Wagner’s mammoth opera tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen is impossible to stage perfectly. No one production has all the answers to the multiple problems set by the composer, but this Harry Kupfer/Daniel Barenboim version for Bayreuth recorded between 1991 and 1992 is my choice for the best Ring currently available on DVD. Three factors make this absolutely unmissable for all Wagner lovers. First, it successfully carries out the primary golden rule of any worthy Ring production which is to accentuate the timeless mythology so cutting to the very essence of the piece. Second, Kupfer directs his cast of characters with razor-sharp precision which forces the weight of the drama and all its themes through the acting as well as the singing to make for a Ring that above everything else is deeply and wonderfully human. Third, this Ring is out of this world musically with superlative singing as well as conducting. In an age where truly great Wagner singing has largely gone the way of the dodo, this is little short of miraculous. The soundtrack even compares well with audio-only Rings where we have to go back to Marek Janowski’s 1980 Dresden cycle and even as far back as Karl Böhm’s Bayreuth 1967 cycle for anything comparable. The singing beats the Boulez 1980 Bayreuth version on DVD (though that is also a must buy cycle thanks to Patrice Chéreau’s extraordinary ground-breaking production) and over-shadows all latter day versions. If it’s a choice between Barenboim here and Barenboim in 2013 in the Cassiers Milan version there is quite simply no competition. Kupfer/Barenboim 1991-92 is the winner by a mile. With Bayreuth only issuing the Götterdämmerung from Alfred Kirchner’s 1994 Ring on DVD and not looking like releasing cycles by Jürgen Flimm (2000), Tankred Dorst (2005) and Frank Castorf (2013), it looks like the Kupfer/Barenboim Ring is set to stay at the head of a long list of alternatives to buy for home viewing. That is some achievement.
Ironically, nobody seemed to like Kupfer’s production when it opened in 1988 and even when it disappeared in 1992 nobody seemed to be sorry. There was much moaning about the permanent ‘world’s highway’ set which starts at the stage front and zooms straight back into the recesses at the rear of the stage. The highway is murky gray-black and indeed everything around it is murky gray-black, the sides of the highway delineated by careful use of light and shadow. Wagner traditionalists were alarmed at the stark lack of nature. Siegfried’s forest murmurs are rendered to a threatening metallic mess of a ‘forest’ with not a tree or a leaf in sight. Brünnhilde greets the day (Siegfried act 3) and dawn rises (Götterdämmerung prologue) with no sun, just stygian gloom! Whole acts of the cycle are played out on the bare highway with no other stage sets and minimal props, the production perceived at the time as being a grim post-nuclear ‘Chernobyl’ miserablist affair which was adjudged both ugly to look at and shallow to think about. Time though has validated Kupfer’s achievement. Partly because what’s available on DVD barely scratches the surface of quality Ring productions around the world (Ruth Berghaus’ 1985 Frankfurt cycle and Richard Jones’ 1995 Covent Garden cycle are renowned modern classics which sadly haven’t made it to DVD), and mostly because of the irreverence, insolence and (in many cases) the downright idiocy of the way Ring production has gone over the last two decades, Kupfer’s now stands as the most coherent and cogently-argued production with Wagner’s grandson Wolfgang hailing it as “uncompromising in its clarity and consistency. [Kupfer] developed the tetralogy in an overwhelmingly logical manner, casting it in a single mold and never allowing it to disintegrate into separate parts or particles.”
Wagnerians will be aware that there were two German Rings cast in ‘a single mold’ in the 1990s, Götz Friedrich’s ‘time-tunnel’ cycle for Deutsche Oper Berlin (first seen in 1982) rivalling Kupfer for monolithic darkness. Both directors were disciples of the legendary Walter Felsenstein at the Komische Oper Berlin who took the ideas of early 20th century radical theorists Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig as being the key to transforming opera from old realist (re naturalist) traditions towards abstraction wherein the central dramatic idea of each text is accentuated by stripping the stage of inessentials and focusing on arrangement of characters, their movement and on careful lighting. The psychological motivation of characters was held to be of highest importance and in Wagner especially myth is stressed by abstract staging which defies particular time and place. For them a stress on returning Wagner to his origins in Greek tragedy was ideal and Wieland Wagner (Wagner’s grandson, brother of Wolfgang) was the one who from 1951 through to 1966 took up these ideas the strongest. His first Ring (1951) was also cast from ‘a single mold’ – a giant disc rotated imaginatively to accompany the drama as it went along, and his second Ring (1965) was equally as dark and grim as Kupfer’s. Wieland famously deployed his characters as virtual Greek statues to the extent that detractors accused him of reducing his grandfather’s opera dramas to oratorios. Patrice Chéreau in his centenary Ring paid homage to Wieland’s ‘return to Greek tragedy’ by deploying elements of ancient Greek architecture in Richard Peduzzi’s designs to be seen especially in the evocations of Valhalla, the Valkyrie rock and the Gibichung hall, but he replaced Wieland’s statues with a stress on character movement and psychology coming through the acting as well as the singing. It’s revealing perhaps that Chéreau’s thinking like Kupfer’s came from Felsenstein only in his case filtered through Giorgio Strehler at Piccola Scala, Milan.
When Kupfer was asked to stage the Ring he looked closely at what had already been done at Bayreuth and created a production which consciously returns to the abstraction of Wieland Wagner while simultaneously taking off from Chéreau’s movement of the characters. Just as Peter Hall had reacted AGAINST Chéreau in his ill-fated 1983 production which attempted to return the Ring back to 19th century traditional representation of nature so Kupfer reacted TO Chéreau by pushing his ideas even further. If Chéreau’s characters were active, real, believable people stripped of their usual fairy tale trappings, Kupfer’s characters are hyper-active, even more real and even more believable human beings suspended in perpetual motion forever walking, running, crawling, climbing and jumping. When they aren’t flinging themselves face down to kiss the stage, they are lying flat on their backs singing straight up into the air. For many in the audience it was all too much – they found the constant movement distracting and speculated why the quality of the music and the actual safety of singers had to be compromised so blatantly. Actually this wasn’t the case at all. In various subsequent interviews artists remarked how the acting (encouraged by close work with Kupfer) took them deep inside their characters and how their singing consequently benefited from such physical as well as emotional involvement. Anne Evans (Brünnhilde) is even on record saying she never once felt tired after giving a complete performance! Watch these DVDs and you become aware how much the singers actually ARE the characters they play for the time they are before us. Also, the crucial central relationships (Wotan/Fricka, Alberich/Mime, Siegmund/Sieglinde, Wotan/ Brünnhilde, Siegfried/Mime, Siegfried/Brünnhilde) are portrayed so realistically with true psychological depth in the way they react to one another and through respect for the text (always a Felsenstein prerequisite). Kupfer strips the main characters of all the stereotypes that have accrued down the years – ‘Noble Wotan’ becomes a virile manic-depressive, ‘shrewish Fricka’ becomes a genuinely loving wife hurt by her husband’s infidelities, the ‘ice maiden’ Brünnhilde becomes tenderly warm and feminine even when still a Valkyrie and the ‘heroic’ Siegfried becomes an innocent adolescent yearning for independence. All the characters are reinvented as warm, vulnerable and accessible human beings not dissimilar to ourselves or to our real-life neighbors. The total result is a Ring of overwhelming human emotion with the cosmic co-existing with domestic intimacy to the mutual benefit of both.
Some people might query my claim of Kupfer respecting the text as many have lambasted him for taking liberties. Kupfer in true New Bayreuth style does stay faithful to the text as sung, but he jettisons many of Wagner’s stage directions, taking particular liberty with Wotan who appears in places Wagner never specifies. Many might question why the Wanderer in Siegfried act 2 produces the woodbird from his pocket and lets it dance on the end of his spear, her song seeming to voice his words which guide his grandson. On the surface this contradicts Wagner’s idea of Siegfried (unlike his father Siegmund) being a free hero qualified to win back the Ring and redeem the world. Actually though, Wotan’s actions are justified in the text when Mime sings “Weilte wohl hier ein weiser Wandrer, schweifte umher, beschwatzte das Kind mit list'ger Runen Rat? [Can he have met a wily Wanderer, roaming around, advising the boy with crafty talk and tales?]” while the Wanderer nods his head in sage agreement. Kupfer argued that he kept to the spirit of what Wagner required not the letter, and by jettisoning the stage directions he felt freed up to address the core psychological themes that flow through the Ring, one of them being that all characters created by Wotan exist as extensions of his will, especially the Valkyries and the Wälsung race including Siegfried. Kupfer underlines this further by endowing Wotan and all his progeny with shocking red hair. Let me go through each opera outlining some of the other controversial points and underlining some of the highlights which for me make this Ring particularly insightful.
Kupfer begins his production before the music starts with the curtain rising on a fixed tableau. A corpse lies on the stage towards the front. Behind it stand huddled groups of people. Mist rises. Clearly a tragedy has just happened. The final tableau Kupfer gives us in Götterdämmerung is almost the same with the inclusion of Alberich who is presented as the one surviving figure who is set to kick off the beginning of another cycle of tragedy. This might not be what Wagner wrote, but the framing device does cast the whole Ring as one cycle taking in the birth, life and death of man. For me this is a very powerful expression of the nature of the cycle of life. It also announces the eternal ‘world’s highway’ which is a symbol of timelessness and the eternal repetition of the events we witness. Apart from this opening Das Rheingold is set conventionally with the Rhine represented with green lasers running down the sides of the highway and a rubber floor through which the Rhinemaidens slip and slide with Alberich (a superbly characterful Günther von Kannen) giving the illusion of water. Nibelheim is a subterranean factory which rises out of the floor of the highway, Wotan and Loge climbing down to achieve the illusion of plunging the depths as Wagner specifies. Alberich changes into a convincing ‘wurm’ (a crocodile) and frog and the text is respected in all respects. Either side of this scenes 2 and 4 are set on the highway with a black construction dipping down from the flies concealing the upper reaches of the stage. This turns out to be an elevator up which the Gods ascend to Valhalla with the rainbow bridge suggested by lights which cut out as it ascends. Scenes 2 and 4 are notoriously difficult to bring off effectively as there’s a lot of lengthy chat, characters hanging around in many productions seemingly not knowing what they should do. Here there’s no question of that, the Gods making their entrance as a bunch of gangsters swirling around, Wotan (the amazing John Tomlinson) bounding about the stage as if he owns it and the other gods all reacting to each other as if they are a family with shared concern and with an amazing array of expressions pinpointed exactly as they line up across the proscenium staring out at us in the audience. Fricka (Linda Finnie) is shown as being particularly close to her husband as the concern over how to rescue Freia from the giants mounts. Eva Johansson copes admirably with the wickedly high tessitura of her role which defeats most of her rivals in other productions. The giants (strongly voiced by Matthais Hölle and Philip Kang) are huge Giocometti constructions wheeled around the stage with astonishing speed. Graham Clark’s Loge when he appears is a brilliant black-comic creation, dominating the stage as a true Loge should. He makes a brilliant anti-partner with Wotan as the latter cajoles and bullies him. Wotan’s high spirits are brilliantly counterpointed with depression at having to relinquish the Ring on Erda’s (Birgitta Svendén) urging. In the final moments I love the insolent way Loge leans against the side of the stage front, arms crossed, one foot up against the wall. Wotan menacingly pins him there with his spear until Loge distainfully waves it away as they endure the Rhinemaidens’ lament. Wotan the power-hungry cheat facing Loge the advocate of nature make a suitably ironic picture to balance the irony of what we hear – the Valhalla motif (Wotan/power) undercut by the music of the Rhine (Loge/nature). No simple stage manager here, Loge finishes by marching off in sheer disgust. Absolutely brilliant.
Die Walküre opens provocatively not on the inside of a house as Wagner stipulates, but with the world’s highway exposed for the whole of its length. The storm of the opening prelude graphically pictures Siegmund (the ideal clean-voiced very heroic Poul Elming) stumbling out of the mist as Wotan watches from the side. This ‘liberty’ actually highlights two important things, Siegmund’s desperation (keenly felt as a section of the highway rises to reveal Hunding’s house into which the poor hero drops absolutely exhausted) and Wotan watching and exerting control over his son, the supposedly ‘free’ hero (did he conjur up the storm that has driven him to the place where his sister and a sword awaits?). Most of the act plays out conventionally (Matthias Hölle suitably black-voiced as Hunding), but on “Ha, wer ging? Wer kam herein? [Ah, who went? Or who has come?]” (Sieglinde) the wall comes down again exposing the twins in a supremely grand gesture on the highway of life with only the dead metallic tree with Nothung poking out breaking up the clean vista. This final section is sung ecstatically, both Elming and Nadine Secunde in glorious voice and their thrusting body language conveying 100% the erotic ardor of their emotions. The way they finish on top of each other, a tangle of pulsating limbs, it’s as if Siegfried is sired there and then. Terrific.
Act 2 takes place wholly on the stark highway opening with another imaginative touch of the Wälsung twins canoodling at the front of the stage before picking themselves up and hurling themselves down the road and into the depths of the stage. As they disappear Wotan appears ecstatic that his plan to regain the ring is advancing. Tomlinson cuts a virile father as his daughter Brünnhilde (Evans) cuts loose her thrilling cries of “Hojotoho!” Their love is established from the very beginning just as Fricka’s is also expressed despite her objections to incest and infidelity. This is clearly a real marriage as evinced by the way she touches her man and he is not unresponsive especially as she points out his self-deception – that Siegmund is very far from being a ‘free hero.’ Despite his distress he can’t help admitting she is in the right. Normally played as a shrewish wasp nagging her feckless partner, it’s so refreshing to see such chemistry on the stage and also to hear Fricka’s lines sung so firmly by Linda Finnie completely without the matronly wobble that we so often encounter elsewhere. The following scene where Wotan unburdens himself to Brünnhilde in a wholly wonderful monolog (for me the greatest thing Wagner ever wrote) is brilliantly done by Kupfer and his faithful singers. The love between father and daughter runs thick and strong, Tomlinson and Evans obviously having worked long and hard to get the psychology right. It’s interesting that for both Kupfer and Friedrich in Berlin the passage where Wotan sings, “Auf geb ich mein Werk; nur eines will ich noch: das Ende [I leave all my work, but one thing I desire: the ending]” is the center not only of Die Walküre, but also of the whole Ring. Kupfer signifies it with a huge gash in the highway opening up to an audible crash which Wotan reacts to with a look of sheer terror. In an act where absolutely nothing else happens on the highway by way of scene-change, this is a moment of spine-tingling profundity. This same hole appears again in Götterdämmerung as Siegfried’s grave to which both Wotan and Brünnhilde pay respect as the funeral march thunders around them (another superb coup d’théâtre) and is also the funeral pyre itself into which Brünnhilde throws herself in the immolation scene. This sense of prophesy come true may not be what Wagner requests, but it’s undeniably moving and totally at one with the spirit of the piece as established by the words of Erda in both Das Rheingold and in Siegfried act 3 as well as the Waltraute scene in Götterdämmerung act 1. Returning to Die Walküre, the Tödesverkundigung is beautifully moving, both Evans and Elming matching each other in lyrical intensity and the act winds up with expertly choreographed violence.
Walküre Act 3 is impressive for its simplicity. Again the world’s highway is present monolithic and unchanged throughout, the only variation being a zig-zag iron ladder descending from the flies for the opening ride of the Valkyries. The Valkyries move with furious abandon to reflect the requisite movement required for the scene. The group movement is expertly choreographed to highlight Sieglinde’s plight, her glorious cry of “O hehrstes Wunder!” (Secunde spine-tingling) and then Wotan’s wrath when he arrives as the wretched Brünnhilde is shielded by her sisters. As voiced by Tomlinson I can’t recall the anger ever registering with as much vehemence as it does here, the singer’s bass register really coming into its own. The great final scene is something of rare beauty, Tomlinson subtly essaying the gradual transformation from scornful rage to unabashed love. Interestingly neither Tomlinson nor Evans are what tradition would consider right for their roles. Wotan is traditionally sung by a bass-baritone while Brünnhilde is usually the preserve of hefty dramatic sopranos. Tomlinson’s bass gives the character a new dimension, which moves away from the pure noble warmth of a James Morris or a René Pape towards an anguished victim caught up in his own designs. That was what Barenboim and Kupfer wanted when they cast Tomlinson and that is exactly what they get in a performance of quite extraordinary range and vigor. This Wotan is more man than God and we empathize with him all the more for it. Similarly those who regard Birgit Nilsson as the archetypal Brünnhilde might not buy at first Anne Evans’ altogether slighter, more feminine, more lyrical take on the role. Actually, as Evans herself has said, there is great variety in the way Brünnhilde has been sung down the years and she models herself very much on the pre-war singing of Frieda Leider whose Brünnhilde was indeed warm, lyrical and deeply feminine. The combination of Tomlinson’s truly moving transformation from defied patriarch to shattered doting father with Evans’ always vulnerable, but always sturdy and firm-voiced innocence is truly electric here, especially the way Kupfer has them move to and around each other. The magic fire, a red laser cube with traditional red dry-ice fire matching the flowing red hair of this father and daughter, is magically realized and constitutes the conclusion of one of the most moving Walküres in my experience. I found it completely shattering.
With Siegfried and Götterdämmerung Kupfer moves towards sets which have been cut out of the world’s highway. Siegfried act 1 takes place in what seems to be a broken sewage pipe unearthed from beneath the highway, act 2’s Neidhöhle is a kind of metallic scrap yard created after a possible earthquake (the arrival of Fafner?), and the second part of Götterdämmerung’s prologue and end of act 1 are set in a bunker carved out of the highway. Siegfried act 3 is the now familiar open highway, naked and unadorned while the first part of Götterdämmerung act 1, the whole of act 2 and the beginning of act 3 are human constructions planted on the highway. For the Gibiching hall scenes we see the lights of skyscrapers stretching down the stage on either sides of the highway with act 2 dominated by a giant metallic quadripod construction and the Rhine in act 3 a return to Chéreau’s idea of a rusty hydro-electric dam.
Siegfried is an opera made up of a series of character encounters and Kupfer’s cast delight in acting and singing in the most characterful way especially in those gem-like encounters in act 2 involving the Wanderer, Mime, Alberich, Fafner and Siegfried. The relationship between the teenage Siegfried (Siegfried Jerusalem) wanting to escape his home and see the world and his spiteful cringing guardian Mime (Graham Clark) is outstandingly rendered. Both sing with ideal tonal color and watching them clown around each other is pure joy. Clark’s character tenor is an instrument of amazing beauty, strength and forever changing shade. He is absolutely ideal as Loge and Mime, as I would say is Jerusalem as Siegfried. He is the most mellifluous heldentenor we have had since Wolfgang Windgassen, the voice possessing the ideal range and power to cope with the extraordinary demands Wagner makes and listening to him is pure joy after enduring so many Siegfrieds who frankly speaking just don’t cut it at all. On top of the voice is his acting power which Kupfer explores to the hilt. Just compare his performances here with the ones he gives for Otto Schenk in the New York Met 1989 cycle and you see a huge difference between a singer who has been properly directed and is thoroughly into his part, and one who hasn’t and therefore isn’t. I have already noted Wotan (as the Wanderer) being everywhere in this production and for me at least it makes sense. The duel with Mime in act 1 is a highlight as is the spectacular entrance at the beginning of act 3 where Tomlinson stumbles down the complete length of the highway in anguished fashion, an image of unforgettable torment. Birgita Svendén is a firm-voiced Erda and the encounter with Siegfried is both brutal and moving. The final awakening of Brünnhilde and their ecstatic love duet is given the same in-depth treatment as the final scene in Die Walküre. The transition from nervy fear to voluptuous passion is deeply convincing, the two even throwing themselves face-down on the highway ‘to consecrate the earth’ (Kupfer) at one point.
If there is a disappointment in this production it comes for me in Götterdämmerung which isn’t as earth-shattering as it ideally should be. This is the problem perhaps of basing a whole ring around one set. Both Kupfer and Friedrich return to the beginning with their sets set to start off the cycle again, which makes sense intellectually and to a large extent emotionally, but the feeling that the world has changed doesn’t quite come across with the intensity that I have witnessed it doing in San Francisco (Nikolaus Lehnhoff 1990) and in Bayreuth (Chéreau 1980). I think we really need to see Valhalla burn and a complete change of scene. As it stands the Kupfer version doesn’t feel cosmic enough when he reduces the Norns scene for example to over-obvious fiddling with TV antennas thus linking in with members of the audience watching the destruction of the world on TVs at the very end. Then he resorts to childlike sentimentality by introducing two children stumbling across the rubble in addition to Alberich spotlit at the front of the stage. The immolation is impressive in its own way, but when the scene around it obviously doesn’t change the resulting feeling is anti-climax. That said, this Götterdämmerung isn’t short of visual coups and the singing is as excellent as ever. Brünnhilde and Siegfried’s love duet is an outstanding success as is the pictorializing of Siegfried’s Rhine journey, the floor lit green with lasers and shrouded in mist as Siegfried stands on a conveyor belt with a statue of Grane moving gradually upstage. Once at the hall of the Gibichungs, perhaps the voice quality goes down a shade. Gunther (Bodo Brinkmann) and Gutrune (Eva-Maria Bundschuh) are ungrateful parts to sing and here the singing doesn’t make them seem anything more. Philip Kang makes an excellent Hagen, though perhaps not as black-voiced or baleful enough for those used to Matti Salminen in the role! Still, the voice is firm, big and he commands the stage. I like the watch scene and the quadripod in act 2 allows him to be above the others and be director of the massive deception perpetuated on both Siegfried and Brünnhilde. The way he stalks Brünnhilde in the closing immolation is masterfully done. The Waltraute/Brünnhilde encounter is sung very well, Evans a match for Waltraud Meier’s thrilling command of her role. Alberich’s apparition to Hagen is superbly done with Günther von Kannen sealing off a trio of marvelous performances. The calling of the vassals is well executed, the quadripod dividing up the stage space in a way which focuses our attention on the action and enables the sound to come out at us naturally. The central argument centered round Hagen’s spear is very exciting, all principles giving their best with the final trio thrilling in its intensity. I question Kupfer’s quote of Chéreau in the Rhinemaidens scene with the hydro-electric dam (had he run out of ideas there?), but again the stage space is suitably divided up for Siegfried’s slaughter (the death beautifully sung by Jerusalem). As said before the funeral music plays around Siegfried’s grave and we are taken back to the Gibichung hall for a superbly sung immolation from Evans, but the somewhat problematic conclusion.
Never mind, this is still an outstanding Ring as satisfying to the ears as it is to the eyes and that in itself is a great rarity. If you like Wagner you simply must buy this.
John Tomlinson (Wotan), Bodo Brinkmann (Donner), Kurt Schreibmayer (Froh), Graham Clark (Loge), Günther von Kannen (Alberich), Helmut Pampuch (Mime), Matthais Hölle (Fasolt), Philip Kang (Fafner), Linda Finnie (Fricka), Eva Johansson (Freia), Birgitta Svendén (Erda), Hilde Leidland (Woglinde), Annette Küttenbaum (Wellgunde), Jane Turner (Floßhilde)
Poul Elming (Siegmund), Nadine Secunde (Sieglinde), Matthias Hölle (Hunding), John Tomlinson (Wotan), Linda Finnie (Fricka), Anne Evans (Brünnhilde), Eva Johansson (Gerhilde), Ruth Floeren (Ortlinde), Shirley Close (Waltraute), Hitomi Katagiri (Schwertleite), Eva-Maria Bundschuh (Helmwige), Linda Finnie (Siegrune), Birgitta Svendén (Grimgerde), Hebe Dijkstra (Roßweise)
Siegfried Jerusalem (Siegfried), Graham Clark (Mime), John Tomlinson (Der Wanderer), Philip Kang (Fafner), Günther von Kannen (Alberich), Hilde Leidland (Der Waldvögel), Birgitta Svendén (Erda), Anne Evans (Brünnhilde)
Siegfried Jerusalem (Siegfried), Bodo Brinkmann (Gunther), Günther von Kannen (Alberich), Philip Kang (Hagen), Anne Evans (Brünnhilde), Eva-Maria Bundschuh (Gutrune), Waltraud Meier (Waltraute), Hilde Leidland (Woglinde), Annette Küttenbaum (Wellgunde), Jane Turner (Floßhilde), Birgitta Svendén (1. Norn), Linda Finnie (2. Norn), Uta Priew (3. Norn)