The radical centre of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle is not just in his much hyped pure musical drama but in his matter-of-fact inversion of one of the West’s defining myths. With his story of the god Wotan’s lust for power gone wrong and his dream of the free man Siegfried’s righting the world, we are given a story of God’s original sin, not Adam and Eve’s -“ a failure that must be redeemed by a fearless and free man. Of course the incredibly complex story of the 16-hour operatic cycle cannot be reduced to this and precisely who redeems who and how is ultimately a little difficult to pin down.
The ambiguity of Wagner’s great creation -“ musically and philosophically -“ is the reason why this unwieldy, at times rather pompous and boring, but ultimately unforgettable operatic cycle endures as one of the world’s truly great works of art. It is as much about the romance of death as the death of romance; it is as much about the divine predestination of fates as it is about the death of god; it celebrates anti-heroes as it follows a classic hero quest.
The ubiquitous opera queen is more likely to swoon at the flighty lyricism of bel canto arias than the heady orchestral opera of Wagner but the sheer unrelenting melodrama of The Ring has won it more than a few gay admirers. In fact it owes its existence to gay King Ludwig II of Bavaria, one of Wagner’s great champions, who financed its first production including the construction of the purpose-built theatre at Bayreuth. It has also had its gay re-interpreters just as it has had feminist, Marxist and Jungian readings.
New York experimental video maker Jack Waters has produced an acclaimed six-hour video project, The Ring Our Way, which brings out the camp melodrama of the cycle. Jordan and Arias, a very serious classically trained duo (who visited Australia for the 1998 Adelaide Festival), have produced hilarious drag versions of Wagner, even performing at the Wagner holy of holies, the Bayreuth festival.
The Ring is the perfect opera to own on DVD because it is performed so rarely in Australia and because it is an acquired taste that grows in significance after repeated exposures. Even more than other operas The Ring demands visual spectacle to match the majesty of the music and DVD is a much more accessible way to enjoy Wagner than audio CD alone. The two versions most readily available on DVD represent the two poles of Wagner interpretation.
Patrice Ch?au’s Centennial Ring, conducted by Pierre Boulez, literally caused riots when it was first performed at the Bayreuth festival in 1976 because he set the action in the late 19th century, bringing out its human socio-political symbolism rather than its eternal mythic qualities. The Met’s 1990 production under James Levine is in some ways a reaction to this and other attempts to update The Ring. It is a realist version in the sense that it recreates Wagner’s mythical worlds with a literal attention to the composer’s instructions. But it is far from literal in its overall intentions. The designers say they were influenced by both the German romantic painter of the sublime, Caspar David Friedrich, and the awe-inspiring landscapes of the Grand Canyon. These two references give some idea of the grandeur of their vision. This wonderful gothic realism makes the most of the Met’s renowned technical stagecraft and employs some great special effects.
Wagner critics are notoriously difficult to please and Levine’s interpretation hasn’t been universally praised. But as a non-specialist it seems to me he delivers a thoroughly rousing and convincing rendition with some sublime orchestral moments -“ the thrilling overture of gathering storm that opens Die Walkure is one such moment. Significantly he creates a satisfying dialogue between Wagner’s sung and orchestral operatic voices.
The cast, mostly composed of Wagner specialists, all give vibrant musical and dramatic performances. Jessye Norman as Sieglinde is outstanding, James Morris as Wotan and Hildegard Behrens as Brunhilde are also excellent.
The translation from the vast theatricality of the Met’s stage to the small screen is inherently problematic and at times the actors do disappear in the magnificence of the staging. But this is compensated for by good use of close-ups for dramatic moments. The lighting is also difficult -“ obviously theatrical rather than filmic -“ but the darkness of the production mirrors the subject matter.
One of the great joys of owning your own DVD version of the complete Ring is that you can dip in and out of the cycle rather than being trapped by its mammoth dimensions. Although from a narrative point of view it makes sense to begin at the beginning and follow right through, newcomers to Wagner might well be advised to start with the second opera Die Walkure. Act one contains some of the most lyrical singing in the whole cycle and is a more gentle way into the work than the more demanding Das Reingold. This too is where Norman shines and her performance alone is reason enough to own this DVD.
The booklets supplied with each opera are informative guides providing both plot summary and brief introductory comments.
If you do get hooked after watching this DVD version, you can always take yourself off to Adelaide in 2004 for the first original Australian Ring Cycle to be staged there in November.