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Wagner: Der Ring Des Nibelungen [DVD]  [NTSC]
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Lothar Zagrosek conducts the Staatsorchester Stuttgart in these performances of Wagner's cycle of four operas - 'Das Rheingold', 'Die Walküre', 'Siegfried' and 'Götterdämmerung' - recorded in 2002 and 2003. The cast includes Angela Denoke, Luana DeVol, Lisa Gasteen, Robert Gambill, Jan-Hendrik Rootering, Wolfgang Schöne and Jon Fredric West.
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Maybe it's just the conservative side in me that makes me feel so frustrated with this "Regietheater" production of my top favorite opera(s) of all time. Usually, I favor more traditional opera productions. It is what the composer originally intended, and if a stage director tries to bring their own perspective into, say, Donizetti's L'Elisir D'Amore or Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel, then it's more of a blasphemous decision. Nobody is going to understand why Nemorino sings "Una Furtiva Lagrima" in the middle of a cubist cemetery, or why Caspar visits the Wolf's Glen (from Weber's Der Freischütz) while holding an artichoke and wearing a Boston Red Sox cap. Sometimes I have no problem with changing the time that the opera takes place in: you can set Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in Ancient China and it would still make as much sense. Just so long as the story is unchanged, then it would be fine. There are only a few times in which a "Regietheater" production is actually quite interesting. The Bayreuth Ring production from the early 90's (with Harry Kupfer as the director) is one of those examples: it features fantastic lighting effects and an intriguing post-apocalyptic ambiance. Unfortunately, most other productions fail in the most immense fashion. This Ring production from Stuttgart is the very image of modernistic displeasure. It's not set in a Norse/Germanic setting; rather, it's set in a semi-realistic present-day setting. And what's worse is...well, let's go further into detail, shall we?
Lothar Zagrosek, who is mostly known for his interpretations of 20th Century classical works, gives his own take of Wagner's Ring Cycle. His conducting may sound a bit dull to some, though I did find it much more engaging than the actual staging of the Cycle. Zagrosek favors a more direct approach, though it's more measured than usual. Slower tempi are the norm, though not as slow as James Levine. Some of the most dramatic moments aren't exactly explosive, but what makes up for them is the concentration on orchestral clarity. There are also moments in which it almost feels that the conductor is uninvolved, as if he could care less about the entire scene. But otherwise, his control of the music is more apparent in other scenes (such as when Wotan punishes Brunnhilde right in front of the other Valkyries because of her disobeying his new command, or when Alberich and his son Hagen reunite one last time). Zagrosek's conducting isn't as refined as Herbert von Karajan or Marek Janowski, but he does let the music flow nicely for most of the time.
The orchestra of the Stuttgart State Opera sounds small compared to Bayreuth or Metropolitan Opera. It appears that it has been condensed to a chamber ensemble (like how Boulez transformed the Bayreuth Orchestra for the Bicentennial Ring Production in 1976). But besides that, Stuttgart sounds fine. The string and woodwinds perform very satisfactorily, though the brass could have added more polish in their sound.
This is the part that I dread the most. I'd be rather amused if you're looking for a straightforward present-day re-telling of Wagner's Ring. In truth, this production is boring and just plain idiotic. Every character in the Ring is wearing either business suits or plain street clothes, no distinctive appearances whatsoever. With Sieglinde wearing nothing but a nightgown or the Valkyries wearing paper wings on both of their arms, everything is lacking keen imagination. The sets look cheap and uninspiring: Brunnhilde lies on a kitchen table while falling asleep in the end of Die Walkure, *sarcasm* how lovely *end sarcasm*. Oh, and during the last scene in Siegfried, the set is incredibly similar to the bedroom in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Did they run out of ideas or something? Mime's lair is actually a filthy kitchen. Siegfried wears a t-shirt that literally says "Siegfried, and also wears a phony Viking costume. A chain link fence stands in front of the stage acting as a "forest." The tarnhelm is actually a mirror...
I could go on forever, but I don't think I have enough energy to describe all of the major flaws.
Actions provided by the characters are very minimal. Sometimes they do nothing but stand and sing, and when they actually physically do something, it's not very interesting to watch. The singing is pretty good, though inconsistent. Wotan, Brunnhilde, Siegfried, Alberich, Fricka, Erda, and many other characters existing in more than one opera are sung by different people. For instance, Brunnhilde is sung by three sopranos: Behle, Gasteen, and DeVol. It gets really distracting when seeing three different people appearing as the same character. Even the Rhinemaidens are sung by different women. Admittedly, nearly half of the cast is a real disappointment. Singers like Bonnema, Vaughn, and Schöne are not fully involved and lack solid cohesion.
The only good things to come out of this pathetic Stuttgart production are Zagrosek's conducting and the orchestra. The singing and the acting is underwhelming. But the worst is the staging. I hate it when an opera like Der Ring des Nibelungen is modernized, and is tampered with by derivative directors. This isn't exactly "Regietheater" at its worst, but it's REALLY close. It's sad that this sort of production is now the norm in opera houses worldwide. What's the point of presenting an opera when it won't even make sense to 90% of the audience? Newcomers especially won't understand what's going on. Maybe it's just my conservative side, but still, I wish we would see more fantastical Ring productions. And it doesn't have to be set in a Norse/Germanic setting. How about one that's set in biblical times? Or even better, how about a desert wasteland during the Mesopotamian era? It would be much better than having the entire Ring set in an incoherent spectacle of modern travesties.
Official Grade: 2.7 out of 10
Be warned - this is not only an unconventional Ring - it's also a unsuccessful one. The concept was to use a separate director for each opera in the cycle: a bold concept which fails utterly.
Feel free to buy a copy out of curiosity, but don't expect much. It typifies the worst of Regietheater.