Home to both Goethe and Liszt – who conducted the premiere of Lohengrin there in 1851 – Weimar has an impressive cultural heritige, yet doesn't occupy the kind of position on the musical map one might expect. However, the Staatskapelle Weimar has recently been gathering an excellent reputation, largely through recordings of Richard Strauss on Naxos, and they excel themselves on these DVDs from Arthaus of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, filmed at performances of the 'Weimar Ring' at the Deutsches National Theater Weimar.
Under the baton of Carl St. Clair, the orchestral support for Michael Schulz's production – part of a Ring started in July 2006 – is very fine indeed. Schulz's Götterdämmerung was unveiled in July 2008 and the whole cycle is being released in monthly instalments on Arthaus, both on DVD and, for the technologically up-to-date, blu-ray.
On the evidence of the two first instalments, it's a production with a lot to commend it, and its qualities shine through in spite of some rather irritating directorial quirks. The first of these is the decision to create 'prologues' for each opera out of Wagner's earliest dramatic and musical sketches. For Rheingold, then, we have the Norns's brief scene from the prologue to Siegfrieds Tod, Wagner's first crack at what a quarter of a century later would be the Ring, spoken by three girls addressing each other with frog sock-puppets. For Walküre, the prologue is sung by three of the Valkyries in Valhalla, with Wotan and others in attendance. Not immediately obvious is the fact that among these others are Alberich and the young Hagen, Siegmund and Sieglinde; an unearthly scream from Hagen breaks up the scene of domestic music-making, before the storm of the Prelude breaks out.
Schulz's decision to undercut the theatricality of Wagner's own openings is a brave one. He goes further, too, by giving us a dumb show between Alberich and Wotan during the Rheingold Prelude's evocation of primordial nature. One of the production's professed aims is to emphasise their roles as different sides of the same coin and the two of them sit at a table and Wotan himself becomes half god, half Hans Sachs, providing Alberich with a special pair of shoes which he then wears to shuffle along as a dwarf on his knees. There's no denying the power, however, in the later scenes of having Tomas Möwes's Alberich as an imposing figure; when he is lording over Nibelheim the props are gone and one believes him very much to be an equal to Wotan, rather than the scheming caricature we're often presented with.
The characterisation of Wotan also sets out to emphasise his weaknesses and it's an effect inadvertently heightened by two singers whose bass-baritones might have the notes but who lack the vocal authority one would want: Mario Hoff is light-weight in Rheingold and Renatus Mészár's voice lacks focus and edge in Die Walküre. There's a danger in Walküre in particular, however, that he is characterised as too impetuous and immature, bringing the internal conflict he feels between his obligations and his aspirations to a more mundane level. Schulz's decision, too, to demonstrate Wotan's intervention in Siegmund's life by having him on stage, choreographing and observing the events of the first act detracts from the wonderful intimacy achieved between the excellent twins: Erin Caves's Siegmund and Kirsten Blanck's Sieglinde.
Meanwhile, the Valkyries are portrayed very much as Wotan's immature offspring, parading in with Brünnhilde at the start of Act Two with childish glee. At the start of Act Three, the Walkürenritt serves as an alarm call to wake them from sleep in their dormitory; at one stage, the body of a dead hero is absentmindedly rediscovered and tossed off the bunk. Wotan's knowing complicity in events is once again emphasised at the end of the act as he presents Brünnhilde with a wedding dress to don in anticipation of Siegfried's arrival on the rock.
Catherine Foster does well to portray Brünnhilde both with girlish innocence and gravity and has the role's vocal demands very much in her grasp. But having Brünnhilde accompanied constantly by a grey-haired confidante – who, as far as I can tell from the cast list, is actually Grane – is just one example of a tendency to overpopulate the stage in what's, essentially, a simple and minimalist staging, the action at the front of the stage separated by movable panels from the conflicts raging behind. Christine Hansmann's Fricka charges on at the end of Act One with her 'rams' and Hidekazu Tsumaya's fearsome Hunding makes his entrance with his men, taking part in a 'perversion of the Last Supper [which] develops into a biblical metaphor of guilt, atonement and damnation.' The significance of all these additions has obviously been carefully thought out, but there is some doubt as to whether or not it all adds up to a coherent, overarching concept; it also runs the risk several times of distracting from some excellent Personenregie and acting.
Schulz seems to have been more at ease with Das Rheingold were there's less of the subtle, drawn-out psychological dialogue that demands directorial patience. So although we have a whole bevy of Rhine Maidens in the first scene rather than just three, Schulz is happier to trust Wagner's own instincts. There are still some niggling irritations in the staging, but the overall effect is powerful, particularly the Nibelheim scene, staged with a confident sparseness.
Of the cast, Erin Caves is again outstanding, this time as an irresistibly suave Loge, masterfully stage-managing events. Hidekazu Tsumaya makes an excellent Fafner opposite Mészár's Fasolt. Nadine Weissmann as Erda benefits from one of production's clever theatrical touches, her pronouncements made in front of the closed curtain. Again, there are a great many details of the production whose significance is often not entirely clear. One's reaction to the production might depend on whether one feels these concepts should be clear from the production itself or is happy to have to rely on help from the explanations provided in the booklet; many of the details will also no doubt become clear in the context of the whole cycle.
On this evidence, though, Weimar's Ring is a highly commendable ensemble production from a German theatre carefully pooling its no doubt limited financial resources. Although the staging itself is modest and minimalist, Schulz's production is never boring, even if it can seem a bit busy, and in places the drama is compellingly portrayed. With fine orchestral support from the Weimar Staatskapelle and excellent picture and sound, this looks to be a Ring well worth exploring.
By Hugo Shirley
CD Review: Simone Young conducts Rheingold from Hamburg (Oehms)
Concert Review: Sir Mark Elder conducts the Hallé in Götterdämmerung
DVD Review: Karajan's Rheingold film finally makes it to DVD (DG)
CD Review: Three Wagner productions from the Bayreuth Festival (DG)