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ArtsWatch guest post: Composer Jeff Winslow on PBS’s Ring Cycle

By Brett Campbell

September 26, 2012

by Jeff Winslow. Images and video courtesy PBS.

Watch Wagner’s Ring Cycle Preview on PBS. See more from Great Performances.

Richard Wagner.  One of the most loved names, yet surely the most hated name in classical music.  The man whose boundless ego and imagination created The Ring of the Nibelungs, far and away the most massive musical drama of the pre-modern era.  Three of The Ring’s  four operas are each longer than anyone else had ever written, and new instruments had to be invented to make its orchestra as loud as the composer wanted.  Anything this big makes an easy target, for both worship and attack, and it’s attracted plenty of both ever since opening night.

I grew up loving classical music, but Wagner was intimidating.  Even after I came to know and love Mahler’s enormous symphonies, my main reaction the first time I heard an entire Wagner opera (Tristan and Isolde) was bewilderment.  Then, while I was studying music at the University of California at Berkeley, a singer friend wanted to audition for the university orchestra’s concerto competition with the Immolation Scene from The Ring’s final opera, Götterdämmerung (usually given the deceptively anemic translation “Twilight of the Gods”). Would I accompany her on piano? It was a riotous experience in a music school sort of way, and I was moved — once I recovered — to read through the entire piano-vocal score at the keyboard. At the same time, in class, I was studying Tristan and Isolde in detail. Suddenly I got the bug: these exotic chords gliding chimerically through my ears, these musical catchphrases that illuminated the action and probed the characters’ psyches, these soaring melodies — the word “melody” hardly captured the impact…. I became completely carried away.

The passing years have only deepened my appreciation, especially for the music’s mercurial marriage to the emotions on stage. I’ve come to feel, as hard as it may be to believe, that every note of these two five-hour-plus extravaganzas belongs there.  Fortunately for my sanity perhaps, none of the other Wagner operas ever really had the same effect on me, but it’s enough: when Tristan, or Götterdämmerung comes around, I have to see it; I have to hear it.

So when a wild new production of the entire Ring cycle from the Metropolitan Opera appeared in movie theaters around the country last spring, I was there. So were thousands of others. This fall, Oregon Public Broadcasting is showing all four operas, prefaced by the documentary Wagner’s Dream (see schedule below). It’s the third time the whole cycle has been shown on PBS. In between, local and international fans have flocked to the Seattle Opera’s periodic summer performances. Clearly, I’m not the only one who responds so passionately to them.

Watch Sneak Peek: Wagner’s Dream on PBS. See more from Great Performances.

Why the hate?

The outrageous Romanticism is too much for some, but beyond that, there is a historical elephant in the room. And like much hate, the ultimate source is love. In this case, the passionate worship of Wagner’s music by one man, Adolf Hitler. And in all likelihood, not just the music. Wagner was a many-talented man, who wrote words almost as copiously as he composed music. He wrote his own text for The Ring, for example. Among his writings is an odious book on the subject of Jewish influence in music. It was likely written primarily to boost his standing among German audiences relative to popular opera composers of the day such as Meyerbeer and Halevy, who happened to be Jewish. But its rampant anti-Semitism and its appeal to rising German nationalism no doubt resonated in the mind of the acolyte. Thus began the identification of Wagner’s music with the Nazi regime, even though they were four generations apart and most of the party leadership was indifferent to it. For many years, his music was forbidden to be performed in Israel. The controversy is still very much alive today.

It’s fair to ask, how does one get past this baggage?  I’m a musician and a composer, so I have to trust my ears and my emotions, which tell me the music is wonderful. I can only suggest being wary of constructing too much meaning around history.

The Met’s new Ring

That is hardly the only controversy associated with Wagner’s operas. New productions regularly appear that have little in common with Wagner’s originally contemplated staging except for a sense of the spectacular. The Met’s new production attempts to re-create something like the original spectacle with modern technology, combining a giant computer-assisted many-segmented machine with innovative projected lighting technology. The segments of the machine variously mimic tree trunks in a forest, galloping horses, the slope of a waterfall — the list goes on and on, yet each segment is just a long beam with tiny wheels at the bottom. I watched the machine in action on the big screen on two occasions this last season, the second and fourth operas of the cycle, The Valkyrie and Twilight of the Gods. The machine works evocatively, for example, during a chase scene through the forest at the beginning of The Valkyrie, and as the basis for a waterfall sporting Rhinemaidens in Twilight of the Gods. As galloping horses they were ponderously slow, but my suspension of disbelief managed to encompass them. (And it was entertaining watching various Valkyries slide down them after their famous Ride.) Where suspension of disbelief failed was at unintentional close-ups of those tiny wheels — a glaring anachronism! But the machine is quite a sight in any case.

Modern lighting technology also solves a perennial stagecraft problem at the opposite end of the size scale. The ring of the Nibelungs is just a ring worn on a finger, but it’s the center of the story and of the world’s power.  Finally it shines so brilliantly that you can believe it!

One expects top-notch singers from the Met, and their vocal performances do not disappoint. The acting is more variable. Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde sings well, moves well, but doesn’t have a particularly mobile face. It doesn’t matter, because she’s so appealing you’d forgive her anything. Bryn Terfel makes a wonderfully sonorous and hard-hearted Wotan, but even he must give in to her entreaties, modifying harsh punishment with magic fire. Hans-Peter König as both Hunding and Hagen hardly moves at all, either in face or in body, but he sings so well and his ominous presence is so well cast that again, it doesn’t seem to matter, except at the very end, where one expects a more strenuous reaction to the imminent loss of the long-desired Ring. On the other hand, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Jonas Kaufman make a very believable Sieglinde and Siegmund falling in love, and Iain Paterson perfectly captures the shallow and self-pitying Gunther, while Eric Owens is over the top as the deformed and embittered dwarf Alberich.

The standout actor, however, is Jay Hunter Morris as the fair-haired hero Siegfried, the protagonist of Wotan’s final attempt to regain control of the Ring. By turns naive, ardent, confused, and macho, he displays every emotion clearly on his face — all while he’s singing the highly demanding role full out, holding nothing back. One intriguing surprise to me was Waltraud Meier as the Valkyrie Waltraute. The name fits, but good heavens, what is this woman doing in a bit part? While she was on screen, my eyes and ears were riveted. Come to find out, in Europe she does the big Wagner roles. Why not here?! I’ve heard there were other extraordinary performances also, in the two operas I missed.

Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried

Twilight Zone

The climax of the whole musical leviathan is the last opera, Götterdämmerung. It’s literally translated as “Twilight of the Gods” but that hardly expresses the cataclysm in store, especially in these days of vampire groupies. Wagner pulls out all the stops. Brünnhilde’s music would melt the heart of a sociopath. Siegfried’s music is so heroic that you’re ready to jump out of your seat and do battle yourself. Alberich and Hagen sing along with the most treacherous harmony to come out of a symphony orchestra up to that time. Both the first and second act finish in a wild whirl of wrestling sound bites.

If the grand finale doesn’t quite evoke the same excitement, it’s perhaps because, for once, Wagner as composer was not quite up to his vaulting ambitions. And because the end is not a triumph. The Ring goes back to its rightful place in the Rhine, but everything else falls apart. The world floods, and the home of the gods catches fire. And there is a misfire on stage. It may well be that time slows down at such moments, but not like this: In the original story, Brünnhilde, having set Siegfried’s funeral pyre alight (the poor dumb blond never had a chance), rides her horse right into the blaze! Well… in this production she takes the escalator. The horse is there all right, and its weirdly sliced form (it’s a machine too) is perfect for catching the flames showing through from the pyre, but it just… moves… way… too… slowly! Eventually horse and rider disappear however, and we are amazed to see the Rhine rising up, way up (thanks to more clever lighting), too late to prevent the fire from spreading to the gods, who disintegrate before our very eyes as the curtain falls on the ultimate chaos. The orchestra fades out in the key of D-flat major, perhaps raising more questions than it answers, but that’s it; nearly 20 hours of music are over.

Ring Eternal

So why do people keep flocking to such an antiquated spectacle, paying big bucks to experience so many hours of gushing music while ornately costumed singers horse around so noisily on stage?  I’m reminded of a more recent phenomenon, first in the literary world and recently on the big screen.

Some years back I hiked through the Siskiyou Wilderness in northernmost California. It seemed a magical, even epic place. Far from big cities, sculpted from rock strange to those used to Portland’s volcanic environs – granite, green serpentine, and black rocks heavy with exotic metals – it’s thick with plants that don’t grow anywhere else in the world, and even those that do, grow cheek by jowl with others they’d normally never consort with. To help take our minds off our tiring bodies, my buddy and I told each other stories. I told him the story of The Ring, and he told me the story of The Lord of the Rings (nope, I never read it). The details are mostly different, and yet, again and again the stories touched and intersected, and both seemed to belong naturally to the magical world around us. Both stories tap into the rich vein of epic adventures humans have related to each other from the beginning of time, and still do.

One of the most clear-headed judges of Wagner, his massive oeuvre, and his contradictions was the later French composer Claude Debussy. An enthusiast in his student days, he faced down the French craze for Wagner of the time, and wrestled with it all to emerge triumphant as the first composer of the modern era.  In the first decade of the 20th century, some 20 years after Wagner died and some 30 years after the premiere of The Ring of the Nibelungs, he wrote:

“Wagner’s art can never completely die. It will suffer that inevitable decay, the cruel brand of time on all beautiful things; yet noble ruins must remain, in the shadow of which our grandchildren will brood over the past splendor of this man who, had he only been more human, would have been altogether great.”

Their grandchildren experienced the Holocaust. And so we brood and wrestle still, and the myriad beauties of The Ring inspire us, melt us, revolt us, haunt us….

Enjoy the show!

Jeff Winslow is a founding member of the Cascadia Composers.  His own operas so far remain in the idea stage, but he is endlessly fascinated by the voice in music, both as composer and accompanist.  He’ll appear in both capacities as part of a Seventh Species concert at 8 pm, October 27 at the Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church in Portland.

Robert Lepage’s new production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle airs on Oregon Public Broadcasting beginning next week. The operas – Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung – will be preceded by the airing of award-winning filmmaker Susan Froemke’s documentary Wagner’s Dream, which chronicles the backstage story of the creation of this ambitious new staging.

Sun, Sep 30, 12:00 pm · Wagner’s Dream
An intimate look at the theatrical and musical challenges of staging opera’s most monumental work.

Sun, Oct 7, 12:00 pm · Das Rheingold
The gods of Valhalla clash with underworld dwarves and brawny giants, with disastrous consequences.

Sun, Oct 14, 12:00 pm · Die Walkure
The mysterious hero Siegmund finds shelter in the familiar arms of a lonely woman named Sieglinde.

Sun, Oct 21, 12:00 pm · Siegfried
Siegfried puts together the broken pieces of the sword Nothung and slays the fearsome dragon Fafner.

Sun, Oct 28, 12:00 pm · Gotterdammerung
Siegfried and Brunnhilde’s love is torn apart by the curse of the ring.

The segments also air on OPB Plus; check listings.


Watch Wagner’s Dream: The Opening Bars of Rheingold on PBS. See more from Great Performances.


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