Three Wagner DVDs from Bayreuth, 1981-1997

Review Published: 7 March 2008


Gotterdammerung LevineThese DVDs from Deutsche Grammophon document contrasting productions of three late Wagner works recorded at Bayreuth over the course of around a decade and a half.

Just as each has something to offer, none is entirely satisfactory - whether for musical, technical or dramatic reasons - and ultimately they simply reinforce the view that the small screen rarely does full justice to the musical and dramatic complexities of opera.

In contrast to his dull performance on the earlier Metropolitan Opera DVD of Götterdämmerung, James Levine's conducting of the Bayreuth musicians in the 1997 incarnation of Alfred Kirchner's production of the opera is surprisingly electric. The tempi are often quite different, such as in Siegfried's Funeral March, here much more forward-moving than in New York; although the total running time is comparable, individual passages can be a minute or two faster or slower than in the older account. Overall, Levine seems to have much more of a grasp of the piece's structure and, more noticeably, he draws richer playing from the German orchestra than the American one - the brass playing is extraordinary. He is blessed with some sensational cast members, too. The menacing Eric Halfvarson has few equals on record in the role of Hagen, Anne Schwanewilms is a deeply affecting Gutrune, and both Deborah Polaski (Brünnhilde) and Falk Struckmann (Gunther) are very fine, though Wolfgang Schmidt (Siegfried) and an ageing Hanna Schwarz (Waltraute) are no more than acceptable (the latter somewhat vocally strained).

However, the package becomes much less appealing in light of the visual element. Since there is very little action most of the time in his production, director Alfred Kirchner does not seem to offer an interpretation of the opera at all; the more gifted singers make their characters compelling through their natural acting instincts. This just about works in close-up, but thanks to Rosalie's sparse set designs - a sail-like object serves as the Valkyrie rock on an otherwise bare landscape, for instance - the views of the full stage are utterly dreary. Kirchner does not engage with the text on any but the most superficial level, barely elucidating the storyline and ignoring any subtext. He does not tease any profound statements out of the opera at all, whether regarding the psychological discourse of the plot or broader philosophical statements, leaving the viewer with very little to think about or even look at. So in spite of resplendent playing from the orchestra, here captured in vivid sound, and some good singing, this is not a particularly commendable DVD recording of the piece.

Tristan und Isolde BarenboimAlthough it was widely admired at the time and continues to be acclaimed in its DVD incarnation in most quarters, to these eyes and ears the 1983 recording of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's 1981 Tristan und Isolde conducted by Daniel Barenboim is a disappointment. In all honesty, it irks me not to be able to access the magic of which most people speak in relation to his production. One problem (indeed the main one) is purely technological: the picture quality is very poor and grainy from start to finish, so Ponnelle's already grey sets look even duller. At times it is even difficult to make out the action, and it gets worse in Act III. Ponnelle presents the opera with the same sort of stylised look which permeates through his films of La Cenerentola and Cosí fan tutte, though with far less colour and vibrancy; whereas an element of artifice might have suited the satirical tone of both those operas, here his approach distances this viewer, at least, from the story. The presentation of Tristan as a romantic fairy tale (especially in the first act) resonates to an extent, but it strips the piece of both its erotic undertones and the psychological tension that can make it a gripping experience. Ponnelle seems only to connect directly with the text in the closing stages of the final act, when he famously, and in my view perversely, intervenes with the action so that the events after Tristan's fit, such as Isolde's mighty peroration to the opera, are presented as figments of his delirium. The director supervised the filming of the production himself when the theatre was empty, resulting in a curious lack of atmosphere; it feels as if a poor quality film is being played against a disembodied soundtrack (indeed, I believe that is the case in Act III). Also, he sometimes allows the camera to move into angles which a member of the audience could not have seen (such as a side view of the stage) even though the direction of the action itself is not freed from the boundaries of the proscenium.

The sound is variable too; the orchestra never seems clearly balanced (not least when listening in DTS 5.1 surround sound), while the voices do not come to the fore at key points. As Isolde, Johanna Meier is neither as lithe of body nor as vocally on top of the role as one might wish, and she often seems to be at odds with Barenboim as to tempo and purpose. A primary instance is the Liebestod. Meier runs out of tone well before the end and struggles to ride the orchestra, which moves ahead of her; the voice recedes into the background; and the odd interpretation of the dimly-lit final scene, coupled with murky picture quality, disengages us from the action. On the plus side, Matti Salminen's Marke is excellent, Hanna Schwarz steals the show as Brangäne and René Kollo sings superbly as Tristan, even though he is slightly unconvincing as a virile lover. Indeed, this version of the piece pushes sex and passion well into the background, interpreting its Otherness as a fantasy of a different kind; even Barenboim seems more interested in producing a beautiful surface than a surging wave of sound. In short, while it will always have its admirers, this DVD left me cold.

The Parsifal DVD is perhaps the most reliable of the three recordings on offer here, largely because four strong vocal performances offer something approaching the ultimate in Wagnerian singing. Hans Sotin's powerful Gurnemanz, Matti Salminen's impeccable Titurel, Bernd Weikl's searing Amfortas and Leif Roar's sinister Klingsor are all arresting, moving role interpretations. However, Wolfgang Wagner's production comes from 1975 and was filmed in 1981; it looks very old-fashioned, both from the point of view of the designs and stagecraft and of the quality of the camera work. The first scene in Act II highlights both problems: Klingsor stands on top of a black plinth submerged in dry ice, wearing a purple robe which makes him resemble a pantomime villain (though the Emperor Ming was who really came to mind), and the camera angle captures him from underneath so that we have a clearer view of the insides of his nostrils than of his facial expressions. On the whole, the production and direction allow the singers to walk through the plot in the simplest way possible and give the majority of their energy to the singing - not necessarily the wrong priority, some may feel. Siegfried Jerusalem sings beautifully as Parsifal, even if he is a little lightweight; Eva Randova lacks vocal allure as Kundry. There is plenty to admire in Horst Stein's conducting, which is at its best during confrontation and action; all I missed was a sense of magic, the quality that has made some people feel that this score is almost 'beyond music'. Though it is not challenging or interpretatively assertive (either musically or dramatically), this Parsifal is competitive as a whole compared to other DVDs of the opera currently available on the market.

By Dominic McHugh