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Wagner: Der Ring Des Nibelungen / Zagrosek, Denoke, Gasteen, Et Al

Wagner / Zagrosek / Denoke / Gasteen / Devol
Release Date: 11/16/2004 
Label:  Tdk   Catalog #: RINGBOX  
Composer:  Richard Wagner
Performer:  Michaela SchusterJan-Hendrik RooteringRobert GambillAngela Denoke,   ... 
Conductor:  Lothar Zagrosek
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stuttgart State Opera ChorusStuttgart State Opera Orchestra
Number of Discs: 7 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

As this Ring comes in four matching DVD boxes, held by a slipcase with a scene from each drama on the cover, you’d have every right to expect a unified vision of Wagner’s mighty tetralogy, both dramatically and musically. Indeed, there’s just one able conductor in the pit for these Stuttgart State Opera performances, taped between September 2002 and January 2003. But a brave conceptual underpinning of this cycle is that each of the four productions was designed and stage-directed by a different creative team. The liner notes make the claim that this is the first time such an approach has been taken.

Remarkable, too, is the very large number of singers involved. This has its pluses and minuses. One of the pleasures of seeing
Read more the Ring performed over (typically) a bit under a week is observing how a given artist reveals the evolution of some of Wagner’s most complex characters. The take-charge Wotan of Das Rheingold is a very different guy than the one who shuffles off the stage in act III of Siegfried. Brünnhilde, of course, is transformed by her experiences; even Siegfried has come a long way by the time of his murder. In this set, not a single role gets repeated by the same singer from opera to opera. We get three bass-baritones performing the two Wotans and the Wanderer, three Brünnhildes, three Alberichs, two Siegfrieds— even two different sets of Rhinemaidens for Rheingold and Götterdämmerung, In the case of Brünnhilde, for example, one could argue that different kinds of singers might better serve the musical personae of the feisty warrior-daughter of Die Walküre vs. the love-intoxicated bride-to-be of Siegfried’s final scene vs. the wise and determined creature of Götterdämmerung. But most, I suspect, would rather see how one artist handles the multifaceted demands of these notoriously difficult roles.

There are some exceptional performances along the way. Worthy of approbation in Walküre are Angela Denoke’s masterfully modulated Sieglinde and Jan-Hendrik Rootering’s commanding Wotan. Rootering’s lengthy act II monologue is nicely paced and absorbing, and he’s quite moving at the end of the opera. Jon Fredric West is fully in command, theatrically and vocally, as Siegfried’s Siegfried, as he was in the part at the Met’s most recent Ring—not an easy task in that large venue. Wolfgang Schöne’s Wanderer is terrific in his scenes with Mime, Alberich, and Siegfried. In Götterdämmerung, Roland Bracht deserves particular recognition for making Hagen seem a bit less reptilian than usual; one even senses something like pangs of regret after Siegfried’s death, a dim understanding that he, too, has just been playing out a predestined role. A few singers are seen in two operas, in different parts. Bracht is a quite fine Fasolt; Attila Jun is serviceable both as Hunding and Fafner the dragon. Tichina Vaughn is more successful as Waltraute—her scene with Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung is a highlight of that performance—than she is as Walküre’s Fricka. In short, there’s nothing less than solidly professional and idiomatic Wagner-singing over this 15 hours and, more than occasionally, some very compelling vocal acting.

The productions themselves are more variable in their style and degree of accomplishment. It’s a cliché, of course, to observe that the Ring is open to an incredibly wide range of interpretations—from socioeconomic warfare to internal psychodrama to environmental parable to Schopenhauerian worldview, and plenty of others. There is, purposely, no overarching conception here, and what appears on stage ranges from self-conscious modernism to an innovative representation of familiar themes, made to seem entirely natural and “right” in an untraditional setting.

The first two operas are not as successful theatrically, and simply less appealing to look at. Rheingold—the notes describe this as “a Strindbergian chamber piece”—seems to be set in the 1930s or thereabouts, at a locale suggesting a spa or villa. We are told that “scarcely any concessions are made to decorative and allegorical concepts” and, as a result, some moments are unintentionally amusing: Donner, attired like an extra from a Merchant Ivory film and wielding a tiny hammer, looks ridiculous. There’s some stage business that’s pretty obscure (all the gods, except for Loge, wash their hands before entering Valhalla) or just plain impenetrable (at the very end of the opera, Alberich wanders around with an old Victrola). In Walküre, more psychoanalytical in its style, Hunding’s hut brings to mind the All-Purpose Room in my 1950’s vintage high school and Siegmund, in shorts, a too-small black sleeveless undershirt, and black midtop sneakers, resembles more an aging skateboarder than a combatant.

Siegfried and Götterdämmerung are much more fun to watch. The opening act of the former—”the glummest of comedies”—is set in a run-down tenement, with Mime as a pathetic, effeminate Haus Frau in an apron, peeling potatoes. West’s Siegfried is the perfect realization of a narcissistic and mean-spirited adolescent, in baggy jeans and a T-shirt that says “Siegfried” on it, just in case there’s any question as to whom the young hero is looking out for. Schöne’s Wanderer is an aging hipster in a leather jacket, baseball cap, and sunglasses. Act II takes place in a grim, dangerous DMZ; the dragon disappoints—just the singer sitting in a chair, his back to the audience. Brünnhilde’s rock, for the last scene, is a brilliantly white boudoir.

Götterdämmerung, directed by Peter Konwitschny, is just as interesting. Konwitschny, “liberated” from the obligation to tie together the philosophical, moral, and mythic threads of the previous three dramas, could approach the work “on its own terms” and “concentrate on the immediate motivations, emotions, and obsessions of the characters.” The three Norns are shabbily dressed homeless women who appear in view of the audience before the music starts. (In act III, the Rhinemaidens end up in the same clothing that the Norns wore earlier, a thought-provoking twist.) There are some ironic, mocking takes on Wagnerian tradition. Everyone’s in modern dress except for Siegfried, who arrives at the hall of the Gibichung in early-Bayreuth-style pelts and fur leggings, until the locals get him into a designer suit like everyone else. And Waltraute, a soprano of, as they say, Wagnerian proportions, is lowered on a cable, complete with a winged helmet, shield, and spear. But the dramatic impetus of the story is fully intact and the potentially ambiguous message of the Ring’s conclusion is presented with exceptional clarity. The house lights come up as Brünnhilde begins her final scene, and everyone else leaves the stage—the recently killed Siegfried and Gunther pick themselves up and walk off, the former handing Brünnhilde the ring as he departs. Brünnhilde is left alone with the audience in the Stuttgart theater, and with us at home, to communicate that the nature of any future world order is in our hands. Wagner’s stage directions, as they are printed in the score, are projected on a scrim that descends in front of Brünnhilde as she heads off on an extremely rudimentary Grane, scrolling by like the beginning of Star Wars and sparing untold expense in special effects (Valhalla in flames, the Rhine overflowing its banks, etc.) The camera frequently scans the rapt crowd in the theater. You might think this would work only if you were there but actually, it translates surprisingly well to video.

One aspect of all four productions that is consistent: this is a very sexualized Ring. The bad guys do more groping than usual (Alberich with Rhinemaidens; Hunding with Sieglinde.) In Walküre, the image of Notung gets projected vertically over Sieglinde’s uterus, eliminating any possibility of the sword’s phallic significance being missed. Wotan kisses Brünnhilde passionately on her mouth who, in turn, plants a big wet one on Siegmund’s. While we’re on the subject of osculation, Wotan kisses Siegfried at the end of their brief and not terribly warm encounter. Mime, for some reason, feels the need to masturbate after the Wanderer’s visit in Siegfried act I. In Götterdämmerung, after Siegfried gets the drink that has him forgetting Brünnhilde, within moments he’s astride a surprised Gutrune. And, back in Siegfried’s final scene, the young and naive hero’s famous understatement, “Das ist kein Mann!” (a line that usually generates snickers in the theater proportional to the ampleness of the Brünnhilde’s bosom) comes not after he’s removed her breastplate, but after reaching between her legs. Certainly a more direct approach.

There are several aspects of this Ring that are uniformly exemplary. First is the playing of the Stuttgart orchestra and the solidly idiomatic leadership from Lothar Zagrosek. (The only aural effect that fails is Rheingold’s anvils, which evoke an approaching band of Hare Krishnas.) Second is the superb sound. In addition to PCM stereo, there are two surround-sound options, Dolby Digital and DTS. The multichannel presentation is spacious, with only very occasional direct sound from behind, the vocals solidly localized to your video screen by the center channel. Orchestral sonorities are rich and full with plenty of detail, and proper Wagnerian vocal-instrumental balances. Finally, the camera work and video editing are excellent—very natural and fluid, without a lot of those long shots of the entire stage with small figures on it. Subtitles in German, English, French, Italian, or Spanish—or none—can be selected.

The individual operas are available separately, and Siegfried deserves a top recommendation, with Götterdämmerung also worthy of strong consideration. The whole set is probably mostly for those who collect video Rings; for a first complete, Levine’s is still a great choice.

Andrew Quint, FANFARE
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Works on This Recording

Der Ring des Nibelungen by Richard Wagner
Conductor:  Lothar Zagrosek
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stuttgart State Opera Chorus,  Stuttgart State Opera Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1853-1874; Germany 
Das Rheingold by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Michaela Schuster (Mezzo Soprano)
Conductor:  Lothar Zagrosek
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stuttgart State Opera Chorus,  Stuttgart State Opera Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1854; Germany 
Die Walküre by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Jan-Hendrik Rootering (Bass), Robert Gambill (Tenor), Angela Denoke (Soprano),
Attila Jun (Baritone)
Conductor:  Lothar Zagrosek
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stuttgart State Opera Chorus,  Stuttgart State Opera Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1856; Germany 
Siegfried by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Jon Frederick West (Tenor), Lisa Gasteen (Soprano), Wolfgang Schöne (Bass)
Conductor:  Lothar Zagrosek
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stuttgart State Opera Chorus,  Stuttgart State Opera Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1871; Germany 
Götterdämmerung by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Albert Bonnema (Tenor), Luana DeVol (Soprano), Roland Bracht (Bass)
Conductor:  Lothar Zagrosek
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stuttgart State Opera Chorus,  Stuttgart State Opera Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1871-1874; Germany 

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