Finally it’s happened. After a decade of productions of Wagner’s four Ring operas that in one way or another sought to undermine the original, we have at last got a marvelous, indeed superlative, Ring that is wholeheartedly, but also very inventively, conceived in the spirit of these incomparable late-Romantic works. No more “updating” with the hero Siegfried appearing as a lout in a frilly apron in a modern kitchenette (the Stuttgart Ring); no more Siegmund, another hero, having a pot of flour and water emptied over his head (the Barcelona Ring); and no more Norns, guardians of the world’s fate, shown as women in headscarves nattering in the audience (the Copenhagen Ring).
The Copenhagen Ring, though, was actually something of an amalgam — many ridiculous and pointless changes to the story, but a passionate loyalty to the original at its greatest moments. It was as if the tide was already turning, but there was still a lot of the old dross floating about on the water.
But now we have a stunningly imaginative rendition that will satisfy all but the most embittered of souls.
It comes from Valencia, Spain, where a new opera house has recently been opened. Many of the soloists are relative unknowns, at least on the international circuit, but a closer examination quickly reveals that this is a top-notch production, graced by youthful vitality, but also starring Matti Salminen and Stephen Milling, two of the most impressive (and intimidating) bass-baritones in the business. Above all, the conductor is Zubin Mehta, and one way of praising this event is to say that even he probably counts this Ring as among the peaks of his illustrious career.
These DVDs take as their basis two facts — that the music is sumptuous, and that the story is mythical. Consequently every effort is made to transport the eye to the realms of the fantastic and the marvelous, in the same way the music transports the listener to previously unimagined realms. Of course, things could be more fabulous still if this were the result of animation. But when you consider that what you’re watching is a stage production, the degree of enchantment achieved is extraordinary indeed.
The dreamlike, daunting and mesmerizing stage effects are basically created by three things — moving images projected onto a vast screen, or sets of screens, at the back of the stage; what look like electric forklift trucks in which the gods routinely move about; and a group of some 30 identically costumed “extras” who at times resemble maggots and at other times the carcasses of dead animals. In what is possibly the most original stroke in a highly original production, these extras become, in Das Rheingold, the Rhine-gold itself, crawling over the stage like an ominous jelly with a mind of its own, or hung by the heels in a rotating production-line in Alberich’s subterranean workshop.
As for the projections, they feature star-filled skies, planets rising and setting, snowy mountains, fire, embryos and human heads. Sometimes screens partially move away from each other revealing other scenes at a distance behind them. But it’s to this production’s credit that at times nothing visually distracting takes place, and the soloists are left to their own devices, as for example during most of Siegfried and Brunnhilde’s love duet in Act Three of Siegfried, and during Wotan’s dialogue with Erda earlier in the same act.