Monday, May 30, 2011

Stuttgart Ring: Rheingold

Staatstheater Stuttgart
I'm still making a list of opera DVDs with which to gratify your wishes, Gentle Readers.  None of the libraries in my life have the Lehnhoff Elektra (yet!) but my university has acquired the Levine/Met anniversary collection. Meanwhile, I'm working my way through the 1999 Ring from Stuttgart. I may not make a habit of watching each reviewed DVD twice, but that's what I'm doing with this set. For Regietheater the productions (each by a different director) may be fairly straightforward, but most of my opera-going life has been spent at the Met, with the consequence that I am liable to get distracted by inessential questions such as "Why does Alberich kill the rabbit?" (I'm pretty sure it's not an allusion to this.) So, without further ado, onward: where better to commence a summer of DVD-viewing than with the beginning of the world?

In Joachim Schlömer's production, we don't start out in the River Rhine, but rather in Valhalla, which is an elegant Gilded Age mansion. The entire cast is on stage for the opening chords, which in this atmosphere seem ominous.  They gradually melt away during the overture, but characters are often on stage when they aren't "supposed" to be, creating unexpected interactions or observations which transform or highlight relationships. Fasolt's attraction to Freia, for instance, is established before the giants' "first" entrance. (My interpretation was that it had also been spurned; according to the notes in the booklet, however, Freia reciprocates Fasolt's affection and they are cruelly kept apart by politics. I did not get this at all.)  The production as a whole reads Rheingold as a drama of intrafamilial and social conflict, rather than a fate-of-the-world myth.  Alberich, in an ill-fitting suit, is subjected to cruel and crude bullying at the hands of the Rhinemaidens and Wotan and Loge. The social status of Donner and Froh is uncertain; Froh could be a tennis pro.  Freia has to wear high heels of oppression, while Michaela Schuster is Fricka as a businesswoman of near-caricaturish ruthlessness, intelligent and manipulative. (The element of caricature came from her aggressively unsuitable suit, not her expressive singing.) The giants are businessmen with briefcases. I'm not sure of the Rhinemaidens' social status, either--they seemed awfully pert and entitled if they were intended to be the gods' servants--but they were well-sung and fun to watch, with Margarete Joswig a wonderfully vivid Flosshilde.

The ideas brought up in this Rheingold were explored with some interesting visual motifs.  Mime and Alberich find their way into the best level of Valhalla during the descent into Nibelheim; they put on the phonograph to create its music. Then Mime steals the mirror, which has been previously used for preening, and which turns out to be the Tarnhelm. Later, while Mime is being interrogated, Alberich plays with the phonograph. The levels of nuance in individual performance were uneven. I found Roland Bracht's Fasolt very moving, while Wolfgang Probst's Wotan seemed little more than a blustery patriarch.  Eberhard Francesco Lorenz was a vocally and physically agile Mime, clearly the brains of the Alberich-Mime partnership.  Lothar Zagrosek led the orchestra in an account of the score that shimmered with detail, doing perhaps more to emphasize the complex emotional struggles of the opera than the production itself.

For the success of the production in communicating its desired emotional dynamics was mixed, I thought. Here, during the "Riesenwurm" transformation, Alberich appears before the gods, as they appear to us.  Then he kills a rabbit by biting into its neck, and decapitates it. Everyone is genuinely horrified. His face covered with blood, though, he appears still as much victim as perpetrator; is he losing his mind as a result of renouncing love? Everyone gathers while Freia strips to her shift; Fricka angrily pages through a ledger, ripping pages out even after her sister is redeemed. Fasolt is genuinely broken-hearted.  Erda enters in the midst of fog, flashing lights, and all the wildly blowing ledger leaves. Alberich gazes longingly at the affectionate reunion of Freia with the gods, and bleakly on the fratricide. Mime and Alberich steal the music; Freia goes to the crumpled Fasolt to discover that he really is dead; she sits gravely by the body. The gods' ceremonial washing of hands is as ineffectual and symbolic as Pilate's. The Rhinemaidens sit on the edge of the fountain which they failed to guard, clinging disconsolately to each other, wrapped in emergency blankets. The entry of the gods into Valhalla plays, but the house is already trashed. Mime and Alberich come on in blank distress, having taken the phonograph to bits and broken the record; the gods recoil in fear.  And I still can't figure out what the phonograph is supposed to mean! I'm not sure whether my fixation on figuring this out comes from my inexperience as a Regie-viewer, or from an imperfectly realized Regie concept.  I could have wished for more nuance, notably on the work's vexed questions of gender and politics, but I found it an intriguing Rheingold nonetheless.


  1. Oh come on, he was totally referencing Loony Toons when he killed the rabbit. :P

    In all seriousness, though, it sounds like an interesting production. Are you going to be reviewing the entire cycle?

  2. Nice review! Not having seen this, my guess is that the phonograph is intended as a comment on technology replacing human power--the machinery of Nibelheim, etc. Or maybe Nibelheim is an inferior mechanical reproduction of Valhalla, one ultimately created by Wotan and Loge? (No, I don't know why.)

  3. Dear Lucy,
    Thanks for this great review. We want more! The entire Ring, of course.

  4. @Christie If the opera-referencing of Looney Toons has come full circle, what infinite possibilities lie before us?! :)

    @Zerbinetta Oooh, you're so much better at this than I am! The spatial use could also support the Nibelheim-Valhalla connection.

    @FanaticoUm Thanks! The rest is forthcoming.


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