Thursday 27 November 2008

Long overdue: Daniel Barenboim debuts at the MET with a superb Tristan and Isolde

On Friday, November 28th Daniel Barenboim made his about 30 year overdue debut at the Metropolitan Opera conducting Tristan and Isolde.

Doing this, he was the first conductor, other than James Levine, to conduct Tristan at the Met since Erich Leinsdorf in 1974. Daniel Barenboim has brought his own cast, which includes Katarina Dalayman and Peter Seiffert in the title parts as well as René Pape.

Much discussion has focused on Peter Seifferts use of an eletronic earpice prompter. Apparently he used this ear-plug prompter for previous Tristan performances at the Berlin State Opera. I had no idea they used this kind of electronic equipment in Berlin, however, I suppose, why not?

On Tristan and Isolde, Daniel Barenboim has this to say: "Tristan is an opera about death. And it is that death, the fear of death and the looking for death as the only possible way to solve the entanglement in which they find, this is, if you want, the locomotive, the motor of the opera. There is nothing more democratic in the world than death. In the end, it comes to everyone, rich and poor, good and bad, and is one of the things that we all have to deal with. ... He who spends his life without thinking about death misses out on one of the most forceful dimensions of human existence."

Daniel Barenboim rearranged the orchestra during the rehearsals to have the wood-winds and brass to the right and the strings to the left, an arrangement he also used at La Scala last season, which obviously must have required a bit adjustments for the musicians.

Nevertheless Daniel Barenboim got glorious reviews (New York Times, Financial Times, Epoch Times. Dallas Morning News reviewed the performance with Waltraud Meier).

Of the singers of the opening night (Dalayman, Seiffert, DeYoung, Grochowski and Pape), the praise was unanimously left for René Pape, quite as expected. It may not speak top well of the qualities of the other performers, though few will disagree that René Pape is in his own class as King Marke.

As Barenboim´s chosen leads Peter Seiffert and Katarina Dalayman had cancelled numerous Tristans with him over the past two years in Berlin, neither of them were really expected to complete the run, and in this respect they fully lived up to expectations. Gary Lehman replaced Peter Seiffert on occasion, and lo! behold a miracle: Waltraud Meier replaced Katarina Dalayman once, in what was probably her only appearance as Isolde at the Met. On the other occasion the part was taken by Linda Watson.

There is no video footage of Barenboim in this production, so instead René Pape as King Marke, who, Barenboim and Waltraud Meier apart, has always been the only really compelling reason to watch this production, right from the opening in 1999:

Posted on YouTube by layne867

Patricia Petibon: Amoureuses

Patricia Petibon - Amoureuses. Arias by Mozart, Haydn and Gluck. With Daniel Harding and Concerto Köln. Further information including tracklist here.

37-year old French soprano Patricia Petibon has teamed up with the period ensemble Concerto Köln and conductor Daniel Harding for this, her first, solo disc for Deutsche Grammophon. A website dedicated to the disc may be accessed here.

According to the promotional material, Patricia Petibon "circles around the ever-important topic of love and desire – in a series of character-portraits she explores how the very different female characters in the operas of Mozart, Haydn, and Gluck respond to the challenges of love".

First of all, Patricia Petibon is an enormously compelling vocal performer, who clearly gives 110%, which makes this album fascinating to listen to.

On pure vocal terms, I am a bit more sceptical, though. Compared to her last solo disc (Patricia Petibon - French Touch from 2004) her voice seems to have become rather thin at the top as well as having lost some of the lyric glow.
Furthermore, she is clearly strained in the more dramatic and expressive pieces, which nevertheless are the best on the disc, such as Tiger (Zaide), Odio (Haydn´s Armida) and Vanne d´Affretta (Lucio Silla) while I find the Queen of the Night (Die hölle rache) too heavy for her.

Barbarina´s L´ho perduta is really quite touching and seems to suit her slim voice better than Susanna´s Deh vieni. Another highlight is Venez, secondez mes désirs from Gluck´s Armide.

However, what remains upon repeated listening is that Patricia Petibon is a very unique performer, who infuses this disc with an elusive individuality so rare among contemporary singers making for irresistible listening. Though I´d be worried about the length of her career if she continues to sing like this as it simply doesn´t sound healthy. However, it makes for tremendously compelling listening.

Not to forget Daniel Harding´s simply superb, full-blooded accompaniement with the Concerto Köln, greatly contributing to the success of this disc.

Promotional video:

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):


Erwin Schrott

Erwin Schrott: Erwin Schrott. Decca 2008. Further information including full track-list here.

To say that Erwin Schrott´s rise to fame is based mainly on his good looks as well as his relationship with Anna Netrebko would be unfair as well as untrue. Though I doubt, that Decca would have released this his first solo-album had he not been very much “in the public eye” for the moment, so to speak. Not that Erwin Schrott doesn´t have something to promote by himself without having to appear on the front-page of Austrian tabloid magazines. He certainly has.

With the repertoire presented on this disc Decca seems to intend to market Erwin Schrott as the good-looking but ultimately soft and emotional man.

However, Erwin Schrott is very much a physical performer, having made his career mainly as Leporello, Don Giovanni and Figaro. And excerpts from these parts are clearly the most successful parts of this disc as well, though his Mozart singing is rather unorthodox and will not be to everyone´s liking.

Erwin Schrott´s voice is of the rather rough and uneven basso cantante type, with an essentially beautiful and quite powerful sound centered around the middle register. His strong vocal points are edgy (and comic) characterizations (Don Giovanni, Leporello and Figaro), while he has no legato-lines to elaborate much on (evident in Voici les Roses from Damnation de Faust) and generally he simply seems to lack musicality or style, being rather rough and uneven regardless of repertoire. A quality, some listeners may well find charming.

Furthermore, interpretatory depth and subtleness are not calling cards at this point in Erwin Schrott´s career, quite evident in the Elle ne m´aime pas (Philippe from French Don Carlos) and in a Méphistopheles-Serenade (Faust) sung completely straight-forward without the slightest hint of the essential undercurrent malice. That said, he fares considerably better with Robert Le Diable.

On stage, all these issues may be easily overlooked as he is a compelling performer. For those wanting to experience Erwin Schrott at the top of his game, I´d recommend the recently released DVD of Nozze di Figaro. Or the upcoming Don Giovanni DVD from Salzburg.

For those wanting to listen to the basso cantante repertoire on CD from a singer of today, I´d recommend the CD with René Pape.

Promotional video from Decca:

Overall impression (scale of 1-5, 3=average):


London: New Boris Godunov with Peter Rose at ENO

Boris Godunov. English National Opera. November 26th 2008. Production: Tim Albery. Cast: Peter Rose (Boris), John Graham-Hall (Shuisky), Brindley Sherratt (Pimen), David Stephenson (False Dmitri), Jonathan Veira (Varlaam). Conductor: Edward Gardner. Further information here.

This new ENO production of Boris Godunov opened on November 10th to a music press predominantly focusing on the facts that:
The original 1869 version was played, which they found of lesser quality than later versions which include the Polish scenes as well as allegedly superior orchestrations by either Shostakovich or Rimsky-Korsakoff; the original version is very dark; the opera runs 2h 10 min without intermission; Peter Rose does not have the charisma of John Tomlinson; this Boris is more despressing than uplifting.

In brief, I agree with all of the above comments, though reaching somewhat different conclusions: Yes, there is nothing uplifting about Boris Godunov. And this is exactly the way it should be: Raw, unpolished and depressing. Which is why I personally prefer Mussorgsky´s original score in the 1869 version, though I am not adverse to the gleamingly brilliance of Rimsky-Korsakoff or the beauty of the Polish scenes. However, in the 1869 version, what remains is exactly what I perceive to be the core of Boris Godunov: The plight of the Russian people and the portrait of Boris´ inner struggles.

Admittedly Peter Rose does lack charisma as Boris and the death scene never becomes truly gripping. His Boris seems a very docile and gentle man indeed, entirely incapable of orchestrating a child-murder or even aspiring for power. On the other hand his voice is quite beautiful and, while his expressive range may be somewhat limited, he is always a pleasure to listen to. Which Sir John Tomlinson, for all his charisma, is not.

Tim Albery´s single minimalistic set seemed relatively unanchored in time, taking place within a structure of wooden walls serving as backdrop throughout the opera. The only colouring was provided by the various dresssing of the characters, such as the black vs. white uniforms used by the opposing parties in the Final Scene. As such, it worked well, however I missed a directorial take on the piece. What are the power structures in this Boris? What influence does Shuisky have? What about the False Dmitri? Or what role does Pimen have?

Admittedly, neither of this supporting cast were overly charismatic either, perhaps with the exception of Brindley Sherratt´s rather fine Pimen. And Jonathan Veira was more than adequate as Varlaam in what is all things considered is a rather fine trio of basses.

The translation by David Lloyd-Jones deserves a comment as well: It was unusually straight-forward and impressive in the ability to catch the rhythm of the score. I do prefer Boris sung in Russian, but clearly an English-sung performance has certain advantages, such as not having to rely extensively on the texting device to understand what is being sung..

Superb was Edward Gardner in a very lyrical reading of the score, which nevertheless was impressively coherent. Ideally I´d prefer a bit more punch and eeriness, but this was as good an orchestral performance of Boris as I have yet heard.

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Peter Rose: 4
John Graham-Hall: 3-4
Brindley Sherratt: 4
Jonathan Veira: 4

Tim Albery´s production: 3-4

Edward Gardner: 4

Overall impression: 4

Wednesday 26 November 2008

London: Rolando Villazón triumphs in Hoffmann´s Tales

Les Contes d´Hoffmann. Royal Opera, Covent Garden. November 25th 2008. Production: Schlesinger. Cast: Rolando Villazón (Hoffmann), Gidon Saks (Villains), Ekaterina Lekhina (Olympia), Christine Rice (Giulietta), Katie van Kooten (Antonia), Kristine Jepson (Muse), Graham Clark (Servants). Conductor: Antonio Pappano. Further information here

First things first: 99,9% of the sold-out Royal Opera audience came to hear Rolando Villazón, and in that regard, the news are unequivocally good.

Rolando Villazón just keeps getting better and better, and his Hoffmann was undisputedly the best performance I have heard from him since his "come-back" earlier this season: For the first time, he seemed to sing entirely with his reserves as opposed to tearing on his capital. He was completely unrestrained, exposing his wonderfully dark tone, which becomes increasingly pronounced. Even his acting seemed more relaxed (as opposed to adolescently neurotic) and he was completely convincing in all aspects of Hoffmann: From the drunkard to the desperate lover. Perhaps he only gave 100% as opposed to his normal 110%, but it was more than enough to make the evening.

Of the women, Christine Rice (Giulietta) was clearly the best with a lush, unstrained and seductive voice. Most applause went to Ekaterina Lekhina´s Doll, and she did hit all the notes as well as look appropriately Doll-like. Both Kristine Jepson and Katie van Kooten were rather anonymous presences, dramatically as well as vocally. Effective, though not beautifully sung, Villains were delivered from Gidon Saks and Graham Clarke´s hilarious Servants deserve mentioning as well.

Antonio Pappano delivered an optimal reading of Hoffmann: He takes the score seriously and provides an engaged, dramatic reading, which I don´t think may be improved much on.

What may be improved on, obviously, is John Schlesinger´s utterly traditional and dusty 1980´s- something production (previously released on DVD with Plácido Domingo). A new production is more than overdue, though it ages better than many similar productions.

The performance was dedicated to the memory of the recently deceased conductor Richard Hickox.

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Rolando Villazón: 5
Ekaterina Lekhina: 4
Christine Rice: 4
Katie van Kooten: 3
Kristine Jepson: 3
Gidon Saks: 4

Schlesinger´s production: 3

Antonio Pappano: 5

Overall impression: 4

Anna Netrebko: Souvenirs

Anna Netrebko: Souvenirs. Released November 2008 by Deutsche Grammophone. Further information here.

18 short tracks from the lighter end of the operatic and song repertoire, is what Anna Netrebko presents on Souvenirs, her fourth solo-album from Deutsche Grammophon. A website dedicated to the album may be accessed here.

As always, when such a wide variety of repertoire is presented, the quality is rather varied, as well.

Anna Netrebko´s dark-voiced soprano and straight-forward singing clearly seems best suited to the Slavian and Russian repertoire, as evident in the songs of Rimsky-Korsakoff and Dvorak, the highlights of this disc.

Most of the other repertoire on this disc doesn´t really suit her voice. Such as the songs of Richard Strauss, where the essential soaring quality escapes her; the Baccarolle from Hoffmann, where Elina Garanca actually makes the more convincing impression; the various operetta excerpts stretching her middle register to the limit and exposing an incipient unpleasant wobble.
Ideally, Deutsche Grammophon would focus their attention on what Anna Netrebko does best, such as the Russian-Slavian repertoire. Though it may be argued that on her best solo album to date - The Russian Album with Valery Gergiev, they did exactly that.

However, to expect her to excel in the entire operatic repertoire is unrealistical as well as unreasonable. At least when she may only be judged on her vocal qualities.
With these reservations, this disc is rather enjoyable and fans of Anna Netrebko will most certainly enjoy this. Others, however, may to a lesser extent.

Full tracklist may be found here.

The album is available in a deluxe version, with additional DVD-tracks such as the below excerpt from Czardasfürstin:

Posted on Youtube by vvj2

Overall impression (scale of 1-5, 3=average):


London: A very nice Elektra

Elektra. Royal Opera, Covent Garden. November 24th 2008. Production: Charles Edwards. Cast: Susan Bullock (Elektra), Anne Schwanewilms (Chrysothemis), Jane Henschel (Klytemnestra), Johan Reuter (Orestes), Franz van Aken (Aegisth). Conductor: Mark Elder. Further information here.

This revival of Charles Edwards production of Elektra, for some strange reason, received rave reviews in the British press. Not that the production is not good and the singing is generally not fine. The problem is, that it is very polished and never takes off dramatically.

First of all, there is Mark Elder, who conducts a well-disposed and detailed performance from the well-sounding orchestra. Very nice and completely devoid of any attempts of dramatic expression.

Secondly, there are the singers, of whom only two were really good: Johan Reuter´s plainly superb Orestes and Jane Henschel´s dominating Klytemnestra infusing some much needed drama into the production, which only took off when one of these two were on stage. Which unfortunately, for long stretches, they are not.
Elektra is as much about going over the edge than any opera. And despite a not unattractive voice, nothing about Susan Bullock even approaches the edge in a part way too heavy for her. She seemed exhausted right from the beginning in a remarkably un-forceful performance. Being half-neurotic, delicate and bleak in expression fits Anne Schwanewilm´s Chrysothemis rather well, though it doesn´t really add up compared to contemporaries such as Eva-Maria Westbroek, just to mention one.

Thirdly, the production: One room, blood on the floor. Orestes climbing down a sort of chimney. A vast landshape of small fires are revealed towards the end. Undoubtedly a paraphrase on the psychological inner mind. Original? No. Effective? Not really. Dangerous? Not at all.

The performance began with Antonio Pappano appearing before the curtain to announce the death of Richard Hickox, and his dedication of this evenings performance to him.

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Susan Bullock: 3
Anne Schwanewilms: 3-4
Johan Reuter: 5
Jane Henschel: 4-5

Charles Edward´s production: 3-4

Mark Elder: 3-4

Overall impression: 3

Salzburg 2006: A Mozart Gala

A Mozart gala. Salzburg Festival 2006. Soloists: René Pape, Michael Schade, Ekaterina Siurina, Thomas Hampson, Magdelena Kozena, Anna Netrebko, Patricia Petibon. Conductor: Daniel Harding with the Vienna Philharmonics. Further information and detailed programme here.

I suppose this is a case of: If you like this sort of thing, you will most definitely like this DVD..
And by this sort of thing I mean a glitzy gala concert with a bunch of star singers each performing one aria, including some orchestral padding.

The overall quality is impeccably high, however I have to admit, that no matter how perfectly brilliant the individual performances, I find these things tedious to watch.
That said, several of the performances were indeed perfectly brilliant (René Pape with the Catalogue Aria, Magdalena Kozená with "Parto, ma tu ben mio", Ekaterina Siurina with "Se il padre perdei") and none were less than fine. Anna Netrebko finished the singer´s part of the show with an engaging delivery of "D´Oreste, D´Ajace".

All engagingly accompanied by Daniel Harding, who finished the evening with a straight-on delivery of Mozart´s Prague Symphony (personally I would have preferred some more singing, however).

The occasion, of course, was the 250th anniversary of Mozart´s birth, which was celebrated at the Salzburg Festival in 2006 with DVD releases of his entire operatic output. As well as this gala concert from the Felsenreitschule.

Ekaterina Siurina "Il padre perdei" (Idomeneo):

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

If I liked this sort of thing: 5

Video by tenore23 on YouTube

Monday 24 November 2008

Andreas Scholl in Giulio Cesare

Giulio Cesare. Royal Danish Opera 2005. Production: Francisco Negrin. Cast: Andreas Scholl (Giulio Cesare), Inger Dam-Jensen (Cleopatra), Randi Stene (Cornelia), Tuva Semmingsen (Sesto), Christopher Robson (Tolemeo), Palle Knudsen (Achilla), Michael Maniaci (Nireno). Conductor: Lars Ulrik Mortensen with the Concerto Copenhagen. Further information here.

Francisco Negrin´s production of Giulio Cesare was a massive success for the Royal Danish Opera in 2003, resulting in several people queuing overnight for tickets for the 2005 revival, something previously unseen in Copenhagen. On paper Andreas Scholl was the star, but the production proved a genuine team effort, with superb performances from all involved parties, not least the exceptional baroque ensemble Concerto Copenhagen.

First of all, Francisco Negrin´s production is simply superb. Both minimalistic and stylish with appropriate Egyptian paraphernalia, the story is told straight-forward with a wonderfully sly sense of humour. Negrin is furthermore a superb personal director, convincingly conveying the interactions and emotions of the characters. The video clip below provides just one example of how he furthermore manages to make full use of the arias in the characterization of the protagonists.

Andreas Scholl is simply ideal as Cesare. His coloratura technique is fabulous and his voice has the well-known white glow, even througout the entire register. Most importantly, however, he is wonderfully masculine on stage. And a superb stage actor, with considerably comic timing.

Inger Dam-Jensen is a both captivating and elegantly sensual Cleopatra. That she vocally may be slightly on the dry side is rather easy to overlook.

Randi Stene and Tuva Semmingsen make a superb mother-son souple. Randi Stene´s Cornelia is truly tragic and compelling matched by the elegant lightness and committed acting by Tuva Semmingsen.

Christopher Robson Tolomeo looks terrifying and counter-tenor purists may well not take a liking to his singing: Vocally he is rather strange, using chest-voice as a main method of expression and he is probably past his prime. Though as a dramatic portrait, I find him very convincing.
Strong performances also in the smaller parts, such as Palle Knudsen as Achilla and Michael Maniaci as Nireno. Maniaci, by the way is a true male soprano, with no Adams apple (due to a developmental error), but a male in every other way.

Lars Ulrik Mortensen with the period ensemble Concerto Copenhagen are precisely imprecise with an impeccably sense of rhythms and energetic throughout in a performance I cannot imagine bettered.

Andreas Scholl - Va tacito (note the superb stage direction):

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Andreas Scholl: 5
Inger Dam-Jensen: 4-5
Randi Stene: 5
Tuva Semmingsen: 5
Christopher Robson: 4

Francisco Negrin´s production: 5

Lars Ulrik Mortensen: 5

Overall impression: 5

Sunday 23 November 2008

Paris: The 2003 Salome with Karita Mattila

Salome. Paris Bastille Opera 2003. Director: Lev Dodin. Cast: Karita Mattila (Salome), Falk Struckmann (Jochanaan), Chris Meritt (Herodes), Anja Silja (Herodias), William Burden (Narraboth). Conductor: James Conlon.

As it seems uncertain whether the Metropolitan Opera will release Karita Mattila´s recent Salome on DVD, what about releasing the 2003 Paris Bastille Opera production, the only other production in which Karita Mattila has sung Salome, and the production in which she made her role debut?

The production is certainly stylish, though perhaps not as inventive as Jürgen Flimm´s, which some may undoubtedly find an advantage. Admittedly, Lev Dodin doesn´t seem to contribute an excessive numbers of ideas to this Salome: The single set is pictured above and consists of a blue-yellow-reddish courtyard with a sideways moving moon in the background and Jochanaan located in a floor-level cage, sliding in and out of view.

Any drama in this production thus relies on the protagonist and needless to say Karita Mattila did not disappoint, with captivating acting on par with her MET performances and arguably in better vocal shape, though she is clearly approaching her vocal limit. And she does undress as well, except for a transparent black top..

Basically a one-woman show, however neither of the accompanying artistst (particularly Falk Struckmann in rather fine shape and Anja Silja with her usual presence) disappointed. And James Conlon presented a much more interesting reading of the score than any of the recent MET Salome conductors (Patrick Sumners and Valery Gergiev).

Karita Mattila - confrontation with Jochanaan:

Karita Mattila - final scene:

Posted by Operalou on YouTube

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Karita Mattila: 5
Falk Struckmann: 4
Anja Silja: 4
Chris Merritt: 4

Lev Dodin´s production: 4

James Conlon: 4

Overall impression: 4-5

Saturday 22 November 2008

Paris: Marthaler Nozze di Figaro with superb Christine Schäfer and Peter Mattei

Nozze di Figaro. Paris Palais Garnier 2006. Production: Christoph Marthaler. Cast: Peter Mattei (Count), Christiane Oelze (Countess), Heidi Grant Murphy (Susanna), Christine Schäfer (Cherubino), Lorenzo Regazzo (Figaro). Conductor: Sylvain Cambreling. Further information here.

Redundant to note, this Christoph Marthaler production, as everything he does, was controversial when it opened in Paris 2006. For the usual reasons, which consist of Marthalers penchant for providing desolate everyday settings for his stagings. A concept put to maximal benefit in his superb Salzburg Katia Kabanova, which however turned out a virtual walk in the desert in his universally negatively received Bayreuth Tristan.
Between these two extremes, this Paris Figaro covers the middle ground: A single set taking place in front of a marriage bureau. "Figaro is really about marriage", as Marthaler states in the accompanying documentary. As always with Marthaler, the characters and sets seem taken out of the desolate everyday life of 1960-70s Eastern Europe: Grey and hopeless. Does it work? In this context, not really, I´d say. To little of the characters and their motivations are exposed and the entire affair becomes to monodimensional.

Though, Marthaler has the good fortune of excellent singer-actors over the entire line. Best of all are Christine Schäfer and Peter Mattei. Christine Schäfers superbly sung Cherubino looks astonishingly like a teenage boy and Peter Mattei delivers one of the finest Counts on DVD, though perhaps he is too nice and fails (unless on purpose) to convey the ambiguity of the character. In comparison, though finely attuned to Marthalers concept, there is something distinctly everyday-like about both Christiane Oelze (in fine voice as the Countess) and Heidi Grant Murphy (a bit shrill as Susanna). In the middle, Lorenzo Regazzo´s Figaro was both well-acted and well sung.

Sylvain Cambrelings way with Mozart is too passive for my taste, though he was never less than competent.

Christine Schäfer "Non so piu":
Peter Mattei "Hai gia vinta la causa":

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Christiane Oelze: 4
Peter Mattei: 5
Heidi Grant Murphy: 3
Lorenzo Regazzo: 4
Christine Schäfer: 5

Marthalers staging: 3

Sylvain Cambreling: 4

Overall impression: 4

Tuesday 18 November 2008

Chéreau and Boulez: Nibelungen Ring on DVD - the Bayreuth Centenary Ring

Der Ring des Nibelungen (complete). Bayreuth Festival 1980. Director: Patrice Chéreau. Cast includes: Donald McIntyre (Wotan), Gwyneth Jones (Brünnhilde), Manfred Jung (Siegfried), Peter Hofmann (Siegmund). Conductor: Pierre Boulez. Further information here.

Overview and general comments

Whether by luck or foresight, the decision to hire French director Patrice Chéreau was among the most important and courageous of Wolfgang Wagner´s entire tenure at the Bayreuth Festival. Not that Patrice Chéreau by any means was the Festival´s first choice to stage this Centenary Ring – The Nibelungen Ring marking the 100th year of the world premiere performance of the tetralogy in Bayreuth, as it seems among others Peter Stein and Ingmar Bergman declined offers.
Ultimately, French conductor and avant-garde champion Pierre Boulez brought in 31-year old French actor and theatre director Patrice Chéreau on short notice. He did not know Wagner and had previously only staged two operas, by Offenbach and Rossini. The rest, as they say, is history:

Together Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Boulez created a Centenary Ring in the truest meaning of the word: Simply the finest Nibelungen Ring production in the Centenary history of the work. Even after more than 30 years the power and freshness of this staging is virtually undiminished. As directorial concept and execution it remains unsurpassed, the closest competition, at least on DVD, being Harry Kupfer and Daniel Barenboim´s later Bayreuth Ring.

This Centenary Ring created one of the biggest scandals in the history of the Bayreuth Festival at the 1976 premiere, getting almost booed off stage with tumultous audience protests. The orchestra threatened to go on strike as well, disagreeing with Pierre Boulez´ interpretation of the score, officially complaining to Wolfgang Wagner asking to be allowed to play as they used to (read: Loud as opposed to Boulez´ transparent sound).
Time apparently changes everything: At the last performances in 1980, this Ring was hailed as a masterpiece with unprecedented hour-long standing ovations.

Whether one approves of Patrice Chéreau´s concept or not, one thing remains: In terms of influence in music theater, this Nibelungen Ring is probably the most significant operatic staging in history. To say that it revolutionized staging paradigms, especially in Wagner, for once would almost be an understatement.

What did Patrice Chéreau do that was so special? Something rather simple, in fact: He made the singers act, he brought genuine theatrical drama to the stage, something entirely unusual around that time. To appreciate the difference one just have to take a look at the preceding 1974 Wolfgang Wagner Ring in Bayreuth – small wonder, the audiences were shocked.

While the opera forays of many film directors have been of varied (read: limited) success, Patrice Chéreau is probably the exception that made many of his later film director colleagues attempt opera in the first place.

First of all, Patrice Chéreau´s trademark is the superb individual direction of the singers and an interpretation based on an extraordinarily detailed study of the text. He simply stages what is in the text (as he sees it, admittedly). Combined with his ability to bring alive the interpersonal drama to an extent I have not yet encountered in any other opera director. The interpersonal drama, such as in Walküre, is among the most compelling things ever to have be performed on an opera stage. Secondly, Chéreau just has plain sense of the theatre, combined with the usual French aesthetism.

Debated like few other stagings, some critics labelled this a Marxist Ring, others a Socialist Ring, while others again saw it as an extension of Shaw's The Perfect Wagnerite. Patrice Chéreau himself was ambiguous in his comments, not committing himself to one singular interpretation (see his comments below under the individual operas). In any case, the interpretation of any staging ultimately lies with the spectactor.

Personally, I see Chéreau´s Ring as a parable of the 19th century Industrial Revolution and how it has corrupted society. Basically, this Ring begins around the time of it´s composition (1850-70) which does coincide with the Industrial revolution. In a Rheingold set around 1850-60, we see the Old World capitalist Wotan clash with the New World Capitalist Alberich. In Siegfried, the Industrial revolution is at it´s height, facilitating the forging of Nothung and in the cold and lifeless Götterdämmerung of the 1920´s we see the consequences of the industrialized society. Anticapitalistic or just the price of simple greed? Who knows? Patrice Chéreau will not tell. Whether Socialist or Marxist, I will leave others to argue.

Richard Peduzzi, later long-time collaborator of Chéreau was responsible for the sets. Open spaces, tied within the timeframe of the Industrial Revolution – brick walls and giant cogwheels spanning the side of the stage throughout the tetralogy.

The acting is uniformly excellent over the entire line. As pure vocal performances, few of the singers would be judged truly excellent by CD-comparison standards, but in the theater it was a virtually unbeatable cast, with only one (unfortunately major) exception: Siegfried.

Originally, this production was not conceived with television in mind, however these DVDs (as always from Bayreuth) were recorded in front of an empty auditorium in 1980 after Chéreau apparently made some adaptations for television. Video director Brian Large artificially inserted elements of smoke as well as advanced camera shifts during the scene changes.

Pierre Boulez provided a fast-paced, detailed and transparent reading, as such of high quality. However I ultimately feel he reduced the orchestra to simply accompany Patrice Chéreau´s staging (to be discussed in detail below).

An entire DVD (part of some box sets of this Nibelungen Ring) is devoted to the creation of this Ring.

This is not a so-called traditional Ring, of which the Metropolitan Opera Ring is the only available choice on the DVD market. In the overall “ranking” of Nibelungen Rings on DVD, I would place this Centenary Ring second only to Kupfer/Barenboim´s 1991 Bayreuth version, mostly due to Barenboim´s superior conducting and the superior casting of several of the leads (Siegfried, Wotan). Reviews of all seven available Nibelungen Ring versions on DVD may be found here.

The individual operas - Rheingold

In the beginning we see a post-industrial concrete water-dam. The Rhinemaidens (1890´s can-can dancers? Prostitutes?) lure Alberich. The Gods come with 18th century dress and powdered wigs – representing the world in decay? Standing before a Valhalla construction of pillars but otherwise unanchored in time, though is seems already in the process of decay.

Moving down stairs anchored to brick walls as typically seen in the first industrial factories we arrive in Nibelheim. The Nibelungens are an amorphous mass (the rising working class?) slaving for the modern capitalist and factory owner Alberich (for once not portrayed like a complete idiot) fighting the ruthless old-world aristocracy in the shape of Wotan. A true danse macabre is seen at the end of the Rheingold, while Loge pulls the curtain.

In brief, it works more than well. The epic elements are expressed convincingly: The looming, threatening Valhalla, the eerie dam. Very impressively, convincing solutions has been found to stage several of the treacherous elements, such as The Rhinegold: Simply portrayed as glittering gold hidden under the dam; The dragon and the frog: No serious attempts are made to hide the transformation from Alberich into either, which oddly works rather well; Valhalla: An undefined building exterior looming over the stage.

Donald McIntyre´s Wotan is competent, though a tad passive and dry. He commands the stage convincingly as the aged, disillusioned patriach. He doesn´t have the legato-lines and interpretatory depth of James Morris, nor the compelling energy of John Tomlinson, his most obvious competitors on DVD. Nevertheless, his performance is rather fine and fits well within Chéreau´s concept. Accompanied by Hermann Becht´s equally dry-voiced Alberich, Heinz Zednik´s wonderfully energetic and sly Loge and Hanna Schwarz´ virtually perfect Fricka.

Patrice Chéreau: At the beginning of Rheingold, there is this object on stage which could perhaps be a dam but which could also be many other things. It is a menacing construction, a theatrical machine to produce a river, and an allegorical shape which today generates energy. It is perhaps a mythological presence, the mythology of our time.

One is supposed to portray Valhalla – but at the same time such a portrayal is impossible….What is needed is a Valhalla which leaves some doubt as to its exact concrete form, whilst at the same time signifying the material expression of power – the ideology of power..

[On Nibelheim] Violence is also an ingredient of mythology and it is impossible to portray on stage so many struggles – for dominance and for existence itself – so much pressure for change, and so much raw energy without including violence. Yes, the Ring is violent and cruel. Wotan is brutal and unjust, like Lear disowning Cordelia.

[On the Gods ascent to Valhalla]: The heavy, hopeless bitterness which appears with the curse motif and Fasolt´s death and which descends on the gods like the sickly mists of old age…For me this is the dance of death of medieval allegories..It all seems like a defiant flight into the future..Nothing is going right any more, but never mind, let us enter Valhalla all the same – a solution will be found later.

The dam with the Rhinemaidens and the gold:

Gods and Giants in front of the looming Valhalla:

Loge and Wotan in Nibeheim - Alberich just morphed into a dragon:

Wotan and Loge with the captured Alberich:

Erda appearing in front of the almost-treasure-covered Freia:

Freia taking leave of Fasolt:

Inaugurating Valhalla:

The danse macabre of the Gods:

Loge, pulling the curtain at the end:

The individual operas - Walküre

Siegmund, the free peasant, arrives at the home of the wealthy land-owner Hunding. Or is he something else entirely? Clearly Siegmund, this genuine romantic hero does not know how to maneuvre in this world of capitalism and intrigue. Neither does his son, as it turns out in Götterdämmerung. Hunding does not arrive alone, but is accompanied by a group of men, in front of which the Walküre Act 1 chamber-drama is played out. Most importantly where most Walküre´s fail, this one succeeds: The drama is simply compelling.

Ideally Patrice Chéreau would have had a more compelling Wotan than Donald McIntyre to pull off the rest of the opera. Though by all standards McIntyre is more than competent, the drama involving Wotan (basically the rest of Walküre) never takes off to the same level as between Siegmund and Sieglinde. He commands the stage, but is relatively dry and monodimensional in vocal colouring as well as in characterization. Especially compared to his radiant daughter (Gwyneth Jones) and his stylish wife (Hanna Schwarz). Which is one reason why the “leb wohl” never truly takes off. The other reason is Pierre Boulez´ distinctly undramatic, uncontrapunctual reading (to be discussed in detail below).

To stage the second act in an unspecific room of Valhalla with a pendulum swaying in the middle almost approaches that of a genius. This is exactly what Wotan´s monologue is: The pendulum around which the Ring sways. Which suddenly stops dead right in the middle of Wotan´s monolong. Das ende. Indeed.
Most fittingly, the Walküre rock is a ruin – a remnant of past glory. The Wotan of The Old World desperately trying to maintain his empire..

The chemistry between Peter Hofmann and Jeannine Altmeyer is simply unsurpassed. On pure vocal terms neither may perhaps take place among the greatest in history, but when the intensity is like this, I honestly don´t even notice it, much less care about it. The most convincing Walküre Act 1 on DVD. Siegmund´s farewell to Sieglinde and his death is almost unbearably moving. Not to forget the young Matti Salminen as an excellent villainous Hunding.

Gwyneth Jones´ Brünnhilde is radiant. The wobble that later made her performances unlistenable was only incipient and though not always pretty in tone and not always on pitch, dramatically she has no real competition on DVD. As a “complete package” a better Brünnhilde is hard to find.

The home of Hunding:

Siegmund, Sieglinde and Hunding:

Siegmund and Sieglinde:

Siegmund pulling Nothung out of the trunk:

Siegmund and Sieglinde:

Wotan and Fricka:

Wotan, Brünnhilde and the pendulum:

Wotan during the monologue:

Siegmund and Sieglinde on the run:

Brünnhilde foretells Siegmunds death:

Siegmund´s farewell to Sieglinde:

Siegmund´s death:

Ride of the Valkyries:

Brünnhilde tells Sieglinde, that she is pregnant:

Wotan´s farewell to Brünnhilde:

Wotan evoking the fire around the Valkyrie Rock:

The individual operas - Siegfried

Mime and Siegfried lives amidst the cogwheels of industrialisation, conveniently next to a giant anvil. Though Nothung is not forged in the traditional manner, but rather melted in a proces made possible by the Industrial Revoluation. The gleaming Nibelungen gold is hidden among a forest of trees guarded by a giant toy-dragon wheeled in on a cartwright by stagehands. And someone conveniently has placed a bird-cage among the tree-tops. All ends on the crumbling ruins of the Walküre Rock.

Obviously Manfred Jung gives his best as Siegfried, and for this reason it seems unfair to go on at length about why exactly he doesn´t have what is required of this part. In fact his presence is a major draw-back to this Ring – vocally thin and physically unattractive as well as simply boring. A complete non-match for Gwyneth Jones´ Brünnhilde.
Donald McIntyre´s Wotan continues along the lines of Walküre and Rheingold – always the strongest in confrontations and declamations as opposed to the legato-lines dominating the Wanderer. On the other hand, his presence as A Man of The Past is rather convincing.
Heinz Zednik´s Mime is a perfect charicature of the underdog, with impeccably comic sense and timing.

Patrice Chéreau: Like it or not, there is an appalling cruelty in the scenes between Siegfried and Mime..Mime has to be both funny and tragic..
The scene with Fafner illustrates clearly that Siegfried´s freedom is only relative. The dragon warns him of the dangers of the world in which he lives, but the free man is not listening…And the central point of the tetralogy is precisely this: a hero has been created who would actually have had all the attributes of freedom, but that nobody remembered to tell him about them, and this man thus remains unaware and incomplete.

Siegfried, Mime and the forging of Nothung:

Wotan and Alberich meet in front of Fafner´s lair:

Siegfried with the Woodbird-cage:

Siegfried with Fafner:

Siegfried with Fafner, just before he dies:

Siegfried with Mime just before he kills him:

Wotan evoking Erda:

Wotan barring Siegfried´s path to the Valkyrie Rock:

Siegfried awakens Brünnhilde:

The individual operas - Götterdämmerung

Classic columns align the desolate world of the Gibichungen. They may be high-class and well-dressed – Gutrune in couture, Gunther in tuxedo, but all human values have gone. The industrial revolution as an inevitable, unstoppable process, which corrupts society? Or perhaps there are more layers..
Hagen in the crumbled suit is not a decisive factor – the wheels have been pre-programmed for this ending a long time ago. Siegfried, the naïve, obviously cannot manoeuvre in this world.

The images, needless to say, are spectacular. The interpersonal drama, unfortunately, relies mainly on Gwyneth Jones´ Brünnhilde, as neither Manfred Jung nor Fritz Hübner are very strong presences. And a bit more punch from Pierre Boulez would have been much appreciated.

Patrice Chéreau: To be precise, Götterdämmerung undoubtedly presents a world in which no values exist any more..The only possible refuge is in the past..It is hard to avoid seeing Götterdämmerung as a succession of rituals maintained at all costs, celebrated by people in search of a religion or a morality who may now carry on this cult in order to cover up the absence of any divinity.
By now Siegfried is a purely tragic figure…The draught of oblivion does not play a decisive part in this; the essential fact is that his own ego has never belonged to him, for he is programmed and deliberately programmed as if he were not programmed.

The beauty of the Ring is just as challenging today as when it was first performed, and what it has to say is still valid. The message remains aggressive and desperate, bitter and uncomfortable.

The norns:

Siegfried´s farewell to Brünnhilde:

Brünnhilde with The Ring, which Siegfried gave her:

Hagen, Siegfried and Gunther:

Siegfried and Gutrune - love at first sight. The love potion is not important:

Brünnhilde with Waltraute:

Gunther (Siegfried in disguise) overpowers Brünnhilde:

Alberich visits the dreams of his son, Hagen:

Hagen´s Call:

The happy couple - Siegfried and Gutrune:

The unhappy couple - Gunther and Brünnhilde:

Brünnhilde accuses Siegfried of treachery:

Siegfried at the dam with the Rhinemaidens:

Siegfried at the hunting party:

Hagen kills Siegfried:

Brünnhilde and Gutrune when informed on Siegfried´s death:

Brünnhilde takes back the Ring from Siegfried´s body:

Brünnhilde lighting the funeral pyre:

The world of the Gibichungen goes up in flame:

The final scene:

The singers

Generel comments: All singers look their parts and act well, a major contributory factor to the success of this Ring.

Wotan: Donald McIntyre´s Wotan is on the passive side. McIntyre´s tone is rather dry and he lacks both the interpretatory depth and smooth legato lines of James Morris as well as the sheer energy of John Tomlinson on competing DVDs. That said, he more than fits the bill and is an excellent dramatic actor, especially in the confrontational scenes.
Fricka: Hanna Schwarz must be close to the perfect Fricka: Beautiful tone, convincing presence.
Alberich: Hermann Becht´s voice is on the dry side and at points he almost retorts to yelling. His appearance on stage is convincing and, for once, not made ridiculous by the director.
Loge: Heinz Zednik´s Rheingold-Loge and Siegfried-Mime are both perfect examples of multifacetted engaged acting, superb comical timing and nuanced vocalism.
Fasolt: Excellent turnout for Matti Salminen.
Fafner: Ideally Fritz Hübner would have more sonorous ring to this deepest of deep parts.
Mime: Heinz Zednik´s Siegfried-Mime was a superb combination of excellent comic timing as well as plenty of character. Helmut Pampuch has considerably less to work with in the Rheingold-Mime, but made the most of it.
Erda: Ortrun Wenkel´s fine Erda would have be even finer with a more dramatically persuasive ring to it.
Sieglinde: Jeannine Altmeyer´s Sieglinde may be less than thrilling in pure vocal terms, however the on-stage chemistry with Peter Hoffman makes for a compelling performance. Futhermore she looks the part as few others.
Siegmund:Peter Hoffman may be cast as much for his looks than for his singing, but who cares? His singing is fine. Dramatically he is superb as the genuine tragic romantic hero. Best Siegmund on DVD. By far.
Hunding: Splendid performance from the young Matti Salminen
Brünnhilde: Gwyneth Jones´ theatrical radiance is simply unsurpassed. While incipient wobbly on her high notes, it does not seriously detract from her performance, though certain elements of strain are present and she is not always on pitch. She does, however, clearly have the vocal power to bring it off, in Götterdämmerung as well. Without doubt the best Brünnhilde on DVD and as a theatrical performer, one of the best of the century.
Siegfried: Manfred Jung´s underpowered and uninteresting Siegfried unfortunately is a major draw-back to this production, though he obviously makes an effort and gives his best.
Waltraute: Gwendolyn Killebrew´s dark mezzo and convincing dramatic presence is optimal for Waltraute.
Hagen: Fritz Hübner, not a genuine profundo (who is?) has trouble with the lowest notes and his presence is more that of a friendly competitor than the decisive menacing influence, which fits in well with Chéreau´s concept. Though one would wish Matti Salminen could have taken on Hagen in addition to his superb Hunding.
Gutrune: Wonderful performance from Jeannine Altmeyer.
Gunther: Franz Mazura both looks and sings on the dry side, not at all inappropriate for a Gunther.

The conductor and orchestra

Already in 1980 Pierre Boulez had conducted in Bayreuth for many years, since his 1966 debut with Parsifal (released on CD). Pierre Boulez is a masterful conductor in that he knows what he wants and how to execute it. Transparency is the operative word and in avant-garde works as well as in composers such as Debussy this leads to revelatory performances of immense clarity and entirely devoid of sentimentality.
This is essentially what Pierre Boulez brings to the Nibelungen Ring: A fast-paced, transparent, crystal-clear reading. However, while this approach adds to the understanding of the above-mentioned composers, in Wagner, in my opinion, it doesn´t add anything. Pierre Boulez essentially provides background music to Chéreau´s drama, where ideally the orchestra would have turned out an equally influential contribution.

In brief - The highlights and lowlights

The highlights: The theatricality and immensely compelling drama. The asthetic settings.

The lowlights: The casting of Siegfried.

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average)

The ratings are given in comparison to the other Ring DVDs available. As ever, the acting skills of the singers weigh in heavily.

Donald McIntyre (Wotan): 4
Hanna Schwarz (Fricka): 5
Hermann Becht (Alberich): 4

Heinz Zednik (Loge): 5
Matti Salminen (Fasolt): 5
Fritz Hübner (Fafner): 4
Heinz Zednik (Siegfried-Mime): 5
Helmut Pampuch (Rheingold-Mime): 4
Ortrun Wenkel (Erda): 3-4
Gwendolyn Killebrew (Waltraute): 5
Peter Hofmann (Siegmund): 5

Jeannine Altmeyer (Sieglinde): 4
Matti Salminen (Hunding): 5
Fritz Hübner (Hagen): 4

Manfred Jung (Siegfried): 2
Gwyneth Jones (Brünnhilde): 4
Jeannine Altmeyer (Gutrune): 5
Franz Mazura (Gunther): 3-4

Patice Chéreau´s staging: 5
Pierre Boulez: 4

Overall impression: 5
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