Over the next couple of weeks, if I have the stamina, I’m planning to blog my way through a viewing of Richard Wagner’s four-opera Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen). I’ll be watching the recent Blu-ray release of a performance staged by the theater troupe La Fura Dels Baus, with an orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta.
The Ring Cycle has a reputation for being one of the longest and most difficult operatic works in existence—if performed as its composer intended, it adds up to about fifteen hours of music stretched out over four evenings—but there are some reasons that fans of fantasy and science fiction will probably have an easier time with it, even if they’re not opera fans.
First of all, for someone used to reading fantasy and SF epics, a mere fifteen-hour time investment is nothing at all. In that short amount of time, Wagner covers the entire tale of how the forging of a magic ring that grants ultimate power to its wielder brings about the death of the gods. Compared to some multi-volume fantasy serials, the Ring Cycle is a model of storytelling efficency.
Second, for someone who’s into film scores (as I was growing up), Wagner will often sound a lot like ’80s summer movie music. And rightly so—John Williams’ use of leitmotifs (the practice of assiging a particular melody to a particular character, and altering that melody to signify changes in mood or foreshadow future events) owes a massive debt to Wagner, as does much of the music of James Horner. (A less charitable person might say that a few of John Williams’ melodies themselves owe more to Wagner than he’d perhaps like to admit.)
Not only is this cycle musically complex, but it’s also considered insanely difficult to stage, since Wagner wrote stage directions with absolutely no concern for their feasibility or practicality. Here are the opening directions for the first scene of the first cycle in the opera, Das Rheingold (translated into English by Stewart Spencer):
On the Bed of the Rhine
Greenish twilight, lighter above, darker below. The top of the stage is filled with billowing waters that flow unceasingly from left to right. Towards the bottom the waves dissolve into an increasingly fine mist-like spray, so that a space the height of a man appears to be left there completely free of the water, which flows like scudding clouds over the dusk-enshrouded river bed. Rocky ledge rise up everywhere out of the depths and mark the confines of the stage; the whole river bed is broken up into a wild confusion of crags, so that it is nowhere completely level, while deeper gullies may be imagined leading off on all sides into impenetrable darkness.
One might deduce that Wagner had only a faint idea of what a “stage” is. (Note that the first time this opera was performed was in 1869, well before the technologies that modern stagings of the Ring Cycle can utilize.) But directions such as those can also give ambitious directors a lot of latitude, which can result in some astonishing theatrical spectacles.
The La Fura Dels Baus Ring isn’t a purist’s version—for that you want the DVD set of Metropolitan Opera performances conducted by James Levine, with design and production that reflects the Ring story’s origins in German and Scandinavian myth. Rather, this Ring goes toward the direction of using science fiction iconography from various periods in its design, which could be either really amazing or really disastrous—I have no idea which yet. (The liner notes for Das Rheingold say that this interpretation of the cycle uses “imagery for a young, 21st-century audience familiar with the visual language of the Star Wars and Harry Potter films.”) At any rate, the copy on the back of the box promises acrobats and computer projections and other such hijinks, so I’m curious to see what I’ve gotten myself into. I’ll post again after I’ve watched the first opera in the cycle, in a couple of days.
P.S. For those who are interested in the Ring Cycle’s story, but who don't want to commit yet to actually watching the operas, I recommend P. Craig Russell’s comic adaptation published by Dark Horse, which is beautifully rendered and faithful to the source. Deryck Cooke’s “Introduction to the Ring” is a two-CD set that does an excellent job of explaining Wagner’s use of leitmotifs throughout the cycle. And Anna Russell’s comic analysis of the Ring Cycle is also brilliant. (Here are some Youtube links to that: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3. The total running time is about 30 minutes.)