By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
We’re less than three weeks away from Los Angeles Opera’s first presentation of Wagner’s complete Der Ring des Nibelungen, which begins May 29 with three cycles of the four music dramas (to use Wagner’s own description) scheduled during the ensuing month (Click the LAO Web site link HERE for detailed information).
For LA Opera, the cycle is a landmark achievement, both because it’s actually getting done (as opposed, for example, to Washington National Opera, whose cycle has been stalled midstream, so to speak) and because of the high quality of the four productions.
This eight-part series — posts are every Tuesday — is examining the cycle from different angles, all of which are designed to help answer the question, “Why should I attend?” A list of previous sections is at the end of this post.
The most obvious response to the headline is whether, in fact, any preparation is necessary. While there are some people who would argue that your best course of action is to just attend and let your senses react to what see and hear, that’s certainly not the way I recommend approaching Der Ring des Nibelungen.
Although there are limits as to how much time you have to prepare, I think doing at least some preparation will significantly your enjoyment. On the other hand, if you can’t manage my suggestions, just come — Wagner’s Ring is an historic achievement and, as I pointed out in my first post in this series (LINK), this your chance to see the cycle live at the lowest cost possible.
With that long caveat, here are my suggestions:
LA OPERA RING SITE
Much of what follows flows from the company’s Ring Web site (LINK), which is colorful, chock full of information and a bit complicated. To get much of the info, you have to drill down a level or two (or more) but it’s worth the effort.
WHAT TO READ
• Das Rheingold
• Die Walküre
Mark Lyons has provided quite detailed synopses of the four operas on the LA Opera Web site (Links above). Read them ahead of time and refresh yourself in between acts. Remember that Das Rheingold is one continuous act with four separate scenes separated by musical interludes, so it may be the hardest to follow — don’t worry about getting lost momentarily; you’ll pick up the thread again. The other synopses are divided into three acts for each opera. Although Achim Freyer’s staging is provocative and mind challenging, he does follow the stories quite faithfully.
Each of the “Articles” sections of the four operas has a piece by LAO Music Director James Conlon and a lengthy thought piece by musicologist Thomas May. These are more interesting for veteran “Wagnerites” than for first-time Ring attendees but each provides underpinning for what’s occurring psychologically in the productions. In his Das Rheingold article, Conlon begins with “It is almost impossible to write anything about Richard Wagner that has not already been put to paper.” Nonetheless, he and others (including myself) have tried to prove him wrong!
Freyer’s comments on his productions are posted on the LA Opera Ring Web site:
• Das Rheingold
• Die Walkure
These will give you a flavor of Freyer’s ideas on the staging. These may be more helpful for those who have already seen the productions or who are confirmed “Wagnerites.” See also my Post V from last week HERE.
Each opera on the site contains many photos and video from the productions. They’ll give you a flavor of Freyer’s staging but really won’t be helpful in figuring out the stories. For that, you’ll have to read what’s listed above or listen to Conlon’s podcasts (see below).
Someone has said that there have been more words written about Wagner than anyone with the exception of Jesus and Napoleon. Throughout these posts, I’ve referred to two books: Reflections on Wagner’s Ring by John Culshaw. © 1975, 1976 by John Culshaw. Published by The Viking Press, and Wagner’s Ring: Turning the Sky Around, by M. Owen Lee. © Copyright 1990 by M. Owen Lee. Published by Summit Books (Simon and Schuster). These books are compilations of talks that each man gave during intermissions of Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. However, the discussions are generic, not specific to the broadcasts themselves. Owen Lee’s book contains synopses; Culshaw’s does not.
WHAT TO LISTEN TO AND WATCH
Each of the operas on the LAO Web site has links to the podcast of the lectures that James Conlon gave before the productions. The place to find this on the Web is to click on the particular opera, then go to the bottom right below Conlon’s photo where it says “Click Here.” NOTE: In the upper right-hand corner of each opera is a link called “Podcasts.” Those go to interviews between Conlon and Brian Lauritzen called Behind the Curtain. The first set of podcasts is more basic (themes, the story, etc.). The second is somewhat more philosophical and detailed, particularly good for Ring veterans.
“Introduction to Der Ring des Nibelungen”
This is a commentary by English musicologist Deryck Cooke that was recorded in 1967 as part of the historic Decca/London recording of Wagner’s Ring, which featured Sir Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic. In this introduction, Cooke examines Wagner’s use of the “leitmotif” (leading motive) and shows how a few basic motives evolve into the complex, labyrinthine work. I have always found this set (now on two CDs — Decca CD 443 581-2) to be of great help in my understanding and enjoyment of the Ring.
Unless you don’t have anything else to do in your life, I don’t think it’s worth it to listen to an entire Ring recording at this point in time — instead, focus on Cooke’s “Introduction” noted above. There are half a dozen complete Rings currently available on audio CD; the two best, in my opinion, are the Solti/Vienna Philharmonic historic Ring recording and one made more recently by James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera.
Don’t bother, at this point. The stagings will only confuse you. After you’ve seen the LAO production, you may want to invest in a DVD for comparison. The Metropolitan Opera’s production is highly traditional. The 1976 Bayreuth centennial mounting is more radical in its concept.
Conlon is once again going to give his erudite lectures one hour before each performance. His talks are excellent, albeit a bit frenetic, and, of course, they add an hour to each opera performance. From a time point of view, you may be better off listening to the podcasts.
NEXT WEEK: Preparing for The Ring — Planning your schedule
PREVIOUS POSTS IN THIS SERIES:
(c) Copyright 2010, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.