WAGNER: Der Ring des Nibelungen (Highlights), Blu-ray
Performers: Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana/Zubin Mehta
Cast: John Daszak/ Franz-Josef Kapaellmann/ Christa Mayer/ Stephen Milling/ Hannah Esther Minutillo/ Ann-Katrin Naidu/ Lance Ryan/ Matti Salminen/ Petra Maria Schnitzer/ Peter Seiffert/ Gerhard Siegel/ Juha Uusitalo/ Silvia Vaquez/ Jennifer Wilson/ Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Video Director: Tiziano Mancini
Stage Director: Carlus Padrissa
Choreographer: Heinz Spoerli
Studio: Cmajor (Unitel) 704504, 2010 [[Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 16:9 1080p HD Color
Audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1 (feature), PCM Stereo (Bonus)
Subtitles: German (sung language), English, French, Spanish
Extras: Carlus Padrissa – The Visionary; Franc Aleu – Painting with Light
Length: 130 minutes
First the disclaimer—this is a judgment of the highlights disc, not the entire cycle.
“Have you heard the Valencia Ring?” “This is one of the great Ring cycles.” “A Ring for the 21st century.”
And on and on it goes. It must be admitted that if any production of Wagner’s extraordinary lifelong mythic-fantasy cycle is going to thrust itself into the popular imagination and make headway into areas outside the classical world, this one is it. This is certainly the most talked about Wagnerian production in 80 years, and there have been a lot of Rings showing up on DVD and Blu-ray in just the last several years. All are interesting in their own way, and Bertrand De Billy’s version and that of Carl St. Clair (Weimar Ring), along with the “Copenhagen Ring” all have supporters and detractors, while many critics are still sticking with BBL—Boulez, Barenboim, and Levine.
One thing remains true—there is not now, nor will there probably ever be, a satisfactory Ring cycle that is to all tastes. It just won’t happen. Boulez is quite “political” in tone, though sung well, and the colors have begun to fade, let alone the sound, while Barenboim has been hailed as perhaps the best performed. Levine’s is surely the most traditional—at least until he tries it again—and beautifully shaped, though all of the singing is not the best to be found. De Billy sounds great, St. Clair is not pretty though makes some interesting musical points, and the Copenhagen is rather, well, beautifully acted (it is a film version, not a stage event) though musically not on par with BBL.
So now we have Valencia, and the complexities evolve even more for two reasons: the production itself, and the presence of Zubin Mehta. To address the last first, Mehta has solid Ring credentials, and his NY Phil performances of excerpts on Sony remain some of the most glorious ever recorded, and they still sound fantastic. But Mehta in the pit seems to be another animal, and at least in these limited excisions he pulls the music around quite strongly in places seemingly to accommodate his singers in the same way he might while conducting Tosca. It’s not bad, and I suppose it is acceptable, but it is also noticeable. The orchestra plays extremely well while lacking the last bit of heft that one would desire in the strings and might get in Vienna or the Met, but there is nothing to be alarmed about. Emotionally this production is hard to fathom—many of the big tunes, the get-all-choked-up moments are diluted because of the stage goings-on, which brings me to the former point.
This is a blow-you-away, technology-driven cycle like no other to have ever appeared, and for those raised on Star Wars up to Inception will not only feel right at home, but indeed might be expecting just this. The stage antics are truly remarkable, using eight projection surfaces that support a wide range of video images, to high-tech mechanical contraptions that allow the singers and acrobats (yes, you heard me right) float across the stage, manipulating various riding vehicles, and highlighting the varied devices with unusual lighting. The dragon in Siegfried reminds me of a long basement heating duct, but its size it so formidable that the point is made. Likewise Brunnhilde’s encapsulation by the magic fire at the end of Die Walkure, done with a surround circle of acrobats lying on their backs and holding torches. While I certainly get it, I had hoped that in this Ring with all it wizardry we might be able to experience some real magic fire instead of a circle of torches. The Rhine maidens actually swim in this production, in body-sized fish tanks, and I wondered if they ever, while going under water briefly, accidentally got a mouthful! I am sure they are all professionals…
This is a very visually busy production, so much so that there is never a break and your eyes are always being attracted to something happening on the stage. Whether this is good or not will be up to the opinions of those who have varying degrees of familiarity with Wagner’s music—those new to it will be enthralled, while those who know it well will be enthralled first, and then grow tired of it. The dramaturgy of the Ring allows for a lot of “down” time when our eyes are undistracted, and I think that the directors have missed this important element in the creation of this production—we need time to absorb, and here there is so much fluid flowing in that the sponge is incapable of collecting it all.
But this is only half of the story. This version is, for all intents and purposes, probably the best-sung of any Ring on video, and the importance of that statement cannot be overemphasized. Peter Siegfert’s Siegmund is dramatic and passionate, while the Siegfried of Lance Ryan is easily the most projected and on-target voice in many years. Jennifer Wilson’s Brunnhilde is fluent, balanced, on-pitch, and effortless in the way it soars over the orchestra, a real pleasure to hear. The rest of the cast, at least as appears on this excerpts disc, is equally fluent.
You can assemble a recording of Wagnerian “bleeding chunks” fairly easily on an audio recording, but for video it doesn’t work, and that is the case here. We get the complete “Ride of the Valkyries”, “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey”, the last few minutes of the close of Die Walkure, and the final moments of Gotterdammerung, but they all run into one another and do not provide a satisfying experience. As such, and since I am technically reviewing only this one disc of excerpts and not the entire cycle, I do not recommend it even though it sells for about nine bucks and is designed to give a perspective purchaser a sampling of the goods. That it does, but I would save the money and put it towards the whole cycle if you are interested in this at all.
Those new to the Ring or to Wagner will no doubt find this fascinating, and the quality of the singing cannot be overstated. But with this curious mixture of fantasy, medievalism, modern, ancient, techno-driven and earthbound, it will not be for everybody over an extended period of time. Yet it remains quite the experience, a bold if flawed visual experiment that casts doubts as to whether any ultimate meaning can be assigned to it, which I think is not in keeping with Wagner’s very concrete and philosophy-driven ideals. As theater it is first rate; as a musical experience you will not find it better done on video, and that alone might be enough for some people. Yet I think we are still in search of a production that captures all of these elements to perfection, and that is perhaps illusionary. This is indeed one of the great Rings on video—if that is enough for you, go for it. The Blu-ray looks as though it was made for this production, and the surround sound is superb. Buy the cycle—skip the excerpts.
— Steven Ritter