Das Rheingold

Daniel Barenboim
Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala di Milano
26 May 2010
Teatro alla Scala Milano
Recording Type
  live   studio
  live compilation   live and studio
Wotan René Pape
Donner Jan Buchwald
Froh Marco Jentzsch
Loge Stephan Rügamer
Fasolt Kwangchul Youn
Fafner Timo Riihonen
Alberich Johannes Martin Kränzle
Mime Wolfgang Ablinger
Fricka Doris Soffel
Freia Anna Samuil
Erda Anna Larsson
Woglinde Aga Mikolaj
Wellgunde Maria Gortsevskaya
Floßhilde Marina Prudenskaya
Stage director Guy Cassiers (2010)
Set designer Enrico Bagnoli
TV director Emanuele Garofalo

One hardly needs to point out that this is an important recording for any Wagnerian because it is led by Daniel Barenboim, considered among the very few elite conductors of Wagner’s operas today. Moreover, it is the launch of a new Ring opera cycle conceived by stage director Guy Cassiers for performance at La Scala and the Berlin State Opera. This performance of Das Rheingold was recorded at the Teatro alla Scala Milan on May 26, 2010. I reviewed Barenboim’s previous video Ring effort, both in its DVD incarnation (Warner Classics D4755) and Blu-ray (Unitel Classica Blu-ray BD4755). That cycle was recorded at the Bayreuth Festival in 1991 and 1992 and was excellent on just about every count.

In this new Rheingold production Guy Cassiers attempts to present a duality of time, the story taking place both in our time and in Wagner’s mid-19th century. The costuming suggests a mixture of historical periods, even a sort of fantasy-like sword-and-sorcerer timeless period. But lighting and projections on the background curtain are very high-tech and modern in appearance. So, yes, a duality of time is effectively and imaginatively created, but nothing in the production comes across as aggressively modern or avant garde. Ballet dancers are used throughout much of the opera, and while some viewers might regard them as distracting, their presence generally enhances the atmosphere in the often static action on stage. True, at the outset of Scene II, two dancers often shadow (and seem to harrass) Wotan and Freia, thus coming across, at least to me, as somewhat intrusive. One deft touch in the production is the duality in appearance of the Giants Fasolt and Fafner, who, when they walk on stage, are also projected against the background curtain as menacing huge shadows. The one possible weakness here is the makeup, which on closeup shots of Wotan and Alberich looks very amateurish. Also, the Larry Fine hairdo of Loge might strike some viewers as a bit comical.

What about the musical half of the production? The singers are excellent, especially René Pape as Wotan. He is a obviously major talent in Wagner, as well as in Mozart and much else. Stephan Rügamer is also splendid as Loge, as is Kwangchul Youn as Fasolt. Both Pape and Rügamer appeared in the Gergiev Rheingold which I reviewed here (Mariinsky SACD MAR0526) earlier this year. Among the female roles one has to admire Doris Soffel (Fricka), Anna Samuil (Freia) and Anna Larsson (Erda). Really, there isn’t a weak or even so-so member of this cast. The ballet dancers of the Eastman Ballet Company Antwerp are also quite fine in what must be a difficult challenge for them, considering the often hazardous conditions of dancing on this stage, which isn’t always well lit and contains plentiful water and floor tiles that appear unstable. In addition, the dancers are often required to pose or remain motionless for long periods.

It’s no surprise that Daniel Bareboim leads the proceedings with a masterful hand. His tempo choices, phrasing and sense for drama seem flawless, and the peformance he draws from the Teatro alla Scala Orchestra is alive with spirit and feeling, always pointing up essential detail and allowing the proper instrumental and vocal balance. The sound reproduction is vivid and powerful, and the camera work and picture clarity are first rate. I would say this recording is probably essential for Wagner and Barenboim admirers.

Robert Cummings | © 2013

Opera News

The most impressive element of this 2011 filming of the first installment of the recently completed Guy Cassiers Ring is not the Belgian director’s overbusy, video- and dance-laden production but the musical side under Daniel Barenboim. In the opera house, Wagner is by a huge margin the conductor’s best fach; keeping very tight control of dynamics, he draws a more than usually propulsive reading from the fine orchestra, though tension lessens after Alberich’s curse.

The cast is relatively strong, too. René Pape has also been recording Wotan for the Mariinsky’s slipshod ongoing CD Ring. Here he looks dour, detached; loud high notes can be effortful, but his singing is highly attractive. Classy mezzo Doris Soffel remains a handsome Fricka with a solid technique and refined, expressive musicianship; one wishes her busy career had brought her more frequently to North America. Stephan Rügamer, as Loge, is a relatively lyrical Spieltenor, suiting his music well; both verbal delivery and facial expression get nuanced treatment. Anna Samuil’s blonded Freia works a strapless off-the-shoulder gown, dealing capably with her less-than-grateful music. Anna Larsson — rising above the stage — makes an impression as Erda. As is so often the case, Donner (Jan Buchwald) and Froh (Marco Jentzsch) look ridiculous; neither singer compels much interest vocally. No Valhalla finally welcomes the immortals. There is nothing supernatural about Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Alberich, an aging working-class guy with aspirations and a scar-extended Joker-like mouth; not possessed of the darkest, most powerful baritone, Kränzle works with color and verbal point. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s slightly campy Mime also offers much detail, singing more than some artists have done in this role. The giants — doubled effectively by huge shadows behind an upstage scrim — are Kwangchul Youn, idiomatic, attractive of timbre and dignified as Fasolt, and the truly giant Timo Riihonen, whose Fafner is reminiscent of his countryman Matti Salminen, albeit with some pitch uncertainty. Less sharp verbal articulation but very alluring sounds issue from the attractive, all-Slavic Rhinemaidens (Aga Mikolaj, Maria Gortsevskaya, Marina Prudenskaya).

The stage is usually dark and ugly. The Rhine scene suffers from an excess of greenish video projection (river waves and giant blowups of the singers’ faces included). The gold — again, a projection — looks like a huge ingot, under some actual water. Half-naked ballet dancers doing Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s lamentable Jazzercise choreography inexplicably cavort with the Rhinemaidens after the dwarf steals his prize, until the fancily dressed gods — fully awake, despite the text, and looking a bit like Wagners — start singing. Even then, the dancers do not disappear; rather, doubling the singers, they prove a constant distraction. Their writhing throughout — the descent to Nibelheim evokes the Venusberg, and they also embody the Tarnhelm — proves a substantial demerit. Did Cassiers think Milanese audiences needed sexy flesh to endure two and a half hours of Wagner?

One post-production quibble: why must any music be played over the opening titles before the performance begins? Given this work’s famous E-flat-major chord opening, that’s just a mistake, especially when the chosen “soundtrack” is a collection of snippets from the entire opera, up through the Nibelung hammers — an inspiration too wonderful to spoil for first-time Rheingold listeners.



The Barenboim/Cassiers Ring cycle has been doing the rounds for a few years now. The co-production between La Scala and Berlin Staatsoper has been in rep at both houses since 2010, and when Barenboim brought the Ring to the Proms this year, it was essentially in this production, with the orchestra from his Berlin company and most of the original cast. Now the cycle is coming out on DVD/Blu-ray, long after the excitement has died down, sadly, but, it’s still of great interest, especially for the many fans out there of Barenboim’s Wagner.

Visually, the production owes much to the Fura dels Baus “Valencia Ring”. In both cases, the stage furniture is minimal, and scene setting is left to a giant screen that forms the backdrop to the stage, and on which abstract (for the most part) images are projected. The big innovation though, and the production’s main talking point, is the inclusion of dancers, the Eastman Ballet Company from Antwerp, in choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. The dancers, or at least some of them, are onstage for almost the entire show, and a deliberate effort has clearly been made to take the opera as far into the genre of ballet as was possible. Typically, the singers will stand at the front of the stage, interacting but fairly static, while the dancers do their thing in the background, usually physical interpretations of one sort or another of the story as it unfolds. As the production demonstrates, there are many ways in which this can be done, some more effective than others. Wotan and Fricka’s exchanges in the Second Scene are illustrated with two dancers, standing behind and representing the two characters, but physically interacting in a way that makes explicit the tensions of their dialogue. Most of the dancing later on is more abstract, including the impressive ensemble pieces for the scene changes. The gold and the Tarnhelm are represented by the dancers too, the Tarnhelm particularly effective, the dancers surrounding Alberich and representing the helmet with their intertwined arms. No effort is made to similarly represent the worm or the frog at the end of the Niebelheim scene, which is a shame; I hope they have something more spectacular lined up for the dragon in Siegfried.

The main problem with choreography idea is the conceptual distance between the dancing and the acting. This seems to be deliberate to a certain extent, and there is often a feeling that the singers are playing out the events on a literal level, while the dancers make explicit the emotional and physiological significance. But isn’t that what the music is for? In fact, the choreography mediates between the music and the drama, and when the dancers’ input is effective it adds to the coherency of the whole, although when it’s not, their gesticulations in the background are just distracting.

While the singers are largely oblivious to the dancing, the few moments of interchange between them are particularly revealing. Wotan ignores the dancers throughout, signalling his self-obsession and his refusal to anticipate the consequences of his actions. Other characters have more ambivalent attitudes to what is going on around them. Most effective, though, is Loge’s attitude to the dancers. In direct opposition to Wotan’s ambivalence, Loge is aware of what is going on at every level, and his willingness to engage with the choreography demonstrates his engagement with the physiological level the dancers are representing. He even dances with them himself at a few key moments. Loge is also the focus of attention at the end, and although the representation of the Gods’ Entry into Valhalla is disappointing visually, the compensation is that the audience is left considering Loge’s view of the events, his prescience linking this ending with the drama to unfold in later instalments.

The choreography seems to justify a fairly static Personenregie; there is some great acting from the singers, but it is rarely of a physical kind. Vocally, the cast is strong, with René Pape leading from the top, his Wotan lyrical and smooth, but also dramatic and impassioned when required. Johannes Martin Kränzle and Stephan Rügamer, as Alberich and Loge respectively, are both known quantities as Wagnerians, and their already impressive credentials are further enhanced by excellent performances here. That said, both stand out, at least in part, because director Cassiers has good, clear ideas about what to do with them. Jan Buchwald’s Donner is a similar case, well sung and well directed, but Marco Jentzsch as Froh, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Mime and Kwangchul Youn and Timo Riihonen as the giants, fine performers as they all are, don’t sit comfortably in this production, which always seems to focus the attention away from them, usually towards the dancers. The Rhinemaidens give a reasonable performance, although one of them, and I think it is Aga Mikolaj as Woglinde, doesn’t blend well into the ensemble, preventing their sound from unifying as it should. Doris Soffel, as Fricka, has quite a penetrating vibrato, wearing on the ear if not actually ugly. She has a few tuning problems as well, but these are small and only stand out because of the high level of accuracy among the rest of the cast.

Barenboim gives an impressive reading of the score, dramatic and coherent, but always taking his cue from the pace of the stage action, rather than seeking to dictate it. The orchestra is good, although not as idiomatic as the Berlin Staatskapelle, who would soon after take on this production. The low brass is disappointingly civilised, and the string section, while accurate and energetic, lacks the dark colouring that made the Berlin orchestra’s performance so special.

The video was recorded for the Italian state broadcaster RAI. Production-wise the most annoying aspect is the title sequence, for which chunks of the music are crudely pasted together for background. The production itself is presented well. All the singers wear microphones (visible on the high-res images), and no effort is made to distance them from the listener for the sake of dramatic placement – at least not in the stereo mix. The choreography poses an unusual challenge for the cameras, as it is often the case that the focus of attention is on two sides of the stage at once, the singer on one side and the dancer representing them on the other. Sensibly, the cameras often just ignore one or other, usually the dancer, although they sometimes wonder into the frame, giving the viewer the frustrating sensation that they are missing out on something. No extras are included on the DVD. Subtitles are in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian and Korean.

This is a fascinating Rheingold and well worth seeing. Objections raised to it in 2010 included charges of anti-intellectualism and indifference to the work’s political dimension. Those are probably fair criticisms, but there is a great deal of physiological engagement with the story here, not least from the dancers, who really have something interesting to add. Wagner would probably have hated it, but that’s no reason for us to pass it by.

Gavin Dixon | 1 November 2013

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Arthaus Musik
Arthaus Musik
Technical Specifications
1920×1080, 16.1 Mbit/s, 18.4 GByte (MPEG-4)
Telecast (RAI)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.