Recording of the Week A Ring cycle for the 21st Century
Happy New Year, and what better way to start a year than to tell you about a new Wagner Ring cycle! OK, I know that Wagner isn’t to everyone’s taste but this is a very important cycle not just for Wagner fans but for the whole future of music theatre, as with its dramatic use of technology and stage events it is radically different from the current norm and perhaps gives an idea of the path that opera might be taking in the future.
The production comes from the Spanish city of Valencia and its spectacular new opera house, the Palau de les Arts “Reina Sofía”, and is staged by Carlus Padrissa and his theatre group La Fura dels Baus. This Barcelona-based group became known internationally when it designed and carried out the opening ceremonies of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The group has already staged a number of operas but this Ring cycle is their highest profile production to date and has already attracted significant critical comment.
Up until the mid 1800s the musical aspects of operas always took precedence over the theatrical aspects. Wagner tried to change all that and transformed musical thought through his idea of Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork). His idea was simple in that he felt that the poetic, visual and dramatic aspects were just as important as the musical ones. His monumental four-opera Ring cycle (which he completed in 1876) epitomized this thought process and he even built his own opera house (the Bayreuth Festspielhaus) in order to try and stage his works more as he had imagined them.
Now in the 21st Century, the imagination of Carlus Padrissa and La Fura combined with the awesome potential of modern technology means that we’re perhaps closer to realising Wagner’s visionary world than ever before. Finally now the Rhinemaidens can emerge from the Rhine (tanks of water), the gods can swoop around the stage (on personal cranes) and Wotan can ride over the mountaintops for his encounter with Erda (accompanied by huge video projections). The whole production is breathtaking, with the magical use of human beings to create organic structures such as Valhalla (here in the picture) producing several jaw-dropping moments.
Musically speaking the production is equally successful, with conductor Zubin Mehta able to extract both a deep rich Wagnerian sound and transparent accompanying textures from his young orchestra. The cast is world-class, and it is hard to spot a weak link. Young American soprano Jennifer Wilson Brünnhilde is particularly fine. She has amazing vocal power but always retains such beautiful colour in her voice. And Matti Salminen (as Fasolt, Hunding and Hagen) is right up there with the very best on disc.
Das Rheingold and Die Walküre came out just before Christmas while Siegfried and Götterdämmerung are released today. At present the operas are only available individually and I don’t know if or when there will be a box set. They are available on both DVD and Blu-ray so please make sure you choose the right version of each opera for your equipment. We have set up a special page where you can browse them all and also watch a short video trailer that gives you an idea of what you can expect from this remarkable production. You can also watch longer trailers for each opera by following the link underneath the individual cover images on that page.