Der Ring des Nibelungen.
Palau de les Arts, Valencia, 2007-09
I saw this astonishing production of Wagner's Ring cycle by La Fura dels Baus last year, and was much looking forward to its release on DVD. Marketed as a Ring for the 21st century, it was remarkable for its arresting mix of techniques--from state-of-the-art video projections to Cirque de Soleil-type acrobatics--to create one of the most engrossing stagings of Wagner's epic I have seen. There's a freshness in look and feel that sets this production apart, although despite its cutting-edge theatricality and the otherworldly distinctiveness of its design, it's faithful to Wagner's text and stage directions. Even the flora and fauna are pretty well all in place. You see the wood piling up around Valhalla, as Waltraute describes it in to Brunnhilde in Gotterdammerung, for example, and Wotan's two ravens are on hand to witness Siegfried's death.
La Fura's Carlus Padrissa, credited as stage director though really the prime mover of a large creative team, devised a Ring driven by often-spectacular special effects that tell the story in a big-picture kind of way. Thematically, the production was touted as being about man's suicidal degradation of nature. If the working out of that through the design and characterization weren't as detailed as it might have been, the staging was always thought-provoking.
These DVDs do not document the complete cycles performed in Valencia last year. Das Rheingold and Die Walkure were recorded when first mounted in 2007, and Gotterdammerung in 2008. Siegfried was recorded in 2008, with selected scenes reshot in 2009. The reshoot was to capture B.C.-born Lance Ryan in the title role. Though not well known in his native Canada, Ryan has been much in demand in Europe over the past few seasons in the heroic tenor repertoire. This summer, he makes his Bayreuth debut as Siegfried, the first Canadian to sing the role there.
I wondered how well La Fura's complex staging would transfer to DVD, and the results, I think, are mixed. Medium and long shots capture some of the effects very well--the lovely Valhalla made up of a network of hanging acrobats at the end of Das Rheingold, for example, which slowly encircles the gods in the music's final bars--but much of the big picture is lost in the close-ups. Moreover, the editing tends to favor fast-paced sequences, which can lead to visual confusion. Too often, we only see bits and pieces of what's happening on stage (or on the stage video screens). Superimposing multiple images doesn't help. There are other parts where the video direction--credited to Tiziano and Davide Mancini--is so artful that it doesn't look like a stage performance at all. Look, for example, at the Siegfried/ Brunnhilde duet at the end of Siegfried. The two singers are so carefully positioned, mainly in close-up, against contrasting shapes and colors of details of the scenery that it all comes over like a sequence of brightly colored panels in a comic book. Effective in its way, the video direction here nonetheless calls too much attention to itself at the expense of La Fura's production. In this age of HD movie transmissions, opera videos are increasingly more about the people calling the camera shots and editing the results than about stage directors.
Musically, this release has much to recommend it. I went first to that Act III duet between Ryan and American soprano Jennifer Wilson because, live, it struck me as one of the best accounts of this passionate music I've heard. The video confirms that impression. Relatively new to these roles, they don't yet inhabit their characters. But both have powerful voices, fulsome tone and a ping to the tops that makes for some thrilling vocalizing. They're in heavy, severe makeup, and the elaborate costumes don't do either any favors, but the evolution of this relationship is convincing. I'm not a fan of Zubin Mehta's conducting, which I find too slow. But while, for example, languorous tempi put a damper on the Siegmund/Sieglinde duet at the end of Act I of Die Walkure, he seems to get it right in Siegfried. Things heat up as the attraction between Siegfried and Brunnhilde grows, and moves inexorably to a gloriously passionate ending. The youthful but skillful Orquestra de la Cumunitat Valenciana is also key to the success here, and proves a major asset throughout.
As Siegmund and Sieglinde, Peter Seiffert and Petra Maria Schnitzer are adequate, though he sounds a little strained on top while her voice strikes me as a size too heavy for the role. (Presenting Sieglinde as a feral creature tied up like an animal in Hunding's hut is as disturbing on video as it was live.) The cycle's other brother/sister couple is well delineated vocally and dramatically by Ralf Lukas (Gunther) and Elisabete Matos (Gutrune).
By now, Juha Uusitalo counts as one of the leading interpreters of Wotan/the Wanderer. It's a richly voiced characterization, with both the declamation and more lyrical elements well projected. Uusitalo's main fault is a tendency to fall into a stand-and-deliver style that can rob his stage persona of interest. The impression is only accentuated when he's alongside more accomplished singer-actors such as John Daszak (Loge) or Gerhard Siegel (Mime). Franz-Josef Kappellmann's Alberich, too, suffers from a rather stolid stage demeanor. Other notable performances include both Erdas (Christa Mayer in Das Rheingold and Catherine Wyn-Rogers in Siegfried), a particularly eloquent Donner in Ilya Bannik (the sequence in which he clears the air with his hammer blow is well handled on stage and in the video) and Matti Salminen, still imposing and marvellously resonant, as Hunding, Hagen and Fasolt.
This is a welcome release, even it it doesn't fully convey the virtuosity of La Fura's staging. It's eclectic in look and feel--Chu Uroz's elaborate multimedia costumes are worth a study in themselves--but, as noted, sticks close to Wagner. If you want a sample before committing to the cycle, I'd recommend Siegfried, which will also give you a taste of Ryan and Wilson in splendid Wagnerian flight.