Saturday, March 25, 2006

March 25: Rheingold Day

Tonight the Washington Opera premieres its much awaited production of Das Rheingold, the work which kicks off the company's first staging of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung. While we wait for the critical word on what this "American Ring" is like, I thought that I would report on the new DVD from Unitel of the Daniel Barenboim Harry Kupfer Bayreuth production of this opera. The production was filmed in widescreen in 1991, three years after its controversial premiere at the Festspielhaus.

In Kupfer's vision, the Ring is just another tale of greed that we have all seen before but which deserves to be retold over and over again. To this end, the opera begins in silence on a barren, foggy empty road as enigmatic characters wearing trench coats and fedoras are looking at a corpse. An obvious conclusion to some sordid story we may never get to know. As these characters disperse the lights dim to total darkness, and we hear the familiar E flat chord that begins the work. Suddenly the stage fills with green beams of laser lights which will swell and eventually imitate the watery surface of the Rhine. The laser allows for some nifty tricks making the Rhinemaidens and Alberich seem as if they are really under water.

The Gods in the second scene are all dressed in Great Gatsby style, and they all carry empty see-through Plexiglas suitcases (I guess that this newly built Valhalla of the future has plans of becoming a clothes-optional playground). The giants, Fasolt and Fafner, are giant behemoths with microcephalic sized heads. In the Nibelheim scene, Mime, wearing a lab coat, works in a laboratory, and at the end of the opera Wotan and the rest of his gang get onboard a rainbow elevator to go up to their penthouse in the sky.

This production was the target of very harsh criticism back in 1988. When directors tamper with Wagner (as they often do) a sizable part of the audience takes it as an insult: almost as if they thought that the work of the Master was being desecrated. This explains the booing that often occurs at Bayreuth and everywhere else where the management tries to forge new ground despite a decidedly conservative audience.

The DVD is definitely worth getting. The production, despite its eccentricities, is well directed and creates an unforgettable world. The performance by Graham Clark as Loge is delicious; check out the way he does jumping jacks to warm up just before he has to confront the giants. His blond wig and black floor-length leather coat makes him look like Mike Myers' German host Dieter on Saturday Night Life. Not far behind him is the Wotan of John Tomlinson who looks more disreputable than any god in any mythology has a right to be. The rest of the cast is strong, and they all ham it up to the hilt, especially G√ľnter von Kannen as Alberich who appears to have prepared for his part by studying villains in silent films.

Daniel Barenboim's conducting is solid and exciting, and the sound on this DVD is wonderful. You'll enjoy the sound field on the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track, but for a cleaner, more exciting experience listen to it on DTS 5.1 Surround, if your equipment can decode it. You'll be blown away by it!

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