Wagner: Das Rheingold

Our rating 
2.0 out of 5 star rating 2.0

COMPOSERS: Wagner
LABELS: Arthaus Musik
WORKS: Das Rheingold
PERFORMER: Mario Hoff, Alexander Günther, Jean-Noël Briend, Erin Caves, Tomas Möwes, Frieder Aurich, Renatus Mészár, Hidekazu Tsumaya; Staatskapelle Weimar/Carl St Clair; dir. Michael Schulz (Weimar, 2008)
CATALOGUE NO: 101 353 (NTSC system; DD 5.1; 16:9 picture format)

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These opening instalments of Weimar’s new Ring inherit a Wagnerian tradition that dates back to Liszt’s premiere of Lohengrin in 1850. All too authentically, alas; his production was inadequate, and this performance also is provincial in the worst sense.

Carl St Clair’s conducting is no worse than undistinguished, except that crucial moments often sag through lack of energy – Wotan’s self-destructive outburst, for example – or are distorted to suit the staging, as in the Giants’ lethargic entry. However, of Rheingold’s three pivotal roles, only Erin Caves’s smooth, light-voiced Loge is anything like acceptable.

Mario Hoff’s podgy little Wotan is weak-voiced and characterless, and Tomas Möwes’s huge Alberich quite simply the worst I’ve ever heard, live or recorded – vocally feeble, dry and off-pitch, frequently resorting to casual Sprechgesang or just shouting. Christine Hansmann’s Fricka is sour-toned. Of the rest, only Marietta Zumbült’s Freia, Giants Renatus Mészár and Hidekazu Tsumaya are much good, and Nadine Weissmann’s resonant young Erda very promising indeed.

In Walküre Caves is promoted to Siegmund, looking good, acting well but underpowered, draining any thrill from his heroic passages; Nadine Blanck’s Sieglinde is more spirited, but often unsteady and choppy in her lines. Wotan mercifully metamorphoses into the hulking Mészár, revealing a large but dry voice, unsteady above the stave. Catherine Foster’s hefty Brünnhilde begins sparkily but develops serious wobble, and her characterisation and delivery are prosaic compared to Anne Evans or Gwyneth Jones. The galumphing ‘schoolgirl’ Valkyries are a mixed bag.

The mediocre air extends to the production, though it’s no worse – or more original – than any dozen today. Settings and costumes inhabit much the same vaguely Victorian milieu Chéreau adopted some 30 years ago. Epic imagery is guyed or bogged down with perverse mistiming, superfluous characters (Rheingold gods reappear), extra ‘business’ and lumpen symbolism – everyone constantly covering the eye Wotan lacks, for example: interesting at first but meaninglessly over-used.

Producer Schulz also dreams up ‘prologues’. In Rheingold three schoolgirls with glove-puppets recite the Norns’ opening words from Götterdämmerung, interspersed with frenzied quacking. For Walküre we get a concert in a picture-frame Valhalla, of Norn lines arranged from Wagner’s original sketches, disrupted by Alberich dragging a schoolboy – evidently the young Hagen – who drowns everyone with moronic amplified howling.

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If all this suggests a lack of interest in the works as well as a reliance on gimmickry, what follows bears it out. The remaining instalments may improve, but so far the recent Copenhagen Ring (on Decca) is musically and dramatically worth ten of this. Michael Scott Rohan