Apr 5 2010 5:50pm

Blogging Wagner’s Ring Cycle

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.)

Dexter Palmer is the author of The Dream of Perpetual Motion, published by St. Martin’s Press. (Take a look at the book’s online gallery!)

Gabriele Campbell
1. G-Campbell
Now, that's a GREAT idea. I've seen the Fura performance on German TV twice, I have the Karajan version on LP (need to replace them with CDs some day), plus his Rhinegold on DVD, and I'm totally planning on getting the Levine/Met Ring on DVD as well. I'd have loved to get the complete Karajan Ring on DVD but the video project was stopped after Rhinegold because it was too expensive. :(

I had a few problems with the Fura version - my taste is more conservative - but the singing and conducting was pretty good, and the whole performance is interesting as Gesamtkunstwerk.
Jennifer B
2. JennB
This sounds like fun. I have the comic laying around somewhere. I can use it to follow along because I probably won't be able to get my hands the DVD. I'll look though.
Teka Lynn
3. Teka Lynn
Blogging the Ring? Oh what a cool idea!

I love what John Culshaw said about the opening of Rheingold. It's not remotely like any other opera from 1870. No bright overture with a medley of themes from the opera, no settling-in time for the audience. Just pitch dark, and a low, low E-flat that's almost subsonic. Culshaw said the opening must have sounded like something from another planet.

Oh yeah.
Jennifer B
4. JennB
Netflix doesn't have it. Neither does our local library. I guess I will be following along with the comic and YouTube clips.

Won't be as fun, but oh well.
Teka Lynn
5. Calimac
Ah, what a great idea.

Wagner's Ring in two sentences.

1. The Rhinemaidens lose their gold.

2. Fifteen hours later, they get it back.
Teka Lynn
6. Calimac
JennB @4: Find some other recording, either on DVD or CD. Except for the scenery, it'll be close enough to the same that you can follow anything that'll be said in discussing it.
Teka Lynn
7. AndrDrew
When I was 12, this ran on TV over consecutive evenings.
My parents were immensely amused that I sat and watched it, but really, they got into it too. All of us SF fans.
Teka Lynn
9. ofostlic
I can't resist putting in a plug for Dame Anna Russell's 15-minute summary of the Ring.

As she says... "The story begins in the River Rhine. In it."

And perhaps the most famous line:

"Brunhilde is the first woman Siegfried has met in his whole life who hasn't been his aunt.
pause for audience reaction
I'm not making this up, you know."

It's on YouTube
Teka Lynn
10. hapax
When I first got the James Levine Metropolitan DVD set, our family sat down to watch it in half hour chunks. My kids -- six and nine at the time -- were huge sf and fantasy fans, and had no idea that opera was supposed to be boring and hard.

I was probably the only parent in the USA who got to use the threat "Clean your room right now or there'll be no Wagner for you tonight!"
Teka Lynn
11. copperbird
Oo, good luck with this. I'll look forwards to reading along.

I got hooked on the Ring Cycle when I was 15 and it was shown on BBC2 over a few weeks. Since then, I've been able to see it live a handful of times and every single time it's been an incredible experience.

(The one I saw when I was 15 is known as the 'time tunnel' ring -- I've since got hold of a copy on DVD and every time I see it, it just takes me right back ...)
Ian Gazzotti
13. Atrus
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 the original source material, aka the Völsungasaga :)
Gabriele Campbell
14. G-Campbell
Hapax, it was a bit like that here, too. Back in the 60ies we didn't have TV, but my father listened to the radio a lot, and I sat curled up on the white flokati carpet, listening along. I didn't know opera was supposed to be 'difficult', either, and thus my first experience was Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. In Russian. I was 5 and loved it. After I sat through that one, my parents dared to take me to the opera house in Hamburg, and I got to see the Carmen, Aida, The Mastersingers and a dozen more and utterly fell in love with opera.

I never found a cure for that. :)
j p
15. sps49
Good idea, thanks!

I've never seen this performed, just reading the Song of the Volsungs and a comic from 15 or so years ago (apparently a different one). Good stuff!
Teka Lynn
16. djheydt
Uh, ofostlic, Brunnhilde *is* Siegfried's aunt. She's Wotan's daughter and he's the son of Wotan's other daughter and son. The one who isn't his aunt is Gutrune.
Teka Lynn
17. a-j
I like Terry Pratchett's description of Wagner as being fifteen hours of gods shouting at eachother with about twenty minutes of good tunes.

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