There hasn’t been much bloggage, or even social media activity, from me over the holiday period. That’s partly because I have assumed that you lot have better things to do with your time than read about my holiday cooking (which went very well, thank you). However, I have been busy, and mostly not working.
Back in July Sky Arts made television history by being the first TV station to broadcast the whole of Wagner’s Ring Cycle live from the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. There was no way I was going to have the time to watch it live, but I did record the whole thing with the vague intention of watching it over the holidays instead of my usual Lord of the Rings marathon.
Of course one of the things that differentiates Wagner’s epic from Peter Jackson’s is that Jackson is a model of conciseness and brevity in comparison. Der Ring des Nibelungen comprises over 15 hours of opera in four main parts. With the addition of introductory material from host, Stephen Fry, and various Wagner experts the Sky production is over 18 hours long. No way am I that level of couch potato.
Thus far I have worked my way through Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. Those are the two shorter operas. Like Jackson, Wagner got more and more bloated as he went on. Hopefully I will get to the end, because as far as I can see Götterdämmerung is philosophically the most interesting of the four.
My main impression thus far is that the dialog is dreadful, but that’s understandable because it all had to be sung, and what I am seeing is translated from German. Nevertheless the experience is tending to reinforce my deep rooted prejudice that novels are far superior to all other art forms because of the space they allow to develop character.
Having said that, there’s no doubt that the Ring Cycle is a fascinating and incredibly complex work. It is not the sort of thing you can easily comprehend on a single sit through. One of the most obvious examples of this is that at the end of Act 1 of Die Walküre, when Siegmund and Sieglinde disappear off stage to consummate their love, Wagner introduces the leitmotif that he will later use for their son, Siegfried. Once you know this it becomes clear that Wagner is indicating that this is the moment that Siegfried is conceived, but he won’t appear as a character until the next opera in the cycle so you don’t know what that music means when you first hear it.
Incidentally, one thing I do wish Sky had done, but doubtless didn’t have the budget for, is give us an introduction to the various leitmotifs that Wagner uses so that we can listen out for them. But at least they did explain the concept, and explain it brilliantly by using the example of John Williams’ work on Star Wars. Darth Vader’s leitmotif isn’t just used when he comes on screen, it is also used to indicate that his men are up to something in an otherwise unrelated scene.
What Fry and his experts do well is address the primary controversies surrounding the Ring Cycle. First there is Wagner’s person journey from anarchist revolutionary to a vile, old anti-Semite. Then there is Hitler’s co-option of the Ring Cycle as a propaganda tool. Wagner himself seems to have been an awful person, but I also concur with Fry’s assessment that he would have hated Hitler because he hated anyone with that degree of political power. Many present day wannabe demagogues tend to cling to Wagner, presumably because they associate his work with Nazism (hello several senior Tories), but it was interesting to discover that most of the Nazi leaders were bored stupid by opera and resented being dragged along to watch it by their boss. Nigel Farage is, of course, far too boorish to be interested in opera, though by this point Fry was reduced to dropping hints rather than naming names.
The other thing I have found absolutely fascinating about the Ring is the Festspielhaus itself. It is apparently the largest free-standing wooden building in the world. Partly it is wooden for acoustic reasons, but Wagner apparently planned to burn it down after the first few performances so that what was experienced there could never be repeated (and probably, from his point of view, to prevent his perfect creation being debased after his death).
The acoustic design of the building is at least as great a work of genius as the music itself. The orchestra is hidden away in a pit underneath the stage so as to not distract from the visual spectacle. Sound from the orchestra is funneled up onto the stage, and thence reflects back onto the audience, mixing with the singers voices on the way. This is quite different from a traditional opera house where the sound from orchestra and voices both project outwards and mix in the auditorium. A consequence of this is that the singers need to be a fraction of a second behind the orchestra for the whole thing to work. Apparently the acoustic benefits are enormous, though no opera house built since has chosen to copy the design. That might be an issue of expense, of the skill required of the singers, or of the aversion of celebrity conductors to being hidden away where no one but the orchestra can see them.
Finally I am, of course, noting the similarities between Wagner’s story and Tolkien’s. There are many themes in common: the greedy dwarves, the ring, the dragon, the broken sword. One significant difference is that Wagner’s story is full of female characters. That is doubtless in part due to the requirement to balance voice registers, but it is nonetheless welcome. Wotan is the character who ties the story together, but Brünnhilde, even though she doesn’t appear until the second act of her titular opera, is the hero of the tale.