Part One of Two Parts
Richard Wagner’s thrilling four-opera Ring Cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungs), has only increased its hold on the hearts and minds of opera lovers worldwide since its completion in 1874.
For music lovers (including our own Paul McGowan) who cower at the thought of sitting through hours upon hours of Wagner’s music and drama, this two-part survey of great Ring recordings on CD and DVD/Blu-ray will provide a sonic entryway into Wagner’s surprisingly human, emotionally gripping mythical universe of gods, giants, dwarfs, dragons, maidens, and mortals.
Despite Wagner’s deserved reputation for talkiness, his libretto (story) for The Ring, which he drew in part from Norse mythology, speaks to listeners on the deepest and most personal emotional and spiritual levels. Those who take the time to focus on the emotions conveyed by music and words, and allow them to wash over them, soon discover that Wagner’s stereotypical reputation for writing “dark” and impenetrable music falls by the wayside in the face of prolonged passages of thrillingly sensual and passionate beauty.
The conundrum (for some) of Wagner’s continued popularity seems especially relevant in 2011, 137 years after the composer’s death. This year alone, The Ring is receiving major productions throughout the world. Both Los Angeles Opera and San Francisco Opera have recently presented complete productions of The Ring’s four opera (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung). In addition, the Metropolitan Opera has recently staged its star-studded Die Walküre in NYC and broadcast it in HD to movie theaters worldwide.
Seattle Opera, long known for its complete Rings, has announced a reprise of its most recent production in the summer of 2013. Other complete Rings are slated for Sweden and Bayerische Staatsoper Munich in 2012, and La Scala, Milan in June 2013. If you add in new and returning productions of individual Ring operas currently scheduled for Berlin, the Bayreuth Festival, and other locations throughout the U.S. and Europe over the next few years, you have a feast for Ring-o-philes and newcomers alike.
Despite the operas’ length – the shortest, the bladder busting Das Rheingold, lasts for a mere 2:35 without intermission, while the three-act Götterdämmerung usually clocks in at around 5:30 – new productions constantly vie for attention and prestige. Let us begin to explore why.
The Ring’s Very Human Trials
Relationships are at the heart of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Despite the ostensible subject matter of gods, dwarves, giants, assorted mythological creatures, and mortals, The Ring offers a total musical, psychological, and theatrical immersion in a surprisingly human universe of rights and wrongs. In particular, the barely consummated, divinely curtailed love affair between the Wälsung twins; father-daughter struggles between the God Wotan and his favorite daughter, Brünnhilde; and regime-ending love between the hero Siegfried and a now-mortal Brünnhilde are heart wrenching.
As the operas unfold, we discover that Wagner’s stories and music speak to us on the deepest levels. The Ring’s anything-but-academic lessons, which revolve around the consequences of unbridled greed, deception, and disruption of the natural order, have grown increasingly relevant in our time of worldwide ecological and economic devastation and collapse. Indeed, several recent Ring productions, including Francesca Zambello’s so-called American Ring for Washington National Opera and San Francisco Opera, draw upon contemporary images and mythology to drive their points home.
The Ring does pose near superhuman challenges for artists. Wagner initially intended the operas to be performed as a cycle in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, the theater – some would say shrine – he constructed for his works north of Bayreuth, Germany. Seating 1925 people in a single, steeply shaped wedge that lacks boxes and tiers, its unique configuration includes a covered orchestra pit, with many of the players completely hidden under the stage. While this presents unique challenges for conductor and orchestra, who have trouble seeing each other, let alone the singers, it also enables singers to project in ways not possible in other houses of similar or considerably larger size.
Most Wagnerian singers find themselves in vast spaces, singing over open orchestra pits that contain well over 100 players. (If my addition is correct, San Francisco Opera’s orchestra for its recent Götterdämmerung consisted of 124 tightly packed musicians). Only singers with huge voices can project over so many musicians. Ideally the voices are not only powerful, but also beautiful and emotionally expressive. But that is far from always the case.
Certain roles are known for their near-impossible challenges. The hero Siegfried, who makes his first appearance in the eponymously named third opera of the cycle, sings for most of the opera’s four hours. (Siegfried’s three acts last 4:45 or longer, including two intermissions). To use some of the mildest language heard on the street where I live, the role is a supreme ball-breaker.
Few tenors before or since the great heldentenor Lauritz Melchior, who retired from the opera stage in 1950, have been able to heroically project their Siegfried over the orchestra and maintain clarion, vibrant tone through all three acts. The dramatic soprano who sings Brünnhilde and the bass-baritone who tackle chief god Wotan face similar challenges of projection and endurance. It’s fair to say that one of the great thrills for opera devotees is experiencing singers who can actually make it all the way through the final act and emerge triumphant.
This is not to suggest that orchestral musicians get off easy. Two members of the San Francisco Opera orchestra with whom I spoke during Ring rehearsals complained vociferously of aches, pains, and exhaustion. Wind players are challenged to maintain their embouchure, and string players to keep from cramping. With little time to recover between extremely long performances, musicians and singers must prepare for The Ring as if training for a triathlon. This short video, with script and unheard questions posed by yours truly, offers copious insight into the very human challenges of performing and producing The Ring:
This video was created by SFCV.org, the website of San Francisco Classical Voice
To the conductor falls the challenge / opportunity of propelling the opera forward while maintaining balance between the huge orchestra and singers of different capabilities. The fabric the conductor must weave is especially complex due to the large number of leitmotivs that Wagner employs to illuminate key concepts and characters’ emotional states. These leitmotivs grow especially complex in the last two operas, parts of which contain some of Wagner’s most sophisticated writing.
The Gift of Recordings
Short of attending live performances of The Ring, an opportunity equally daunting for logistical, financial, and physical reasons, or watching HD broadcasts or movies on the big screen, it’s hard for first-timers to comprehend the love that Ring devotees lavish on Wagner’s creation. The most accessible avenue for appreciation come in the form of recordings, both in audio and visual format. Through them we can discover how much absolutely gorgeous, rapturous music The Ring contains.
For audio recordings, the choice revolves primarily around the quality of the cast, conducting, orchestra, and sound. Lamentably, exceedingly few recordings receive a top score in all departments. Either the sound is good but the performance mediocre, or the conducting exceptional but the singers a mixed bag, etc. Audiophiles in particular often have no alternative but to sacrifice sonics for the best conducting, orchestra, and cast they can find.
For video, which is a far more recent phenomenon, the choice is somewhat different. Here, the part the production plays in the total package comes to the fore. While DVD and Blu-ray are at most a secondary focus of this survey, it is essential to note from the outset that a fantastic, visually compelling production (or, in some cases, one that is so outrageous that you cannot avert your gaze anymore than you can keep from ogling a 700-pound human being) does not guarantee either a uniformly excellent cast or brilliant and illuminating conducting. On top of that, there is the not-so-minor fact that, to many veteran Ring-o-philes, all but three of the finest Wagnerian singers of the 20th and 21st century hit their prime between 1930 and 1935.
The Audiophile Choice
I hate to say it, but when it comes to the best combination of sonics and casts, the choice boils down to exactly two half-century old stereo sets that are usually identified by their conductors. The first, the famed Solti Ring (Decca), was recorded in studio between 1958 and 1965 and produced by the legendary John Culshaw. The far more recently released Keilberth Ring (Testament), aka the first stereo Ring, was recorded live at Bayreuth in 1955. It was long suppressed so as not to compete with the extremely expensive and elaborate, all-out studio effort known as the Solti Ring.
Sir Georg Solti’s Ring with the Vienna Philharmonic was recorded between September/October 1958 (Das Rheingold) and October-November 1965 (Siegfried). Whatever you may think about Solti’s larger-than-life conducting and a host of electronic effects, including thunder and anvils, the cast is as extraordinary as the entrance of the Rhinemaidens in Das Rheingold is filled with joy.
Making one of her final appearances in the recording studio, the great soprano Kirsten Flagstad, the pre-eminent Brünnhilde of an earlier generation, returns to sing the mezzo-soprano role of Fricka in Das Rheingold. At age 63, she may not possess the range and technical surety of the 40-year old who stunned audiences at the Metropolitan Opera and a host of other top-flight houses, but she is still Flagstad.
At her side are many of the pre-eminent Wagnerians of the period. Foremost among them are bass-baritone Hans Hotter as the most profoundly expressive god Wotan on record. (Although the excellent George London sings the part of Wotan in Das Rheingold, the first of the operas, he cedes pride of place to Hotter in the subsequent three dramas). As you listen to Hotter’s voice, you will discover how miraculously he conveys the archetypical anguish that every father who cares deeply about his child goes through when he must make crucial decisions about their future.
As his daughter, we discover the great, indomitable dramatic soprano Birgit Nilsson. Simply put, when Nilsson’s voice rose to a high C, the world took notice. Listen to how she hurls out the repeated high C’s at her delicious, oft-repeated entrance, with Hotter introducing her with an authority rarely if ever equalled on record or stage:
Other members of Solti’s exceptional cast include heldentenor Wolfgang Windgassen as Siegfried and tenor Set Svanholm (himself a former Siegfried) as Loge, heldentenor James King and soprano Régine Crespin as the half-mortal Wälsung twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, the great mezzo Christa Ludwig as Fricka, dark-voiced bass Gottlob Frick as the evil Hunding and Hagen, Paul Kuen and Gerhard Stolze as Mime, Gustav Neidlinger as Alberich, Jean Madeira and Marga Höffgen as Erda, the great and versatile Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Gunther, and no less a personage than stupendous coloratura Joan Sutherland as the Forest Bird. Even the smaller female roles are sung by such first-rank artists as Helen Watts, Helge Dernesch, Brigitte Fassbaender, Gwyneth Jones, and Lucia Popp.
Taken as a whole, Solti’s cast is near-unbeatable. And the set comes complete with librettos and excellent notes.
Initially released on CD near the dawn of the digital era, in greatly compromised sound, this early digital disaster was thankfully rescued by digital remastering in 1997. It’s not a perfect job by any means; today’s engineers, with superior A-to-D converters, chips, digital filters, cables, and all the rest could do considerably finer work with the analog masters. But with further physical remastering unlikely in this era of decreased sales of physical products, only an eventual 24-bit download with a sampling rate of at least 88.2 kHz is likely to supplant what we now have. Let us pray.
The Other Stereo Choice
Joseph Keilberth’s live cycle from Bayreuth 1955 is the definite runner up, if not the first choice for some. Dramatic soprano Astrid Varnay’s Brünnhilde confirms her reputation as a pre-eminent Wagnerian, and Hotter sings Wotan in fresher and steadier voice than he did for Solti. Windgassen, Neidlinger, and Kuen also reappear, with Gré Brouwenstijn and Ramón Vinay as the Wälsung twins. The sound is remarkable for such an early stereo recording, and the frisson of live performance in Wagner’s hallowed hall palpable.
In the clip that follows, you have an opportunity to join the hundreds of thousands of Ring addicts who rejoice in comparing interpretations. Here, Hotter introduced Varnay in her very differently paced entrance in Act II of Die Walküre.
If the ultimate reasons for purchasing this set, besides its historical significance and stereo sound, are Varnay and Hotter, they are reasons aplenty. Hotter, who first recorded parts of the role of the Walküre Wotan in 1938, sings with a profundity and empathy that transcend all other considerations. Progressively afflicted with wobble as he aged, possibly due to asthma, he is here caught in excellent voice. Note how overpoweringly emotional he is as he begins to bid farewell to his daughter, puts her to sleep, and surrounds her with a ring of fire:
Keilberth’s Ring operas, packaged individually, also come with complete librettos. (Note: The complete Ring package of the same performances does not). To further entice, the translations are different than those in the Solti set. Two of the Keilberth operas are also available in second cast versions in which, most notably, Martha Mödl replaces Varnay. I’d go with Varnay.
Lots More to Come
In Part Two, which follows next month, we will include earlier audio recordings of The Ring that offer copious rewards, and also briefly discuss DVD and Blu-ray choices. Meanwhile, you have 31 days in which to begin or renew your exploration of Wagner’s masterpiece, heap accolades upon writer and editor, or send us nasty comments.