Wagner’s Ring (Valencia) – Exciting Technology

If all goes well for me during the coming 2010-11 operatic season, it will be the Year of the Ring. The 12-production Met HD season will be book-ended by new productions of Das Rheingold and Die Walké¼re, the first two operas in the cycle (the last two should follow next year). In November and January the European HD network will present a new production of the same two operas from La Scala. In June, the San Francisco Opera will present the complete cycle produced by their Artistic Adviser Francesca Zambello. And the season began in August 2010 with the European HD showing of final opera in the fantastical production by Carlus Padrissa and La Fura dels Baus which I have just seen.

Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia; photo: © 2010 www.aviewoncities.com

I have been struggling to find the words to describe this production performed at the futuristic Palau de les Arts “Reina Sofia” in Valencia, Spain, and I’ve decided that I can’t do better than quote from the program of Das Rheingold shown two years ago:

. . . The city of Valencia is setting new trends in 21st-century opera not only with its spectacular new theater designed by Santiago Calatrava, but also with its visually transfixing production of Wagner’s “Ring” staged by Carlus Padrissa and his theater group La Fura dels Baus. The Barcelona-based Fura blends music, dance, acrobatics and technology into unforgettable stage events of raw but always captivating power. . . .

The Fura’s fertile visual fantasy and endless combinations of savvy video technology, lighting and props (often formed of human beings) are predestined for Wagner’s visionary expressive world. Wagner’s dream of a “Gesamtkunstwerk,” or “total art work,” becomes reality as this shape-shifting sequence of tableaux unfolds before our eyes: 3D computer projections that evoke computer games, organic structures built of athletic performers that recall “Cirque du Soleil,” and much more. In this production, “the visual codes of the digital era become elemental and dazzlingly employed means of narration” (Opernwelt).

. . . Legendary conductor Zubin Mehta leads world-class Wagner singers such as Peter Seiffert, Petra-Maria Schnitzer and Matti Salminen, and promising young talents that include Jennifer Wilson (Bré¼nnhilde), John Daszak (Loge) and Juha Uusitalo (Wotan), whom the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung hailed as a new “Number one among the opera gods.” Equally outstanding is the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana, an ensemble of top musicians hand-picked by Music Director Lorin Maazel.

Program writers are notorious for their hyperbole, but having seen all four of the operas over the last two years, I think that the above quote is just a simple statement of fact.

I’d like to share my impressions of this fantastic production, but the four operas which comprise the Ring take almost 20 hours to perform, so I am going to assume that you know the story and the characters. If you don’t, you might want to bring up http://classicmusicindex.com/RING/ringindex.html and click on the appropriate opera.

Das Rheingold 2006

The opera starts with the three Rhine Maidens (Silvia Vé¡zquez, Ann-Katrin Naidu, Hannah Esther Minutillo) in the river Rhine. As Anna Russell emphasizes, “IN it”. That’s real water in the tanks, and at times they go completely underwater and then pop up singing in perfect harmony. Alberich (Franz-Josef Kapellmann) appears, gets teased and soaked, and eventually steals the gold.

Valhalla; photo courtesy Emerging Pictures

The scene changes seamlessly with beautiful rising chords of music into Valhalla, as symbolized by a dramatic montage of acrobats. The palace has just been completed by the two giants, Fafner (Stephen Milling) and Fasolt (Matti Salminen) who demand the goddess Freia (Sabina von Walther) as the contracted payment. Wotan suggests the rheingold instead, the giants say show us and we’ll bargain.

Wotan (Juha Uusitalo) and Loge (John Daszak) descend from Valhalla to Nibelheim

Wotan (Juha Uusitalo) and Loge (John Daszak) descend to Alberich’s realm to the accompaniment of appropriate music. Loge tricks Alberich into using the dwarf’s own magic to transform himself into a toad who is easily captured and encaged.

Wotan bargains with the giants (Matti Salminen, Stephen Milling)

They take the imprisoned Alberich back to Valhalla and force him to turn over all of his gold in exchange for his freedom. He then summons Fafner and Fasolt and offers them gold in exchange for returning Freia. The giants drive a hard bargain.

Fricke (Anna Larsson) looks on as the pile of gold hides Freia (Sabina von Walther)

They insist on receiving a pile of gold big enough to hide Freia from view. The gold is represented by gilded actors who writhe onto the stage and form themselves into a messy pile. There is almost enough gold, but to completely conceal her Wotan is forced to also give up the magic Tarnhelm and ring. Alberich lays a heavy curse on the ring.

Die Walké¼re February 2007

I saw the Valencia production of Die Walké¼re over a year ago, and I must confess that my memories of it have been largely overlaid by the magnificent live production that I saw (and reviewed) last June. Therefore, without further ado, I will proceed to the third opera in the cycle,

Siegfried March 2010

Siegfried (Lance Ryan) is the bastard son of the twins Siegmund (Peter Seiffert) and Seglinde (Petra Maria Schnitzer) who were sired by Wotan. (As Anna Russell says, “That’s the wonderful thing about opera. You can get away with anything so long as you sing it.”) For reasons not clear to me he is being raised by Mime (Gerhard Siegel), brother of the dwarf Alberich. Mime is the master forger who created the magic Tarnhelm and ring from the Rhine Maidens’ gold, back in the first opera. The surviving giant, Fafner, has transformed himself into a dragon who lives in a cave where he guards the gold and the magic treasures.

Everybody has a plan. Siegfried’s is the simplest. Mime should put the sword Nothung which he inherited from his father back together so he can go out into the world and become a hero. Mime wants to fix the sword so Siegfried can kill Fafner and get the gold, etc. Mime will then kill Siegfried to get the ring and become master of the Universe. Alberich is keeping a low profile until Mime’s plan is fulfilled at which point he will trick or kill him and get the ring. Wotan’s plan is more obscure, but it includes Siegfried killing Fafner, keeping the ring away from the bad guys, and going off to rescue Bré¼nnhilde from the magic sleep in which Wotan placed her in the previous opera for disobeying his orders. Got that all clear?

Mime (Gerhard Siegel) in his laboratory

According to the synopsis, Mime lives in a cave, and in the usual production his “forge” is a simple fire outside the mouth of the cave. La Fura gives him a fully-equipped modern-futuristic laboratory, complete with a virtual army of lab-coated technicans who wheel complicated equipment about as seemingly needed. It’s no use. Mime still can’t fix the sword.

The annealing of Nothung

Siegfried is disgusted and says, “Out! I’ll do it myself.” He shreds the sword pieces into tiny pieces and puts them in a globular fiery furnace to melt and anneal, and hammers the result into a new Nothung. Quite a feat.

Siegfried easily kills Fafner, inadvertently tastes some of his blood, and can immediately understand the birds. Between that and the Tarnhelm from the dragon’s treasure, our boy is no longer the naé¯ve simpleton he once was. He immediately detects Mime’s plan to poison him, so he kills the dwarf. So much for Mime’s and Alberich’s plans.

During the beautiful prologue to Act III, La Fura shows us Wotan on a flying platform with a dozen picture windows as its front zooming over and through snow-covered mountains interspersed with shots of nothing but flames.

Olga Peretiatko (The forest bird); photo still from YouTube Video: Franc Aleu

The act begins with Siegfried following a little bird (some lovely flute and soprano music here) on his way to the next adventure to find himself a bride on a mountain top. He gets to the entrance to the Rock just as that phase of music finishes, the bird flies away, and Siegfried starts up the trail to the rock.

His way is blocked by Wotan and they have words something like,
W: Don’t go that way. You’ll be burnt alive by fiery flames.
S: Pooh! Who’s afraid of a few flames
W: I forbid you to continue. You will meet certain death.
S: Pooh! I’ve got the hots for a maiden up there and nothing will keep me from her.
W: If you won’t listen to my commands, I’ll be forced to kill you with my all-powerful spear.
S: You and who else? I’ve got Nothung.
W: Take care. This spear broke Nothung once and it can do it again.
S: Oh ho! So you‘re the coward who killed my father. I’ve been looking for you.

Siegfried breaks Wotan's spear.

Siegfried pulls out his sword, takes one mighty swing at Wotan’s spear and breaks it cleanly in two. Not only is the spear broken, but Wotan’s spirit is also. He picks up the pieces slowly and sadly, turns his back and walks slowly away, never to be seen or heard again for the remainder of the Ring Cycle.

That obstacle disposed of, Siegfried makes his way up to the Rock. At this point La Fura emphasizes the drama and does not distract us with realistic scenery. Rather, Siegfried appears to enter a large featureless studio. The only furnishing is a slightly raised sort of apple-shaped horizontal platform surrounded by a few dozen Noh-type supernumeraries each holding a burning torch. He passes through the torches without noticing them, steps up on the platform, and approaches the sleeping Bré¼nnhilde. The “studio” walls are featureless at the start, but as the singing becomes more passionate random gray bubbles appear to rise and fall on them. As the passion increased, the bubbles became blacker, assumed a variety of different shapes and motions. I can’t possibly begin to describe the resulting effect except to say that in some undefinable way it symbolized the increasing passion on stage.

If you want a “lived-happily-ever-after” ending, you should stop here and skip the 5-hour final opera,

Gé¶tterdé¤mmerung August 2010

For the benefit of those who came in late and missed the first three installments, this opera starts with a prologue in which the three Norns weave the strands of everyone’s life into their rope of destiny while telling you the whole story of what has happened so far.

Suddenly the rope breaks, the Norns disappear, and we are with Siegfried and Bré¼nnhilde who have been blissfully enjoying life on the rocks. He says, “Time for another adventure,” sings her a good-bye, jumps onto her horse Grane (a cherry-picker) and is wheeled off. She is left with the magic ring and her old ring of fire, playing the role of the dutiful wife who stays at home while hubby goes off to work.

Gibichungs: Gutrune (Elizabeth Matos), Gunther (Ralf Lukas), Hagen (Matti Salminen); still from YouTube video by pelagohippos01

Siegfried’s next stop is to visit the Gibich family: unmarried siblings Gunther (Ralf Lukas) and Gutrune (Elizabeth Matos), and the former’s half-brother Hagen (Matti Salminen) – the result of Alberich’s rape of Gunther’s mother, and a nasty piece of goods. He tells the other two it’s time they got married.

“I’ve got the perfect mates for you: Siegfried and Bré¼nnhilde. It’s true they are already married to each other, but here’s a magic potion which will make Siegfried totally forget Bré¼nnhilde and fall instantly and violently in love with Gutrune. To prove his love he will volunteer to disguise himself as you, Gunther and kidnap Bré¼nnhilde for you. This is necessary because only a hero can approach her and you are a coward.”

And so it doth befall, with a wonderful bit of acting by Lance Ryan. As Siegfried he is all bouncy and outgoing and every step is joyous. After Tarnhelm (and the makeup crew) have changed him to look like Gunther he is sly and ominous and every step conveys menace.

There is a great deal of confusion, treachery, and nastiness, mostly fomented by Hagen who hates everyone and wants to get the ring for himself so he can enslave the rest of the world in memory of his deceased father, Alberich. He almost succeeds. Hagen kills Siegfried so that Gutrune will inherit the ring, but Bré¼nnhilde gets it instead.

Valhalla burns up; photo courtesy Opera Chic

She orders that a great funeral pyre be built for Siegfried (with some wonderful stage effects). Once the fire gets going she mounts Grane and is wheeled into the fire, ring and all. The flames reach all the way to Valhalla and set it afire killing all the gods. The Rhine overflows its banks and lo and behold, there are the three Rhine Maidens in their tanks under the collapsing Valhalla. They find the magic ring and, in the words of Anna Russell, “After sitting through twenty hours of all this, you are right back where you started from.”

But what a wonderful ride it was.

The Opera Nut

Photos: Except as otherwise noted, photos were copied from available sources on the web, many of them as stills from YouTube videos.

P. S. If you’re still with me after all this, you deserve a break. Go to the following web sites for Anna Russell’s irreverent analysis of the Ring. – – ON

editor’s note: The first two videos have been taken down (“This video is no longer available because the YouTube account associated with this video has been terminated due to multiple third-party notifications of copyright infringement from claimants”) but if you search on youtube you may be able to find others. 


This review by Philip G Hodge appeared in sanfranciscosplash.com on September 6, 2010.

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