When a reviewer writes a notice for a single opera from Wagner's Ring, he or she could easily spend a thousand or even two thousand words on it and still not thoroughly assess the performance. Here, of course, we have all four Ring operas and I suppose I could hunker down at my computer and turn out a sizable piece that might end up boring the reader. So I'll make it easy on you and me and just cut to the chase.
The video competition in Wagner's Ring includes performances by Boulez (Philips), Levine (DG), Zagrosek (EuroArts), Haenchen (EuroArts) and de Billy (Opus Arte). To give you some perspective on Barenboim's approach here, let me cite the timings of the Boulez and Levine sets, both of which are highly regarded. Boulez clocks in at 832 minutes, Levine at 941, and Barenboim, in the middle, at 904. Barenboim has generally tended to be a centrist in his tempo choices, from my observations of his readings, both in the concert hall and in the opera house. But he has consistently managed to impart a sense of urgency and drama, whether in his performances of Bruckner's symphonies, Beethoven's piano concertos (in the dual role of pianist and conductor!), or Wagner's operas. Here Barenboim delivers the goods with a real Wagnerian sense for both the music and the drama.
Barenboim seems to get the most from his singers, as almost all are effective in their roles. Some critics were a bit unenthusiastic about Poul Elming's Siegmund and Nadine Secunde's Sieglinde in Die Walküre, but I found them both quite convincing. And I agree with the general consensus that John Tomlinson is excellent as Wotan (and, in Siegfried, as Der Wanderer). Anne Evans as Brünnhilde in the last three Ring operas is also truly splendid, as were Siegfried Jerusalem as Siegfried and Linda Finnie in several roles.
I could go on with the kudos but suffice it to say that here is a case of excellent casting, for nowhere in any of the operas is there a weak or less than fully convincing singer among the principals. But beyond this, the production by Harry Kupfer, with its mysterious mists, bizarre and imposing structures, and vast stage and visual effects, is simply stunning in its inventive uniqueness. For once, the viewer is treated to something new that doesn't come across as modern or irritating but rather as imaginative and fully engaging to the eye. At the time of these productions many critics regarded Kupfer's approach as a quite visionary treatment of Wagner's Ring operas. I wouldn't argue with them.
Barenboim draws playing from the orchestra that is consistently accurate and spirited without ever sounding either reticent or over-the-top. He always manages to capture the drama of the moment, as well as the overall thrust and architecture of the work. The chorus sings well too, and the camera work is excellent. The sound reproduction is full and vivid, quite impressive for its early 1990s vintage. It would be difficult to find a weakness anywhere in this production: perhaps one might quibble over some of the English subtitle translations or over some of the lighting effects, but these are so minor as to amount to nitpicking. In just about every respect then, this set is a winner.
Back in 2004 I reviewed most of Zagrosek's Ring cycle and two years later half of Hartmut Haenchen's. I've also covered numerous other Ring performances here by various conductors, including Levine and Thielemann, but on the basis of this Barenboim set, I believe I can say that if I had the choice of attending a cycle of the Ring operas led by one conductor, I would opt for Barenboim. As for video recordings of these operas, again Barenboim here would be my desert island choice. Highest recommendations!
Copyright © 2012, Robert Cummings