Various Artists, "Wagner's Ring," (Deutsche Grammophon)
Robert Lepage's staging of Wagner's Ring Cycle is only slightly less of a dud on DVD than it was when viewed at the Metropolitan Opera.
The epic tetralogy of gods, giants, humans and dwarves arrives on DVD and Blu-ray this week. At the same time, it airs on many Public Broadcasting Service stations over four consecutive nights, following the telecast of a documentary on the trials and tribulations of the staging and its centerpiece — a 45-ton, 24-plank set nicknamed "The Machine."
The aluminum planks rotate to form the various venues of "Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung)," some stunning and others dull when viewed in the 4,000-capacity Metropolitan Opera House as the cycle unfolded from September 2010 through last winter.
Despite strong vocal performances by Bryn Terfel, Deborah Voigt, Eric Owens and Waltraud Meier, Lepage's staging walks the plank. Closeups often times make it appear as if Wotan, Brunnhilde & Co. are carnival characters on a boardwalk, like in some Springsteen song. Think of Erda as Madam Marie.
For long stretches over the roughly 16 hours, Carl Fillion's Machine is confining rather than liberating, flattening the stage picture and making it seem like a concert performance in front of a backdrop. Instead of performing the Ring in a set, the cast is singing on top of, and before it.
Recorded from October 2010 through February 2012, Lepage's Ring replaced the Otto Schenk naturalistic staging of 1986-88 and was timed so its first revival next spring would coincide with the 200th anniversary of Wagner's birth in May 1813.
Based on the documentary by Susan Froemke, much time and effort was spent on getting The Machine to work and arranging blocking on the set during the limited rehearsal time with the cast, and little focus appears to have been placed on the motivations.
When Siegfried breaks Wotan's spear, the god takes the power shift almost in stride. Brunnhilde's gallop aboard a mechanical Grane into Siegfried's funeral pyre is ridiculous and the exploding statues at the end are comical. The magic fire at the end of "Die Walkuere" was an overwhelming lava flow with some steam, and Wotan remains on stage kneeling rather than disappearing in the fire. Freia, covered with gold in a hammock-like net, is clearly visible to the viewers, and presumably Fafner and Fasolt.
That said, there are wonderful moments, the best two involving stunt doubles for the descent into Nibelheim and the entry of the gods into Valhalla.
Staging a completely satisfying Ring has proved to be an impossible task since the composer himself directed the first performances in 1876 at the Bayreuth Festpielhaus built to his specifications. The uninitiated will find Lepage's staging fascinating, and the cognoscenti will debate its flaws.