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Sunday, February 28, 2010

DVD Review: The Boulez Ring: Das Rheingold

Hang fire: Heinz Zednik as Loge in Das Rheingold
This is the opening opera of the famous 1976 "centennial" Ring, a collaboration between conductor Pierre Boulez and enfant terrible director Patrice Chéreau, filmed in 1980 at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. The first of many "high concept" Ring cycles at Bayreuth, this production moves the action to Wagner's own lifetime and stages the work as a struggle between the oppressed working class (the Nibelungs) and the patrician Gods who are moving into their new manor house (Valhalla) among a bevy of suitcases and hat-boxes.

Donald McIntyre plays Wotan as an embodiment of Wagner himself. It's all there: the majestic shock of grey hair, the penchant for silk dressing gowns and the tendency to destroy everything and everyone in his path. The voice is all there too, with mellow rich tones that momentarily put the listener under his sway.

Throughout, the New Zealand-born bass is a terrific actor as well as a commanding vocal presence, conveying the angst and guilt that consumes the King of the Gods as his wheelings and dealings fall apart. The moment where he takes the Ring (by literally hacking off the finger of Alberich, played by Hermann Becht) is chilling.

On this DVD (and throughout the Chéreau Ring) there is a greater emphasis on acting than vocal ability. However there are standouts. Hanna Schwarz sings the first of her many recorded outings as Fricka. Also among the Gods is future heldentenor Siegfried Jerusalem as Froh.

His performances as his namesake would become a Bayreuth staple. Heinz Zednik (who would go on to play Mime opposite Jerusalem) is an interesting choice as Loge, the "disreputable uncle" in this very dysfunctional family. His is an intelligent performance that brings much-needed panache to the goings-on. Finally, a young Matti Salminen is an excellent Fasolt, paired with the gruff Fafner of Fritz Hübner.

From the opening scene (staged with the Rhine held back by a giant hydroelectric dam), Pierre Boulez conducts a light-footed, idiosyncratic performance of the score. Boulez' steady approach keeps a foot on the acceerator so that certain momments (the revalation of the Rhinegold, the Giants' entrance) seem to flash by. Under his baton, some beautiful details and textures of the score reveal themselves, helped by the perfect acoustics of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. This is an essential document for Wagner lovers and one that must be seen to understand the growth of opera staging in the late 20th century.

The Gods enter Valhalla
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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.