The end of Das Rheingold. Image © Unitel/Naxos
This 2008 release of the complete Ring, filmed 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.
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 del Bas 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 even the cosmos 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 his Ring, and Nibelheim (found in the depths 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.
Lance Ryan (Siegfried) and Jennifer Wilson (Brunnhilde)
in the prologue to Götterdämmerung.
Image © Unitel/Naxos
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 Finnish bass to good effect as the King of the Gods. With his low range and dark tinge, he gets better as the cycle goes on, rising to a mighty climax with "Wache, Wala!" in the last act of Siegfried.
It may help Mr. Uusitalo's performance that he 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. Mr. Salminen's 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.
But don't take my word for it. Watch the Ride of the Valkyries above.