Overview and general comments
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
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:
Wotan with the Ring:
The individual operas - 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:
The individual operas - SiegfriedTogether 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 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:
The individual operas - GötterdämmerungMuch 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.
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.
Mime: Heinz Zednik is a fluttering, highly energetical Mime, almost retorts to overcharacterization at certain points.
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 orchestraJames 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
Matti Salminen´s Hagen, Siegfried Jerusalem´s Siegfried, James Morris´ Wanderer. The staging at it´s most spectacular (Siegfried).
The lack of drama. The occasionally dreary sets.
The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average)
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
Jan Hendrik Rootering (Fasolt): 4
Matti Salminen (Fafner): 5
Heinz Zednik (Mime): 4
Birgitta Svendén (Erda): 5
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