ALBUM TITLE: Wagner
PERFORMER: Wolfgang Schmidt, Falk Struckmann, Eric Halfvarson, Ekkehard Wlaschiha, Deborah Polaski, Anne Schwanewilms, Hanna Schwarz; Bayreuth Festival Chorus & Orchestra/James Levine; dir. Alfred Kirchner (Bayreuth, 1997)
CATALOGUE NO: 073 4340 (NTSC system; dts 5.1; 16:9 picture format)
Alfred Kirchner’s Bayreuth Ring succeeded the celebrated Harry Kupfer/Daniel Barenboim staging (Warner DVD) to very little acclaim. As with Sir Peter Hall’s before it, orthodox German critics despised its rejection of ‘modernisation’ – that is, presenting the work in Wagner’s terms, without added subtexts and political shibboleths.
Nonetheless Gudrun ‘Rosalie’ Müller’s sets look quite adequately modern, centred on a curving world-surface over which abstract walls and screens descend, enhanced by varying textures and projections – a stark, clean-lined vision marred by ludicrous costumes.
They don’t greatly hinder excellent performances, though – Deborah Polaski’s powerful but feminine and vulnerable Brünnhilde, Eric Halfvarson’s horribly charismatic Hagen, and Falk Struckmann’s unusually sturdy Gunther, all in far fresher voice than for Kupfer’s Barcelona production (Opus Arte). Anne Schwanenwilms’s silver-voiced Gutrune is reduced to a self-centred fashion victim, but Hanna Schwarz’s Waltraute remains tragically moving. Norn and Rhinemaiden trios are particularly strong. Unfortunately Wolfgang Schmidt’s Siegfried is absolutely not the ‘lyrical’ performance a sleeve quote promises, his nasal, approximate tone and his constant podgy ‘boyish’ bounce unbelievably irritating.
Levine, though, carries the performance, as slow as his 1990 Met recordings but much more fluent, and with even finer orchestral playing. Faults and all, I’ve enjoyed this plain, powerful, finely recorded reading more than its DVD competitors. A shame DG hasn’t hunted out other Kirchner fragments, including Wotan’s Farewell with Sir John Tomlinson. Michael Scott Rohan