Thursday 29 August 2013

Wagner - Das Rheingold

Richard Wagner - Das Rheingold

Teatro alla Scala, 2010

Daniel Barenboim, Guy Cassiers, René Pape, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Doris Soffel, Kwang Chulyoun, Timo Riihouen, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Stephan Rügamer, Jan Buchwald, Marco Jentzch, Anna Samuil, Anna Larsson, Aga Mikolaj, Maria Gortsevskaya, Marina Prudenskaya

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

The true musical merit and the importance of Das Rheingold is often underestimated or at least overlooked on account of its designation as merely the Prologue to the three parts proper of Wagner's epic Ring saga. For the public certainly it at least sets the tone for the grandeur and the admittedly greater dramatic and musical richness that can be found in the Die Walküre that follows, but I suspect it's treated with no less musical and conceptual rigour by the conductor and the director who embark on any new Ring cycle. Perhaps even more so, since it's important to establish from the outset what distinctive approach is going to be taken, and whether it can settle on the precise balance required that will propel the audience compellingly into this unique musical journey.

The first part of the new Teatro alla Scala Ring, created in 2010, fulfils that remit well, with Daniel Barenboim managing proceedings with precision and drive from the orchestra pit and director Guy Cassiers fulfilling all the requirements to establish a suitable tone that fully supports the work. With the assistance of choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, there may even be something of a distinct vision that offers a sense of the shape the subsequent parts of the tetralogy might take. I don't know what Wagner would have made of ballet being incorporated into Das Rheingold, but the Prologue of the Ring - the ultimate expression of the Gesamtkunstwerk - can use a little bit of extra spectacle and stage innovation to draw out those deeper premonitory resonances within the work.

The combination of the music interacting with the staging is at least superb during the opening scene. In the beginning there is nothing, just darkness, then there's the sense of water and life as the Rhinemaidens drift in an out of the shadows in response to the attentions of the Alberich. The sun eventually rises to bath the stage in shimmering gold at the same time as it dawns on the Niebelung goblin that he has something greater within his grasp more covetable than the three bathing beauties. The resonances of the gold, the power that it confers on the person who wields the ring made from it (the "ring" incidentally a shimmering glove here) and the outcome that it eventually holds for the gods is all there in the music and the force of it comes through in Barenboim's meticulous account of the work and in the performance of Johannes Martin Kränzle as Alberich.

It's also there in the background projections and in the contribution of the dancers in this production. In addition to the fine performance of the work on the surface level of the stage direction and the singing, the greater significance of what is being played out here is projected in abstract shimmering colours, textures and shadows on the background and in the movements of the dancers. On a straightforward level that means that there are giant-sized shadow counterparts for the giants Fasolt and Fafner, while the dancers meld together to form the Tarnhelm and its transformations, but the use of lighting, colours and abstract shimmering projections of water, rocks and gold also manage to convey a brooding mythological quality to the locations with premonitions of the dark consequences to the epic events that are about to unfold.

In Das Rheingold the more active roles in determining the direction of the drama are in the likes of Alberich, Loge and Fasolt, and these are indeed the performances that shine here. I wasn't sure that Johannes Martin Kränzle benevolent slightly comical appearance could carry off Alberich, even with the disturbing disfigurement of a "permanent smile" scar at the edges of his mouth, but he not only sings the role well, he also manages to convey the right impression and tone for each scene, from his achieving enlightenment in his renouncing love for power, through his tyranny over Mime, his pride in his invulnerability, to the agony of his loss of the ring to Wotan and Loge. Stephan Rügamer is a sprightly Loge, clever but cautious, a spring in his step and in his voice. Even though small in stature Kwang Chul Youn is nonetheless impressively capable of sounding much larger as the giant Fasolt. The use of shadowplay helps visualise the size and actions of the giants, but it's all there already in Kwang's performance.

The capabilities of Wotan and Fricke aren't tested here to the same extent that they are in Die Walküre, so both René Pape and Doris Soffel were fine if not quite outstanding in these roles. Pape doesn't always appear to be as comfortable or authoritative in the role of Wotan as he probably ought to be, but how well he eventually manages to fulfils the role and whether that uncertainty is part of his character's make-up should become apparent in the subsequent parts of the Ring. The remaining roles were also adequately performed, Timo Riihouen's Fafner in particular working well with Kwang's Fasolt and Anna Larsson making a suitably dramatic entrance and impact as Erda.

A BD25 disc might seem a little tight to cover an opera that is close to three hours long, but I detected no issues at all with the image or the sound. The transfer is stable and clear, handling dark scenes and all the textures and colouration of the background projections without any shimmer or flickering. The audio tracks are LPCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. There's no great benefit to the surround mix, which might even be a little bit too echoing even if it is mainly front-speaker based, but the stereo mix is strong, particularly when listened to through headphones. There are no extras on the disc, just an essay in the booklet that seems to have some rather high-flown ideas about the production. Subtitles are in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian and Korean.