Friday, November 2, 2012

Wagner's Der Ring Des Nibelungen: The Levine DVD Set at the Met

I'm writing this review as a Wagnerian that wants others to discover and enjoy Der Ring Des Nibelungen for the amazing work that it is. I feel that the best way to do this is to first see the opera in its traditional interpretation (or something at least closely approximating such), as the story's fantastical elements seem to make the work more accessible. I also feel that a dvd set might be more conducive toward full absorption of the opera than going to see the work onstage, as paying to go see the opera at the theater could be too much for the novice, and not just from a financial perspective. I personally had to start out with sequential parts of the opera, otherwise I would have been ultimately both overwhelmed and scared off by its humongous size and scope. By starting out in pieces, I was eventually able to watch and listen longer and longer, and found my attention span gradually expanding. My "bloody chunks" method might not work for some, but for me the dvd gave me the helpful option of turning off, tuning in, rewinding, etc

Der Ring Des Nibelungen is, in my humble opinion, the greatest work of art in Western history. There is no other work that integrates so many different artistic mediums, characters, and situations into such a comparatively cohesive whole. Let me digress a bit by giving going into what constitutes great Art.

My definition of great Art is that it not only inspires, but can actually make a person learn something about him or herself, and/or the world around. In the case of the Ring, the main thrust is provided by the music, but the allegorical nature of the plot, characters, and situations point toward deep, self-revelatory archetypes. In fact, it has been asserted that the truly great artists all touch upon inherited psychological characteristics in what Carl Jung referred to as the Collective Unconcious; archetypes that help connect the psyches of every man and woman, regardless of political orientation. Upon my study of Wagner's autobiographical materials, I learned that Wagner's ideas actually predated Freud and Jung by decades, and had a profound influence on his sycophant Nietzsche as well.

Like any Art, fully appreciating the Ring takes a conscious, willed effort. One has to actually learn the musical language that Wagner created. But I must emphasize that one's efforts towards comprehension will be rewarded. Just like reading Dickinson, admiring Raphael, savoring Langston Hughes, listening to late-era pays off over and over again as one lives with it, grows with it.

 So let's start the actual review:

There are two dvd sets that are generally considered the most valuable among Ring performances: this one and the one conducted by Pierre Boulez. I personally started with this one, and I'm glad that I did. It might just be personal preference, but I think that if I had started my Wagner experience with a non-traditional staging of the Ring, like Boulez's I would have been very put off. Seeing this traditional performance first helped me alot with getting my mind right with the work itself.

This Metropolitan Opera performance of the Ring has its share of problems. The middle section of Das Rheingold, as well as the majority of Act I of Gotterdammerung, are seemingly conducted through molasses. James Levine, obviously a more than notable conductor overall, seemed to fall asleep during these sections, which is extremely unfortunate considering the fact that they are the sections most in need of conscientious conducting. The outstanding performances of singers James Morris and Crista Ludwig can only shine so much when led by a sleepwalker.

Overall, Levine seems to get swept up and inspired by the rushing, "heavy metal" parts of the Ring, which is great for us Metalheads, but he seems just plain disinterested during the parts that require more care, subtlety. The exceptions to this general rule are both the excellent awakening-of-Brunnhilde scene in Act III of Siegfried, as well as the very good Siegmund and Sieglinde in Act I of Die Walkure.

James Morris' perfomance as Wotan steals the show here, he is by far the most impressive Wotan in recent history. His voice has certain idiosyncracies that refine the role and make it his own, not to mention his tall, imposing physical presence. As a basis of audio/video comparison, Donald McIntyre (from the Boulez Ring) stands up well in overall quality to Morris from both a singing and acting standpoint, but the former just can't compete with Morris' less anonymous vocal delivery, not to mention his physical presence. Morris makes the Wotan role HIS in a commanding way.

Siegfried Jerusalem makes a very good Siegfried here, though his acting sometimes puts a "duh" veneer to the character that wasn't Wagner's intent. That is, at times Jerusalem's portrayal tends to veer from the "brash, arrogantly ignorant" portrayal of Siegried meant by Wagner, to an outright, unlikably stupid dolt. This applies only to certain points in his performance, as the Heldentenor mostly does a good job, especially from a singing perspective.

From the Boulez dvd set, Hildegard Behrens' Brunnhilde is quite good as well, she only falters when she tries too hard. To be more specific, at times she seems to be straining, and not just during the super high notes.

On the other hand, both Behrens and Matti Salminen (as an outSTANDING Hagen) make for a powerful Gotterdammerung Act II. In fact, this act is worth the price of the dvd set by itself. One has to see it to believe it. This might just be the best performance of this act in filmed history, full of all the Germanic gang roars, hell-hath-no-fury scorn, subtle humor, and charismatic drollery that is integral to the piece. Everything seems to click into place with this, the last part of the opera, and it's done so well it redeems the cycle as a whole.

Bottom line, this is the best you can do for traditional staging of the Ring on dvd. I'm personally really grateful I myself started out with it. Don't hesitate to pick this up if you're new to the Ring, or Wagner, and it must be brought up that the traditional staging is going to be by far the most user friendly for the Heavy Metal fan, the costumes, staging, an emphasis on the heroic that most certainly is shared by the musical want this metal heads!

For those who want a more balanced video performance (one which doesn't hold back on either extreme, yet integrates them better from a dynamic perspective). For me the ultimate experience is to have them both.

As an important sidebar, I must reccomend also to the neophyte the Georg Solti-conducted cd set for the best overall studio performace of the Ring. And you'll eventually want the Boulez/Bayreuth Ring dvd set as well, not just because many of the faults existent on the Levine aren't on the Boulez, but because the Boulez is an often superb performance dvd on its own.

Finally, I heartily reccomend a good libretto/concordance (there's one co-edited by Barry Millington that works really well), and it can't hurt to check out some of the different perspectives on the allegory inherent within the opera. Robert Donington's Jungian take, "Wagner's Ring and Its Symbols", is interesting and often helpful, and philosopher Bryan Magee has contributed some marvellously lucid, jargon-free exegesis of the Wagner repetoire.  I myself have begun a site analyzing The Ring, though unfinished you might find some helpful insights there: This multi-experience approach is important for fully understanding and absorbing Der Ring Des Nibelungen.

In the meantime, please donate toward the release of Lyraka Volume 2 by Pay Pal to this address: Lyraka's Wagnerian Opera Metal saga must continue.