[Pt. II Proj.2] ~Research point 2.2: The Ring cycle
Research point 2.2- The Ring cycle.
In this guided research point, research The Ring cycle. Do your best to listen to the whole cycle or watch it on DVD. If you can attend a performance of one or more of the operas then this is ideal, though if you want to go to Bayreuth, you’ll need to book several years in advance and most probably to save up for a ticket for equally as long. Using the following as a guide to areas to cover write around 500 words on this monumental cycle.
Areas to cover: 1. General background to the work. 2. Essential synopsis (plot). 3. Instrumentation and singers cast. 4. Your observations and thoughts about a) the singing style, b) the relationship between the music and text, and c) the staging, among other things. 5. Your personal reactions to the cycle.
Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) WWV 86. (1848 -1874) by Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
‘The Ring’ is a cycle of four ‘music dramas’. Loosely based on the Codex Regius (medieval manuscript of Norse Mythology and Germanic heroic legends) it is the story of how, in exchange for foregoing love, the Nibelung dwarf Alberich is granted the power to rule the world with a magic talismanic ring forged from the Rhine maiden’s gold. However, Wotan, the king of the Gods, steals the ring and offers it as payment to the giants who built him Valhalla. The ring, which has had a curse placed on it is subsequently fought over by many generations of Wotan’s descendants until eventually the Valkyrie Brünnhild returns it to the Rhine.
Wagner intended the dramas to be performed sequentially as a ‘stage festival play’ (Bühnenfestspiel). The cycle was premiered over the course of four days during the first ever Bayreuth Festival in 1876.
Prelude- Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold)
I. Die Walküre (The Valkyrie)
II. Sigfried (Siegfried)
III. Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods)
Wagner’s dreams of creating a ‘total artwork’ or ‘Gesamkunstwerk’, combining several artforms into one unified music drama experience were thus manifested at Bayreuth. It had taken him twenty-six years (1848 -1874) to complete the 15-hour long cycle.
Wagner built a special opera house, Bayreuth Festspielhaus, to house the festival performance, with funding provided by King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Wagner had specifically designed the stage in a way which could naturally balance a huge 100+ size orchestra (with an extended brass section and specially designed instruments such as the Wagner Tuba, bass trumpet and contrabass trombone) with his chorus in a way which enabled the singers to perform without straining their voices. This was crucial to the staging of the cycle since Wagner required great intelligibility to the words, perhaps at the expense of his vocal melodies which sometimes lack in fluidity. In fact, the libretto was of such significance to him that it led to a whole new style of operatic singing, unlike the Italian opera of the day it did not place the focus on the virtuosity and agility of its singers but instead on a clear and emotional delivery. However, in my view when performed in less acoustically suitable spaces it can lead to the operatic singers emphasising the consonants in such a way it almost resembles spitting. I am not particularly fond of this type of delivery.
Emotion was so important to Wagner that he devised a method of writing elaborate leitmotifs delivering the ‘emotional’ content of each scene. The leitmotifs introduced both actions, objects, characters and emotions. They helped in terms of structuring this impressive and gargantuan work with its enormous cast and convoluted plot, but can therefore also become a tad repetitive The leitmotifs, along with his extensive use of chromaticism and dissonance (which I am a huge fan of) is what gave the cycle it’s unique Wagnerian sound and impacted both Opera and music in general for the foreseeable future.