Limelight Magazine, Jan 30, 2013
By Clive Paget
Wagner: Der Ring Des Nibelungen (Metropolitan Opera DVD)
Does the Met's ambitious Ring Cycle live up to the hype?
Staging Wagner’s epic four-part Der Ring Des Nibelungen is the greatest challenge that an opera house can face. The Met’s latest effort, staged by Canadian director Robert Lepage, has been taken out of the opera house and into cinemas all over the world, and is now available in an 8-DVD set. The live performances have taken a bit of a critical battering so how does the small-screen release stack up?

First of all, the positives: this is the best looking, best sounding and generally one of the best sung Ring Cycles that you will find. The high-definition picture is breathtaking in its clarity, while the sound is beautifully engineered to give a wide, natural perspective. The singers have clearly all been miked and every word comes over loud and clear, regardless of stage position or volume of orchestra. The conducting is of a high level, too, with James Levine’s 40 years of experience paying dividends in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, while Fabio Luisi is a solid substitute in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.

Lepage’s brief was to produce something traditional enough to satisfy the Met’s conservative support base while utilising his reputation for visual wizardry to realise Wagner’s dream for the 21st century. In response, he came up with “The Machine”, 45 tons of rotating metal that can be configured in numerous ways to create the Ring’s demanding range of locations. It’s an impressive affair, and its ability to take projections results in some extraordinary visual effects. Highlights include a breathtaking Rhine Journey for Siegfried (plus horse), a rollicking Ride of the Valkyries and some beautiful natural settings: lava-riven rocks in Die Walküre and Siegfried’s dappled, watery forests.

Unfortunately, having come up with his “big idea”, Lepage frequently lets “The Machine” tie his hands rather than free them up. Lepage is also guilty of failing to trust Wagner’s music and his experienced cast. On several occasions he can’t resist moving “The Machine” when the music requires stillness. Similarly, his busy projections are inclined to distract from the singers. Luckily, the camera work minimises what in the theatre must have been fairly irritating. Finally, many of his Disney-style costumes verge on pantomime with too much PVC and glitter. Alberich and Fricka are prime victims here but there are other examples.

Lepage is blessed with a cast in which the majority are capable of transcending these limitations. Bryn Terfel is the mainstay of the first three operas and his Wotan is excellently sung, growing in stature as the cycle progresses. A baritone rather than bass-baritone, what he lacks in depth he makes up for in ringing top notes, and his interpretation of the text is individual and compelling. Eric Owens is his nemesis Alberich, and here is another superb voice, the dark and powerful complement to some fine acting. Stephanie Blythe as Fricka is in fine voice but her physicality is desperately limited. By Die Walküre, the poor thing arrives in a ram’s-headed mobility aid and apparently has lost the use of her legs! Richard Croft’s Loge is smoothly sung but, a couple of stage gimmicks aside, he lacks the trickster spark.

As Brünnhilde, Deborah Voigt is an experienced singer with a strong rapport with Terfel, but she is now vocally past her prime. She still has some exciting top notes to offer but at other times the voice sounds pinched. Die Walküre brings a tremendously sung Siegmund in Jonas Kaufmann, only marred by a costume that makes him look like an elf from The Lord of the Rings. With heroically ringing tone, solid top notes and an intense engagement with text, his performance would be hard to better. Singing opposite as Sieglinde is Eva-Maria Westbroek, who has all the notes but somehow fails to take flight. Hans-Peter König is an imposing Hunding, but a limited actor. The Valkyries are uniformly superb, several out-singing Brünnhilde.

By Siegfried, the production hits its stride. Our hero is sung by Jay Hunter Morris, a good-looking young man with plenty of stage presence and bags of enthusiasm. His voice is not particularly beautiful, but he has all the notes and makes it through to the end with a bit to spare. Sadly, by this stage Voigt is struggling to keep on pitch and her final top C is painful. Gerhard Siegel’s cartoonish, humpbacked Mime sacrifices menace for funny business. For all the Met’s technical resource, the dragon looks like a snake out of The Jungle Book. Erda is ravishingly sung by Patricia Bardon, her scene with Terfel a dramatic highlight of the entire cycle.

Götterdämmerung is a fitting climax to the cycle and finds Lepage using his technical resources more sensitively, notably in a stunning visual scene for the Norns. Hans-Peter König is a rich, resonant Hagen but he is too dull an actor to capture the character’s brooding malevolence. Waltraud Meier acts a mean scene as Waltraute, despite being past her vocal sell-by date.

If this is your first Ring and you want the story, the whole story, there is a great deal to enjoy here, not least that it looks and sounds a million dollars. If you want deeper insight into the richest operatic experience so far devised by man, try Patrice Chereau’s on DG.

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