Music Review: Richard Wagner's Der Ring Des Nebelungen (The Ring Cycle)- Recorded at Bayreuth Festival Hall 1953
For most people Opera conjures up visions of large women wearing blond wigs with long braids, Viking helmets, and metal breastplates. The remarkable thing is that the characters associated with those trappings feature in only one Opera Die Walkure (The Valkyrie)
But "The Ride of the Valkyrie" has to be one of the most recognizable pieces of classical music for the general public. Either they've heard Elmore Fudd singing "Kill The Rabbit" or they have fond memories of Robert Duvall getting off on the smell of napalm in Apocalypse Now after attacking at first light with Wagner blasting from his helicopter.
Sometimes I wonder what must be harder for the ghost of Richard Wagner to live with; his associations with Nazism or Elmore Fudd. I'd say the former just because at least people think kindly of Mr. Fudd. It's also highly unfair to associate a man with people who co-opted and perverted his work to suit their needs as Hitler and his cronies did to the music of Wagner.
Der Ring Des Nibelungen (The Ring Of The Nibelungen), of which "The Ride" is merely one aria amongst four operas, remains one of the most ambitious musical projects ever attempted. I don't believe that anyone before or since has had the vision and the motivation (perhaps obsession) that it took to complete a project of such scope.
Four operas, fifteen hours of music, all built around an epic Norse/Germanic saga,The Nibelungenlied. Fans of the Lord of the Rings trilogy will have no problems identifying with these works; the fates of the Gods and the world are closely intertwined with a ring of gold, and comparisons between the Riders of Rohan and the Norse warriors will be inevitable.
The Ring Cycle, as the four are referred to in English, is comprised of: Dan Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung. As far as a plot summery is concerned, it's probably best left in the hands of an expert. In the booklet accompanying the Opera d'Oro version under review, commentator Robert Levine offers this capsule review of the story:
"…filled with codes and references about love, greed, and every other human and social subjects, (it) is also a thrilling series of mythic adventures…a hoard of gold is stolen, a helmet that allows the wearer to change form is invented, a rainbow bridge is built to a castle, twins are re-united…And all because the absolute power offered by the Ring forged from gold stolen by a wretched dwarf also holds a deadly curse…"
Of course, there's a lot more to it than that, but you get the idea. We're talking non-stop action and adventure of the highest order. How many stories are there where the Gods die so the world can be re-born as a better place?
Wagner has crammed within The Ring Cycle all of the idealism and hopes for a better world that were so prevalent in the 19th century. His initial inspiration for the piece came just after the 1848 uprisings in what is now Germany. These marked the beginnings of people's attempts to wrest control of their lives away from the corrupt and moribund petty princes who ruled them. It wasn't until almost thirty years latter, 1874, that he was finally able to finish the complete cycle.
During those years, Europe had been witness to massive upheavals both politically and socially. The seeds of nationalism that Napoleon had planted during his years of occupation were starting to bear fruit as city-states began to merge into countries and the power of the Austro-Hungarian Empire began to ebb.
As in Wagner's operas, the old corrupt order was being torn down and destroyed, to be replaced by something that was hopefully superior. Unfortunately, men really are far more fallible than the Gods, and instead of the bright new world prophesied by Wagner in Gotterdammerung we ended up with World Wars One and Two and our current world situation.
In what was considered a rarity, and a sign of Wagner's sheer genius, is the fact that not only did he write the music for these operas he also wrote the libretto. His desire to have complete control over the piece didn't end with just the completed operas, but extended to its staging. He wanted a whole new opera house built specific to the requirements of Ring Cycle
Bayreuth Festival Hall is to this day considered the shrine to all things Wagner. Opera aficionados will make pilgrimages to Bayreuth to see Wagner performed there, believing that unless you've seen it at Bayreuth, you haven't seen Wagner performed to its fullest potential.
Bayreuth has been home to many unique and wondrous performances of all of Wagner's work, and The Rings Cycle has always taken pride of place when performed in the house that was built specifically for its production. Is it any wonder than that even a mono recording from 1953, has a certain power to it because it was recorded live from the stage of Bayreuth itself.
In what possibly was the first postwar performance of The Ring Cycle at Bayreuth one of the best Wagner casts available had been assembled. The conductor was Austrian Clemens Krauss. Ironically, what should have been the high point of Herr Krauss's career was also the last recording he ever made, as he died the following year at the age of 61.
That fact is sad enough on it's own, but after you listen to the recording you'll have even more regrets. While it is true that opera is primarily about the music and the blending of voice and orchestra to create mood, emotion, and atmosphere, Krauss was able to utilize the emotions expressed through that commingling to propel the story.
The cast articulates justifications and motivations for actions, sometimes unclear in opera, because Krauss is able to get them to react and respond to an aria's emotional context. Alberich's treatment at the hands of the Rhinemaidens in Das Rheingold is so cruel that it offers an explanation for his anger and resentment that lead to his reign of terror. As the rest of the cycle's action revolves around Alberich and his cruelty, providing a motivating force for his actions can only strengthen the story.
In somewhat of an unprecedented move for the times, and even today it's quite rare, Krauss assigned the same cast, to the same roles for all four operas. Although the operas are not performed on the same day, the risk of fatigue for a principle performer still remains quite high. But judging by the quality of performances on this disc he made the right decision.
There is a cohesion to the performance that might otherwise have been lacking. The performers are able to invest more energy into understanding the nature of the character they are playing and what they symbolize within the context of the cycle.
I must admit to being somewhat pleasantly surprised as to the technical quality of the performance. Remember this is a live mono recording done in 1953 long before there was anything near the quality of sound equipment we are accustomed to using today. The only time there is a discernable drop in the quality is during some of the quieter orchestral movements.
It takes a special kind of voice to sing Wagner, and in fact, there is even a separate type of tenor voice that is specific to this music. The Heldentenor, or heroic tenor, differs from what most people are accustomed to, in its timbre and strength. While a voice that sings the role of Figaro, in the Barber of Seville is warm and expressive, the Heldentenor is strong and warlike: think Teutonic Knight as opposed to Renaissance swordsman and you'll get the general idea.
Some of the voices that stood out especially for me in the production were Gustav Neidlinger as the evil and despicable Alberich, Ramon Vindy as Siegmund, Astrid Vandy as Brunnhilde, Wolfgang Windgassen as Siegfried, and Hans Hotter as Woten father of the Gods. As they are primarily the leads, they carry the bulk of the work, having to sing in principle roles in at least two of the operas.
It's among the interplay between the leads that the consistent casting really bears fruit. There's an obvious comfort level among the cast that only familiarity and trust can bring about. Their voices are working together to create the emotion needed for each scene. There is no striving for dominance, as is so often the case when stars are thrown together for a recording. This is a cast dedicated to performing a piece of opera for the audience not themselves.
Opera d'Oro's package of Der Ring De Nibelungen is fourteen CDs of spectacular music. It would have been nice of them to include a libretto, but since that would have the size of a small city's telephone directory, it is understandable that they haven't. If you do wish to view the complete libretto, including English translation you can go to Allegro Music where they've posted it.
Having never heard another complete version of The Ring Cycle I have nothing to compare this one with, but Robert Levine compares it favourably with the work of some of the twentieth century's bext conductors including James Levine of The Metropolitian Opera of New York and Herbert von Karjan of Berlin Philarmonic fame. If you've always wanted to own the complete Ring Cycle then you may just want to pick this up. You'll be more than satisfied.
(Article originally written March 2006)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.