A new version of Wagner's four Ring operas on DVD is inevitably something to get excited about. And with Asia's first locally-produced Ring due in Taipei in September, its timing couldn't be bettered. Staged at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona in 2003 and 2004, and issued on DVD by Opus Arte last year, this version, distri-buted in Taiwan by Jingo (www.jingo.com.tw), challenges the existing sets in several ways.
No version of these works is going to please everybody. There are too many divergent sets of expectations to be satisfied, both mythic and musical. Some see the Ring as a vision of the downfall of capitalism, others as a statement about the primacy of sexual love, others as an antiquarian resurrection of Germanic legends of gods and heroes, yet others as representative of the impossible longings of Romanticism itself. No production could conceivably embody all, or even most, of these views.
Of the four other versions available on DVD I'm familiar with two, the Boulez/Chereau staging from Bayreuth in 1985, and the 1990 cycle from New York's Metropolitan Opera under James Levine. These have both long been praised, albeit for different reasons. This Barcelona version, however, is very different.
The Boulez/Chereau cycle, although it initiated the use of costumes from different historical periods, was in many ways intensely realistic. The cast were mostly young and physically attractive, and though there was a toy-like aspect to some of the stage ideas, the overwhelming impression was of a convincing imaginative recreation. It remains for many an unassailable masterpiece, dramatically and musically.
The New York/Levine cycle represented a return to traditional staging, with painted sets, costumes all of a piece, and mountain tops that actually looked like mountain tops. Its musical qualities were very high, and it's a version that retains the loyalty of many ardent Wagnerites.
This new Barcelona version is both stark and hard-hitting. There's essentially only one set, though it's put to many uses. At the back is a vast grid of tubular lights that flash, ripple, change color and generally attempt to do the all-but-impossible. In front of this lies, for much of the action, a large sloping tree trunk (the so-called World Ash of Scandinavian mythology). Beneath are two stages that ascend and descend relative to each other. Metal structures -- cranes, gantries and a gigantic wheel -- appear from time to time. Dramatic lighting encourages you to imagine these elements as representing the bed of the Rhine, the rainbow bridge to Valhalla, the Gibichungs' home, and so on. Costumes are again historically mixed.
The over-riding impression of this production is of somber images -- frequently indigo, violet, or very dark blue -- against stark, metallic backgrounds (or sometimes merely the concrete stage walls and their blank doorways). This harshness is augmented by much of the stage being covered with a shiny black material that reflects the flashing or glimmering lights that appear intermittently above it.
I wasn't convinced by this production in its entirety, but it certainly has some strong moments. The forging of the sword Notung that concludes Act One of Siegfried was especially powerful, and the first act of Die Walkure was also strong (though there it's almost impossible to fail).