Complete video sets of DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN have proliferated in the DVD era, but it was not terribly long ago that there were only three choices: the Bayreuth centenary staging by Patrice Chéreau, conducted by Pierre Boulez (taped for broadcast 1979-80, now on DG DVD); the Met's, directed by Otto Schenk and conducted by James Levine (1989-90, also DG), and this later Bayreuth directed by Harry Kupfer, the orchestra led by Daniel Barenboim (1991-92). All had/have their constituents, and together they still provide a strong backbone for the RING videography. The Met's is the most conservative and literal in taking Wagner's mythic saga more or less at face value, and goes for the most extravagant realism. The Chéreau is more provocative and idiosyncratic, treating the work as sociopolitical allegory; the Kupfer is equally provocative in its way, but more of a parable about eternal recurrence, an allusive meditation on ruin and rebirth. Of the three, I could most easily do without the Met's. For a first recommendation, I waffle between the two Bayreuths, which have in common more than their venue and orchestra/chorus. Both feature detailed and committed acting, for example. But the Kupfer/Barenboim does benefit from being the more technically up to date, and it wears its nearly 20 years well, still looking and sounding very good even alongside the post-millennial competition.
Kupfer's greatest strength as a director here is his gift for "Personenregie." Every character seems thought through from the ground up. Who is Wotan, Siegmund, Mime, et cetera, not just in some abstract hand-me-down sense but in *this* production, and in relation to all the other characters in his or her sphere? By the time of these video sessions, which I understand Kupfer closely supervised, most of the singers had extensive experience in the production, and this is to the good. The ones who are gifted actors in the first place (such as Graham Clark, indelible both as Loge and the SIEGFRIED Mime) create brilliant portraits, and the ones who are potential liabilities in this department (such as Poul Elming's Siegmund) are brought up at least to a level that their scenes can come off well. Unlike some contemporary opera directors with a strong and not always traditional point of view, Kupfer also has an unmistakably musical ear -- his choices of blocking and action consistently complement what we are hearing rather than ignore or fight it. A list of such episodes in a 904-minute DVD set would be too long, but I think, for example, of John Tomlinson's Wotan and Anne Evans's Brünnhilde in the hushed interlude before their great debate in WALKÜRE, sitting on the stage back to back, facing away from each other -- the anger exhausted, but the hurt, regret, and inevitability seeming to hang in the air. One of the oft-voiced criticisms of this RING is that Kupfer's stage, especially in the earlier chapters, is often "empty," the principal visual motif being a road leading upstage into blackness. But that isn't true, of course. His stage is *full*, not of props but of psychology, humanity, perception. I rewatch scenes here such as the Wotan/Fricka marital quarrel in WALKÜRE, which gets across not only the surface content but the subtext of a long, conflict-torn, yet once loving and harmonious union, and it almost pains me to imagine people first experiencing the RING via something like the dramatically lifeless multimillion-dollar bore the Met is currently spooling out, with its creaking and malfunction-prone 45-tonne metal planks ("Ticket sales cover less than half the cost of our bad investments, ladies and gentlemen").
Barenboim's musical leadership occupies some middle ground between Boulez's swiftness and transparency and Levine's ponderousness and expansiveness. Though admittedly a crude measure, the cumulative running times tell something of the tale (Boulez clocking in at 832 minutes, Barenboim 904, Levine 941). Wagner always has been one of Barenboim's strong suits, and he is never less than sensible and pertinent here, often much more. The singing is perhaps as good as it could have been in the period. Tomlinson's Wotan, Clark's Loge/Mime, Linda Finnie's Fricka, and Evans's Brünnhilde all leave a positive and lasting impression, as does Siegfried Jerusalem's Siegfried -- both in better voice and more interestingly acted here than in the earlier Met cycle (particularly good as the potion-bewitched Siegfried of GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG, whom he and Kupfer play as a bit of an entitled sleaze). And what a luxury to have the greatest Wagnerian singing actress of the last 20 years, Waltraud Meier, for the single scene of Waltraute. At worst, the vocal contributions just hover around the adequacy bar: Elming is unlikely to be anyone's favorite Siegmund, and Philip Kang sounds underpowered as Fafner and Hagen.
Barenboim and Tomlinson share their memories of the Kupfer production in a 13-minute featurette taped around the time of the initial DVD release.
There are RING sets that would be no great loss if they vanished from general availability; this is not among them, and its status as the favorite of many connoisseurs is understandable. Its return to the Region 1 catalog is good news. Thus end my comments on matters artistic. However:
IMPORTANT: Exercise caution when ordering! This product presently has three listings on Amazon, a search for "Der Ring des Nibelugen DVD" could lead you to any of them, and there is a potential for unpleasant surprise.
The Kupfer/Barenboim RING was initially released on DVD by Warner Classics in 2007. Warner's NTSC release for Region 1, the US and Canada, is now available only for rarity prices (as I write, "2 new from $699.99"). The studio in the product info for this page is Rhino/WEA.
A separate Amazon page appeared in spring 2011 and seemed to promise an identical item from third-party sellers at affordable prices, the listing even claiming "All Regions." The item I received when I ordered from that page was the Warner NTSC release for Regions 2/3/4/5. I do keep an all-regions player as a spare, so I was only minimally inconvenienced, but I posted a brief review under the title "Warnung" and attempted (unsuccessfully) to get Amazon to change its product information so other customers would not buy discs they could not view. On the page for the Region 2/3/4/5 set, there is even a scan of the back cover in which "Region code NTSC 2345" can be read if one looks closely. The studio in the product info for this page is "WVI." You may be reading this review on that page.
Several months later, Kultur announced an October 2011 re-release for Region 1, and a third Amazon page appeared. As often happens when something is reissued, Amazon linked reviews of a previous release (unfortunately, the Warner 2/3/4/5) to the new page. Therefore, not of my doing, my well-intentioned and accurate warning about Warner 2/3/4/5 appeared both on the page where it applied and on one where it did not. Two other reviewers believed I was warning people away from the *Kultur*, and posted corrections and admonishments...and *their* reviews now appear both where they are accurate (Kultur R1) and where they are not (Warner 2/3/4/5). I thought a rewrite was in order, and here we are.
The bottom line: If you live in the US or Canada, do not have an all-regions player, and are ordering this RING, look closely at the product information and make sure you are getting the Kultur reissue scheduled for October 2011. The one from the studio "WVI" almost certainly will be Region 2/3/4/5.