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Monday, January 10, 2011

DVD Review: The Horror of Das Rheingold

Part One of the Copenhagen Ring.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Danny Olsen as the swimming title character in Das Rheingold. 
Photo by Martin Mydstkov © 2006 Royal Danish Opera/Decca
In a world where opera companies fall over themselves to stage Wagner's four-part Der Ring des Nibelungen, it is rare to see a new production that actually has something valid to say. If this  Das Rheingold (filmed at the Royal Danish Opera in 2006) is any indication, director Kasper Bech Holten may have accomplished this difficult feat with his Copenhagen Ring, available on DVD from Decca. He stands on the shoulders of directors who have come before (particularly Patrice Chéreau and Harry Kupfer) but fuses these theatrical ideas into a new, exciting whole to make an impressive start to this Ring.



Holten stages the "preliminary evening" of the Ring as an extended flashback, framed by Brunnhilde (Iréne Thorin) going through the old Valhalla family albums in a dusty attic. She discovers that her father was a vicious, sadistic murderer who would stop at nothing to pursue power. This of course is Wotan, played by resonant bass-baritone Johan Reuter. It is his quest for the Ring, and his cruel treatment of Alberich (Sten Byriel) that stands at the bloody heart of this production.

For his part, Mr. Byriel's Alberich is the best performance here. The dwarf is re-imagined as a disfigured, doddering old family uncle, drinking alcohol in a pool with three flapping floozies--the Rhinemaidens. He sings with a fine, dark baritone, never resorting to growls or barks in place of singing. The Rhinegold is portrayed by a studly young swimmer (Danny Olsen) whose heart is literally torn out to forge the ring--a process that leaves Alberich with deep burn marks on his arm.

Scene II finds Wagner's gods bivouacked in tents, surrounded by suitcases. Fasolt and Fafner are two blue-collar builders (with Fafner (Christian Christiansen) confined to a wheelchair, probably due to some Valhalla-related industrial accident) with a genuine beef with a boss who doesn't want to fork over their "wage." The production plays up the sexual attraction between Freia (Anne Margrethe Dahl) and Fasolt, (Stephen Milling), with the nature goddess toying with the burly worker. Mr. Reuter's Wotan has the whiff of an African explorer who just got back from a blood-drenched safari on the dark continent.
Alberich (Sten Byriel) captured by Wotan in Das Rheingold
Photo by Martin Mydstkov © 2006 Royal Danish Opera/Decca
The idea of Wotan mutilating Alberich to get the ring started in 1976 at Bayreuth, when Mr.  Chéreau introduced the idea in his "Centenary" staging . Mr. Holten ups the gore factor, staging Wotan and Loge's theft of the ring, Tarnhelm and treasure in a white-tiled torture chamber worthy of the Saw movies. After Alberich is tied and spread-eagled. Wotan literally takes a carving knife and hacks off his arm, leaving the bloody stump dangling and covering himself in blood. This is powerful and disturbing stuff.

Loge (the excellent Michael Kristensen) is a chain-smoking hard-drinking newspaperman, the only one of the Gods willing to work for a living. Small wonder then that the whole tragedy ends with his murder by Wotan. (He's seen too much.) Mr. Reuter and Mr. Kristensen made this final killing an epitaph for this dark, brilliant Rheingold all the more chilling because it was casually and cruelly done. As his body slumps to the stage, the Gods rise on a scaffolding, up their new skyscraper. Again, this is a borrowed idea, but in this context it works very well.
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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.