For the courage to release an experimental production of the Ring for American distribution in a time of lackluster caution in the recording industry, EuroArts and TDK deserve the appreciation of Wagnerians nationwide. Stuttgart's innovative Ring-the initiative of Intendant Klaus Zehelein-divided the cycle among four different production teams, cumulatively offering a kind of cubist perspective on the whole. The goal, in Zehelein's words, was not only to consider each opera in the series its own individually "self-fulfilling story" but to precipitate a "Collapse of Totality." From the "ruins" of that collapse comes an unprecedented freedom not only for the artists involved but for the audience: each viewer has the chance to more or less build their own Ring from the different accents in the cycle. With this DVD release, a much wider audience is offered that freedom to discover the Ring from four new angles, and Wagner lovers everywhere should rejoice at the opportunity.
Unfortunately, this first installment-under the direction of Joachim Schlömer and designed by Jens Kilian-does not get this ambitious project off to the most successful start. Schlömer is Stuttgart's house choreographer, and Zehelein chose him to kick off the cycle because of the varying physicalities among Rheingold's population-giants, dwarves, gods, monsters, etc. It is disappointing, then, to see the physical dimensions of the characters so undernourished: not only in the sloppy pratfalls and aimless, unmotivated movement about the stage that make up the general choreography of the opera, but the individual characterizations betray little choreographic specificity. Alberich, Fricka, and Freia take on superficial postures with little physical insight, while Wotan, the giants, and the Rheinmaidens have no physical presence larger than their costume and make-up. Loge, the slipperiest character in the piece, is even left sitting or standing stationary for most of the opera, as if physicality was never even discussed with the performer.
It feels like a choreographer's project in proving he is "more than just a choreographer," even more so because the overall concept involves stripping away all the mythology in place of a highly political and contemporary chamber drama-"Rheingold: an everyday tragedy," as the DVD's accompanying notes states. That means: no change of scenery, everyday-looking costumes, no illusion, and nothing in the way of Rheingold's traditional "stage magic" or special effects. What this dramaturgical stringency implies is a drama carried purely by the personal interplay of the characters with the music, and this is where Schlömer fails most. Aside from an exciting performance by Eberhard Francesco Lorenz as Mime, the characterizations range from one-dimensional to entirely unbelievable. Wolfgang Probst's hollow Wotan is the biggest problem; Probst does not register anything resembling the character's journey from sovereignty to insecurity, and major moments like the "Big Idea" near the end-with the orchestra blazing with the sword motif-don't have any apparent physical, musical, or emotional impact on him. Esa Ruuttunen's Alberich is equally homogenous in a different direction: his broad histrionics make him a caricature for most of the production, and like his colleagues, he shows little in the way of subtlety. No one, however, is less subtle than Michaela Schuster as Fricka, who obnoxiously overemphasizes the production's facile take on gender politics. In a production that claims to focus on this personal status interaction-and, importantly, with the extreme close-ups of a taped performance-this shortcoming is the most damaging to the production.
There are still several interesting details in the production that reward a second viewing. The bland unit set will disappoint those who most look forward to Wagner's transitions, but the characters' relationship to the different levels and recesses of the room offered a few interesting thoughts. The vaulted balcony level accessible by elevator and hidden staircase becomes a type of office/throne alternately occupied by Wotan and Alberich; Alberich first ventures on it upon seeing the gold, and the stage picture shows the first illusion of grandeur sprouting in his mind (made more powerful by Wotan dreaming of Valhalla behind him). An enormous marble fountain dominates the stage, and the water inside evaporates once the gold has been stolen from it. Among the multileveled set, the strongest moment is the very beginning, when the entire cast is spread out on the main level and stares into the audience. The pure E-flat major cascade of the prelude is often interpreted as the depiction of an as-yet-unspoiled nature; in this production, the prelude describes another kind of idealism: a classless world. The movement from human unity to political polarization is the tragedy of this production-a concept completely in line with Wagner's ideology at the time of Rheingold, certainly the most overtly political part of the Ring.
The best reason to buy this DVD is its immaculate sound quality: state-of-the-art recording technology and Lothar Zagrosek's meticulous account of the score make this one of the most vivid Rheingold recordings available. Every layer of the Staatsorchester Stuttgart is captured perfectly, and the precision of their playing-particularly the brass and wind instrumentalists-is astonishing. You would have to stand at the conductor's podium to beat the incredible clarity and balance of this recording. But while every moment is beautifully accomplished individually, Zagrosek's ability to link them together into a musical and dramatic whole was not evident. His interpretation climaxes too early and too often, and by Wotan's "Big Idea" I was already tired of an approach which, rather like the stage interpretation, began to feel monotonously bombastic. And while the brisk tempi worked well throughout the piece, there was little sense of a shape to the four scenes nor to the opera as a whole. Zagrosek should all the same be commended for eliciting such scrupulous performances from his instrumentalists and singers. Special mention must be made of Mette Ejsing's Erda, an electrifying and rich vocal performance which single-handedly justifies purchasing the DVD.
While the first installment of the Stuttgart Ring may have its shortcomings, it displays a theatrical ambition and a musical prowess that make it well worth buying. I for one will certainly be among the first in line to purchase Die Walküre as soon as it's released.