This is the first two legs of the Hartmut Haenchen -led, Pierre Audi-staged Ring cycle on Opus Arte. It goes into direct competition with the recently-issued EuroArts Ring effort on DVD that featured conductor Lothar Zagrosek and various stage directors. I reviewed all but Die Walküre from that EuroArts Ring, generally finding the performances quite good, while issuing a warning that many would find the modern stagings unsettling, though I thought they were provocative (in a better sense of the word), if grimy in appearance and vulgar in some of the goings-on.
This Opus Arte cycle features singing just as compelling and stage direction and sets that, in their modern take on Wagner, come across as more imaginative and atmospheric – and much more pleasing to the eye. The stage in both these productions circles around the orchestra, reaching out near the front rows of the audience. The pair are derived from performances at the Netherlands Opera in 1999, and each features excellent camera work and especially fine lighting and visual effects. The costumes, by Eiko Ishioka, are imaginative in their often weird designs, though I think the tight outfit given the Rheinmaidens hardly flatters the portly figure of at least one of them.
Das Rheingold often seems to be taking place atop a greenhouse, yet the sets and scenery are generally effective, especially at the opening of Scene III. The stage is more sparsely furnished in Die Walküre, but the action is nonetheless given a more atmospheric lift. The singers in both performances are generally excellent. Chris Merritt as Loge was fully convincing, quite at the top of his form. In this role he has been garnering considerable critical acclaim abroad, demonstrating that he is just as effective in this kind of repertory as he was in Rossini and other more glamorous tenor roles earlier in his career. John Bröcheler makes a good Wotan and the rest of the Rheingold cast is more than adequate.
In Die Walküre the singing is also generally excellent, with Jeannine Altmeyer making a fine Brünnhilde and Nadine Secunde turning in fine work as Sieglinde. The opening of Act III, featuring the famous Valkyrie music, is accompanied by fire – real fire – appearing and disappearing on the circular stage. The effect is visually stunning, though some pyrophobics might judge it extremely unnerving. In the end, I'm not sure it serves the opera well – it can become a distraction to the exciting music at times. But this is minor: overall, everything else in the opera comes off as fully appropriate to the action and music. In both works conductor Hartmut Haenchen leads with generally swift tempos and a fine sense for Wagner's drama. His orchestras respond admirably, too. Haenchen, by the way, uses the New Edition of Richard Wagner's Complete Works. There are supposedly many changes made in the operas here, but few listeners will notice anything that is even marginally different from past performances and recordings, though Haenchen's faster tempos are probably the result of comments by the composer appearing in the notes accompanying the new edition.
At any rate, both these recordings are quite excellent in most respects and fully deserving of attention. Highly recommended.
Copyright © 2006, Robert Cummings