Wagner: das Rheingold

Stewart, Fassbaender, Schreier, Kelemen; BPO/Karajan (DG DVD 073 4390)

Release Date: February 4, 2008 2.5 stars

Das RheingoldHerbert von Karajan's anniversary year is going to see a whole spate of commemorative editions and re-releases. This DVD of das Rheingold, however, doesn't look set to count among the highlights. It is a version 'with imaginative extra film sequences', directed by Karajan, which captures the conductor's own Salzburg Festival production that was unveiled in the sixties. The cast on this film was recorded around the time of the 1973 revival and although Karajan was all set for a complete Ring Cycle on film, the fact that the filming of Rheingold wasn't completed until 1978 shows that his ambitions weren't shared by Unitel's executives.

On this evidence, one needn't shed a tear for the fact that the project was not completed. This film is an awkward hotchpotch of the stage version and a half-baked cinematic concept that is neither one thing nor the other. Things start off badly with bare-breasted Rhine Maidens – sung by Eva Randová, Edda Moser and Liselotte Rebmann - swimming around in what looks like a big fish tank, arms flailing about aimlessly in simulated swimming, their watery abode evoked by crude visual effects. As with much of the film, while the concept itself isn't terribly inspired, the execution, at least to modern viewers, is also inadequate.

After the first scene which seeks to exploit film to produce a realistic Rhine – something directors in the theatre are usually forced to suggest through abstraction – we arrive at a Valhalla that is firmly rooted in the theatre. A backdrop of wispy clouds remains resolutely static through exchanges that are carried out by the singers addressing not each other, but an imaginary audience. Sometimes, in what seems to be a favourite directorial device of Karajan's, they look away from camera into the distance. The costumes have come straight out of a 1970s sci-fi series as has, it seems, much of the acting. And disappointingly nothing is even attempted to exploit the potential of film as a medium to produce convincing giants: their size is hinted at only by bigger bouffants and shoulder pads.

Herbert von KarajanAlthough Brigitte Fassbaender is a wonderful Fricka – glamorous, unusually youthful and gloriously sung – Thomas Stewart as Wotan, with his armoured shoulder pads and stock expressions, is less convincing. In many ways, it's a little unfair to expect singers, used to a very different sort of acting on the operatic stage, to adjust convincingly to the close scrutiny of the camera. Without doubt, though, they could have been helped by a real film director. Peter Schreier's Loge does liven things up a little, even though his red leather costume (complete with what looks like armour plating on the chest) and bald pate add to the Buck Rogers atmosphere.

For me the most disappointing sequence is the descent into Nibelheim. At this point, Wagner's miraculous scoring is at its most atmospheric and threatening yet it's here accompanied by painfully amateur and drab visuals. The camera slowly descends through a maze of unconvincing looking rocks, catching glimpses of what look more like elves working in Santa's grotto than the industrialised hell portrayed in Wagner's music. To the sound of battering anvils we see a couple of Nibelungs working merrily away; there's little sense of Wagner's angry, anti-capitalist and anti-industrialist polemic here.

Zoltán Kelemen as Alberich is probably the strongest actor, with a deliciously sadistic glint in his eye when he beats Gerhard Stolze's Mime. Again, though, much of his fine work is undermined by the direction. After the gold has been brought in he himself appears painted gold and has to deliver the rest of the scene stuck in the middle of his hoard. When with the help of the Tarnhelm he transforms into the Wurm it is indeed more a worm than a dragon: a slimy brown one with a face that looks like it's been drawn on by a child. There's often a comic dimension to this scene in the theatre - usually down to the director's throwing up his arms in despair at the Wagner's scenic demands – here, though, there is little doubt that it is being played straight. Yet the laboured realism of having Alberich then turn into a live toad, whose capture is effected extremely awkwardly, made me long for the imagination of Keith Warner's Covent Garden production, for the humour of this episode but also for the sense of genuine horror he brings to the rest of the Nibelheim scene.

Although special effects in films were still pretty primitive in 1978, there are several moments where decisions looked to have been made as a result of misguided wish to exploit the possibilities of the medium. This in itself is understandable but it is consistently done in such a poor way and Erda's entrance is typically botched. Sung by Birgit Finnilä but played by the great Martha Mödl, she appears as a ghostly apparition. To achieve this effect the frame is clumsily frozen – with a disturbing change in texture of the picture – while her head is superimposed. When we cut to Wotan listening, it's with the same quizzical, raised eyebrow employed so often before. The final scene, with Donner mustering thunder and lightning against a static sky and disappointing realisations of the Rainbow Bridge and Valhalla, is typical of the film.

As far as the musical performance is concerned, it's very much what one would expect. Karajan leads a similarly athletic account of the score to his earlier sound recording on DG. The main change in the cast is Stewart who replaces Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as a less controversial choice of Wotan. Stewart recorded Wotan and the Wanderer on disc for Karajan and sings with the same burnished tone here; his voice, slightly lighter than some real bass-baritone Wotans, is if anything better suited to the Rheingold role. If one puts the visuals to one side, you can hear what's generally an excellently sung performance.

Fans of Karajan will no doubt be interested to see this DVD and for others it will certainly exert a slightly camp fascination. However there are very few advantages that this film version has over the several fine DVDs of live performances – parts of complete cycles – so it can only really be recommended as a curiosity.  

By Hugo Shirley