Wagner - Der Ring des Nibelungen (Ring Cycle) / de Billy, Gran T... Cover Art

Wagner - Der Ring des Nibelungen (Ring Cycle) / de Billy, Gran Teatre del Liceu (Barcelona Opera) (DVD)

Bertrand de Billy, Harry Kupfer, Falk Struckmann, Deborah Polaski, Graham Clark

Current Price: $149.99

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This 11-DVD set documents the 2004 staging of Wagner's Ring cycle at Barcelona's beautiful Gran Teatre del Liceu, a production first seen at the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin. The producer, eminent Wagnerian Harry Kupfer, sees the cycle as a parable of man's destructive greed and Nature ravaged by man's technology. Kupfer's vision is realized in the stark, semi-abstract sets and direction. The World ash-tree from which the god Wotan wrenches the spear that symbolizes his mastery of the world dominates the stage picture in the early operas, withering in the later ones. Kupfer uses the theatre's advanced stage machinery to effortlessly move among the Valhalla of the gods, the earth, and the Nibelung's underworld realm. A grid screen backdrop changes to suit the action, with projections and Franz Peter David's lighting reflecting off the mirror-like stage surface. So the bridge the gods traverse to reach their new castle in Valhalla in Das Rheingold is indicated here by vertical lights on the backdrop, while the ring of fire that protects the sleeping Brunnhilde on her mountaintop in Die Walküre is accomplished by red bands of light whose glow is reflected onto the stage itself.

In Siegfried and Götterdämmerung the sets become more industrial-looking, with forests of pipes, a propeller-like object at center stage, and other symbolic elements that make Kupfer's connection with his theme of rampant technology. Costume designer Reinhard Heinrich clothes the singers in nondescript, non-specific garb for the most part, although the Gibichung siblings of Götterdämmerung seem dressed for a 1930s cocktail party. The bad guys tend to favor black raincoats and jackets, the giants in outfits reminiscent of those of hockey goalies. The ring itself is a large, brass-knuckle affair that can be seen from the top balcony. Most of the time sets, costumes, and lighting design make a positive impact, most impressively in the final scene of Götterdämmerung, which packs visual and emotional punch. Sometimes, though, the filming itself fails to do justice to the staging, making the screen murky, at times ill-focused.

From a musical standpoint this is a worthy Ring cycle, ranking somewhat below those of Boulez, Barenboim, and Levine. Bertrand de Billy conducts competent performances, but without the authority, overall consistent vision, or intensity of the above-named trio. His orchestra is competent, but prone to occasional horn fluffs and scrawny string sound. The cast includes some outstanding Wagner singers. Deborah Polaski has some iffy moments but rises to the big scenes, such as the closing duet in Die Walküre and the final scene of Götterdämmerung. The Wotan is Falk Struckmann, who's a petulant, one-dimensional god. By the time we come to the last two operas of the cycle (he also sings Gunther in Götterdämmerung) his voice is worn and unsteady. The Siegfried, John Treleaven, encounters similar vocal problems though he brings considerable energy to the role. The most impressive of the singers are Graham Clark, the cynical Loge of Das Rheingold and the hyperactive Mime of Siegfried, and Matti Salminen, who's riveting as Hagen in Götterdämmerung. The experienced Günter von Kannen is a forceful presence as Alberich, and the Fricka, Lioba Braun, is outstanding too. Die Walküre's twin lovers, Siegmund and Sieglinde, Richard Berkeley-Steele and Linda Watson, sing and act well. Other worthy portrayals include those of bass Kwanchul Youn as the giant, Fasolt, and Elisabete Matos as Gutrune. The Valkyries, Rhinemaidens, and Norns are well-matched, neatly sung contributors too. Wagnerians will want this set for its provocative well-crafted view of Wagner's great cycle. --Dan Davis

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