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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

DVD Review: No Glove, No Love

Daniel Barenboim conducts the La Scala Das Rheingold.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A game of thrones: Johannes Martin Kränzle as Alberich in Das Rheingold.
Photo by Koen Broos © 2013 La Scala ArtHaus Musik.
(This is a repost in anticipation of forthcoming reviews of the rest of this Ring  later this week.)

There are a lot of familiar theatrical ideas at work in this Das Rheingold, a DVD issue of the 2010 La Scala production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. Digital back projections, dancers serving as scenery (and occasionally, props and furniture) and little square pools of water onstage for the singers to splash in are not new. However, director Guy Cassiers succeeds in combining all these elements to present the "preliminary evening" of the Ring in a fresh and intelligent way. With an emphasis on acting and singing over technology and spectacle, this is a production for these economically uncertain times.

Daniel Barenboim draws a burly, very un-Italianate sound from the orchestra, with rich brass and details brought out in the key scene transitions. The only maddening thing for the purist is the conductor's tendency to slow the orchestra in certain passages (the entry of the giants is one example). These ritordandi are invariably followed by sudden accelerations, a frustrating and long-standing characteristic of this conductor's approach to Wagner. In the final bars, the cameras leave the stage picture and return to Mr. Barenboim, looking exhausted and satisfied in the pit.

This Das Rheingold takes place on a single unit set (by Enrico Bagnoli) spartan and effective in that it does not distract from the drama as it plays out. A huge projection wall shows ripples and patterns of light for the actors to move against, shifting from the waters of the Rhine to the grassy, rocky heights of Valhalla. The projections (by the team of Arjen Klerkx and Kurt D'Haaseleer) are never of any definite image, but serve to establish mood and tone. Nibelheim is a mechanized hell, represented by a large steel rig that descends from above. As the actors sing, their lines are accompanied by the movements of the dance troupe (the choreography is by  Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui) serving as an added, visual enhancement. This could potentially be a distraction but here it works: a simple elegant idea that generally serves the opera well.

Mr. Cassiers seems most interested in Alberich, the love-struck gnome who steals the Rhinegold and forges the Ring, setting the plot of the operas in motion. Johannes Martin Kränzle sings with harsh, biting tone in this role, unlovely but expressive. Disfigured facial scarring (that resembles the makeup for Heath Ledger's interpretation of the Joker in The Dark Knight) Mr. Kränzle proves a memorable villain, snarling at the world from a Nibelheim throne (made of dancers' bodies) and wielding the Ring without mercy--mostly for the purpose of abusing his hapless brother Mime (Wolfgang Alblicher-Speerhacke.) When Wotan seizes the Ring, Mr. Kränzle is at his most impressive, growling through the curse that follows.

The biggest star in this cast is René Pape, who has graduated from the smaller Wagner roles to become a Wotan for this new decade. Mr. Pape's deep, rich delivery and onstage focus give much needed nobility to the wheeler-dealer king of the gods and the reassuring, muscular tone (he is a bass, not a baritone) fools the listener think that it might be a good idea to have this guy in charge of world affairs. (His distressed, moldy suit indicates otherwise.) This is a fine, noble performance--until Mr. Pape gets the Ring. (In this production, it is a glittering, mailed gauntlet that might have once belonged to Michael Jackson.) As he slips on the Glove of Power, the singer does something with his facial muscles to make his eyes bulge, indicating that Wotan is corrupted and ultimately doomed.

Watch an excerpt from Das Rheingold.
Footage © 2013 La Scala/ArtHaus Musik

The bass Kwangchal Youn plays Fasolt with sonorous tone and genuine passion. One of the highlights of this performance (and this score) is Mr. Youn's lengthy address to Wotan, an almost-aria where the giant expresses his passion for Freia. As Fafner, the more materialistic of the two brothers, bass Timo Rihonen projects genuine menace. Both giants are accompanied by looming shadows that give the impression of huge z size and menace without forcing the actors to walk around on stilts or wear unwieldly costumes. In fact, this might be the first Ring where the black-clad giants are dressed better than the gods.

As Loge, tenor Stephan Rügamer handles much of the plot's exposition and navigates the trickster god's  music with the sensitivity of a lieder singer. This approach is most evident in his long narration in Act II and his elegant, floated notes in the scene where the gods grow old. He is also compelling in his scene with Mime.  Jan Buchwald (looking remarkably like the heldentenor Johan Botha, is a potent Donner with a lower registe that srrves him well in his summoning of the rainbow bridge. Marco Jentzch is Froh, the role usually reserved to try out singers who may be on their way to bigger and better tings.

The power-obsessed world of Das Rheingold is dominated by its male leads. However, Doris Soffel is a stern, compelling Fricka, and sopramo Anna Samuill an appropriaely ditressed Freia. Anna Larsson revives her rich, dark-hued Erda (her entrance at the tip of an enormous, rocky phallus is one of this show's more striking moments) and there is a strong trio of Rhinemaidens: Aga Mikolaj, Maria Gortsevskaya and Maria Prudenskaya are each excellent in the opening and closing scenes of the opera, partially because they do not have to wear fish-costumes or flail about in mid-air.
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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.