Ring Cycle 2011 - Violated Nature

Every year I sit down and over a period of days or in this case weeks, listen to Richard Wagner’s four operas which together are known as the Ring cycle: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdammerung.  Today I completed the tetrology for 2011 and I thought I’d write about it this time because its had a bigger effect on me than in previous hearings.

The story needn’t detain us here.  Its a long complex tale of heroes, Gods, monsters, greed, revenge, love and hatred -  befitting the 843 minutes of its telling.  I listened to it in chunks comprising the scenes and acts of the individual operas.  The set, known as Der Ring des Nibelungen , written over a span of years between 1848 and 1874 is as you might imagine varied and compelling in both its orchestration and libretto and it is demanding of performers and conductor alike.  I listened to the DG set conducted by Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra recorded in the late 1960s containing such great singers as Jon Vickers, Zoltan Keleman, Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, Christa Ludwig, Helge Denesch and Gundula Janowitz.

It is worth picking through the operas because my reaction to them over time has changed.

Das Rheingold, the set up to the story is full of other-worldy locations which the composer masterfully paints in sound.  Everything is supremely illustrated musically - from the opening scene with the river Rhein, a descent by the Gods into the underworld, to the menacing lumbering presence of two villainous giants.  But beyond that it is the place, I now see more clearly where all the tensions which motivate the characters throughout the rest of the cycle are set up subtly by the composer.  But there is measured and restrained expression here - it is almost a classical opera of both the scale and sensibility of an earlier era.  Most of all from this I take the begins of an exploration of a more human angle - the ruinous effects of greed and anger, mediated through the Godly acts but later to be writ larger and in human forms.

Die Walküre is in a sense three parts of the story.  It begins with one of the wildest and most violent pieces of music I know - a manhunt, to the death, is in progress on a storm night.  A man and a woman meet and fall in love and only later discover they are brother and sister.  The woman’s husband intervenes and what started as a fanciful atke of Gods and dwarves suddenly takes a very human and quite modern turn.  The mortals are impeded in their progress by the Gods, men die but not without the quality of human love being explored.  The Gods begin to argue too and in the end Wotan’s daughter, who has saved the woman and her unborn child, Siegfried, is punished with a sleep surrounded by a ring of fire.

The whole emotional switchback of this part of the cycle is telling, both appealing and appalling and it gets to the heart of Karajan’s description of the whole cycle as an examination of violated nature.  Unnatural acts are all punished eventually in this world.  But the ferocious writing, unforgiving tension and hideous choices make for an uncomfortable journey.  The trick here I think is to hear beyond the Ride of the Valkyries, the Magic Fire Music and the portentous prelude to Act 1 to the familial tensions and split loyalties.  I found it exhausting to listen to this time as my appreciation of the predicaments and decisions of the characters was heightened and the unusually subtle musical tension which matches the story.  It is a full blooded almost Italianate reading of a set of situations which are almost classical in their depth and consequence.

The third opera, Siegfried remains the most difficult for me and the hardest to unpick.  It is a series of set pieces between singers most in sung conversations.  Its musical highlights are almost surreal - the casting of a magical sword, the slaying of a dragon, bird song in the forest and the awakening from her sleep of Wotan’s daughter, encased in flames by the hero Siegfried.  They are not accompanied by grand dramatic action but by lots of discussion.  At the same time these musical highlights are musical and narrative hotspots.  I recall telling friends about the sheer tedium of Act 1 and the subsequent Acts didn’t rock my world either.  But musically the adventures of Siegfried are supremely well illustrated and the frisson builds to a peak with the instantaneous passion of Siegfried and Brünnhilde.  It is the opera to which I will have pay even more attention next year and the one where I will have to seek further riches.

Finally this week there has been Götterdammerung, The Twilight of the Gods.  This work as we know from the story has a almost supernatural relationship to greed and evil.  It is from the first full of portent at thee vil acts that await us.  Nothing helps really in the inescapable moral decay fueled by greed for the ring and enable by potions which work to exploit love and passion and thrown it all away for marriages of quasi political convenience.  Siegfried’s murder can’t come too soon for me: but it never does and the unbearable weight of the knowledge of the end point of all these machinations.  For the listener who has journeyed with these characters and their forebears, the undeniable despair and anger at the fate of the hero and heroine is tinged only with human folly and particularly greed.  By the time of Siegfried’s demise, I wanted revenge to on human hands that were carrying through some ill conceived end game.

What redeems it then?  Well Wagner’s supreme musical skill weaving themes from across the four operas to make a musical narrative as rich as the verbal one.  And at those set pieces which we all know - and many we don’t hear too often - the scale ambition and modernity of the music is striking.  The cast is big and includes a chorus for the only time in the cycle - and the singers are given no quarter - it is the longest opera, the hardest and the one with the most telling emotional effect.

As the murderous plot unravels and Brünnehilde jumps on her horse into Siegfried’s funeral pyre, the music becomes an almost perfect synthesis of the technique that Wagner has used to move from one theme to another, peppering the orchestra with motifs the meaning of which may be lost on us but the significance is that they are remember form parts of the story told hours before.  I listened to this music in London, Scotland, Cardiff, Somerset and Sheffield.  But as the orchestra depicts the flames destroying Vahalla, the lovers and the waters of the Rhine reclaiming the gold and the ring, disposing of the villains and returning a natural order to distorted nature I was stood in a garden of my childhood home facing the setting sun with the wind in my hair.  The effect was overwhelming emotionally and I still tremble with the complete synergy of music and my senses in that time at the place.

I have a very strong response to music but never so much willful distain, hatred and disgust as I feel in parts of these operas.  But the pay off is the surging rush of that great, engulfing ending in these supremely sensual circumstances.  The effect is one I never expect to capture again, next year will be different.  But the lesson I have learned is that this is indeed a story of violent distortion of goodness, and that by grounding it, especially at its end, in Nature merely increases my impatience to do it all again.  I’m hooked.


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