A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Dec 15, 2013
09:59 PM
Classically Speaking

Want to Give a “Ring” for Christmas? Now Wagner’s epic cycle comes two ways


The 5-DVD set of the "Colon Ring."

It’s fitting that Richard Wagner’s epic four-opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelungen, opens in the Rhine river, because critics have been drowning all year in new releases on the occasion of the bicentennial of the composer’s birth. If you’ve got that “perfect Wagnerite” on your gift list, here are a few things I can share—now that I’ve come up for air.

The surprise of the year is “The Colon Ring,” a production from just over a year ago mounted at that great theater in Buenos Aires. Apparently the theory was that more houses might produce the tetralogy if they didn’t have to invest in four music dramas spread over six nights—and perhaps attract a few new folks to the cycle.

The idea was actually came with quite a pedigree, proposed by none other than Katharina Wagner, great-granddaughter of the composer, and one of this generation’s keeper of the flame. But as we learn from the bonus 90-minute documentary that comes with this release on the C-Major label, things go south in a big hurry when Ms. Wagner arrives in Argentina. Upset with the lack of readiness, she flies back home the same day, and returns a week later with her attorney to negotiate what rights will be conferred to Colon. The result is a story that is arguably more compelling than the production itself turned out to be. The young firebrand Valentina Carrasco is brought in to save the day, and conductor Roberto Paternostro keeps his head in sorting out the inevitable barrage of mistakes and confusion from Cord Garben’s radical reduction of the mammoth scores.

Up to a point it’s easy to take the fifteen-hour original cycle and get it close to the resulting seven hours; Wagner had a gift for retelling the narrative in every opera after the opening Das Rheingold,  just in case you missed anything. But in the end, the reduction is even less than the remainder of its subtracted chunks.

More problematic is Carrasco’s operative conceit of setting the story of gods, dwarves, giants, dragons and curses in 1970s Argentina, with the all-precious gold morphing into a metaphor of the lost children and splintered families that became epidemic under that regime, and yes, Wotan and Fricka are now Juan and Evan Peron.

To be fair, I was more on board with this approach than not, until reaching the halfway point of the cycle, the beginning of Siegfried. Here there was no Wotan/Wanderer scene with Mime, and the title character’s forging of the sword seemed perfunctory. Musically there are some major highlights, principally Linda Watson as Brunhilde. Tasked with more singing spread out over the last three operas than demanded by any one of them in a full cycle, Watson manages to consistently lend nuance to heroic stamina. Paternostro gets a great deal of fine playing from the resident orchestra, although what should be a shattering “Siegfried’s Funeral Music” lacks weight.

“The Colon Ring” may not be recommended as a first choice for anyone who wants their dwarves and valkyries to look like the “real” thing, but even in this day of binge tv viewing, it still ranks as the gift for the Wagner lover who has everything. The full set consists of five dvds and is available from Naxos.

I did manage to get through an uncut “Ring,” a reissue of the 1999 Netherlands Opera performance. With the sets of George Tsypin and costumes by Eiko Ishioka, there’s never a doubt whether we’re in Nibelheim, Valhalla, Mime’s cave, etc. The main innovation is that Hartmut Haenchen conducts an orchestra that is always part of the stage, sometimes lowered pit-style, other times half raised up. Arguments have been made that the orchestra is not only a “character,” but the milieu in which the many layers of Wagner’s cosmos are woven into unforgettable stretches of music. But I’m here to tell you that it can be a distraction, and ultimately the scales tip to the down side of this experiment.

But now for the wonderful—and great—news. Die Walkure, the second music drama, proves to be a riveting ride from the storm of the opening prelude to the last flicker of Loge’s flames on the sleeping Brunnhilde’s rock nearly four hours later. Act I, with only three characters, is as perfect a sequence of singing/acting/directing as I can recall. Nadine Secunde as Sieglinde, John Keyes as Siegmund and Kurt Rydl as Hunding show every orchestral nuance on their faces even when they’re not singing. Director Pierre Audi here creates a cherishable testament, and the best news of all is that this Walkure was also released as a stand-alone issue. The set does include substantial and worthwhile bonus features, all from the Opus Arte label, distributed by Naxos.

Opus Arte is also responsible for the one major Wagner work I just had never been  drawn to: Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. Perhaps it is because it has been described as “the Wagner opera for folks who hate Wagner,” and his only comedy, while I was happily and deeply immersed in the Ring, Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal. File my conversion under “better late than never,” and it’s hard to imagine a better place to start than this 2011 production from Glyndebourne. As in the aforementioned Walkure, the lead singers can sing and act (Gerald Finley as Hans Sachs, Anna Gabler as Eva), and David McVicar’s direction seamlessly marries action and music. The updating to early 19th-century is more than plausible, and it doesn’t hurt to have Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic on hand. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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