Ring video

Old Sourpuss has finally made it. His “one indivisible, supreme creation of the mind of man” — that being Richard Wagner’s own modest appraisal of his “Ring of the Nibelung” — has now achieved its ultimate consecration. Would the old boy be proud to learn that, starting right now, anyone with the requisite bucks can acquire the totality of that staggering creation at his local video emporium: the sights, the sounds, the “total artwork” of its composer’s imagining? You know he would!
This videodisk “Ring,” complete in four volumes with an extra documentary disk detailing the genesis and making of the whole project, is the 1976 Bayreuth production which first showed up on PBS in 1983 to honor the Wagner centennial. Perhaps you taped it at the time, intricately calculating how, by changing recording speed and alternating tape lengths, you could get each uninterrupted act onto a single cassette. Perhaps, like me, you promised yourself frequent private reruns, sitting spellbound as all 15 hours of Wagner’s titanic drama sailed past on the tube. Perhaps, like me, you haven’t actually touched those tapes in all these years.
Anyhow, now you can toss them. The electronics boys have been predicting lately that we were due for a resurgence of the laser-videodisk, that altogether superior method of video recording that has muddled along as a poor relative to videotape all these years. There is no clearer confirmation of these predictions than these “Ring” disks, issued on Philips (which also produced the audio versions of the same performance). The sight, the sound (digital stereo, of course), the whole impact is, in a word, stupendous.
Fifteen hours of the “Ring”? That’s an arcane exercise, of course; even Wagner planned the cycle to allow for a night’s sleep between sections. But I cling to the memory of once wandering into a series of rooms at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, flooded by the sound of the classic Solti recording that was being played continuously that whole summer, pouring down from loudspeakers into¬† rooms carpeted with bodies wall-to-wall, tuning in, turning on, blissed out.
Neither this proletariat stretched out on a museum floor, nor you and I in private ecstasy in front of a video monitor, exactly conforms to Wagner’s elitist image of his ideal audience; never mind. The “Ring” is the easiest to approach of all Wagnerian dramas. Its musical style is less forbidding than that of “Tristan” or “Parsifal”; its story infinitely more universal. You can prove that latter point in at least two ways.
One way is by contrasting Wagner’s own dramatic vision to the way Patrice Chereau has staged the work here: an industrial setting of Wagner’s own time, with the Rhine surging through a massive hydroelectric plant, the dragon Fafner an oversize child’s toy on wheels, the chorus done up in workingmen’s garb, Wotan in a Victorian frock coat. The discrepancy may be enormous, but the work remains intact.
Another way is by matching up the paraphernalia of Wagner’s plot with a latter-day legend of comparable appeal, the scenario of George Lucas’ “Star Wars.” The similarities are inescapable: the brother-sister protagonists, the son-vs.-father clash of swords, the klutzy young Siegfried as the wide-eyed, kid-next-door Luke Skywalker; the Jedi Force as the Power of the Ring. I cannot shake the feeling, in fact, that if Wagner were here today he’d be at work in the Lucas magic factory up in Marin.
Wagner does, indeed, demand much from his audience. He saw himself as communicant to a select inner circle, whose minds could somehow be purged of all earthly thoughts (especially, of all thoughts of opera as it had been before Wagner had come along to redeem the world and its art). He demands, furthermore, our undivided attention, our willingness to follow the dismembered themes and melodic fragments that bind his drama into a seamless whole. We can fight off sleep during the endless stretches of pure haggle: Mr. and Mrs. Wotan nattering at each other about marital fidelity, Wotan and Mime playing at 20 questions. But, finally, it is Wagner himself, in that endless torrent of music as mighty as any on earth, who makes it all worthwhile.
For it is Wagner himself, his own cynicism and bitterness toward everyone else on earth, who shapes this particular retelling of the universal legend — the rise of mankind, the redemption, the fall —
into an artwork of a grandeur beyond anyone’s power to evaluate. The clarity of Chereau’s staging has offended traditionalists, and with some justification. Yet the hard edges of his visual realization is not only ideally suited to video (as other traditional, dark, pictorial productions probably wouldn’t adapt at all); they also, for a video audience, clarify marvelously well the fearful symmetry of Wagner’s story, his interlocked chain of treacheries that, like the Ring itself, eventually comes full circle.
Still, the hard clarity of Chereau’s dramatic plan does match up marvelously with Pierre Boulez’ musical conception. If this lacks the sublime oratory of certain surviving ancient treasures — the amazing Clemens Kraus radio tapes from Bayreuth now available on Rodolphe, with Hans Hotter’s Wotan in sublime estate, or the two dim-sounding but oddly gripping Wilhelm Furtwangler performances on LP — the urgency in the Boulez performance stems most of all from his astounding command of musical detail, his ability to set the most complicated music into exact perspective.
All this seems gloriously clarified, deepened in impact, on this¬† stupefying videodisk reincarnation. Somehow, the quality of this reproduction gets me past some of the shrillness in Gwyneth Jones’ Brunnhilde, and the wobbly Siegfried of Manfred Jung — even in their duet at the end of “Siegfried,” the one time in all 15 hours when you might be tempted to turn off the video.
Uneven it may be, pricey it surely is ($90 for each of the four parts), this “Ring” seems to me a treasure beyond mundane considerations. Stay with it, at least once, until the end, as the flames consume the last vestige of the glory of the Gods, the surviving earthlings face bleakly out into the void where you and I sit as passive observers, and the final flicker of lambent Wagnerian lyricism — the theme of Redemption through Love — wells up from the orchestra, somehow to rekindle human hopes. Resist that moment; I dare you.