Not the least of the messages of Der Ring des Nibelungen is that nothing lasts forever. What opera house in the world today is more glamorous, technologically more state-of-the-art, or architecturally more daring than the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía, Valencia? And what theater collective has colonized the operatic citadels of Europe more triumphantly than La Fura dels Baus? How fitting, then, that these institutions should have joined forces at just this moment to scale the heights of Wagner's most sweeping epic. Documented between 2007 and 2009, the production has been screened theatrically in high definition; now it is available for home viewing, on Blu-ray as well as on first-generation DVD.
To begin with, a few words may be in order on La Fura dels Baus. What does the name mean? A largely uninformative company website does not say, and other supposedly authoritative sources disagree. Originally a troupe of strolling players in Catalonia, La Fura now produces gargantuan spectaculars that marry the showmanship of Cirque du Soleil and Industrial Light & Magic to the intellectual preoccupations of a left-wing think tank. Notches on their belt include the opening ceremonies of the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, La Damnation de Faust at the Salzburg Festival in 1999 and, more recently, a new production of Le Grand Macabre seen in Brussels, Rome and London in 2009.
Depending on one's point of view, the Valencia Ring soars on the wings or staggers under the weight of its cosmic ambitions. Video feeds on giant monitors transport us from a God's-eye view of the universe into the bloodstream and even the genome. Computer graphics conjure up the human form in luminous green chain-link mesh, which in close-up turns out to be composed of spread-eagled homunculi joined finger to toe. A similar vision takes shape in three dimensions at the end of Das Rheingold, when flesh-and-blood gymnasts on wires assemble into an airborne column that may symbolize the Rainbow Bridge, Valhalla, some abstraction in the mind of the demiurge, or all of the above. Projections of flowing water, roaring flames, ecological disasters, golden star-children in zero gravity, razor-sharp mountain ranges, slow-motion comet showers and much, much more add up to a veritable symphony in pictures.
What takes place before the moving tapestries is often strange in the extreme. The three Rhinemaidens, each confined to an aquarium of her own, give birth effortlessly to a brood of gilt babies in glass bubbles. Cocooned in their costumes like astronauts in their space pods, Wotan and Fricka zoom around the stage and up and down on cherry-pickers powered by stagehands in camouflage, while Freia perambulates on her own two feet, perpetually caressing a giant apple. The Nibelung horde consists of slithering gymnasts in vaguely golden body suits. Hunding's dwelling is littered with bones arranged in a circle. The Valkyries wear blinkers, like horses, along with the hoods of cloistered nuns.
Brünnhilde's rock is a portable silver disc weirdly reminiscent of the "new" Bayreuth of 1951. Mime's cave is a eugenics lab, where golden extras pass by, hung up like carcasses at a slaughterhouse. The Gibichung leaders' shaved heads are emblazoned with tattoos that combine Kabuki patterns, Chinese ideograms and the symbols of the Euro and the Yen. Like a certain film starring Raquel Welch, Act I of Die Walküre is set one million years B.C. A cave-dweller in Rasta locks, tribal tattoos and the makeup of a high-fashion model, Sieglinde clambers about on all fours until Siegmund raises her painfully to her feet. Credited to Carlus Padrissa, the stage direction moment to moment is meticulous. When the Second Norn asks where the First Norn intends to attach her rope, she follows up with an impatient shrug. She's not making small talk. She really wants to know.
Whatever one's complaints — and the restricted range of motion for the divinities stuck on their cherry-pickers would be a big one — Das Rheingold and Die Walküre certainly hold a viewer's interest. Siegfried, which comes up short on fresh imagery, is less satisfactory. (A dead ringer for Sieglinde, the hero could pass for Grendel's mother or a high-concept Elektra.) Götterdämmerung, contrariwise, abounds in new design ideas, mostly trite or disastrous (though a little tin boat that pitches down the Rhine has its charms). Yet strange to say, key scenes — such as Waltraute's — are performed more or less in the dark. Much as in the Chéreau staging, the Gibichungs stuff Siegfried, that wild child of the forest, into the grey flannel of a CEO.
Other maestros seek greater depths than Zubin Mehta, who for the most part offers a propulsive, coherent reading of the score. (The metronomic, thumping close of Die Walküre and introduction to Act III of Siegfried are dreadful.) Much of the casting is amazingly strong. For vocalism and dramatic nuance, Juha Uusitalo's tremendous Wotan/Wanderer (bearded like a billy goat) and Jennifer Wilson's resplendent Brünnhilde bear comparison with the very greatest of their historic predecessors. Of impressive stature but far from lithe, neither, alas, has been done any favors by the costume department. Decked out as Gunther's bride in a floor-length gown with seven flounces, a breastplate and her Valkyrie blinders, Brünnhilde bobbles like the figurehead of her own battleship.
The stalwart Matti Salminen is in commanding form as Fasolt, Hunding and Hagen, Stephen Milling equally so as Fafner. Peter Seiffert's Siegmund is not in the same league, Petra Maria Schnitzer's Sieglinde even less so. The wobbly Gunther and Gutrune of Ralf Lukas and Elisabete Matos are totally at sea. Among many pleasant surprises in supporting roles are Silvia Vázquez, Ann-Katrin Naidu and Hannah Esther Minutillo alternating with Marina Prudenskaya as the Rhinemaidens, warbling in the lush tones of an Elsa, Elisabeth and Magdalene. Descending from the flies like a sweet little Picasso harpy, Marina Zyatkova sings the Forest Bird in tones of sheer jubilation.
Built like a linebacker, blessed with a million-dollar smile and James Cagney eyes here lined in kohl, Lance Ryan is a Siegfried of exhilarating vitality. Nobody's perfect: too often, he scowls, robbing his timbre of its innate golden luster. But his power never flags, the notes lie easily within his compass, and his delivery rings as true in the lyrical mode as in the heroic. As an actor, he's a natural, striking a chord of abashed grace in the presence of the newly awakened Brünnhilde. He's nimble on his feet, but when the Götterdämmerung goons suspend him upside down in gravity boots, he sings on, unfazed. A phenomenal performance.