Over the past couple of months I have watched this cycle in order. Although I recommend it, largely for some strong singing in the key roles and for some innovative use of projections and dancers, I also came away with the feeling that what could have been the top cycle on DVD slipped a notch or two as it progressed from Rheingold to Gotterdammerung. The most striking and unique features of this cycle are the nearly constant use of video projections as backdrops (ranging from National Geographic quality landscapes to a variety of abstractions) and the nearly constant use of a corps of dancers/extras who were on stage as plants, animals, Nibelungs, and even Valhalla itself. Some reviewers have commented that all of this activity distracted from the main action/singing. Although I appreciate that view, I found it always interesting, at times mesmerizing, and at times utterly perplexing. (For all the brilliance of the special effects and sets, I had the feeling that the director and designers were like kids locked in a candy shop of technological sweets -- they couldn't resist gorging themselves.) In any event, there is so much going on that I will resist the temptation to start listing examples. Suffice it to say that for Gotterdammerung, they have brought the saga into present times. Hagen, Gunther, Gutrune, and their minions wear modern dress (much of the time) although they are encased in odd make-up and ornamentation (more about the stupid costumes below). As in several other productions, the theme is gods/man/dwarfs as despoilers of the world with restoration through return of the ring.
Besides the nifty staging, this production also benefits from a couple of first class singers in THE roles -- Lance Ryan as Sigfried and Jennifer Wilson as Brunnhilde. These were very satisfying performances. I had heard good things about Wilson, so her solid performance was not so surprising (good top notes and presence in Act 2; somewhat prosaic immolation scene, however). For me the surprise was Lance Ryan -- he had great stamina, no tiring in Act 3 and a strong death scene (also a very good Siegfried in that opera). I would put them right up there with the best of any others on DVD. The rest of the cast was not as strong, but all were satisfactory. As a small aside, it seems that Salminen has been playing Hagen (and doing it well) since Wagner's death. Time is catching up, and it strains credibility in this performance when Hagen (who is supposed to be around Siegfried's age) resembles Merlin.
Orchestra and conducting are good throughout the cycle.
Two disappointments -- one minor and one major. Minor: given all of the special effects, Act 3 (arguably the greatest act of the entire cycle -- maybe of opera) seemed a bit anticlimatic. But maybe that's because the bar was raised too high in the earlier operas. Major: the costume and makeup designers should be chained to Mime's anvil for eternity. Most DVD ring cycles (and I've seen just about all of them) have piss poor costuming, but this one just about takes the cake. As one example, they managed to make Jennifer Wilson resemble an Anna Russell caricature (huge breastplate emphasizing huge breasts)and the worst prom/bridesmaid dress imaginable, complete with bustle. For crying out loud, a simple tunic would have been more flattering, tasteful, and consistent with the production.
All in all, I recommend this cycle highly. It's becoming increasingly difficult to rank order the growing number of Ring cycles available on DVD. To make matters worse for me, the cycle I had placed as number 1 (Barenboim/Kupfer) now seems too bleak, a bit long in the tooth, and at times downright boring (despite some excellent performances) when compared to some of the recent releases such as this one and the productions from Copenhagen and Amsterdam.... what's a person to do?... gorge on them all.