WAGNER: Der Ring des Nibelungen (Das Rheingold/Die Walküre/Siegfried/Götterdämmerung)
MARIA CALLAS - The Callas Conversations
This Dieter Schickling production of Wagner's Ring was recorded during performances in Stuttgart late 2002 and early 2003. Each of the four operas had different directors: Joachim Schlömar was responsible for Das Rheingold, Christoph Neli for Die Walküre, Jossi Wielier and Sergio Morabito for Siegfried, and Peter Konwitschny for Götterdämmerung. They all have one thing in common: a total disregard for Wagner's epic music and drama. Wagner's concept has never before looked as stupid—and often laughable—as it does here. If you're looking for the grand moments in Wagner's Ring, you won't find any of them here. I must admit I have not watched the entire production. After the first ten minutes it was obvious what the directorial/design approach was, so I just checked many of the major episodes, and found that my fears were well grounded. Costumes are mod and mostly inappropriate. In Rheingold the gods don't ascend into Valhalla, they go down into the basement. In Walküre, Siegmund doesn't pull the sword out of a tree (there isn't any), but from Sieglinde's bodice, and it is embarrassing to watch the two of them, with flailing arms and legs, in simulated coupling on top of a table. The Valkyries are high-heeled tarts with paper wings, and occasionally during Ride of the Valkyries what looks like a mummy (representing a fallen hero) is dragged across the stage. At the end of this opera Wotan doesn't look at Brünnhilde except via a TV set (which he operates with a remote)—even though she is right in front of him on the upper stage level. There's no "magic fire" except for five small candles which she lights herself. In Siegfried, after watching Mime masturbate in scene three of act one, the hero (who has "Sieg Fried" printed on his T-shirt) discovers Brünnhilde in what appears to be a kitchen which happens to have a bed in it. As both are not small singers, it is rather comical to watch their mating ritual, reminiscent of a PBS nature documentary. Götterdämmerung is equally ill-advised. During the magnificent prologue "dawn" music we see Brünnhilde and Siegfried copulating on a table; in the third act there is no funeral "march," just a revolving house with open windows. At the end, after Brünnhilde has finished her magnificent Immolation Scene (not so magnificent here), on the screen we see Wagner's printed instructions for the conclusion of the music drama scrolled on the stage—which is more appealing than anything seen previously. Had the singing been outstanding, there might have been some value in this production, but with few exceptions, the singing is average to mediocre. It's easy to understand why the best of today's limited supply of Wagnerian singers wouldn't want to be involved in this debacle. On the plus side, the Stuttgart Orchestra plays very well indeed, and the surround sound is superb—as a matter of fact, the sound is magnificent, far superior to sonics of James Levine's Met production, which has far superior singers. If opera dies, it will be because of productions like this one from Stuttgart. Opera audiences are incredibly accepting . Audience response at the end is approving—not a single boo can be heard—I cannot imagine why.
EMI's Callas DVD contains nothing that hasn't been issued before. We have a 12-minute conversation (in French) with Bernard Gavoty, filmed in Paris in May 1965, and the 92-minute interview by Lord Harewood filmed in Paris in April 1968 two months before her Tosca at Covent Garden in July 5 which was her farewell to the operatic stage .In these interviews Callas discusses various phases of her career in the dignified, assured manner one would expect. We also have arias of Massenet, Donizetti and Puccini recorded in a TV studio in Paris without audience in May 1965 with Georges Prêtre and the French National Radio Orchestra. DVD documentation is rather inadequate; timings for different sections of the Harewood interview are not given. Callas fans, of course, will wish to have this.
The Kathleen Ferrier DVD is treasurable, a 58-minute documentary BBC film produced by Valerie Croft and directed by Suzanne Phillips. Robert Lindsay is the narrator with Ferrier's words spoken by Vivien Parry, her letters read by Patricia Routeledge. Dame Janet Baker, Sir John and Lady Barbirolli and Benjamin Britten are among those interviewed. The contralto described herself as a "lone she-wolf," and we learn of her long association with Bruno Walter and Barbirolli. Ferrier was not a stodgy Brit, but a fun-loving woman who had a great sense of humor and loved to tell limericks (can you imagine Callas telling one?). The tragic final months of Ferrier's life are described when she found she had breast cancer, but continued to sing even after operations and chemotherapy, including a series of performances of Orfeo with Barbirollli conducting. It was during this period that she made her definitive recording of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde with Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic; the description of the final playback is particularly poignant. Also included are 21 photos identified in the DVD booklet but not on screen, photos of original LP issues of her Decca recordings and engineer/producer recording sheets for sessions (impossible to read). Also included is a generously filled CD (77:14) that contains a wide selection of Ferrier's recordings—Gluck, Handel, Schubert, Brahms, Bach, and folk songs, ending with her heart-breaking May 1952 recording of three of Mahler's Rückert-Lieder.
Stravinsky's DVD is of considerable value for its glimpses into the life of Igor Stravinsky who was 80 years old at the time, May 1963. The occasion was Columbia recording sessions for the composer's Symphony of Psalms with the CBC Symphony Orchestra and Toronto Festival Singers, still available as part of the label's Stravinsky archive (his first recording of the work, with the Walther Straram Concerts Orchestra and Alexis Vlassof Chorus made in 1931, is currently available in a pricey Andante set). Stravinsky was surely not a great conductor but with the help of Robert Craft he was able to tape "definitive" versions of all of his major works. On the podium at these rehearsals he is polite, precise and humorous. There's a scene at the beginning with guitarist Julian Bream who meets Stravinsky for the first time and plays the lute for him before the recording session. Also there interviews with the composer's second wife, Vera, Nicholas Nabokov discussing his long association with the composer, Robert Craft on Stravinsky's ballets, and Columbia producer John McClure talking about the recording. Sound is mono, picture is black and white. If you're interested in this DVD you'll surely also wish to investigate EMI Classics' DVD of live performances by Igor Markevitch (REVIEW) which features not only the Symphony of Psalms, music from Wagner's Tristan and Tannhäuser, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1 and—as a bonus—Stravinsky's BBC New Philharmonia video of Firebird Suite recorded in Royal Festival Hall in September 1965—this "bonus" is almost as long as the entire VAI Video release. It's unfortunate the latter doesn't contain more—50 minutes isn't very much playing time.
R.E.B. (November 2004)