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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

DVD Review: Battle for the Radioactive Donut

Der Ring des Nibelungen from Valencia, with La Fura dels Baus.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Rhinegold appears in the form of a large baby in La Fura del Baus' staging of Wagner's Ring.
Photo © 2009 © Unitel Classics.
This 2009 Unitel release of the complete Ring, filmed in 2008 in Valencia, Spain under the baton of Zubin Mehta is a compelling, visually arresting, and best of all, well-sung version of Wagner's mythological cycle. It should appeal to Wagnerians who want to hear the next generation of singers, and those curious opera-lovers who want to see what a modern Ring looks like without stage machinery that goes "clunk."

This is not a traditional production. It incorporates dance, machinery, and digital projections. These last look fantastic on DVD: a centerpiece of this hyper-visual staging. But behind all the flash and java is a solid retelling of the myths, steered by Mr. Mehta's steady hand in the pit and Carlus Padrissa's innovative (but not intrusive) directorial ideas.

La Fura dels Baus is a Catalan theater troupe: kind of an Iberian answer to Cirque de Soleil. Here, their dancers serve as scenery, props, and even buildings, combining to form the gates of Valhalla in an astonishing image that ends Das Rheingold. The other key element of La Fura's staging is a set of eight digital projection monitors, that serve as the mountains, the Rhine river, and the flames as Götterdämmerung blazes to a close.

The digital projections (by visual artist Franc Aleu) serve as visual reminders throughout the cycle, accompanying Wagner's leitmotiv system of musical memory triggers. Mr. Aleu also incorporates cyberpunk concepts in this Ring. For example, Nibelheim (reached through the caldera of Mount Etna) is depicted as a complex, ever-spinning machine. The sword is a three-dimensional electronic idea, floating in cyberspace before it actually appears in the hand.

The Gibichungs appear as tattooed yakuza gangsters out of a William Gibson novel, more interested in the stock market than the affairs of Gods and Valkyries. Siegfried himself (Lance Ryan) is a grotty club kid with dreads, wolf skins and tattoos before the Gibichungs clean him up and get him a nice suit. Most disturbing is Hagen's call to the vassals: the mention of animal sacrifices to the Gods triggers an ocean of blood that would have pleased Stanley Kubrick.

But it's not all hi-tech. The Rhinemaidens appear in suspended glass aquarium tanks, big enough to swim in with real water. They "birth" a collection of golden fish-eggs, which Alberich collects and steals to forge the Ring. The Ring itself looks like the product of Homer Simpson's attempt to make donuts in the reactor core of Springfield Nuclear Power Plant.

Other ideas abound. Brunnhilde's magic fire is a group of dancers with torches. Wotan is accompanied in the later operasby a "forest" of dancers armed with long porcupine-like quills. Siegfried's corpse is carried out--through the theater itself, shattering the fourth wall.

Musically, this is a pretty solid cycle, with a mix of young singers and cagey veterans. Lance Ryan stands at the forefront, a steady Siegfried with a generally pleasing tenor that never shrieks or struggles. Jennifer Wilson is a formidable Brunnhilde, with a voice to match her imposing stage presence. She delivers her best performance in the second act of Götterdämmerung, making hay in the Vengeance Trio.

Peter Seiffert brings his veteran tenor to Siegmund, and Petra Maria Schnitzer is an ardent Sieglinde. Gerhard Siegel is an exceptional Mime. Juha Uusitalo dives headlong into Wotan, using his big  bass to good effect as the King of the Gods. With his low range and dark tone, the flautist turned bass-baritone gets better as the cycle goes on, rising to a mighty climax with "Wache, Wala!" in the last act of Siegfried.

Mr. Uusitalo shares the stage with Matti Salminen, the king of Finnish basses. Mr. Salminen is in all four operas, playing Fafner, Hunding and Hagen over the course of the cycle. His once-huge instrument may have lost some of its luster, and he sings with some vibrato. But he can still pour on the power and rich black tone, and nobody in the operatic world looks as evil--even when he's just sitting there.

 Watch the Ride of the Valkyries above.

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