Der Ring des Nibelungen

Daniel Barenboim
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
June/July 1991 (R, G)
June/July 1992 (W, S)
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
Recording Type
  live   studio
  live compilation   live and studio

Das Rheingold

Die Walküre


Mostly Opera

Harry Kupfer´staging is simple, aesthetic and endless. Daniel Barenboim is spectacular and grandiose. The dramatic intensity is staggering, and all singers are at least above average reaching the excellent in John Tomlinson (Wotan) and Siegfried Jerusalem (Siegfried). They peel off the layers of the Ring until only the core remains: The music and the naked stage drama. A simply spectacular theatrical achievement and a Ring I may live happily with for the rest of my life, if necessary.

Harry Kupfer´s Nibelungen Ring is set in a fictious future, perhaps in a post-apocalyptic world. Set decorations are dispersed with, the odd metal staffelio apart. We look at grey, naked and desolate sets dominated throughout the Tetralogy by an endless road – “The Road of History”. The occasional laser-rays pierce the grey mist, thus the nickname “The Laser Ring”.

In brief this Ring is about survival on the planet. It is a bleak and pessimistic work. In the vacuum and/or cross-roads of history everyone fights for survival. However, a ray of hope emerges at the end. The energy level is astonishing. As are the emotional extremes.

Harry Kupfer´s trademark, the extremely detailed direction of the singers, is put to maximum use in his first Ring. Nothing is left to chance, every single movement is thoroughly coached. The energy level is maximally high in this very physical production with an impressive amount of stage movement. All singers are superb actors and all look their parts, a prerequisite for being cast in Kupfer/Barenboim Wagner stagings, it seems.

The sets were by Hans Schavernoch. Apart from the naked stage (The road of history), the stage effects consisted mainly of all types of lights (including the famous lasers) and smoke.

Incidentally, the laser beams were immensely difficult to record to a degree that the production team almost gave up. In the end, they succeeded in creating the green laser-light seen on the DVD – in Bayreuth the laser-light was blue/yellow, I have been told.

The desolate sets provide the optimal backdrop for Daniel Barenboim to shine in the finest conducted version of the Nibelungen Ring since I don´t remember when.

As usual for the Bayreuth Festival, the DVDs are recorded without the audience being present.

The major strengths of this Ring is Daniel Barenboim´s conducting and Harry Kupfer´s staging. As theatrical drama I find it unbeatable. Clearly the best Nibelungen Ring DVD on the market as I am concerned. However, potential buyers would be adviced to pre-view some segments if possible, as Harry Kupfer´s staging may not appeal to all.

The only traditionally staged Ring on the DVD market is the Schenk/Levine Metropolitan Ring, which I cannot recommend despite some fine moments. Closest to a traditional staging comes Patrice Chéreau´s Centenary Ring from Bayreuth. Harry Kupfer´s subsequent Ring, recorded in Barcelona is stunningly beautiful, though musically disappointing. Also stunningly beautiful, but of equally disappointing musical quality is Audi´s Amsterdam Ring.

Regietheater Rings are best represented by The Copenhagen Ring, which exceeds the Stuttgart Ring in both production and musical quality. These are the currently available Nibelungen Ring cycles on DVD, of which a complete overview may be found here.

The individual operas – Rheingold

Even before the socalled primordial E-flat is heard, the curtain opens for the final tableau of Götterdämmerung: Bewildered people watching the end of the world. We are now ready to start yet another cycle. Then all is dark and the aforementioned E-flat initiates this cycle. The green laserbeam pierces the mist and creates a rectangular undulating flood of light encapsuling the Rhinemaidens when they emerge from the hole in the Road of History created by Siegfried´s death in the Götterdämmerung., The same abyss from which the warm yellow Rhine Gold light shines.

Ragged-clothed, but not too ridiculous, Alberich simply fights for love as everyone else in this cycle.

With laurels around their necks and transparent plastic suitcases left in the middle of the Road of History we are introduced to a bunch of self-serving Gods and 3 meter high patchwork-clad Giants.

Eerily green-lit metal constructions appear from underneath for the Nibelheim scene introducing the scientist Mime. As everyone else, the Serpent in the transformation scene simply appears from the abyss. Ultimately rainbow-coloured laser rays pierce the Road of History creating a tube, in which the Gods ascend.

I still vividly recall my complete astonishment upon first seen the Wotan of this cycle: He is a complete rogue. Are you really allowed to do that? Needless to say, you are. And rightly so as it is superb theater. But any expectations of Wotan, the noble hero may firmly be put aside. The eye is missing and the spear is there. But not much else is business as usual.

Wotan is the center of Kupfer´s Ring. In fact he is not a complete rogue, but a rather self-serving man, perpetually moving back and forward between emotional extremes. Nothing is half-done. He clearly overestimates himself, thinking himself smarter than everyone else. Brünnhilde he loves, clearly more like a lover than a daugher, but everyone else he detests. He fights for his own survival as does the rest. There is no room for delicate sentiments or noble values.

Daniel Barenboim had the immense stroke of luck (or foresight?) to cast British bass John Tomlinson as Wotan, here in his prime. Rough in voice as well as characterization with a simply astonishing energy leve John Tomlinson, a bass, in my opinion is the best Wotan on DVD. The only real competetition on DVD (or in general since Hans Hotter) is James Morris. John Tomlinson´s strong points are his dramatic intensity and vocal projection as opposed to James Morris´ strong points: Legato lines and subtle characterization. John Tomlinson´s weak point is his upper register legato singing, almost unnoticeable due to his absorbing dramatic presence.

John Tomlinson was joined by the perhaps greatest Alberich of the past decades Günter von Kannen and the excellent hyperenergetic Graham Clark as Loge.

The individual operas – Walküre

After initially scrambling on the surface, the partisan Siegmund climbs down a tree trunk on the Road of History to find himself in Hunding´s abstract hut. The rest of Act 1 is history (ie. following the libretto). In act two we are in the middle of the deserted Road of History, serving as an imaginary crossroad of destinies, taken into consideration the numbers of characters happening to pass by: Wotan, Fricka, Brünnhilde, Siegmund, Sieglinde and Hunding… In the end the laser-beams once again pierce the mist to create the quadrangularly laser-framed Walkure rock.

Nowhere better than in this Walküre chamber-play does Kupfer succeed in bringing out the drama with his obsessively precise individual stage direction. Poul Elming-Nadine Secunde may only be equalled in dramatic intensity by Jeannine Altmeyer-Peter Hoffman for Chéreau in the 1976 Ring. As singer-actors they may hardly be bettered combined with Matthias Hölle´s menacing Hunding, caught in his short prime.

As to directorial concept, The road of History is still there and it is still one man´s fight against his brother to survive. Someone once described the Walküre Act 2 as the pendulum around which the entire Nibelungen Ring swings. With Wotan´s monologue in the center. John Tomlinson´s Wotan still takes centerplace, and though he is a rogue, he is not entirely unsympathetic. The vitality he projects makes it hard not to like him. Furthermore, his constant under-restimation of his opponents is just so essentially human..Brünnhilde is more a lover than a daughter to him. His wife, on the contrary, he despises as well as underestimates.

The intensity of Wotan´s Farewell is, in my opinion unsurpassed on DVD, not the least due to Daniel Barenboim´s accompaniement, which is simply glorious. While Rheingold-Wotan may be performed by a barytone, Walküre-Wotan and especially the monologue is where John Tomlinson´s bass pays of, effortlessly projecting the passages virtually every non-bass Wotan finds hard to do.

The individual operas – Siegfried

Mime lives in a derelict tube (a former nuclear capsule?) with Wotan and Alberich lurking around. Fafner´s lair is located at a section of the Road of History underneath a broken bridge. Obviously, Wotan controls the Forest Bird. In the miraculously evocative blue mist Wotan meets with Erda as well as with Siegfried, not willingly succombing to the later. Captured within the quadrangular laser-beam framed Walküre Rock Brünnhilde emerges towards the end.

The picture is clear: Wotan desperately tries to retain power by all means. Siegfried is genuinely sympathetic, but to no avail. A spiral towards the inevitable destruction.

The only point where I seriously disagree with Harry Kupfer´s approach (as well as with virtually every other stage director) lies with the characterization of Alberich. I would like to see Alberich portrayed as Wotan´s worthy adversary, not as some semi-ridiculous figure in night-wear. After all, Alberich still stands when Wotan has fallen, at least in this production. Kupfer is better than most, but still not as he could have been. And he even has perhaps the greatest Alberich of recent times in Günter von Kannen, who could pull it of both vocally and dramatically.

That said, for once the Siegfried-Brünnhilde constellation seems beliavable, and Siegfried Jerusalem is a DVD-close-to-ideal Siegfried.

The individual operas – Götterdämmerung

We are clearly at the end of The Road of History – marked with a big flashing red X for all to see. The Norns weave their rope of destiny in a forest of antennas. A triangular metal construction is set up for Hagen on the otherwise naked stage with the Walküre rock dis- and reappearing from beneath and naturalistic clouds vs. a futuristic skylines on the side walls. The golden Ring glitters. Wotan lurks around in the shadows.

The Road of History finally collapses to reveal an abyss during Siegfried´s Death. On the brink of this abyss Wotan collapses after throwing his spear into it. At the end, everyone watches the end of the Gibichungen world on tv-screens. Two children, representing a ray of hope, try to move past the watchful Alberich, away from the grown-ups, looking for Utopia (according to Kupfer). The cycle is now complete and we are ready to start another Rheingold.

What stands is the circular timelessness and sense of the eternal.

The singers

The Bayreuth Festival Managment are often held responsible for their casting of Bayreuth Festival productions, a truth with modifications (though they are obviously overall responsible): This Ring was mainly cast by Daniel Barenboim. Most of the major cast members were new to their roles, and all were in their prime.

Generel comments:

Wotan: When Daniel Barenboim initially offered Sir John Tomlinson (JT) the part of Wotan, JT refused and suggested Barenboim to hire James Morris instead, while offering to sing Hagen. When finally arriving in Bayreuth, JT has previously reported to be in for a surprise: Expecting to sing a noble part, Barenboim and Kupfer expected to see a rogue.
In brief this Wotan is the biggest achievement of JT´s career (both mine and his own opinion) and he is, in my opinion, the best Wotan of the past 40 years. A bass with high notes, as opposed to a bass-barytone, he effortlessly projects the many lower-lying sections (including the monologue). Dramatic declamation and stage command are JT´s strong points. The voice is rough and not particuarly beautiful. Extended legato lines (and legato singing in general), especially in his upper register are his weak points. However, as he performs in this Ring, his strong points make these issues seem insignificant.

Fricka: Linda Finnie both looks the part and sings and acts well.
Donner: Bodo Brinkmann is fine in this medium-opportunity role.
Froh: Same applies for Kurt Schreibmayer.
Alberich: Günter von Kannen is simply a great Alberich with the necessary vocal strenght and dramatic heft making him the most convincing Alberich of recent times.
Loge: Excellently energetic performance by Graham Clark, who almost goes over the edge to over-characterize the part. An interview with Graham Clark related to this Ring may be read here.
Fasolt: Solid performance from Matthias Hölle.
Fafner: Solid turnout for Philip Kang as well, though ideally he´d have more blackness to his voice.
Mime (Rheingold): Solid performance from Helmut Pampuch.
Mime (Siegfried): Same hyperenergetic performance from Graham Clark as in his Loge.

Freia: Piercingly clear soprano and convincingly acted by Eva Johansson.
Sieglinde: Nadine Secunde is believable as the rather bleak and subdued Sieglinde. Vocally she is competent without being memorable.
Siegmund: Danish barytone-turned-tenor Poul Elming´s first audition in Bayreuth resulted in Barenboim offering him the Siegmund and subsequently sending him to Oslo to study the part with then-musical assistant Antonio Pappano. Poul Elming is a superb fit for this production as a very physical Siegmund. Starting out a barytone, the ringing topnotes has never been his strong point, however as an overall singing-actor he is believable as few others.
Hunding: Close-to optimal performance from Matthias Hölle, caught in his rather short prime, managing both the profundo notes and the menacing radiance.

Hagen: It would be unfair to call Philip Kang a weak point, however he is the weakest of the major cast, in my opinion. He completely lacks the menacing stage presence of a great Hagen and while he does have the high notes, his voice is not a particularly powerful voice either.
Brünnhilde: Anne Evans is a lyrical Brünnhilde, but not a light-weight by any means. Very wisely she does not push her voice at any point. A very convincing actress as well and for once, she and Siegfried are belieavable as a couple. An interview with Anne Evans about her experiences in this Ring may be read here.
Siegfried: A superb Siegfried Jerusalem, who fits the bill both vocally and dramatically. His only real competition on DVD is his own Metropolitan performance around the same time of an equal high standard.
Erda: Birgitta Svendén is simply superb with the required dark penetrating voice.
Waltraute: Waltraud Meier is unsurpassed as Waltraute on DVD.
Gutrune: Eva-Maria Bundschuh is fine here and vastly superior to her later interpretation in Audi´s Ring.
Gunther: Bodo Brinkmann. Though rather a character baritone, this is somehow fitting for this Gunther, whom nobody would accuse of being a hero.

The conductor and orchestra

Daniel Barenboim conducted his first Ring when this production opened in 1988 and his performance with the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra is the undisputed musical highlight of this Ring.

Daniel Barenboim´s nuanced, yet dramatic and intense interpretation is simply stunning.

Barenboim has always stated Wilhelm Furtwängler as one of his major inspirations, but I find the Furtwängler influence far less obvious here than in other of Barenboim´s recordings. While one of Daniel Barenboim´s most audible Wagnerian trademarks is the tempo-shift (rubato) in a relatively dominant string section, for this Nibelungen Ring the orchestra seems more balanced in favour of both brass and woodwinds. In that respect he is closer to others of the past (such as Knappertsbusch) than Furtwängler. And though the flow is steady and the over-used term “epic” comes to mind, Daniel Barenboim is considerably faster than both Furtwängler and Knappertsbusch. However the long lines are certainly there as are the very unconventional as well as flexible shift of tempi, but they seem to be generated from the orchestra as a whole rather than from the string section alone.

While the covered orchestra pit has the advantage of creating a delicate “covered” sound, the disadvantage is that explosions in the orchestra are not transmitted to the degree they are with an open pit. Nevertheless the dramatic intensity is maintained throughout the Tetralogy.

To be quite unspecific: Daniel Barenboim simply understands the inner structure of Richard Wagner´s work and conducts Wagner at quite another level than (almost) anything else he conducts and unequalled by any living conductor, as far as I am concerned.

To be quite specific: This is the finest conducted Nibelungen Ring on DVD. By a large margin.

In brief – The highlights and lowlights

The highlights:

Daniel Barenboim. Kupfer´s staging. The intense drama.

The lowlights:

No real lowlights..

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average)

The ratings are given in comparison to the other Ring DVDs available. As ever, the acting skills of the singers weigh in heavily.

John Tomlinson (Wotan): 5
Linda Finnie (Fricka): 4
Günter von Kannen (Alberich): 5
Graham Clark (Loge): 5
Matthias Hölle (Fasolt): 4
Philip Kang (Fafner): 3-4
Graham Clark (Mime): 5
Birgitta Svendén (Erda): 5
Waltraud Meier (Waltraute): 5

Poul Elming (Siegmund): 4-5
Nadine Secunde (Sieglinde): 4
Matthias Hölle (Hunding): 4
Philip Kang (Hagen): 3-4

Siegfried Jerusalem (Siegfried): 5
Anne Evans (Brünnhilde): 4
Eva-Maria Bundschuh (Gutrune): 4
Bodo Brinkmann (Gunther): 4

Harry Kupfer´s staging: 5
Daniel Barenboim: 5

Overall impression: 5

28 October 2008

Warner has now boxed up the DVDs of the Barenboim/Kupfer Ring cycle made in Bayreuth during the early 1990s. Göran Forsling and Tony Haywood have already reviewed the individual issues with considerable enthusiasm (see below). Apart from a handy box to keep the four cases in, the only difference between acquiring the operas separately or in this package is price. At the time of writing, the difference on one UK website was approximately £94 separately versus £66 together. Interestingly, Barenboim’s complete cycle on CD costs £85 and the famous Decca/Solti traversal £125 on the same website. That this is a considerable bargain should therefore be obvious. I don’t have the CD set for comparison but the sound on DVD played through a stereo amplifier is excellent. Provided you have such connections, this package could serve all your audio-visual needs in relation to the Ring. The only thing missing would be the libretti but you could probably find these on the web using this useful link. For newcomers to the work, I can strongly recommend Deryck Cooke’s introduction with musical examples by Solti & the VPO on a Decca recording.

One point I should make right away is that these are not live performances in the sense that an audience was not present. But they do seem to have been recorded “as live” and I would regard the absence of audience and applause as an advantage. In this respect it seems to be different to alternative DVD versions yet available.

My purpose here is to reflect on the cycle as a whole. The watchwords in this respect are “consistency” and “excellence”. This is a cycle which really does hang together, and which grabs one’s attention and never lets go. I thought it would take me some time to watch it but once started I found myself blocking out the next available evenings in the diary. The most credit for that must surely go to Barenboim. Hidden away in the Bayreuth pit, the only appearance he makes is in the supplementary interview (see below) but he inspires the orchestra to great heights. There is detail but not at the expense of structure, excitement but not at the expense of lyricism. There was nothing I felt to be controversial in his direction, simply music at the service of the drama.

Next on list for recognition must be the principals. Before naming names I should make the point that this is not a Ring that one must hear or have because of a particular singer in one of the roles – I simply would not be able to choose between the principals. The four biggest roles, in order of appearance are Alberich, Wotan, Brünnhilde and Siegfried though none of them sings in all four operas. Günter von Kannen, John Tomlinson, Anne Evans and Siegfried Jerusalem – must be a handy Christian name to have if you want to be a heldentenor! – take these roles. Each sings and acts consummately and was completely inside the role by the time the recording was made. There are no real weaknesses in the smaller parts and the Graham Clark who takes Loge in Rheingold and Mime in Siegfried is a major plus giving highly characterised performances. Swapping Mime’s between these two operas is a minor blemish and, when Clark appears in Siegfried, I didn’t find myself spotting any likeness with Loge. Linda Finnie also takes multiple roles – most importantly Fricka in the first two operas, and re-appearing as Siegrune in Act III of Die Walküre and as first Norn in Götterdämmerung. This is luxury casting indeed and equally fine is Philip Kang, especially as a rather subtle yet evil Hagen. He also takes the role of Fafner in both his incarnations.

I have already mentioned the fine acting of the principals. Göran Forsling felt that at times there was too much acting involved, a view I can understand but don’t entirely share. The Kufper staging was intended to be timeless and the sets seem to achieve that with transitions being effected very well indeed. There are a few potentially controversial touches in the form of visual effects not specified by Wagner, for example Wotan controlling the Woodbird and a well-dressed audience watching the end of the gods on television at the very end. Personally I could have done without them but I did not feel they were a major drawback.

The subtitles are worth a comment because they are pithy and in the modern idiom, at least in English. Whilst occasionally blinking at them disbelievingly, I liked the style. As far as I can tell from sampling, the German sub-titles provide the authentic text. There is one extra on the first DVD of Götterdämmerung – an interview with John Tomlinson and Daniel Barenboim lasting 13 minutes and clearly recorded within the last few years. The former describes working on this Ring as the greatest experience of his professional life. The written documentation provides synopses of each opera and there are additional articles in the booklets including a conversation and an interview with Harry Kupfer.

When writing the Ring over a period of around 25 years from about 1850 Wagner refused to compromise in relation to practicalities. Presumably he believed that one day it would all be possible. Technology has doubtless since facilitated producing the work in the theatre but has it become more practical for the audience? Spending many hours in the theatre and travelling to a major city, and hundreds of pounds makes this as impractical as ever for most people. But on DVD, with the advantages of your own living room, the impact is not far behind. Wagner would have been ecstatic without doubt. I’d love to go Bayreuth but, aside from the cost in money and time, I would have to wait years and get lucky in a ballot. Now I feel like I have been.

My own experience of the Ring in the theatre is limited to the recent ENO cycle in London. I have also seen the Boulez version and part of the recent Covent Garden cycle on the small screen. The CD sets I own are Solti and Goodall, famous for dramatic effect and being slooooooooooow respectively although I love them both. Insofar as I can make comparisons from that background, I feel that Barenboim and Kupfer beat them all hands down to provide a central “must-see” and “must-have” experience. Given that this set is one of the cheapest ways of acquiring the Ring in any format at the moment, it is an obvious one-stop shop for the work. Snap it up soon because it will be an investment and acquire legendary status, if it hasn’t already. In fifty years time people will look back on this in the same kind of way they are now doing on the 1955 Keilberth Ring, of that I am sure. I expect that DVD will have disappeared by then but, if physicists have worked out how to teleport us back in time – akin to an ancillary facility of the Tarnhelm – a trip to Bayreuth in the early 1990s to see this may have become hottest ticket in the universe.

Patrick C Waller

When a reviewer writes a notice for a single opera from Wagner’s Ring, he or she could easily spend a thousand or even two thousand words on it and still not thoroughly assess the performance. Here, of course, we have all four Ring operas and I suppose I could hunker down at my computer and turn out a sizable piece that might end up boring the reader. So I’ll make it easy on you and me and just cut to the chase.

The video competition in Wagner’s Ring includes performances by Boulez (Philips), Levine (DG), Zagrosek (EuroArts), Haenchen (EuroArts) and de Billy (Opus Arte). To give you some perspective on Barenboim’s approach here, let me cite the timings of the Boulez and Levine sets, both of which are highly regarded. Boulez clocks in at 832 minutes, Levine at 941, and Barenboim, in the middle, at 904. Barenboim has generally tended to be a centrist in his tempo choices, from my observations of his readings, both in the concert hall and in the opera house. But he has consistently managed to impart a sense of urgency and drama, whether in his performances of Bruckner’s symphonies, Beethoven’s piano concertos (in the dual role of pianist and conductor!), or Wagner’s operas. Here Barenboim delivers the goods with a real Wagnerian sense for both the music and the drama.

Barenboim seems to get the most from his singers, as almost all are effective in their roles. Some critics were a bit unenthusiastic about Poul Elming’s Siegmund and Nadine Secunde’s Sieglinde in Die Walküre, but I found them both quite convincing. And I agree with the general consensus that John Tomlinson is excellent as Wotan (and, in Siegfried, as Der Wanderer). Anne Evans as Brünnhilde in the last three Ring operas is also truly splendid, as were Siegfried Jerusalem as Siegfried and Linda Finnie in several roles.

I could go on with the kudos but suffice it to say that here is a case of excellent casting, for nowhere in any of the operas is there a weak or less than fully convincing singer among the principals. But beyond this, the production by Harry Kupfer, with its mysterious mists, bizarre and imposing structures, and vast stage and visual effects, is simply stunning in its inventive uniqueness. For once, the viewer is treated to something new that doesn’t come across as modern or irritating but rather as imaginative and fully engaging to the eye. At the time of these productions many critics regarded Kupfer’s approach as a quite visionary treatment of Wagner’s Ring operas. I wouldn’t argue with them.

Barenboim draws playing from the orchestra that is consistently accurate and spirited without ever sounding either reticent or over-the-top. He always manages to capture the drama of the moment, as well as the overall thrust and architecture of the work. The chorus sings well too, and the camera work is excellent. The sound reproduction is full and vivid, quite impressive for its early 1990s vintage. It would be difficult to find a weakness anywhere in this production: perhaps one might quibble over some of the English subtitle translations or over some of the lighting effects, but these are so minor as to amount to nitpicking. In just about every respect then, this set is a winner.

Back in 2004 I reviewed most of Zagrosek’s Ring cycle and two years later half of Hartmut Haenchen’s. I’ve also covered numerous other Ring performances here by various conductors, including Levine and Thielemann, but on the basis of this Barenboim set, I believe I can say that if I had the choice of attending a cycle of the Ring operas led by one conductor, I would opt for Barenboim. As for video recordings of these operas, again Barenboim here would be my desert island choice. Highest recommendations!

Robert Cummings | Copyright © 2012

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
1920×1080, 1.8 Mbit/s, 12.3 GByte (MPEG-4)
A production by Harry Kupfer (1988)
Also available as audio recording