Wagner 'Ring' cycle DVD from Valencia opera house is enjoyable, not excellent

Eye candy: This fluid, futuristic production, filmed at the new opera house in Valencia, is filled with intriguing images, such as this one from
Eye candy: This fluid, futuristic production, filmed at the new opera house in Valencia, is filled with intriguing images, such as this one from "Die Walküre." (Unitel Classica)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2010

Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" cycle was the "Star Wars" of its day, and it continues to be a cult object in the opera world. "Ring" fans travel the globe (there are new "Rings" in Paris, Milan, Los Angeles and elsewhere) to experience the 16-hour, four-opera saga about a magical golden ring that passes from the river Rhine to the gods to a dragon to the hero Siegfried, ultimately bringing about the destruction of the world in fire and flood and the start of a new world order. Two recent recordings document a "Ring" from Bayreuth, the temple of Wagner tradition, and the space-age vision embodied in the new opera house in Valencia, Spain.

Modern technology has upped the ante for productions of Wagner's "Ring." The four-opera series is practically begging for the full George Lucas treatment. Indeed, Plácido Domingo tried to get Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic to stage the work at the Los Angeles Opera, but the price tag proved prohibitive.

Other high-tech "Rings" abound, however, and while the United States awaits Robert Lepage's treatment of the work at the Metropolitan Opera next season, the recently released DVD set by the Catalan directors' collective La Fura dels Baus, led by Carlus Padrissa and conducted by Zubin Mehta (Unitel Classical $159), represents a respectable stopgap.

If the "Ring" hasn't yet become a movie, it is certainly the stuff of projection. This fluid, futuristic production, filmed during a 2007 run in the new opera house in Valencia, is filled with eye-candy images (Franc Aleu did the videos), starting from the opening of the first curtain in "Das Rheingold," when sinuous shapes of streaming water arc across the back wall while the Rheinmaidens splash and sing in tanks.

Flights of birds; showers of gold; a vertiginous mountainscape; and a sinuous silvery tree, its branches illuminated with floods of changing color, form just a few of the backdrops to action carried out by gods in sci-fi costumes standing in large cranes (Loge rides around on a Segway) and humans in aboriginal garb. Sieglinde, in "Die Walküre," sports a bone corset covering her torso, and her son Siegfried, like his mother, has dreadlocks and tribal tattoos.

High-tech, in short, is the stuff of the immortals in this conception; human beings are the building blocks of the new world order. The Rhinegold is initially depicted as a giant, golden human embryo projected on the back wall; Alberich, after he steals it, uses it to create a factory in which he hatches an army of golden soldiers, hanging unceremoniously from meat hooks and later doing double duty as a tangible embodiment of the Nibelung horde.

Valhalla is first presented as a projection of a metallic mesh in human form, and then embodied by a curtain of live bodies suspended from above, linking hands and feet to form a kind of physical macrame. Clusters of bodies represent the dragon; hold the torches of Brünnhilde's magic fire; and load down a huge swinging wrecking ball over the carnage of battle during the Ride of the Valkyries, while a mammoth globe spins on the back wall.

It's seductive to look upon, despite the annoying cutaway shots of Mehta conducting the orchestra at random moments, thus breaking the narrative thread. The balance between the human and the monumental is also occasionally skewed when the director focuses too much on the big picture, leaving key moments -- the unveiling of Valhalla, the death of Siegmund -- to take place on an empty stage while he prepares for a big visual crescendo a few measures ahead.

The music is in generally capable hands, allowing for the tendency of live recordings to even out vocal discrepancies and make voices sound bigger. Jennifer Wilson, the Washington native, is an impressive Brünnhilde, and I finally understood what the fuss was about Juha Uusitalo, the Finnish bass-baritone whose Wotan here sounds firmer than the subsequent work of his that I've heard. Lance Ryan is, if not a discovery as Siegfried, certainly a tenor to watch; though his parents, Peter Seiffert and Petra Maria Schnitzer (Siegmund and Sieglinde), sounded slightly pushed.

You might wish for a more subtle or profound conductor than Mehta -- some of the leitmotifs sound bright and bouncy rather than freighted with significance -- but he conducts with an energy that matches the general tenor of the production and represents an antidote to some of the drawn-out readings favored by other conductors. And the orchestra sounds quite good. A benchmark it's not; but for "Ring" fans, this is a set worth seeing.

The Wagner Society of Washington is showing this entire set in a single marathon on April 3 at George Washington University, from 8 a.m. to midnight. Visit http://www.wagner-dc.org.

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