Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Wagner
LABELS: DG
ALBUM TITLE: Wagner
WORKS: Der Ring des Nibelungen
PERFORMER: Siegfried Jerusalem, Hildegard Behrens, James Morris, Jessye Norman, Gary Lakes, Ekkehard Wlaschiha; Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orchestra/James Levine; dir. Otto Schenk (New York, 1990)
CATALOGUE NO: 073 043-9 (7 discs)
The traditional production style prevalent at the New York Met has not exactly had the best of presses in these pages in recent months, and this Ring provides little in mitigation. The Walküre has already been issued separately and was reviewed in August 2001, when I found it a good document of Wagnerian singing, but gloomy and unchallenging to look at. Nothing about the Rheingold, Siegfried or Götterdämmerung that now join it does anything to change that view.

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Otto Schenk’s production was first unveiled in 1988 to mark the centenary of the first New York Ring performance and aimed to return the drama to its ‘natural’, or supernatural setting using all the stagecraft available at the time. Well, if that means ill-fitting latex dwarf skin, I’d rather watch Star Trek: The Next Generation; and I’ve seen more believable monsters than Fafner the dragon in Fifties B-movies. It may work for the audience in the Met’s vast auditorium, but the camera close-ups do the designs and costumes no favours, though it has to be said that designer Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s projections were largely jettisoned for this 1990 TV filming.

Also, in not wanting to upset the conservative Met donors’ sensibilities with anything that tries to answer the drama’s underlying political or philosophical questions, Schenk offers little more than Conan the Barbarian for grown-ups. Even Peter Hall’s much-criticised naturalistic setting at Bayreuth in the mid-Eighties had more to say, and moreover boasted superior stagecraft (unfortunately it was never filmed). Compare Schenk with the still-striking originality of Patrice Chéreau in the earlier Boulez-conducted cycle from Bayreuth (Philips, reviewed in February 2002), or Harry Kupfer’s bleak vision of the work there in the early Nineties (Warner Video, still to be released on DVD) and there is no competition.

Yet the musical strengths are many, and the performances are captured in exemplary sound (the DTS and Dolby surround formats are excellent). There are singers in common across all these stagings, but the Met, it has to be said, has many of the best of them. There’s Siegfried Jerusalem’s lyrical Siegfried, caught when his silvery voice was at its peak, though he flags at the end of his eponymous opera just when his Brünnhilde, the vocally variable but always watchable Hildegard Behrens, fully warms up. There’s also James Morris’s serviceable Wotan, Ekkehard Wlaschiha’s malicious Alberich, Heinz Zednik’s wily Mime and a Fafner and Hagen from that most unforgettably resonant of Wagnerian basses, Matti Salminen. There’s Christa Ludwig in one of her last stage roles as a slightly quavering Fricka and Dawn Upshaw in one of her first as a piping Woodbird. James Levine, so often criticised for his drawn-out Wagner, here conducts blazing, highly dramatic accounts of the four works, and the Met’s orchestra has never sounded so good.

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There are no extras beyond pictures garnered from the Met’s century of Rings, though a separate booklet provides a useful introductory essay by John Deathridge. In sum, for all its musical riches, my personal preference for more challenging operatic direction means I cannot recommend this cycle over the Chéreau/Boulez, which will suffice until Warner deigns to reissue the Kupfer/Barenboim set. Matthew Rye