The Ring of the Nibelung – could have done better?

(Originally posted 2014)

I have had opera up to the eyeballs. Last week I went with my wife to Glyndebourne to see Rosenkavalier, and on Saturday sat through Opera North’s concert performance of Gotterdammerung in Salford.

Salford / Glyndebourne. You choose.

At last I can say I have seen The Ring. The Twilight of the Gods was the last instalment of the Opera North’s four-year cycle, and OK it was only semi-staged, but rarely did we think any of it could have been improved by full production.

Is The Ring any good? That’s a very large question. In 1990 Radio 3 broadcast it in a sequence of one act per night, and I listened to it religiously in a remote cottage on the island of Lewis in between bouts of reading Anna Karenina and writing a very bad orchestral piece. At the time I wrote in my diary, “A stupid story, but what wonderful music“.  Nearly twenty five years later I can’t disagree much with that.

It was reassuring to find that enthusiastic Wagnerians like George Bernard Shaw felt Gotterdammerung was the weakest of the four operas. So did we. Oddly, Wagner wrote its libretto first, and The Ring was conceived when Wagner realised that he would have to include a lot of back story for Gotterdammerung to make sense.

If the narration was cut down, it didn’t show. The opening scene with the Norns felt like padding, and, even though I love Wagner, Act I, at 2 hours 15 minutes, was interminable. Shaw thought that Gotterdammerung was a reversion to the Grand Opera Wagner had been trying to avoid in the first three parts of The Ring, and whilst this may be true he nevertheless dealt with the grand passions of the characters in a majestic fashion. Brunnhilde’s refusal to part with the ring even as Siegfried is unwittingly betraying her was magnificently written.

Nonetheless I felt the overarching dramatic scheme of The Ring would have been improved by a professional dramaturg like Hugo von Hoffmansthal. Hoffmansthal’s work with Strauss in Rosenkavalier (and elsewhere) has a roundedness that Wagner’s libretto lacks (and probably wouldn’t have aspired to). The operas would have been better, shorter and more dramatically effective. Hoffmansthal might have done more with a character like Gutrune, the woman whom Siegfriend, under the influence of a magic potion (stupid story, remember), has betrayed Brunnhilde. Gutrune is thrust in front of us after the prologue and, embroiled in the plot immediately without any opportunity to establish herself as a character, remains an unengaging cipher.

However the character most conspicuously missing from Gotterdammerung is Wotan. He has banished Brunnhilde to the high rock, but Siegfried has rescued her, redeemed her even, with human courage and love. I would have given a good deal to see Wotan walk back on stage at the end. What music Wagner could have summoned up for a confrontation with Brunnhilde! But Wotan should also surely have been present for the fall of Valhalla – in his absence the collapse of the Gods is like Hamlet without the prince. It would have been good to know a little more of why the return of the ring to the Rhinemaidens necessarily meant the end of the old world and beginning of the new. After all, the Rhinemaidens had the ring at the beginning of Rhinegold, and that seemed to work for the Gods. And why should we think that the new world would be any better? Wagner doesn’t tell us.

It may seem picky to find fault with The Ring‘s plotting and pacing, but that is the sort of exacting engagement Wagner would have expected and wanted. It’s impossible to imagine his being satisfied with an audience which walked out thinking “Well that was nice”, and then went home for tea and toast. We left talking about what we’d seen, and were still talking about it an hour later.

Of course, the heavenly length of The Ring, its unwieldy structure and dramatic raggedness, are part of its peculiar charm. The fact that it could have so easily been better still merely adds to the compelling nature of Wagner’s creation.

I haven’t mentioned the music. The best bits are amongst the best bits of 19th century Romanticism, and therefore amongst the best in any genre anywhere. In some of it Wagner seems to be treading water slightly, but in an idiom which you have to credit him for inventing, exploiting and finally growing out of. It is an amazing achievement.

On Saturday the Opera North orchestra played mostly well in a desperately unflattering acoustic, and Richard Farnes, who has lovely hands, conducted unflappably. I could have perhaps done with a bit more flapping. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but here is George Solti conducting the Vienna Phil with Birgid Nilsson in the Immolation Scene. This gives a sense of the possibility of a no-holds-barred style of Wagner conducting which sometimes The Ring cries out for.

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