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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

DVD Review: The Golden Ring

It's Vagner Veek again at Superconductor, where the focus is almost exclusively on the music of the Meister of Bayreuth. No, there won't be a review of the Met's Tristan revival. (Illness made it impossible for us to attend the opening last night) but there will be articles, comments and other stuff that's more exciting than an ordinary opera review. Here goes....

The Golden Ring is a 90 minute black-and-white BBC documentary chronicling the recording of the first-ever studio Götterdämmerung in Vienna in 1964. Directed by Humphrey Burton, the movie captures the pressure and stress of opera in the studio, broken down into ten-minute segments and recorded ata breakneck pace. The sessions caught here were part of an eight-year project, during which the Decca engineers (led by John Culshaw) and the Vienna Philharmonic (led by a young Georg Solti) recorded the entirety of Wagner's Ring cycle for release in stereo. (Rheingold was recorded in '58, Siegfried in '60. A 1966 Walküre completed the cycle.)

The Solti Ring, as it is known to collectors, is considered to be one of the finest Wagner recordings--and one of the finest opera recordings--ever made. Working with the early stereo format, the engineers hung microphones over the recording space and moved the singers around on the stage, panning their voices to the left and to the right. Vocal effects and audio effects allowed the engineers, using analog equipment, to create a "theater of the mind" that would give the listener the illusion of experiencing the events of the opera in a different way than one would in the opera house. In addition to transforming voices through the use of distant microphones and isolation booths, Culshaw and company stuck closely to the letter of Wagner's work, using 18 tuned anvils, alphorn, lead blocks, and in Götterdämmerung, steer-horns to complete the aural illusion.

The documentary captures much of this frenzied activity. You sit in on orchestral rehearsals, watch the singers make "test" recordings, and then see the final, recorded performances. Birgit Nilsson (Brunnhilde) falls victim to a memorable practical joke. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau discusses the problems with Wagner the person versus Wagner the composer. We visit a cocktail party in the producers' apartment, built right above the studio.Solti (nicknamed the "Screaming Skull" during hiis Covent Garden tenure) yells at the Vienna Philharmonic. All that is very interesting, but the real glory here is the performance, with Gottlob Frick's black-voiced Hagen, Wolfgang Windgassen's experienced Siegfried, and Nilsson's indomitable Brunnhilde.

This is an important document, but the DVD release has two drawbacks. One is the poor source quality, a worn-out, damaged video tape that shows white lines and silver squiggles on the image. Worse yet is the sketchy mono sound which becomes scratchy when the orchestra kicks into full Wagnerian gear. If you want to hear these performances for real, get the recordings on LP or CD. But then, see this film--it is an interesting inside look at an era of opera recording long since passed.

Click here HERE to watch a clip from The Golden Ring--the scene where Birgit Nilsson gets pranked. Then watch her sing magnificently in the Immolation Scene from Götterdämmerung.

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