Das Rheingold, the opening installment in this saga about Norse gods and dwarves pursing a magic, all-powerful ring, seemed like a dud if you had the bad luck to see it onstage when the opera's climactic rainbow bridge had technical difficulties and didn't appear. With the bridge fully functional on screen, the opera's conclusion is infinitely more satisfying and reflects better on what came before.
In contrast, Götterdämmerung (the fourth part, on Friday) is often more of a dud on screen than it was onstage, partly due to misfired characterizations, bland sets, and flat, soap opera-style lighting that leaves you longing to see a shadow.
Generally, this Ring has been rushed to the screen prematurely. Rarely do such huge productions hit their mark consistently on the first outing; the Patrice Chereau-directed Bayreuth Ring, now the best on video, was considered a disaster until the director revised his staging in subsequent seasons.
Stage apparatus aside, key Met singers are seen on the first outings with their roles - among them Deborah Voigt's Brünnhilde - and it shows. Even Philadelphia's Eric Owens, who had vocal matters so well in hand that his characterization of Alberich sealed his future at the Met, had not worked out a good sense of his character's body language.
In contrast, tenor Jay Hunter Morris, who has been living with his role of Siegfried since 2008, inhabits his character so completely that his precise, moment-to-moment reactions to other characters (more apparent on screen than in the house) help sustain long scenes in which past plot events are recapped. Imagine what the rest of the opera would be like if others were operating on that level.
But no. And why? One reason is that the international opera community grows increasingly small thanks to electronic media. Example: Though Verdi's Simon Boccanegra is relatively new to Placido Domingo's repertoire, the market is already flooded with three DVDs of the opera, all starring him. Hiring singers new to their Ring roles is one way to achieve the marketing advantages of exclusivity.
But even when they're good, the Met's singers aren't as good on video as they will be onstage later this season - or might have been had the Met's ailing music director, James Levine, conducted the whole thing. After Levine's post- Walküre departure, you feel a shift away from depth and toward professional efficiency under conductor Fabio Luisi. (Reportedly, Levine is back from his latest surgery, tooling around the Met in a motorized scooter, but that's only recently.)
The Lepage production perhaps suffers the most from being immortalized on video in its current state. Though sometimes characterized only by his Cirque de Soleil credit, Lepage has a huge body of stage and film work that places him among the great theater artists of our time. He's also an excellent actor, suggesting that he has been too preoccupied with the stage apparatus to guide the singers into more finished characterizations.
So - to watch or not to watch?
Das Rheingold: Yes, sort of, if only because of the cast's excellent singers: Bryn Terfel as Wotan, Stephanie Blythe as Fricka, and Owens as Alberich. But don't hold the production's lapses against the other installments. Example: When Alberich turns himself into alien creatures, the dragon looks great, but the toad seems to have come out of the Toys R Us bargain bin.
Die Walküre: Big yes. Here, the stage machine convincingly conveys dense forest - more vividly than in its live, movie-theater simulcast. Tenor Jonas Kaufmann is a magnetic Siegmund. And though his Sieglinde, Eva-Maria Westbroek, isn't in her best voice, she's theatrically entrancing. Terfel's singing is so godlike you almost don't notice that his final scene, scenically speaking, is mostly all-purpose murk. Then there's the Levine factor - this was his last performance before surgery and he was at his absolute best.
Siegfried: Tentative yes. Some Ring lovers enjoy Wagner's humor in this installment; I have always found the opera tedious. But the stage apparatus is at its most atmospheric here, and Morris' vocally mid-weight Siegfried is the best-acted on video; likewise Terfel's Wotan. The Act II dragon rarely succeeds in the best Rings; this one doesn't embarrass itself. As Brünnhilde, Voigt seems least at home with her Act III music.
Götterdämmerung: Sometimes yes. Early scenes are confoundingly pedestrian. The nouveau-riche Gibich family looks dull, sounds dull, and appears to live in Dullsville. Even Hans-Peter König, a fine, menacing Hunding in Die Walküre, plays the evil Hagen as if the character has had a lobotomy. But back in her ring of fire, Brünnhilde (Voigt) is visited by her sister Waltraute - sung by the great Wagnerian mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier, who knocks the operatic tension up a big notch and shows you what's missing elsewhere.
The rest has extremes of hot and cold. Voigt maintains the tension throughout Act II. Morris' Act III death scene is utterly mesmerizing. But poor Voigt has to ride a silly-looking fake horse into the flames during the theatrically hobbled Immolation Scene. It ends with Hagen jumping into the Rhine to get the coveted ring - with incredibly clumsy execution. With that as your last memory, is it any wonder this Ring is said to be worse than it is?
Contact David Patrick Stearns at email@example.com.