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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 1, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 5
This Ring is better at home
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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This Ring is better at home

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

WAGNER: DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN
METROPOLITAN OPERA
(Deutsche Grammophon DVD)


I have watched this new Metropolitan Opera production of Wagner's Ring cycle (all 15 hours of it, plus a nearly two-hour video on how it was staged) three times now. First, each of the four operas involved were shown live from the stage of the Met in high definition at my local cinema, spread over a period of two years. Then there were 'encore' showings (same performances, same theater) over a period of one week, as Wagner intended this epic story to be seen. Finally, now we have the whole show on Blu-ray discs in state-of-the-art sound and video.

Why would I burden you with yet another Ring review? (These pages recently covered Blu-ray discs from Valencia, Spain, and from a 1991 Bayreuth production.) The answer is both (1) the excellence of this newest Ring and (2) what these discs reveal about the Met's 'Live in HD' shows at the cinema.

Having seen it twice in a movie theater (with excellent, modern equipment), I was not prepared for how much better these performances would come across at home. Both sound and picture are vastly superior to what I'd experienced at the cinema. The bandwidth of data sent to the movie theater is simply not quite big enough to yield a picture as perfect as those of the best movies. But at home these Blu-rays produce perfect, hi-def video that is equal to any of the best movie discs.

Even more impressive, however, is the great improvement in sound. Especially in the 'encore presentations,' the dynamic range was so compressed in the cinematic showings that the volume of the solo clarinet (in the great, final scene of Die Walküre) was nearly equal to that of the full orchestra in the famous 'Ride of the Walküries.' In effect, the power of Wagner's music was castrated - all the work of the musicians largely negated - by the engineers. (How could the Met allow such a travesty?) Thankfully, the sound on the Blu-ray discs is glorious and powerful.

But how does the performance itself stand up to the other video Rings available today? With six versions sitting on my video shelf, all of them very good to excellent, this new one from the Met has a lot going for it beyond the technical excellence of the video and sound. Conductors James Levine (the first two operas) and Fabio Luisi, and the superb Metropolitan Orchestra, leave nothing to be desired. (The Met is so fortunate to have found Luisi to replace the ailing Levine!) Really, the orchestra is the most important character in the whole cast of any Ring. Perhaps Daniel Barenboim with the Bayreuth Orchestra is overall superior, but the slightly better sound on the Met's discs rather evens out the final satisfaction for me. (And the over-the-top acting under Harry Kupfer's direction weakens that set in my view.) Zubin Mehta's slow tempi on the Valencia discs take some getting used to, but the orchestral detail, so perfectly rendered by the engineers, offers great satisfaction. It's slow, yet constantly alive. The Copenhagen Ring, shockingly violent and fun, enjoys excellent leadership under conductor Michael Schønwandt. And, of course, the famous Patrice Chéreau production (now in excellent-for-its-age color) is led by the great Pierre Boulez. No argument there! But the sound, though very good, is not up to today's best.

The cast of the new Met's Ring boasts a superb Siegfried in Texan Jay Hunter Morris, delightful in appearance as well as voice. Bryn Terfel's Wotan stands up to any comparison. While Deborah Voigt's Brünnhilde is fine to watch, her voice is no match for Jennifer Wilson's (Valencia). The Met's (and Seattle's) Stephanie Blythe is the world's greatest Fricka by far. Jonas Kaufmann wins easily over all the other Siegmunds, and Eric Owens makes as fine an Alberich as you'll find. Aside from Waltraud Meier's vocally over-the-hill Waltraute, there's not a weak link among the other singers.

There's no room here for discussion of Robert Lepage's controversial set (the 'machine,' as it has come to be called). Suffice to say that, after a lackluster use in Das Rheingold, it works quite well on video. This is not a 'concept' Ring; beyond the modern technical forces used, the costumes and acting are quite conventional and reasonably satisfying. The additional disc about the 'machine' is quite illuminating and fun; it added to my overall appreciation of the set. If you're new to this production, watch this documentary, titled Wagner's Dream, before viewing the opera itself.

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