to tremendous effect. The reliable Brigitte Fassbaender is solid, if unconventional casting for Fricka. The young Jeanine Altmeyer, who would later graduate to singing Sieglinde and Brunnhilde, is a good choice for Freia.
The greatest treasure in this performance is Peter Schreier, a Mozart and Bach specialist who dons the red leather suit to play Loge. His is the finest voice on display here and his entrance lifts the opera to the next energy level. It is also wonderful to have a visual record of Zoltan Kelemen, the Hungarian baritone who was one of the great Alberichs of the 1970s. Here, he is paired with character tenor Gerhard Stolze, whose harsh, grating Mime is all too familiar to owners of the classic Solti cycle or Karajan's underrated recording for Deutsche Grammophon.
The biggest flaw in this film is the decision to have two of the actors dubbed in the studio. Vladimir de Kanel is Donner, but the part is sung by Leif Roar and the lips do not match. This is especially noticeable at his entrance in Scene II. Also, Gerd Nienstedt's fine bass is dubbed by Karl Ridderbusch in the role of Fasolt. Karajan may have wanted a more lyric sound, but why didn't he just get Ridderbusch to appear in the film?
This is prime Karajan, conducting his crack Berlin Philharmonc in a razor-sharp performance. The strings are lyric, the horn players are everything they should be--even the percussion effects are stirring. Ever the control freak, Karajan also directs the film and the stage action, which is competent, but not brilliant or ground-breaking.It's all a little dated, but this is a compelling look at the way Wagner operas were done before Patrice Chereau's revolutionary Bayreuth Ring of 1976.