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That Amazing Wagner on the Flying Trapeze

available at Amazon
Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen, Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia,
La Fura dels Baus, Z. Mehta

(released on November 16, 2010)
Unitel Classica 703808 | 17h40 (with bonus films)

available at Amazon
M. Owen Lee, Wagner's Ring: Turning the Sky Round
A few years ago, I wrote about the outrageous and yet fascinating staging of the first half of Wagner's Ring cycle, by the Catalan acrobatic group La Fura dels Baus. Florence's Maggio Musicale Fiorentino hosted Das Rheingold and Die Walküre in 2007, but the entire cycle was debuted at the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, in Valencia, and all four operas were recorded there for this recently released DVD set. (Incredibly, it was reportedly the first complete Ring cycle ever staged in Spain.) The productions of all four operas complete the picture from the first two in 2007, creating together a Ring cycle of boundless visual imagination, fine singing (if not an entirely even cast), sure conducting with some unusual choices (from Zubin Mehta), and an interpretation that will probably not please some traditionalists but that yields interesting thoughts.

The acrobats of La Fura dels Baus, costumed as a masked crowd of automatons, serve dramatic functions throughout, from their roles as a bubbling mass of Rhinegold and the floating links of the Rainbow Bridge in the first opera, the bodies of the slain warriors in the second, to the shaggy bear that accompanies Siegfried into Mime's laboratory and the writhing orgy of naked bodies that envelops Brünnhilde when Siegfried, disguised as Gunther, seduces her. Stage director Carlus Padrissa casts the Rhinegold as a genitive material, spurting out like menstrual blood from the Rhinemaidens in the river. The Nibelungs use it, against nature, to create a race of enslaved clones, and Mime is costumed like a futuristic genetic researcher, trying to turn Siegfried, the real output of the master race, to his own ends. Wotan sees all too clearly how his fateful gamble in building Valhalla caused this monstrous experimentation -- cloning, genetic engineering, biometrics-based eugenics, any number of science-age anxieties could be named -- to be unleashed.

Unfortunately, the directorial team, as well as the author of the liner notes, sees the most important part of the interpretation as relating to "the suicidal degradation of nature by technological man" and the "decadence of this money-obsessed world." This is far less interesting than the topoi mentioned above, mostly because it has been done before (and better). Oddly, the capitalist and environmental themes come to the fore only in Götterdämmerung, where Siegfried's journey down the Rhine involves sweeping aside swirling piles of plastic bottles and other litter. Gunther, Hagen, and Gutrune are costumed as the idle rich consuming conspicuously, indicated heavy-handedly by yen, euro, and other currency symbols on their costumes. Siegfried, like some sort of noble savage, has to have his hair cut and his costume exchanged for glasses and a suit, before he can enter their hall.

The singing in the La Fura Ring continues to be generally excellent. Juha Uusitalo's shambling, mossy Wanderer is stentorian and cosmic in force, not so refined in German diction or tone quality but one never doubted his authority. As in Das Rheingold, the Erda of Catherine Wyn Rogers was outstanding, a regal vocal presence with commanding heights and an earthy chest voice. (She returns, unrecognizable, for an equally fine and dramatic turn as Waltraute in Götterdämmerung.) As Siegfried, Lance Ryan was a huge hulk of a man, in Mad Max dread locks and a costume of furs and bones (costume design by Chu Uroz), with a rough-hewn voice to match. One might complain of some low notes forced off pitch, perhaps the Canadian-inflected German, but never of the high notes, which had a nasal but puissant force. He certainly had to have stamina to survive the slow tempo of the forging scene taken by Mehta. Franz-Josef Kappellmann was a little worn as Alberich but otherwise convincing, while Gerhard Siegel's Mime was broad and sniveling.

Stephen Milling was a remarkably booming Fafner, with the right edge of pathos at his death scene, and Marina Zyatkova had a nice avian piping quality as the Woodbird, even while suspended in a winged harness, floating down from above the stage each time Siegfried hears her. After Fasolt in Das Rheingold, Matti Salminen makes a massive and shifty Hagen, although cracks are heard at the vocal edges in some places. Overall, Fairfax native Jennifer Wilson (a former member of the Washington Opera chorus) was an excellent Brünnhilde, with piercing but beautiful top notes and only a few intonation issues to mar a strong performance. Dramatically, however, she lacked a certain nobility, partly of the fault of the direction that put her in a ridiculous costume in the love scene of Götterdämmerung. With a body type that is perfectly acceptable at a distance in the hall, as can be seen in some of the wider shots on the DVD, Wilson should not have been filmed in so many closeups. This is one of the ongoing problems with the gravitation toward cinema simulcast by many opera houses in the last five years, to the detriment of the experience in the theater.

The overall effect of the staging, with its combination of acrobats floating on wires, huge video backdrop of stunning effects, and puppeteer-controlled flying scaffolds, is a feast for the eyes, although there are some surprising disappointments. You would expect the effect of Siegfried slicing the anvil in half, after the forging scene, to be extraordinary here, but it is not. Nor is the circular cage of flame, serving as the forge, all that impressive. This is made up for by other sequences, like the dragon, a segmented geometric worm manipulated by puppeteers, with lots of serpentine video sequences behind it. Also, at the beginning of the third act of Siegfried, Wotan is seen alone at the back of the stage, appearing to stride over mountain-scapes that roll under him. Likewise, images of earth viewed from space arise as Erda appears, hovering over the stage like a seated statue, with the base of the rolling platform she sits on concealed between two of the video screens (video design by Franc Aleu, sets by Roland Olbeter).

It is principally in Götterdämmerung that the staging's focus in the theme of genetic manipulation seems to fizzle out and the environmental, anti-capitalist theme regrettably takes over. This is a shame, since the climax of the cycle relies on a continuity of dramatic arc: the transgression leads to the world's destruction and subsequent rebirth. The Leitmotif that ends the Ring, heard as Brünnhilde gallops into the Rhine and destroys the ring, is a tune that only appears once before, in the third act of Die Walküre. Sieglinde sings it ("Oh hehrstes Wunder! Herrlichste Maid!") to Brünnhilde, praising her for saving her and her unborn child. The theme appears again, in the orchestra, "soaring quietly over the fire and water that have destroyed Wotan's world," as Fr. M. Owen Lee put it in his excellent book Wagner's Ring: Turning the Sky Round.
It will signify the transformation of Brünnhilde, Wotan's Wille, into what the whole of Wagner's Ring is striving to create -- a new world. There are many wonderful moments in Die Walküre, which is my own favorite of the four Ring dramas. But there seems to me no question that the greatest single moment in the cycle comes in the closing measures of Götterdämmerung, when that Brünnhilde theme sounds for the last time (p. 61)."
No staging, no matter how misinformed, could destroy the beauty and triumph of this redemptive moment. The Valencia Ring could have been greater than it is, but it still has much to recommend it. Sadly, the filming of the video is too cinematic by several degrees, showing too many closeups, odd angles (with moving cameras), and switching shots at an almost vertiginous pace, not allowing the viewer a real sense of the staging's grandeur. Having viewed half of the cycle in a theater, I had memories of the scope of the setting to keep me rooted in these rather spectacular scenes, with video panels often overwhelming the viewer. Someone experiencing only the video will not be so lucky.

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