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There Is Nothing Like Wagner's Ring Of The Nibelungen

 Now that the Metropolitan Opera is about to unveil its eagerly awaited new production of Wagner's mighty Ring ,at least the first part of it, Das Rheingold , I thought  it would be a good idea to discuss the significance and meaning of this astonishing and unique operatic masterwork , an almost incomprehensively vast and profound creation , and one of the most constroversial art works in world history .

  If you're unfamiliar with it , the Ring of the Nibelungen is a gigantic four part operatic epic based on Norse and German mythology which is so long that to perform  complete  that it requires four successive days, and consists of about 16 hours of music . The great but wildly eccentric and egomaniacal German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) wrote the libretto of all four parts ,as he did with all of his operas,unlike most opera composers , and he labored on and off on it for over twenty years ,while being involved with many other activities, such as writing other operas,conducting, writing numerous lengthy essays on music,opera and politics etc . Wagner was one of the greatest geniuses of all time in any field , but something of an inspired madman . 

  The work is so vast and calls for such a large cast and orchestra that it is not very practical to perform on a regular basis by most opera companies ,because of its technical difficulty and the enormous costs . But in 1876 , Wagner was able to open a special theater in the small northern Bavarian city of Bayreuth (Buy-royt) which is specially designed for his extravagant operas ,and which still exists today and gives special festival performances of his works every Summer. 

  The Ring is a vast epic story of the Germanic Gods and Goddesses, warrior maidens called Valkyries,  evil dwarves, giants, water nixies , super heroes , and other strange creatures .  Think of it as the granddaddy of such popular epics as The Lord Of The Rings, Star Wars, and other fantastic adventure stories, but much more profound .  I tinvolves the robbery of the magic gold of the Rhine by a malevolent dwarf ,one of the nibelungs, or race of dwarves who live underneath the earth and are expert smiths .  It is basically an allegorical tale .

  But in order to obtain the gold, which enables one to create a magic ring which gives you power over the world and unimaginable riches and gold, one must renounce ever having love for any one. The Rhine Maidens guard the magic gold, and the dwarf Alberich, who is cruelly teased and rejected by the maidens when he becomes amorous with them in the Rhine, learns from hom that if he forswears love he can obtain incredible power and riches,does so, and goes back to Nibelheim, the home of the dwarves, and forges the magic ring, which sets the whole fateful story in motion.

  Wotan, head of the gods, is able to go underground and steal the ring from Alberich with the help of the crafty fire God Loge (Lo-gheh) , in order to repay the giants who have built the mighty castle Walhall, or Valhalla, for him and his wife,the Goddess of marriage Fricka and the other Germanic deities .  But in his rage at being tricked out of the Ring,Alberich places a fatal curse on it. Any one who owns it will be doomed to a terrible death ,and it will bring nothing but death and destruction to the world until it is returned into his hands.

  At the end of the complex story, Wotan,the Gods, and creation has been destroyed by the greed and ruthlessness of Wotan , and Valhalla goes up in flames .  There's much more to the story of course, more than I have space for here. 

  For this epic, Wagner wrote music that combines shattering power and radiant lyricism ,  incredibly vivid dscriptions of  fire, nature, storms,  cataclysms, and  and human emotions and actions such as love , hate ,greed , brutality , treachery, heroism, selfless sacrifice , the blackest gloom and shining hope . 

  The Ring is about life, destiny , ambition , magic , and human nature .  It is an almost incomprehensibly primal work, but a very controversial one .  It's not easy to get to know in one fell swoop , and requires considerable effort to appreciate , and by no means every one loves it . No other composer divides people as Wagner ;  people tend either to love his works or hate them . But it's hard to find any one who is indifferent to his music or the dramas . 

  There are many people who love the Ring and would not want to live without it ,  including yours truly, but there are probably just as many who find it intolerably long, boring ,bombastic ,pretentious and overblown, and find the story downright absurd, which it is definitely not.  Then there is the unfortunate link between Wagner and Hitler, who idolized the composer but read all manner of things into his works which simply are not there, such as using his music as a background to the holocaust . 

  But Wagner is no more to blame for the horrors of WW 2  than Christ is to blame for the Spanish Inquisition .  He died six years before Hitler was born , and though an anti-semite, never came remotely close to being as extreme  and insanely malicious as Hitler and the *** .  And the Ring ,far from glorifying Nazi  ideas of Aryan supremacy, genocide and world conquest, shows the terrible destructive effects of lust for power . 

  There are numerous recordings of the Ring, some live and some made in the recording studio , and a steadily growing number of DVD versions .  Performances by such great conductors as Wilhelm Furtwangler, Hans Knappertsbusch , Herbert Von Karajan , Sir Georg Solti , Karl Bohm , Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim, Bernard Haitink , James Levine , and others have been preserved on CD , and you can get the four Ring dramas, Das Rheingold,Die Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung (The Twilight of the Gods) complete or separately . There are also many recordings of excerpts from the Ring recorded over the years by many famous singers, and orchestral excerpts intended for concert use.

  Great Wagner singers such as Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson , Hans Hotter, Wolfgang Windgassen ,Lauritz Melchior, Hildegard Behrens, Helga Dernesch , Regine Crespin, James King , Jess Thomas, Siegfried Jerusalem , Gottlob Frick , Martti Talvela , Matti Salminen , and others have participated in Ring recordings , and quite a few live performances recorded at Bayreuth  are available .  Among the DVD versions, the most generally admired is that of the Met's previous production ,which avoids the ridiculous anachronistic gimmicks of the others and is very solid musically,conducted   by James Levine, who is scheduled to conduct the New Met Ring, health permiting .  The best place on the internet to order is .  There are also countless books and articles on Wagner , and a wealth of material on the internet ,and you can google all this .

  If you take the time and effort to get to know the Ring , you will never regret it ,and whether you listen to it on CD, watch DVDs or see it live , it will never cease to thrill you ,and each new performance will enable you to gain more form it .


Posted: Sep 15 2010, 05:47 PM by the horn | with no comments |
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