Georg Solti's "Ring" (Decca), which appeared opera by opera from 1958 to 1966, exploited the new stereo sonics with magical sound effects, "Apocalypse Now" playing from the Vienna Philharmonic and the best cast alive. Birgit Nilsson's Brünnhilde is still unrivaled for steely ping and Wolfgang Windgassen makes an uncommonly colorful Siegfried. This Ring triumphs also in the bad guy, for Gustav Neidlinger's Alberich — the title role, remember, in "The Ring of the Nibelung" — is the greatest on disc. One of Solti's two Wotans, Hans Hotter, mars Die Walküre and Siegfried with his over-the-hill grunting, but Christa Ludwig, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gottlob Frick are also here, in their prime. Note the very young Gwyneth Jones and Lucia Popp as Rhinemaidens — and Joan Sutherland offers a star cameo as the "Siegfried" Woodbird.
Herbert von Karajan's "Ring" (DG), from the late 1960s, counters Solti with an at-times chamber-toned subtlety and lighter voices. Solti's luscious Sieglinde, Regine Crespin, here sings an implausibly luscious "Walküre" Brünnhilde, and Helge Brilioth, Karajan's "Götterdämmerung" Siegfried, has the swagger but lacks the brawn. Even the Wotan, Thomas Stewart, is a bit underpowered, though his portrayal is tremendous. Solti devotees deride Karajan's "Ring" as precious; Karajan's supporters think Solti unimaginative. On Solti, the terrified Nibelungs sound like schoolkids cutting up — exactly what they were in the recording studio. Karajan's Nibelungen screams are those of grown men, a stunning effect.
The Wilhelm Furtwängler "Ring," in antique sound, is actually two "Rings," live performances using a variable but always stylish cast. At La Scala in 1950, Brünnhilde is the luminous Kirsten Flagstad — to some, the greatest Wagnerian soprano of all time. Three years later, on Italian Radio, Furtwängler's Brünnhilde is Martha Mödl. Some singers have off nights; Mödl seems to have had an off-career, at least vocally. But her dramatic commitment is thrilling. Anyway, the real draw here is Furtwängler's mystical union with this music. Comparing different readings of key passages, one finds Solti bold and Karajan lyrical — but only Furtwängler encompasses the world creation and then world's end that "The Ring" is made of. Both his cycles have appeared on many labels over the years; currently, the radio "Ring" is available in excellent remastering by EMI and Gebhardt.
Director Patrice Chéreau and conductor Pierre Boulez's 1976 Bayreuth staging, set in a 19th century, industrialized Nordicland, was greeted with a storm of boos. Yet today on DVD (DG), it holds classic status. Praise for the cast centers on the Brünnhilde of Gwyneth Jones, far more glamorous than the Wotan, Donald McIntyre. Generally, Chéreau's Personenregie — his work in character interaction — makes this one of the freshest of "Rings" — for instance, in the intensity with which Siegmund (Peter Hofmann) and Sieglinde (Jeannine Altmeyer) bond. However, the sets vary from effective to dull and dumpy. The Rhine — seen as a hydroelectric dam — had Old Wagnerians gasping in outrage, though it establishes Chéreau's tone well. But the Gibichung palace looks like something left over from the last tour of "Porgy and Bess," and most of Wagner's freaky visual tricks are scanted.
Again at Bayreuth, in 1988, Harry Kupfer directed what some called the "Chernobyl Ring" (Warner), set on a barren and devastated planet. Daniel Barenboim conducts splendidly and Kupfer's Personenregie improves on Chéreau's. Kupfer's cast is also the most athletic on disc, as in the lovably oafish wrestling of Wotan (John Tomlinson) and Brünnhilde (Anne Evans). Some criticize Tomlinson's difficulty in the upper register, but he is the star of the show for his overall intensity and, in his fur-lined coat over low-slung black T, the sexiest guy in the "Ring." Again, the visuals — mostly smoke and lasers on an empty stage — disappoint. On the impressive side, the Magic Fire fills the scene with "real" fire, enclosing Brünnhilde in a red neon cube, and the Rhine is undulating green neon. But there is little else to see. The Gibichung palace is an erector-set bridge to nowhere, and the Valkyries "ride" on a fire escape, gathering the slain warriors in pods straight out of the "Alien" horror films. Still, this DVD set, so strong and basic in its storytelling, might be ideal for the "Ring" newcomer.
The "Copenhagen Ring" (Decca) finally settles whose story this is in a slightly feminist reading built around Iréne Theorin's questing Brünnhilde. Under conductor Michael Schønwandt, the casting — mainly local folks from the Danish Royal Opera — lacks international stars, but Kasper Beck Holten's staging is innovative and crammed with scenery. His inspiration is endless, from the Rhinegold as a naked youth swimming in an aquarium to the Norns, not Wagner's dire soothsayers but merry busybodies who erupt out of the audience. The Bayreuth DVDs offer grander voices, but this "Ring" revels in surprise.
Ethan Mordden is the author, most recently, of "Ziegfeld: The Man Who Invented Show Business" (St. Martin's Press).