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Wagner: Der Ring Des Nibelungen / Boulez, Chéreau

Wagner / Bay / Boulez
Release Date: 10/11/2005 
Label:  Deutsche Grammophon   Catalog #: 000506209  
Composer:  Richard Wagner
Performer:  Fritz HübnerFranz MazuraDonald McIntyreSiegfried Jerusalem,   ... 
Conductor:  Pierre Boulez
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Number of Discs: 8 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

...still the most gripping, insightful and moving “Ring” on DVD... When this production, which used imagery of the Industrial Revolution to contextualize Wagner’s mythic tale, was introduced in 1976 for the centennial of the “Ring,” Mr. Chéreau’s staging struck many as brashly modern and outrageous. Looking back now, you’ll find it hard to remember what all the fuss was about.

-- Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times [11/20/2012]


When the Bayreuth Festival resumed in 1951, with Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner in charge, what audiences saw was radically different than before (and during) World War II. The stark, spare esthetic of the “New Read more Bayreuth” style reigned for 25 years, and served to strip away generations of creaky, rigid performing tradition and, frankly, to put some distance between the Wagner family and their recent Nazi enthusiasms. But in 1976, to commemorate the centenary of the Festival and the first performances of the complete Ring , Wolfgang—his brother had died in 1966—took the equally bold step of bringing in 31-year-old Patrice Chéreau as producer of a new cycle.

Chéreau, a progressive French stage and film director, had seen the Ring exactly once before, at the Festival the preceding summer. But he responded perceptively and imaginatively to the texts, emphasizing that he viewed the tetralogy as “theater, not only opera.” He interpreted the Ring in political/economic terms, not unlike George Bernard Shaw many decades before, setting the drama over a span from the 1840s to 1920s, during the full maturity of the Industrial Revolution. The Rhinemaidens cavort in a Rhine held back by a hydroelectric dam and an imposing, impersonal machine forges Notung. The production is psychologically penetrating as well—this was, after all, also the age of Freud. This Ring ’s most enduring image may be Donald McIntyre, as Wotan, addressing his reflection in a large floor-standing mirror for his Die Walküre act II monologue . There are many other telling touches. Wotan and Alberich are dressed identically for their confrontation in Siegfried act II—“Light Alberich” vs. “Dark Alberich”; Hunding arrives home to a villa with a menacing retinue, like Scarpia in Tosca, underscoring the scale of his corrupt power; in the second act of Walküre, an enormous pendulum swings back and forth, stopping at Wotan’s words “Das Ende!” The stage design by Richard Peduzzi is sumptuous, and those in the 1976 audience accustomed to the look of Ring s of the past quarter century must have experienced a kind of sensory overload.

This cycle is generally referred to as “The Chéreau Ring, ” but Pierre Boulez was surely of equal importance to the singular impression it made. (It was Boulez, in fact, who recommended his compatriot to Wolfgang Wagner.) Boulez’s musical leadership was as controversial as any other aspect of the production, and it won’t appeal to everyone, at least not all the time. The orchestra came close to going on strike at one point because the conductor wouldn’t let them “play out.” Boulez appears unimpressed with the monumentality of the Ring and even a little embarrassed by some of its best known set pieces: the gods’ entrance into Valhalla seems perfunctory and Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde is rushed through. Tempos, in general, are brisk—compare the total timing of Die Walküre, at 215 minutes, to several other DVD versions: Levine (241 minutes), Zagrosek (229), de Billy (250) or Barenboim (237). Boulez gets better as the music becomes more advanced, and there are many moments when the conductor’s legendary precision pays big dividends—the string filigree when the gold is first revealed in Rheingold or the absolutely flawless ensemble and intonation for the wind chords that come before Brünhilde’s awakening in Siegfried (“Heil dir Sonne!”). Boulez clearly relishes the complex, nuanced accompaniment to Gotterdammerung ’s Prologue.

The cast provides many excellent performances, as well as some forgettable ones. Donald McIntyre’s a wonderful singer, and he has some particularly successful scenes in Siegfried with Alberich, Erda, and the hero. But, overall, his Wotan seems patrician—a bit tight and aloof. The chief god is clearly damaged goods from the outset and never, even in Rheingold, do we see him in an especially regal and majestic mood. Gwyneth Jones won’t go down as one of the great Brünnhildes: she’s a satisfactory actress, but the high notes sound like work. The 1970s and 1980s were pretty lean years for heldentenors. Peter Hoffman may be eye candy (inevitably, the director managed to find a way to have him remove his shirt in Walküre ’s middle act) but vocally he’s a lightweight. Manfred Jung is your standard-issue Siegfried from that era: the voice has heft, though not a great deal of character.

Heinz Zednik has a suitable instrument for both Loge and Mime—light, expressive, edgy—and he can act. The dependable Matti Salminen is a menacing Hunding. As Alberich, Hermann Becht is compelling in all three of the dramas he appears in, humanizing the saga’s darkest villain. Fritz Hübner, as Hagan, looks like he could be Becht’s son, and he’s a chip off the old block, both vocally and dramatically. The American soprano Jeannine Altmeyer does a quite credible job as Sieglinde, returning as a rich-bitch Gutrune in Götterdämmerung. Ortrun Wenkel sings a golden-voiced and firmly prophetic Erda.

These videos have, of course, been available since the 1980s, including releases on laserdisc and DVD. The latter offered “digitally reprocessed simulated surround sound,” while this new edition, in addition to PCM stereo, has a real 5.1 DTS multichannel option. You’d have to be pretty obsessed to buy this Ring all over again just for the surround sound: the audiophile gods may strike me down for suggesting it, but if you absolutely had to have Chéreau/Boulez in multichannel, you’d be just fine playing the old DVDs through one of the surround modes that your receiver or multichannel preamp most certainly sports. The 5.1 sound on the new disc is satisfyingly spacious. However, the quality of the sonics is actually a little better in stereo, truer to voices—it should be remembered that DTS is not a high-resolution format (like SACD or DVD-Audio.) The transfer of video director Brian Large’s smooth and coherent camera work is fine.

A fifth disc holds an hour-long documentary, “The Making of Der Ring des Nibelungen ,” which chronicles the genesis of the Chéreau production and its videotaping. (This was the first filming of a complete Ring ever.) There are comments from Boulez (in top bad-boy form: “I don’t think first of the audience”), Chéreau, Brian Large, Wolfgang Wagner, Jones, and McIntyre. A highlight is Friedlind Wagner’s contribution as, in flawless English, she describes introducing Patrice Chéreau to her mother Winifred, despite her (Winifred’s) promise to “shoot him” for his representation of her father-in-law’s mighty work. There’s also some fascinating footage (with sound!) of a Bayreuth rehearsal of Götterdämmerung from 1934 with Frida Leider and Max Lorenz, Karl Elmendorff conducting.

For dedicated Wagnerians who do video, this Ring is naturally essential. For others who need, or want to be more selective, Siegfried would be a good place to start.

FANFARE: Andrew Quint

Subtitles: German/English/French/Italian/Spanish/Chinese

Each DVD is also available separately:
Das Rheingold Die Walküre Siegfried Götterdämmerung The Making Of Der Ring Des Nibelungen Read less

Works on This Recording

Der Ring des Nibelungen by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Fritz Hübner (Bass), Franz Mazura (Baritone), Donald McIntyre (Bass Baritone),
Siegfried Jerusalem (Tenor), Heinz Zednik (Tenor), Manfred Jung (Tenor),
Dame Gwyneth Jones (Soprano), Hermann Becht (Bass), Hanna Schwarz (Alto),
Peter Hofmann (Tenor), Jeannine Altmeyer (Soprano), Matti Salminen (Bass),
Gabriele Schnaut (Soprano), Gwendolyn Killebrew (Mezzo Soprano)
Conductor:  Pierre Boulez
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1853-1874; Germany 
Das Rheingold by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Hermann Becht (Bass), Hanna Schwarz (Alto), Heinz Zednik (Tenor),
Siegfried Jerusalem (Tenor), Donald McIntyre (Bass Baritone), Matti Salminen (Bass)
Conductor:  Pierre Boulez
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1854; Germany 
Die Walküre by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Peter Hofmann (Tenor), Matti Salminen (Bass), Hanna Schwarz (Alto),
Jeannine Altmeyer (Soprano), Donald McIntyre (Bass Baritone), Dame Gwyneth Jones (Soprano),
Gabriele Schnaut (Soprano)
Conductor:  Pierre Boulez
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1856; Germany 
Siegfried by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Manfred Jung (Tenor), Dame Gwyneth Jones (Soprano), Donald McIntyre (Bass Baritone),
Hermann Becht (Bass), Fritz Hübner (Bass)
Conductor:  Pierre Boulez
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1871; Germany 
Götterdämmerung by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Fritz Hübner (Bass), Franz Mazura (Baritone), Manfred Jung (Tenor),
Dame Gwyneth Jones (Soprano), Hermann Becht (Bass), Jeannine Altmeyer (Soprano),
Gwendolyn Killebrew (Mezzo Soprano)
Conductor:  Pierre Boulez
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1871-1874; Germany 

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