A wild and crazy Ring at the Metropolitan Opera, where the shelf life of such blockbusters is measured in decades—who in his right mind could have dreamt of such a thing? Nothing wears off faster than the shock of the new. The eminently sensible mandate for Robert Lepage was to deliver state-of-the-art technology in the service of a faithful retelling of the epic story. If only the mechanics had not turned out so creaky and the narrative so aimless. Unveiled over two seasons beginning in September 2010, Lepage's show opened to ritual boos and reviews on which his worst enemy's mother could not have improved. Lepage, Lepage, Lepage… You would have thought at the time that nothing else mattered.
On home video, familiarity with this white elephant breeds not contempt (too late for that) but indifference. For the most part, the camera ignores the big picture. In close-up, the old eyesores still grate: in Rheingold, Alberich's king-size rompers, the filthy locks covering half of Wotan's face, that dinky ring from a Cracker Jack box. On a more graceful note, Loge blows on his fingertips, setting them aglow like live coals: a neat trick for the god of fire. But such things are as flyspecks to the contributions of the singers.
Completing Wotan's marathon with his role debut as the Wanderer, Bryn Terfel—self-directed?—claims a place among the immortals. No pose-striking romantic, he stands as a man at the crumbling edge of the abyss, staring in. Resignation overtakes him now and then, but mostly we see in him the plaything of tempestuous rage, remorse, and denial. The singing is decidedly unsettled at times, but no matter. Between whispers, caresses, bluster, anguish, and explosions that peal like thunder, Terfel is apt to shake your preconceptions of Wotan's godhead to the foundations, no matter what they are.
Among the many artists in role debuts, only Jonas Kaufmann is in Terfel's league. Steeled in adversity, his stern Siegmund eyes his world with ferocious concentration; he is a spellbinding storyteller, what is more, with clarion notes to burn. As Alberich, the unaccountable critics' darling Eric Owens pours on big sound like gritty molasses but skewers high notes in reedy tones that pinch and splinter; it would not surprise me to learn that he patterned his grimacing, one-note persona on the Blue Meanies from Yellow Submarine. Musical, sweet in timbre, unacquainted with guile, Richard Croft gives us a Loge such as Schubert might have conceived him, which is to say no Loge at all.
Those who once thought Brünnhilde Deborah Voigt's manifest destiny cannot have anticipated the ravages of time and use. Once lustrous and even, her instrument now goes squally in the heights and colorless below. Trouper that she is, Voigt barrels through with occasional flashes of brilliance, projecting a character who is game, conscientious, and terminally suburban.
As actors, Voigt and her Siegfried are peas in a pod. Built like a lumberjack, Jay Hunter Morris looks the part and more or less stays the course. Sustained, disagreeably green patches suggest an oversize lyric rather than a bona fide heroic tenor. Yet his best moments have a bright, even jubilant ring, and quiet passages glow with unaffected tenderness.
Among old Ring hands, Stephanie Blythe — disserved by dowdy costumes, disheveled wigs, and a chariot that might as well be a wheelchair — tempers the stupendous authority of her Fricka with fastidious nuance. In song and action, Eva-Maria Westbroek delivers a Sieglinde of luminous transparency. Hans-Peter König lends the villains Fafner, Hunding and Hagen a grim, flinty grandeur. Gerhard Siegel's Mime overacts shamelessly but cuts through the din of the forging song like a second Siegfried. Waltraud Meier distills into Waltraute's cameo the artistry of a lifetime. An appreciation of the conductors James Levine (Rheingold, Walküre) and Fabio Luisi (Siegfried, Götterdämmerung) might begin by contrasting Levine's meditative gravitas with Luisi's brisk, leaner, rather anonymous approach, and proceed from there.
What to say of Lepage? Anyone who has seen the engineering and acrobatic marvels of KÀ, his long-running Cirque du Soleil extravaganza in Las Vegas, must wish the Ring were cut from the same cloth. But how could that have been? KÀ unfolds in a fathomless chasm custom-built at an expense of undisclosed millions. Hemmed in by the Met proscenium, repertory schedule, and a comparatively chintzy budget of a reported $16 million, Lepage devised solutions that look cut-rate, earthbound, and clunky. (Even laughable: early performances of Götterdämmerung, the finale reached a climax of sorts when the heads of statues of the gods went up in puffs of smoke, to jeers from the house. A priceless gaffe you won't see on DVD.)
The most conspicuous pillar on which the Lepage Ring stands or totters is the 45-ton mobile sculpture familiarly known as the Machine, consisting of twenty-four planks mounted side by side on an axis like the keys of an all-ivory piano or clothespins strung on a line. In sections or en bloc, the Machine also serves as a screen for the interactive video component that constitutes his second pillar. A third and final pillar consists of gravity-defying live action sequences executed by stunt doubles on wires.
As the camera confirms, the Machine causes more problems than it can begin to solve. Navigating the Met stage on and around this contraption is plainly no walk in the park. To facilitate her abduction, Freia must back up a ledge, yammering protests all the way. The Wälsung twins sing their love scene in a trench.
Of the video elements, vast electronic frescoes of flowing water, cloudscapes, roaring flame, and especially the Rhine running red with blood at Gunther's touch are arguably Wagnerian in spirit. Your heart may skip a beat (mine did) when Wotan's ravens go winging by, and the Forest Bird — a goldfinch all of pixels — is enchanting in its aerial arabesques. The redundant shadowplay illustrating Siegmund's narration and the flashbacks in a giant eye during Wotan's monologue demean the intelligence of the spectator as much as they do the art of the performers.
In the house, people gasped at some of the stunts. The first and surely most memorable was the vertiginous descent to Nibelheim across a perpendicular helix, mimicking a fancy overhead camera shot. Onscreen—a movie of a "movie," in effect—it looked merely like hard work. The less spectacular theatrical poetry of Siegfried's Rhine journey is much more satisfying, with hero and horse skimming over the gently rocking waves. (Grane is a suit of empty equestrian armor that comes to life for some handlers, though not for others.) Great set pieces miss the mark completely. The gods entering Valhalla at the end of Rheingold are stunt doubles on cables wobbling up an 89-degree rainbow drawbridge. No riders in the sky, bursting onstage one by one, the Valkyries all line up on stage, where we find them at curtain rise, seesawing on the Machine.
Deutsche Grammophon has packaged two CDs of audio excerpts under the title Twilight of the Gods. The bleeding chunks of desert-island fame are pretty much all there. Absent visuals, vocal demerits are glaring, but Dwayne Croft's Donner pops from the speakers like a champ.