Tuesday 4 November 2008

The Met Ring on DVD: Schenk and Levine´s Nibelungen Ring

Der Ring des Nibelungen (complete). Metropolitan Opera 1989-90. Director: Otto Schenk. Cast includes: James Morris (Wotan), Hildegard Behrens (Brünnhilde), Siegfried Jerusalem (Siegfried), Matti Salminen (Hagen). Conductor: James Levine. Further information here.

Overview and general comments

Admirers of this production praise director Otto Schenk for staying faithful to Richard Wagner´s intentions, not applying a "concept" of his own, and furthermore providing traditional sets using state of the art stage techniques to execute these visions.

Detractors, on the contrary, find the sets drearily realistic, the production short of drama and describe it as a "Nibelungen Ring Museum". In this context it should be noted that this Met production filmed in 1989-90 is the only "conventionally staged" DVD of the Nibelungen Ring on the market.

In my opinion, the problem with this production is not Otto Schenk´s direction. The problem is that he does not direct. Rather, this is set designer Günther Schneider-Siemsen´s Ring. He is responsible for the, at times, admittedly drearily realistic sets, where most scenes take place on semi-dark rocky plateaus if not in fully dark huts and caves. Schneider-Siemssen also designed the sets for the previous Met Ring (1968-74) based on Karajan´s Salzburg Ring and this was Schneider-Siemssen´s sixth Ring production.

I do not take issue against the “conventional” staging as such– after all, there is room for plenty of interpretations of The Ring, and why not a naturalistic one as there is plenty of inherent drama in the work. And the relations and interactions of the characters may well be explored within a realistic setting.
The problem is simply that Otto Schenk does none of that. The characters seem to have been dumped unceremoniously into Schneider-Siemssen´s sets and left to their own devices. Ultimately what follows is a production devoid of true drama and my main reservation on this set is that, despite fine moments, unfortunately neither drama nor music genuinely lifts off.

Walküre, incorporating the majority of intrinsic drama, clearly is the least successful of the four operas. Most successful are Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.

Most of the major parts were undeniably cast with the top singers of the day, such as Matti Salminen (Hagen), James Morris (Wotan), Siegfried Jerusalem (Siegfried) and Hildegard Behrens (Brünnhilde).

One has to recognise that The Met has to opt for the big voices to a larger extent that venues such as Bayreuth, simply due to the size of the house. Even then I have reservations regarding the casting of several of the intermediate parts, explainable in most cases (artists with long-standing relations with the house and audiences etc., such as Fricka and Sieglinde) though not in all (Siegmund, Gutrune).

James Levine´s orchestra runs seamlessly and smooth. The shear sound is beautiful, though in a very polished way where nothing unpredicable happens. Depending on tastes, this may be an up- or downside.

This is the only traditional Nibelungen Ring available on DVD, and those attributing major importance to this fact may want to purchase this one. Closest in conception (though by no means close) is the Boulez/Chéreau Centenary Ring from Bayreuth. Of the two Kupfer alternatives, the Barenboim Kupfer Ring is to be preferred, my personal favourite as well. Of the two demythologizing versions, the choice is between The Copenhagen Ring or the Stuttgart Ring productions. Audi´s Amsterdam Ring is immensely beautiful, though musically disappointing. An overview with reviews of all available Nibelungen Ring DVD versions may be found here.

The individual operas - Rheingold

Key elements of this staging are: The conventional Rhinemaidens visible through a screen among projections of running water on a fog-covered moving platform; The rather impressive Valhalla looming over the mountaneous plateau; Nibelheim (the most successful scene) set in a mountanous spiral cave with dwarfs right out of the Tolkien Ring; Erda appearing through a crack in the mountaneous plateau covered in blue light; Not to forget the realistic rainbow.

The scene changes disappear in artificial heaps of smoke, effects used by video director Brian Large as the screens visible to the live audience did not transfer well to video. Otherwise the cameras are inobtrusive, following the action and often zooming in slowly on the central characters.

James Morris is seen in his prime as Wotan. A noble Wotan on the passive side, but nevertheless with superb characterization not least due to his elegant legato lines. His voice projects effortlessly in the high register, as opposed to the low, where he is incipient shaky.

Unfortunately, Christa Ludwig is a shadow of her former self as Fricka. Undoubtedly, due to Richard Wagner´s original stage directions Schenk has made Alberich ridiculously monstrous with sickly warts. Ekkehard Wlaschiha has the appropriate sharp edge, though at times hte is almost shouting. Siegfried Jerusalem´s heldentenor adds poignancy to the part of Loge and Birgitta Svendén´s Erda is simply superb.

The Rhinemaidens with Alberich in front:

Loge arrives at the mountaneous plateau to join the Gods and Giants:

Wotan and Freia:



Loge with Alberich:

Wotan with the Ring:

Measuring up the gold for Freia:

Erda arrives:

Donner strikes:

The Gods enter Valhalla:

The individual operas - Walküre

The fairy-tale Tolkien setting works well for the dark cave-like hut of Hunding. However, that is all that works well in Act 1 of Die Walküre...

Personally I find it unimportant that this Sieglinde (Jessye Norman) is black and her brother Siegmund (Gary Lakes) is white, though I cannot help wonder whether The Met did this to divert attention from the incestuous nature of their relationship. What I do find important however, is the complete lack of chemistry between them as well as their suboptimal dramatic skills. Furthermore, Jessye Norman´s regal voice is simply not suited for Sieglinde, and Gary Lakes seems even less suited for Siegmund. Kurt Moll delivers all the notes, but fails to deliver the drama.

James Morris´ Wotan is still first rate. Best are his legato lines, which he maintains with the adequate flow. And he certainly commands the stage. Interpretatively he continues his passive line from Rheingold. He studied this part with Hans Hotter, among others, and his monologue is interpretatively hard to improve and comes full circle. However, even in his prime Morris had an unpleasant ring to his lower register, which has only increased with age. Unfortunately, much of the monologue lies withinin this exact segment of his voice. The higher-lying "leb wohl" is superb, though Morris´ Wotan is more passive-noble as opposed to the engaging-active represented by Sir John Tomlinson for Daniel Barenboim.

Hildegard Behrens, essentially a lyrical voice, was arguably the top-choice Brünnhilde for a large audiotorium as the MET at the time in question. Unfortunately, she is a rather uninteresting and conventional actress, taking much of the potential tension off her scenes with Wotan. With Christa Ludwig, as in Rheingold, you are left to wishing you lived in the past..

Sieglinde and Hunding:

Siegmund and Sieglinde:

Wotan and Fricka:

Wotan´s monologue:

Brünnhilde foretells Siegmund´s death:

Wotan and the Valkyries:

"Leb wohl":

Wotan generates the Fire around Brünnhilde´s Rock:

The individual operas - Siegfried

Together with Götterdämmerung, Siegfried is the most successful of the Tetralogy as much of the grandiose scenery is well-suited for the massive stage of the Met Opera.

Of the singers, Siegfried Jerusalem is close to ideal as Siegfried, also seen on DVD with Barenboim and Heinz Zednik repeated his fine Mime from the Chéreau Ring.
Of the three Wotans, the Wanderer-Wotan is the best suited to James Morris´ voice due to the dominance of legato-lines as opposed to dramatic projections. Furthermore he looks quite dashing.
The confrontation with Birgitta Svendén´s Erda was one of the highlights. On the other hand, though vocally adequate, Hildegard Behrens ultimately fails to deliver a lasting impression as Brünnhilde.

Siegfried and Mime:


The forging of Nothung:

Wotan meets Alberich at Fafner´s lair:

Siegfried awakens Fafner:

Siegfried kills Fafner:

Siegfried alone in the wood:

Wotan summons Erda:

Wotan blocks Siegfried´s path to Brünnhilde´s Rock:

Siegfried at the Rock:

Siegfried and Brünnhilde:

The individual operas - Götterdämmerung

Much of this Götterdämmerung is quite successful and a not insiginificant part of the success must be attributed to Matti Salminen´s extraordinarily successful Hagen. While Salminen almost retorts to shouting at some points, he has the exact menacing presence required for a exceptional Hagen.

Götterdämmerung also presents with some strange casting such as an unknown, rather unexceptionally looking and singing Eastern-European sounding soprano as Gutrune.
Anthony Raffell, thankfully, does not look like a wimp as Gunther, and vocally he starts off well, but finishes on the weak side.
Hildegard Behrens´ Brünnhilde continues the trend from the two previous evenings as does Siegfried Jerusalem´s Siegfried.

The Norns:


Siegfried and Gunther take the oath of friendship:

The home of the Gibichungs:

Hagen ´s Watch:

Siegfried (disguised as Gunther) with Brünnhilde:

Alberich appears in Hagen´s dreams:

Siegfried and Gutrune:

Brünnhilde tells Hagen how to kill Siegfried:

Siegfried meets the Rhinemaidens:

Siegfried in the middle of the hunting party:

Hagen gives Siegfried the drink of remembrance...

...and kills him:

Siegfried´s body is carried home:

Brünnhilde in the final scene:

The twilight:

Finally the Ring is back with the Rhinemaidens:

The singers

Wotan: First-rate performance from a James Morris in his prime. He effortlessly commands the high register and is interpretatively strong. Strong points include his legato-lines. His weakness is the middle-to-lower register with a grainy ring, I simply find unpleasant. While James Morris effortlessly commands the stage his Wotan is of the laid-back and noble sort in stark contrast to John Tomlinson´s energetic and roguish sort on the competing Kupfer-Barenboim DVD, the only serious competitor to James Morris.
Fricka: Christa Ludwig unfortunately is a shadow of her former magnificent self .
Alberich: Ekkehard Wlaschiha has the required edge to his voice, however he is on the edge of yelling in the more forceful passages.
Loge: Heldentenor Siegfried Jerusalem is a heavier, darker Loge than usual in a weighty characerization.

Fasolt, Fafner: Fine performances from Jan-Hendrik Rootering and especially Matti Salminen.
Mime: Heinz Zednik is a fluttering, highly energetical Mime, almost retorts to overcharacterization at certain points.

Erda: Superb performance of Birgitta Svendén in a part she also repeated in the Kupfer-Barenboim DVD.

Sieglinde - Jessye Normans heroic grandeur is rather unsuitable for Sieglinde, both vocally and dramatically.
Siegmund: Gary Lakes delivers the notes, though not the characterization and neither looks and/or acts the part.
Hunding: Kurt Moll delivers the notes, but fails to generate drama on stage.

Hagen: Matti Salminen delivers the notes, looks the part and generates the exact menacing excitement of a great Hagen.
Brünnhilde: It´s hard to criticize the MET for casting Hildegard Behrens, arguably the best Brünnhilde of the day (considering the large house). And vocally her, rather lyric, performance is fine, though not overly expressive. Dramatically, however she is not very strong.
Siegfried: First-rate performance from Siegfried Jerusalem (also to be seen on the Kupfer-Barenboim DVD).
Waltraute: See Fricka.
Gutrune: Not a strong performance from Hanna Lisowska.
Gunther: Anthony Raffell looks the part and starts out well, however ends up sounding rather strange.

The conductor and orchestra

James Levine´s orchestra runs is smooth and well-tuned machine. Not a beat is missing. In the end it is too monotonous and lifeless. More sparkle or interpretative ideas is needed to make it an exciting performance (read: A performance with both drama and edge). Why James Levine chooses to conduct Wagner in this way has always puzzled me, as he has plenty of drama to his high-intensity performances of composers such as Puccini, Gounod, Berlioz, Verdi etc..
However in Wagner you would have to go to Daniel Barenboim to appreciate fully what exactly James Levine does not have.

In brief - The highlights and lowlights

The highlights:

Matti Salminen´s Hagen, Siegfried Jerusalem´s Siegfried, James Morris´ Wanderer. The staging at it´s most spectacular (Siegfried).

The lowlights:

The lack of drama. The occasionally dreary sets.

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average)

The ratings are given in comparison to the other Ring DVDs available. As ever, the acting skills of the singers weigh in heavily.

James Morris (Wotan): 4-5 (4 Rheingold, 4-5 Walküre, 5 Siegfried)
Christa Ludwig (Fricka): 2
Marie Anne Häggander (Freia): 4
Ekkehard Wlaschiha (Alberich): 4

Siegfried Jerusalem (Loge): 4
Jan Hendrik Rootering (Fasolt): 4
Matti Salminen (Fafner): 5
Heinz Zednik (Mime): 4
Birgitta Svendén (Erda): 5

Christa Ludwig (Waltraute): 2
Gary Lakes (Siegmund): 2
Jessye Norman (Sieglinde): 2
Kurt Moll (Hunding): 4
Matti Salminen (Hagen): 5

Siegfried Jerusalem (Siegfried): 5
Hildegard Behrens (Brünnhilde): 3-4
Hanna Lisowska (Gutrune): 2
Anthony Raffell (Gunther): 3

Otto Schenk´s staging: 3

James Levine: 4

Overall impression: 3


Anonymous said...

I am French. I have only Die Walküre but I find you are too strict with Christa Ludwig, Jessye Norman and Gary Lakes. Norman is very commited in her role, her singing is gorgeous. Gary Lakes sings the role confortably but it is true that his play is conventional. Ludwig even if her voice is not glorious plays her role with conviction, she is very credible in Fricka. Thank you for this rewiew.

Anonymous said...

In seeing the singers left to themselves and rather anxious to sing facing the audience instead of acting and interacting, this direction has made me remember the famous maxim by Mahler: "Tradition ist Schlamperei".

I found H. Behrens disappointing exactly as in the Lehnhoff/Sawallisch production (which, on the direction side, still displays some good ideas-have you ever seen it?).

Anonymous said...

wonderful blog. Congratulations

Anonymous said...

Mostly, I just love those reviews of yours - keep writing them ! You certainly have the authority + musicianship for that.
Oddly enough, I was thinking of that same Lenhoff/Sawallisch production lgarbarini is referring to.
To the best of my knowledge, that "Ring" was never published in DVD format [if it was PLEASE let me know!], but I own (only) two of the operas (namely Rheingold and Siegfried)in VHS, which I repatedly watched with delight last summer - the production has not aged well, despite, as lgarbarini says a few nice moemnts, but the singing and the conducting... just smashing !
Do you know that production (presumably you do)? Do you like it ?
Do you plan to write a review about it ?

P.S.: I see that you are attracting even more French readers so... un clin d'œil frenchie à Aurélien ;-)

Buoso said...

Thanks so much for writing this very thorough commentary, I know already that this will be a blog that I can trust.

I saw the Gotterdammerung of this production at the Met with Behrens. While she may lack dramtic subtlety, I liked her athleticism. What glorious Brunnhilde's of the past could greet Siegfried by jumping up and wrapping her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist?

On the DVD I liked the closeup of her rapturous attention to Wotan in the final scene of Walkuere.

As for the Gotterdammerung finale, it does not translate well from the large stage to the small screen. In the house one could see tourists (?) come to visit the ruins, it gave the impression that centuries passed during the orchestral finale - I don't beleive that was visible in the DVD.

Regards from Boston
PGRicchi@google.com (Paul Ricchi)

Anonymous said...

Lehnhoff/Sawallisch Ring was filmed by a Japanese troupe and is available in Japan. I purchased the 8 DVDs in june and what I found irritating is the editing: there are fades between scenes (probably, it was broadcast with commercial breaks)! I have seen that it will be reissued on november, 12, and I hope without fades.
It is available here:


(http://www.hmv.co.jp ships worldwide through EMS)

What I found disappointing in this Ring direction is that it seems running out of ideas as it approaches the end. So, I thing the best can be found in Rheingold. In particular, I was struck by the idea to have Fasolt killed by a sword; this is the same sword that Wotan extracts from the corpse and rises in the moment he conceives the idea of a free hero. I leave you to imagine all the implications that this entails regarding the continuation of the story and the fate of the owners of the sword.

Sawallisch is a terrific conductor and excels in Wagner. I heard also his Roma Ring, and all Wagner operas, from Die Feen onwards, recorded in Bayreuth, Milano's La Scala, Roma and Munich and I was never disappointed. His tempi are swift and the drama never lacks tension, but what I like very much is the transparency of the detailed sound of his orchestra (a transparency that does not affect too much the weight).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tip, lgarbarini ! ;-)
I'm glad they exist in DVD format, but I will wait and see if the forthcoming edition has the fades as well - these were done to fit the VHS running time, they appear at the end of each individual tape.
I share your views about Sawallisch's conducting (in this Ring in particular - and, oh my god what a terrific orchestra!) but I'll keep my comments about this production for a future Mostly post about this particular Ring (very much hoped for!)

mostly opera... said...

I haven´t seen the videotapes of the Lehnhoff/Sawallisch Ring, but once (?) I do, I will write about them..

Anonymous said...



you can find Lehnhoff/Sawallisch's Siegfried and a lot of interesting videos (a Walkuere, conducted by Baremboim, taped at the Berlin Staatsoper in 1993, the (I think) complete Covent Garden Ring conducted by Pappano, videos from a Ring conducted by Tate, a Tannhauser under Suitner, even Das Liebesverbot and many others).

Anonymous said...

Great link, lgarbarini, thank you so much !
Yes, there it is, Sawa/Lenhoff Siegfried, complete with Japanese subtitles ! And many more nuggets... a wagnerian trasure-trove indeed !

marcillac said...

You're Mostly dead on in much of your analysis (pun intended - sorry). In particular the lack of direction from Schenck is often a problem, in particular when there is so pronounced a lack of chemistry (if not commitment) as in the cases of Norman and Lakes.

However, that lack of direction does leave room for directors of particular revivals and the singers involved to make something of the drama and I have seen them do precisly that on several occasions. The difference is not slight.

Salminen's Hunding, absent on the DVDs has often been a highlight.

I'd like to disagree with your assesment of Ludwig's Fricka but find it difficult to do so. There was some satisfaction in hearing a singer of that eminence but she was clearly not up to the part at that time (kinda makes Domingo at the same age even more amazing).

I've never heard Behrens live but was lucky enought to hear Dame Gwyneth in the role. The best Brunnhilde I've ever seen with plenty of voice even in her lat 50s but the wobble...

Your assement of Morris is notably accute. I would disagree only to the extent that while his Leb Wohl has been almost invariably spectacular (as late as this year) his monologue, while much more variable because of the problems in the lower range has on occasion been superb as well. Moreover it is the part of his Wotan (extending over the 3 operas) that has seen the most interprative development over the last 15 years.

Anonymous said...

Matti Salminen is the preeminent Hagen of his time. He really seems to have been born for this role.

Anonymous said...

It's good to have a version of WAGNER's Ring which respects the composer's will, instead of having to stand the expensive paranoias, tics and personal phobias of retaded stage directors who should be seeing a psychiatrist, not disfiguring art.
Also I admire you, the american public, for having no tolerance to that bullshit called Eurotrash, which sadly dominates in Europe.

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