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Thursday, April 21, 2011

DVD Review: A Handful of Dust

Die Walküre from Bayreuth, 2010
Star Wars: Episode III? No, it's Act III of the Tankred Dost Die Walküre, with Albert Dohmen as Wotan.
© 2010 Opus Arte. Image from the Bayreuth Festival.
This DVD of Die Walküre shot live in front of an audience at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus on August 12, 2010, is a fascinating visual record of the august Wagner Festival's most recent production of Wagner's Ring, directed by German theatrical auteur Tankred Dost.

Mr. Dost, who was an 11th-hour replacement for filmmaker Lars von Trier in 2006, presents the Ring as an environmental parable, in a world shattered by the aftereffects of industrialization. Act I is set in a ruined house, with a collapsed power-line mast doubling for Wagner's oak tree. The wild mountains are an abandoned statue factory, with ghostly shapes in the gloom providing an atmospheric background. Most effective is Brunnhilde's rock: a hewn-out quarry "guarded" by a small warning sign and yellow safety tape.

These grim settings (by Frank Philip Schoßmann) aren't much to look at, but they're no more bleak than past Bayreuth stagings by Patrice Chereau (1976), Harry Kupfer (1988), and Alfred Kirchner (1994). Mr. Dost fills his sets with some interesting ideas. Silent dancers portray Hunding's baying hound dogs and Fricka's ram-drawn chariot with elaborate masks. Wotan's long monologue features an avatar of himself as the Wanderer, mourning over his soon-to-be-broken spear. Act II is occasionally interrupted by a Bowery Boys-like gang of toughs who steal a bicycle and mug some hapless old man that happens to be wandering through the battlefield.

The costume designs, by Bernd Ernst Skozig evoke the worst excesses of Rosalie, the designer who dominated the Festival's 1994 Ring. Siegmund is in a sort of muu-muu made from animal hide. Sieglinde's white dress has puffy sleeves that would scare Jerry Seinfeld. Hunding is a neo-Fascist. Wotan is in dull grey, which fails to add excitement to Albert Dohmen's performance. The Valkyries come off the worst, decked out in geometric, quasi-Japanese armor in an eye-searing Star Trek red. (The wigs, in a matching neon of the same tint, are even worse.)

The singing is pretty good. Linda Watson has a big, unsubtle voice--a trait shared by many Brunnhildes of recent years. Her "Hojotoho" battle cries have one crossing the fingers, but she improves in the Annunciation of Death. Johan Botha might not be the most agile Siegmund, but his big, rich tenor is perfect for the part: steady even in the long passages of the Annunciation of Death, He is well matched with his Sieglinde, Edith Haller. She is particularly strong in the Act II nightmare, a scene that can be interminable with the wrong singing actress. Hunding is the sturdy Korean bass Kwanchal Youn, whose projection of menace recalls Philip Kang with a better voice.

The weak link here is Albert Dohmen as Wotan. It is understood that the singer had been recovering from an illness right before this was filmed. But judging from this pale, grey performance, Mr. Dohmen may not have been ready for the cameras. He looks and sounds tired, substituting resignation and depression for any bite and rage in his long monologue. He's a little better in Act III, but the character feels lost under the weight of his own mistakes. Maybe that was the idea, but the performance suffers under its own weight.

The best part of this Walküre is the performance you can't see. Christian Thielemann, working in the famous covered pit of the Festspielhaus, conducts a rich, sweeping performance that would be the envy of Barenboim or Levine. The German conductor has essentially become the house maestro for Bayreuth in recent years, and this is a good thing. Under his direction, the orchestra sings, surges and swells, and the singers are accompanied, but never overwhelmed.

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