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The Ring of the Nibelung (1848-1874)


J.A.A. Purves
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I was reading C.S. Lewis today and suddenly wanted to share an excerpt about this opera when I realized that there is no thread at A&F for what is arguably one of the greatest musical masterpieces in all of world history. I'm not really a fan of opera. I haven't seen very many of them, and most of what I've seen has bored me (and I'm convinced this is a fault of mine, not of the art form itself). However, Der Ring des Nibelungen has never ceased to amaze me ever since I first saw a version of it on PBS when I was a child. Ever since then, I've slowly tried to see different versions of this whenever I can. Someday some director will make this whole thing for film instead of just filming on the stage, but no one's done it yet.

If you have never seen this, you need to see it. If you have never seen this, you have already probably already seen 50 different films that use little snippets of music from this. Yes, it's an opera. And yes, it's actually a 16 hour opera divided into four segments, each four hours long. But, it's an opera based on Norse mythology. It's cast of characters features Odin (Wotan), Frigg (Fricka), Freyja (Freia), Thor (Donner), Freyr (Froh), Urðr (Erda) and Loki (Loge). It's a work of art that clearly inspired C.S. Lewis to be the sort of writer, thinker and artist that he turned out to be. And it's a masterpiece that has inspired other masterpieces (most obviously including J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings). The Ring of the Nibelung is, after all, the story about a ring of power that (1) gives the ring-bearer power over the rest of the world, and (2) bears a fatal curse.

For practical purposes, my favorite version of this that exists on DVD is the 1990 New York Metropolitan ring cycle conducted by James Levine (with James Morris as Wotan, Siegfried Jerusalem as Loge & Siegfried, and Hildegard Behrens as Brunnhilde). From the reading that I've done on the subject, it appears to be the closest thing on DVD to performing the opera in the traditional sense that Wagner intended it to be performed. If you've never seen this before, I'd strongly recommend trying this one first. Jerusalem revels in both his roles and appears to be having more fun than any other Siegfried that I've seen so far.



While I didn't think the cast were quite as good as in the Levine version, Hartmut Haenchen & Pierre Audi's 2008 version of the ring cycle in Amsterdam is still quite good. And the set design is pretty impressive (it's more modern in design, but still traditional in style overall if that makes any sense). I've also seen Pierre Boulez's 1980 production from Bayreuth. Like changing time periods in a Shakespeare play, director Patrice Chereau set it in the 1800s industrial age instead of the ancient/medieval/mythological setting. It also probably consists of my second favorite cast, second only to the Levine 1990 production. Finally, I have yet to see the futuristic 1992 Barcelona version by Harry Kupfer and Daniel Barenboim, but I've heard so many good things about it that I'm going to have to try it next. I have not seen and have no clue what to think of the 2006 Copenhagen cycle by Kasper Bech Holten. (Also, I tried and intensely disliked the 2000 Stuttgart version.)

The essay by C.S. Lewis I was reading was entitled First and Second Things and the excerpt that reminded me of this is as follows:

When I read in Time and Tide on June 6 [1942] that the Germans have selected Hagen in preference to Siegfried as their national hero, I could have laughed out loud for pleasure. For I am a romantic person who has frankly revelled in my Nibelungs, and specially in Wagner's version of the story, ever since one golden summer in adolescence when I first heard the 'Ride of the Valkyries' on a gramophone and saw Arthur Rackham's illustrations to The Ring. Even now the very smell of the those volumes can come over me with the poignancy of remembered calf-love. It was, therefore, a bitter moment when the Nazis took over my treasure and made it part of their ideology. But now all is well. They have proved unable to digest it. They can retain it only by standing the story on its head and making one of the minor villains the hero. Doubtless the logic of their position will presently drive them further, and Alberich will be announced as the true personification of the Nordic spirit. In the meantime, they have given me back what they stole.

The mention of the Nordic spirit reminds me that their attempted appropriation of The Ring is only one instance of their larger attempt to appropriate 'the Nordic' as a whole, and this larger attempt is equally ridiculous. What business have people who call might right to say they are worshippers of Odin? The whole point of Odin was that he had the right but not the might. The whole point about Norse religion was that it alone of all mythologies told men to serve gods who were admittedly fighting with their backs to the wall and would certainly be defeated in the end. 'I am off to die with Odin' said the rover in Stevenson's fable, thus proving that Stevenson understood something about the Nordic spirit which Germany has never been able to understand at all. The gods will fail. The wisdom of Odin, the humorous courage of Thor (Thor was something of a Yorkshireman) and the beauty of Balder will all be smashed eventually by the realpolitik of the stupid giants and misshapen trolls. But that does not in the least alter the allegiance of any free man. Hence, as we should expect, real Germanic poetry is all about heroic stands, and fighting against hopeless odds ...
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Y'know, I'm a huge fan of opera (I've been half-heartedly trying to drum up some opera discussion over here), and make frequent trips to the Met, and just a few months ago saw their latest revival of the final part of Wagner's epic, GOETTERDAEMMERUNG (which, FWIW, was intermittently striking, but completely bungled the climax).

That said, I've never had much personal fondness for Wagner's RING. While I admire its epic sweep, I enounter a great deal of difficulty identifying with/investing in the characters as Wagner writes them.

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... and just a few months ago saw their latest revival of the final part of Wagner's epic, GOETTERDAEMMERUNG (which, FWIW, was intermittently striking, but completely bungled the climax). That said, I've never had much personal fondness for Wagner's RING. While I admire its epic sweep, I enounter a great deal of difficulty identifying with/investing in the characters as Wagner writes them.

Well, it's just as much about the music and mythology as it is about the characters. The character development in any opera does not ever proceed very rapidly. Also, the actual cast does often make quite a difference. I've seen some Siegfrieds I just couldn't bring myself to care a whit about and seen others who were a lot of fun. Also, have you ever started with Das Rheingold? While you technically can just go straight to part 4, Goetterdaemmerung, it is a bit like jumping into the middle of TV show for it's fourth or last season.

Edited by Persiflage
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Well, it's just as much about the music and mythology as it is about the characters.

Naturally. And both are excellent (though for purely personal reasons, I do not thrall to Wagner's score as I do to scores by many other composers.

The character development in any opera does not ever proceed very rapidly.

FWIW, I'd contest that. Not all operas are slow. But my problem with THE RING is not that the character development proceeds too slowly, but that it sometimes proceeds in ways that seem nonsensical. Now, I know, someone who loves opera complaining about "nonsensical" character development seems a bit much--opera generally follows emotional logic more than anything else--but I have trouble sorting out the emotional shifts of Wagner's epic, and so rather getting swept along with the tide, I find myself a distant observer.

It may be more my problem than Wagner's. Nevertheless, THE RING does not cast the spell on me that LULU, TOSCA, or BORIS GODUNOV do.

Also, have you ever started with Das Rheingold?

Yep. Not live--I've only seen GOETTERDAEMMERUNG live--but I have seen the full arc.

Edited by Ryan H.
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  • 2 weeks later...

Just throwing in my two bits:

I haven't really bothered much watching opera on home media but then again, I haven't been able to go as often as I'd like for the past several years. I think I'll check out that DVD (NY Metro).

This is my very favorite opera and in my opinion the Solti recording is THE one to own. It's not exactly an original conclusion to draw, but I tried on a dozen or so, and ended up agreeing with the general consensus anyway. My advice is to save time and save (up) your money, and go for Solti.

Edited by Pair

Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ τοῦ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἁμαρτωλόν.

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  • 3 months later...

So I was just thunderstruck to discover, only after the fact, that PBS had just played a brand new 2012 New York Metropolitan production of the Ring cycle produced by Robert Lepage, and conducted by James Levine and Fabio Luisi. Did anyone see this?

The images are striking -



I'm very excited. I must have the DVDs right now.
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That was the production of GOTTERDAEMMERUNG that I saw live (the one I talk about above).

The staging is something of a mixed bag, at least as far as GOTTERDAEMMERUNG is concerned, with some very striking moments (the opening, with the rope of Destiny, is remarkable) and some very awkward ones (the grand climax, with the fall of the gods, leaves a lot to be desired).

But I bet my wife will want to see the full cycle, so I wouldn't be surprised if we end up watching the DVDs of the other operas. I hear DAS RHEINGOLD has some wonderful visual moments.

Edited by Ryan H.
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I saw all four in the movie theater: Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung live, and Das Rheingold and Siegfried when they encored last spring. I loved them. I don't feel competent to judge them, but for what it's worth I saw them with a person who's far more knowledgeable about Wagner than I am, and he was blown away, especially by Rheingold.

It was a somewhat troubled production: a complicated, highly experimental set whose climactic effect failed embarrassingly at the first performance; James Levine and his hair having to cancel all his conducting engagements due to illness and dropping out of the cycle halfway through; Gary Lehman becoming ill as well and withdrawing from his role as Siegried eight days before opening night. Considering all this, it comes together wonderfully. The set, consisting of about two dozen rotating platforms that they project backgrounds on, is fluidly majestic. Okay, it works better in some places than in others, but it's surprisingly effective in the big, grand places where I would expect such a non-traditional set to suffer, like Gibichung Hall in Götterdämmerung. It's incredibly fortunate that they had a Siefried understudy on hand as good as Jay Hunter Morris of Paris, Texas, who talks in backstage interviews with a pronounced southern accent. Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund is nothing short of amazing. I'm pretty sure Bryn Terfel (as Wotan) actually is a god.

It was good to watch the drama unfold, something that, only hearing and not seeing the operas before, it had been hard to get a real sense of. It's Wotan who's the most interesting character. For me, acts two and three of Walküre were the highlight of the series. Wotan's dramatic arc during those three hours or so, struggling to thwart fate and escape the traps he has made for himself, desperate to create a power that transcends his own but unable to do it until, recognizing Brünnhilde's fatal decision (which, nevertheless, he must punish, for the law will take its course) as his true desire, he, as Wagner put it, "rises to the tragic height of willing his own destruction," is just as powerful as it gets. If it doesn't immediately overwhelm one with teary sentiment, it strikes deep roots in the head and heart. The dangerous revolutionary who wrote this story spoke with the power of a prophet. It's to be expected that many people might be changed by seeing such a story told in such glorious music.

Recently, I also saw the documentary about the production, Wagner's Dream, on TV. It's rather interesting as a record of the struggles both the singers and the production team had to go through to put the thing together.

Edited by Rushmore
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