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DAS RHEINGOLD

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: James Morris, Siegfried Jerusalem, Ekkehard Wlaschiha, Jan-Hendrik Rootering, Matti Salminen, Christa Ludwig, Mari Anne Häggander, Birgitta Svendén
Director: Brian Large
Conductor: James Levine
Audio: German DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, or PCM stereo
Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, Chinese
Video: Color, 4:3 full-screen
Studio: Universal - Deutsche Grammophon
Features: Photo gallery, trailer, booklet
Length: 163 minutes
Release Date: November 12, 2002

"Tremble with terror, abject throng!  At once obey the master of the Ring!"

Film ****

Perhaps no work of opera is more internationally celebrated than Richard Wagner's masterwork, Der Ring des Nibelungen.  As a seminal series of four epic operas, Wagner's "Ring Cycle" possesses a scope and magnitude that is staggering beyond mere words.  The original operas were written over a period of twenty-six years in the latter nineteenth century, and a complete performance of the Ring Cycle can easily run over fourteen hours.  Undertaking such a production is usually so monumental a task that new adaptations of this classic operatic work appear only once every generation.  Such rare performances, when they arise, are so highly anticipated by opera aficionados that tickets are frequently purchased years in advance.

The genesis of the Ring Cycle began in the summer of 1848 when Wagner began work on The Nibelung Myth, an early story treatment.  Drawing inspiration from German and Scandinavian mythology and folklore, Wagner's story recounted the saga of mere mortals and magical beings, from giants to gods, in their quest to possess a mighty treasure forged of gold from the mighty river Rhine.

Wagner was no doubt influenced as well by the Nibelungenlied, a twelfth-century German epic poem about the heroic figure Siegfried.  By 1851, Wagner's aspirations had expanded to encompass four operas based on Siegfried's epic tale - Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Der Junge Siegfried, and Siegfrieds Tod (later renamed Götterdämmerung, the "Twilight of the Gods").  Over the next six years, Wagner would continue work on the operatic compositions, completing the scores for Rheingold and Die Walküre and, following another interval of some one dozen years, finally would complete all four operas.

Das Rheingold premiered on September 22, 1869.  Based on material found in the Old Norse Eddas (scaldic folk-tales), Das Rheingold laid the epic background behind how the enchanted gold of the Rheinmaidens was stolen and forged into a mighty Ring of Power.

King Ludwig II of Bavaria was particularly enthusiastic about the Wagner operas.  Through his royal support, Wagner was able to raise sufficient funds to finance the construction of a new theater in the town of Bayreuth specifically designed to accommodate performances of Der Ring des Nibelungen.  In 1876, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus was completed, and by August of the same year, this theater proudly premiered the first complete performance of the Ring Cycle in its entirety.

The astoundingly complex logistics involved in staging the four operas of Der Ring des Nibelungen are enough to discourage even the bravest of souls.  That this classic work is performed even as frequently as it is remains a testimonial to the dedication of many people, from the performers to the opera house musicians to the charitable supporters whose foundations make possible the production of not only Der Ring des Nibelungen but innumerable other classic operas.

The particular rendition of Das Rheingold which appears on this disc is a live recording of a performance from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.  Originally broadcast on public television in June 1990, this production of Das Rheingold featured impressive sets, renowned singers, and bold conduction of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra by James Levine.  More importantly for the opera purist, this adaptation, with stage production by Otto Schenk, remained faithful to Wagner's original intent, stage design, and direction.

Musically, Der Ring des Nibelungen adopts an advanced style of composition.  Rather than follow the conventional structure of arias linked by recitatives, Wagner opted for a through-composed technique wherein each act is essentially one extended song with no breaks whatsoever.  Wagner also utilized many sophisticated leitmotifs, short melodies which are musical references to actions or characters presented onstage or conceptually.  It is this extensive usage of leitmotifs which makes Der Ring des Nibelungen so appealing today to modern viewers accustomed to the compositional style of movie musical scores.

Das Rheingold offers distinct examples of these innovations (to be fully realized by Siegfried).  As the opera opens, a boldly unmodulating line of music (the most famous example of drone music in opera) sweeps the audience into the swirling undersea realm of the Rheintöchter.  These maidens, the daughters of Father Rhine, have been entrusted with the guardianship of the precious Rheingold.  Legend has it that only one who has renounced love utterly can craft of the Rheingold a treasure so powerful that its wielder will have command over all the forces of the world.  Yet what manner of man or creature does not love in some private capacity?  Surely, no such creature exists, and the siren sisters Woglinde, Wellgunde, and Flosshilde cling casually to their belief that the Rheingold is therefore secure.  Even the courageous sailor who should stumble across the maidens would do well to shun the Rheintöchter's beauty and silvery voices, known are they to draw many a captivated brave soul to his watery grave.

One day, emerging from the dark abyss far below is the misshapen Nibelung gnome Alberich.  Mesmerized by the Rheinmaidens, this hideous creature attempts to woo them to no avail.  They mock his ugliness, his crude nature, and his primitive pretenses of romance.  So scorned, Alberich decides instead to curse love, damning that most crippling of frail emotions.  Thus empowered by his sudden sense of freedom, Alberich spies the precious Rheingold upon its coral perch and, climbing up the reef, abruptly steals the Rheinmaidens' treasure.  Having forsaken love, Alberich now possesses the secret knowledge with which to forge of this gold an exceptional Ring of Power.  So does Scene One end on the anguish wails of the Rheintöchter, deprived of their most precious keepsake.  Their cries will continue unabated until the Ring Cycle is complete, when once again after great global destruction and despair the gold returns to their safekeeping.

As Scene Two begins, Wotan, lord of war and fury, awakens.  Arising from the plains of the Overworld, this lord of the Gods witnesses the completion of his great citadel, crafted by the sweat and strength of the Giants.  This formidable castle will become Wotan's symbol of unchallengeable authority over the race of Man, yet such a mighty monument comes at a precious cost.  As payment for their toil, the Giants Fasolt and Fafner claim sweet Freia, goddess of fertility and sister-in-law to Wotan.  Such a loss would surely doom the Gods, for only by Freia's hands are the apples of immortal youth tended and raised in the Gods' heavenly gardens.  Without those magical fruits, the Gods would wither and die, their powers fading with the fickle memory of Man.  Freia's fate is thus tied directly to that of the Gods themselves, and Freia therefore cannot be so easily forsaken.  Fricka, wife of Wotan, bemoans her husband's ill-advised bargain with the Giants and beseeches Wotan to spare Freia.

Wotan looks to Loge, Master Trickster and Deceiver, for salvation from his own folly.  But Loge, by his guile and charmed speech, is a dangerous demigod to trust.  Charged by Wotan with the task of finding a suitable alternative for Freia to please Fasolt and Fafner, Loge uncovers the calamitous loss of the Rheintöchter.  To these water maidens, Loge promises to recover the lost treasure, but through such hollow pledges are great evils derived, for the Rheintöchter's misfortune represents Wotan's good fortune.  What has been stolen may be stolen again, and were Wotan to acquire the Ring fashioned by the creature Alberich, he would have little need for even dear Freia.  After all, whose worth can truly be estimated to that of a Ring of Power?  Such are the faithless loyalties of the gods, even amongst themselves, and less even are their concerns ultimately for the watery maidens of the Rhine.

Another precarious bargain is struck with giants.  The Ring forged of craft and magic, the remaining gold not smelted and untouched, these will be the cost for Freia's safe return.  But how to trust in the sanctity of contracts and the bond of a power-hungry god's fickle word?  The Giants hesitate, but the lure of the Ring of Power excites even their lust as well.  The deal struck and the vows exchanged, Wotan and Loge descend into the hellish depths of the Nibelung's realm to seek out the creature Alberich and his Ring.

Scene Three opens in the darkness and heat of the Underworld.  The gnome Alberich, fierce and arrogant in his new might, brutally flaunts the Ring of Power upon his finger.  Yet ever insatiably greedy, he claws at the latest treasure smite from the Rheingold - a tarn helm of fantastic abilities, able to render its wearer invisible or even to transform him into any manner of creature, large or small.  At Alberich's beck are the aligned forces of all the Nibelung, the orcish denizens of the Underworld.  They toil ceaselessly for the earthen treasures, and they heed his every command, such is their fear of his newfound might.

Wotan and Loge arrive into this realm to find the creature Mime cowering in the dark.  It was Mime's skills which crafted the tarn helm, and in his terror of Alberich, Mime reveals much to the visiting Gods.  When Alberich reappears triumphantly, Loge employs his cunning powers of flattery and diplomacy to lull Alberich into a false sense of superiority.  Coaxed into a display of the tarn helm's might, the creature Alberich transforms first into a ferocious dragon and then into a toad.  In his vulnerable latter state, Wotan and Loge quickly seize the foolish gnome and bind him tightly.

In Scene Four, Das Rheingold's finale unfolds.  Dragged up to the Overworld by Wotan and Loge, the creature Alberich pleads for his freedom.  Wotan agrees but only at a handsome ransom - Alberich must surrender his accumulated gold, his tarn helm, and the Ring of Power.  Embittered at this betrayal by the Gods yet powerless in his binds to resist, Alberich agrees to the heavy cost of his freedom.  In departing, Alberich spats forth a powerful curse upon the Ring.

Let all who might bear the ring die from its weight of doom!  Let all who see it thirst ceaselessly for its power to the detriment of even love, loyalty to one's kindred, or even self-preservation!  To wield the Ring is to command all the world, but to wield the Ring is also to invite certain death and destruction.  Such is the curse and the gift of this one Ring - "the ring's master, to the ring, a slave."  Such is Alberich's decree until he possesses his precious treasure once more.

Once the disgraced Nibelung departs, the Giants Fasolt and Fafner reappear to claim their new prize.  With great hesitance, Wotan surrenders first the gold, then the helm, and most reluctantly the Ring.  Only after the intervention of the ancient Goddess of the Earth, Erda herself, immortal Wala and mother of the three Norns (Fates), does Wotan forsake the Ring, especially upon hearing her new and dreadful prophecy about the Ring,  With its departure from his clutches, a grave sense of heavy emptiness descends upon Wotan, for he is immediately horrified at the magnitude of the Nibelung's curse, causing the Giants to immediately seize upon one another for possession of the Ring.

As Scene Four (and the opera) ends, the Gods divorce themselves of the struggles of mortals, retiring to their new palace of Valhalla.  Of these mighty deities, only Loge understands the ultimate fate that awaits them all - the doom of the Gods, the fall of humanity, and the destruction of the world, all by the power of the Ring of the Rheingold, for none can truly escape its influence.

This prestigious production of the first part of the Ring Cycle offers an impressive cast.  Grammy award-winning opera singer James Morris portrays Wotan, a signature role with which he has become identified.  Siegfried Jerusalem truly inhabits the role of Loge in the production's most extraordinary stand-out performance.  Of the singers, Christa Ludwig, who portrays Fricka, was one of the celebrated mezzo-sopranos of her day.  This 1990 Met production of Das Rheingold (and Die Walküre) would in fact represent Ludwig's final bows in a long career that had spanned half a century.

What is the true measure of wealth and power?  Are such material gains worth the renunciation of love, the dishonorable rejection of a solemn oath or pact?  Greed - for power, riches, or even love - lies at the core of the Ring Cycle.  Das Rheingold concludes on a cliff-hanger but clearly establishes recurring motifs for Wagner's magnus opus.  Das Rheingold is perhaps not for novices to the stylized art form that is opera, but for music aficionados and theater enthusiasts ready to tackle the most epic of all operas, this Metropolitan production of Das Rheingold and the three remaining operas of the Ring Cycle is a supreme way to experience Wagner at his finest.

Video ** ½

The transfer for Das Rheingold displays some pixelation, especially in darker scenes or smoky transitions between the acts.  The details are a bit muddy and occasionally indistinct.  Considering that the opera was recorded live on video tape (for a public television broadcast of all four operas of Der Ring des Nibelungen in 1990), the picture quality is probably as good as can be reasonably expected.

Audio ****

Listening options are for German DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, or PCM stereo.  The music is by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra as conducted by James Levine.  This Metropolitan Opera Television Production was made in association with Deutsche Grammophon, well-known to lovers of classical and operatic music.  Suffice it to say that the music is quite extraordinary, and the sound quality for this live performance is quite solid.  The voices do fade slightly if the performers wander too far from the hidden recording microphones, but for the most part, the voices are well-projected.

As for Wagner's music itself, the score for Das Rheingold demonstrates numerous innovations in orchestration and tonality and fully embraces the romanticism of the era's musical style.  In Das Rheingold, Wagner also experiments with dissonance and breaks away from the traditional concept of the key scale in favor of the fluidity of "key areas," perhaps presaging the rise of twentieth-century contemporary compositions.  As such, the score will sound very modern to today's audiences, almost like an invigoratingly energetic movie score.

Features ½*

Given the length of the opera and the inclusion of a DTS audio track, the lack of significant bonus features on this disc is understandable.  There is a gallery of photographs (11) from the past performances of Das Rheingold as well as a trailer (9 min.) for many other available operas, symphonies, and classical performances.  Universal's catalog of operas is listed separately.  The disc also includes several web-links.  Otherwise, this is mostly a bare-bones DVD.

There is a fine 36-page booklet, too, with accompanying notes about the background of the opera and its place in the complete Ring Cycle.  Production photographs are included, and the text of the booklet is reprinted in English, German, and French.

Summary:

Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold) is part one of Wagner's Ring Cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen.  It is a tremendous commencement to one of the greatest achievements in opera music, an epic saga that continues in Die Walküre (The Valkyrie).  Highly recommended for classical music aficionados!

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