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Richard Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen"
September 8, 2012 1:05 PM   Subscribe

Next week, for the first time in 22 years, PBS will televise the four dramas of Richard Wagner's Ring cycle on consecutive nights - a rare opportunity to encounter in the manner intended "the most ambitious and most profound work of art ever created".

Described by the Metropolitan Opera as the most ambitious production in its 130 year history, this version by Robert Lepage (previously) has received unusually harsh reviews. But then so did the now-classic 1976 Bayreuth centennial production by Patrice Chéreau.

The first recorded cycle - completed by Georg Solti in 1965 - has been named in critics polls as the greatest recording of all time and remains the consensus recommendation. Its cast of great voices - including the immortal Birgit Nilsson as Brunnhilde - will certainly never be surpassed. A documentary of its creation can be viewed here (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7).

A useful guide to the leitmotifs as they occur during the dramas can be found at the outstanding Wagnerheim site.

This page contains everything you ever wanted to know - and probably more - about the Wagner tuba.

And of course any Wagner post requires a link to Chuck Jones' masterpiece "What's Opera, Doc?"
posted by Egg Shen (49 comments total) 65 users marked this as a favorite

 
For a taste of the sublime beauty and power of this music, try the climax of Act I of Die Walküre - sung by Gary Lakes and the divine Jessye Norman to the conducting of James Levine.
posted by Egg Shen at 1:07 PM on September 8, 2012


Not a huge Wagner fan in general, but as someone who is just getting into opera and can't typically afford tickets to stuff like this, I'm really excited!
posted by Sara C. at 1:19 PM on September 8, 2012


By the way, these are the "Live in HD" productions that were streamed to movie theaters all over the place, the first two operas in 2010 and the others in 2011. I saw them all and loved them to bits.
posted by JanetLand at 1:25 PM on September 8, 2012


This looks great, thanks!

Related reading:

Wagner, Sex and Capitalism and J R: Empedocles on Valhalla [Both links are PDFs]

From the latter essay: It would not be going too far to say, as Weisenburger does, that
Wagner's Ring is to J R what the Odyssey is to Joyce's Ulysses. Although Gaddis's novel, unlike Joyce's, lacks a scene-by-scene, character-by-character correspondence with its model, it alludes to Wagner's work throughout on literal, symbolic, and formal levels. Bast is first introduced rehearsing a chaotic school production of The Ring at a Jewish temple(!), with teenaged Rhinemaidens and a Wotan played by a sulky young girl "freely adorned with horns, feathers, and bicycle reflectors" (33). J R has volunteered to take Alberich's part to get out of gym and makes off with the makeshift Rhinegold (the sack of money for his class's stock share) at the end of a scene that comically but effectively sets out The Ring's basic conflict between love and greed. Thereafter, this literal production recedes (like the Rhine at the end of The Rhinegold's first scene) and its teenaged cast is replaced by more symbolic counterparts in the business world where, as Wieland Wagner once remarked, "Valhalla is Wall Street."

posted by chavenet at 1:26 PM on September 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


*Buys padded toilet seat; sets-up TV in bathroom; makes popcorn.*
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:39 PM on September 8, 2012


Not yet scheduled on my local PBS affiliate. They'll probably have a Mark Russell special instead.
posted by Eyebeams at 1:43 PM on September 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ann Russell as linked previously
posted by edgeways at 1:52 PM on September 8, 2012


As someone who saw the Chereau* version 22 years ago, I think this is great. Most people will never have the opportunity to see this live, and I'm glad PBS is doing it. Musically, the Ring is pretty good stuff, but I have to say that as theatre, it can drag. Sigfried, in particular, had very long stretches where nothing really happened, at least that's what I recall. The other three held my interest, though, and I'll try to watch at least parts of this version, too, though I think it would be better as 4 Mondays in a row, not 4 nights in a row.

*His version bordered on the infamous. Patrice Chereau had never staged an opera before the Bayreuth production, and he structured it as a sort of allegory to the Industrial Revolution. On opening night it was loudly booed, but subsequent performances gained standing ovations.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 1:56 PM on September 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think it would be better as 4 Mondays in a row, not 4 nights in a row

And, my PBS station is starting everything at 9:00 p.m. Götterdämmerung *starting* at 9 p.m.? WAGNER SLUMBER PARTY!!
posted by JanetLand at 1:58 PM on September 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


The first recorded cycle - completed by Georg Solti in 1965 - has been named in critics polls as the greatest recording of all time and remains the consensus recommendation. Its cast of great voices - including the immortal Birgit Nilsson as Brunnhilde

I misread this at first and wondered, "how old could Brigitte Nielsen have been in 1965?" The answer is 2.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 2:06 PM on September 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Not yet scheduled on my local PBS affiliate. They'll probably have a Mark Russell special instead.


Yeah, we don't have it listed either. We appear to have a repeat of Antiques Roadshow scheduled instead. Granted, I think TPT can be particularly lousy--they show decades old repeats of EastEnders for some reason.
posted by hoyland at 2:18 PM on September 8, 2012


I was fortunate enough to see Götterdämmerung at the Met as my first opera. It was truly breathtaking.

Hopefully my PBS affiliate shows this.
posted by Harpocrates at 2:55 PM on September 8, 2012


Thanks, Egg Shen! This is awesome.
posted by Brak at 3:48 PM on September 8, 2012


Is a special computer needed to view local listings? It seems to show up blank on my screen.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:35 PM on September 8, 2012


That link is bad. I confirmed that my local affiliate has it scheduled by going to their (fully independent) website and looking at their schedule.
posted by Sara C. at 4:42 PM on September 8, 2012


From The New York Times, The Specter of Hitler in the Music of Wagner, November 8, 1998 by Joseph Horowitz (participant in the 1998 Bayreuth conference on ''Wagner and the Jews).

Subsequent letter to the editor WAGNER AND HITLER; Evidence of Hatred, November 22, 1998 by Gottfried Wagner (a great-grandson of Richard Wagner).

[No Godwin derail intended — just a nod to the elefant on the tracks.]
posted by cenoxo at 4:51 PM on September 8, 2012


The ''Ring'' cycle is basically an account of how a group of dwarfs (translation: Jews) steal the gold (translation: spiritual and material wealth) of the gods of the Rhine.

Wagner was hugely anti-Semitic. That said, the Ring cycle is not "basically" anything -- it's very many things at once. And not only is there no reason to portray the Niebelungs as Jewish stereotypes for the story to work, the "gods of the Rhine" are not the good guys in the story. As Deryck Cooke points out, the "ring" motif and the "Valhalla" motif are pretty much the same thing, because they both have to do with world domination. The "Valhalla" motif is only more noble-sounding because it's a scheme of world domination based on laws and tradition (the runes carved into Wotan's spear) rather than sheer monetary power. The good guys are the humans -- Siegmund and Sieglinde with their incestuous, extramarital free love, Siegfried the innocent, heroic fool, and Brunnhilde after she's been rendered mortal by her decision to embody Wotan's true desire to be free of his own bullshit.

Translation: Gottfried Wagner sounds like a self-hating German. Let's not derail (intentionally or otherwise) a thread about a great opportunity to see -- wait for it -- the most ambitious and profound work of art ever created.

Also, anyone with even the slightest interest in opera and within striking distance of a theater showing live Met broadcasts should absolutely check one out. Tickets to the shows I attended last season were $20. It's the bargain of a lifetime.
posted by uosuaq at 5:48 PM on September 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


I remember when PBS last did this-- in my last summer of high school, for another new Met production. I invited a bunch of friends over to watch without knowing the plot (but having read plenty of Norse mythology.) We weren't particularly reverent-- there was the odd MST3K-esque moment-- but it was enthralling, and we reconvened for the next 3 nights, got all teary at Wotan's Farewell, concluded that Siegfried was a doofus, and were proud when we figured out Hagen's parentage just from the leitmotiv.

Hildegard Behrens was a kickass Brünnhilde in that production-- good enough to make us all uneasy about Wagner's implication that for a strong woman, love seemingly equates to surrender, not only of her autonomy but also of her wisdom. We cheered when she got her groove back in time to light the fire and end the world.

I hope there's a bunch of high school kids somewhere about to have the same experience.
posted by Pallas Athena at 6:03 PM on September 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


Awesome! My affiliate's carrying it. Thanks for the heads-up!
posted by octobersurprise at 6:53 PM on September 8, 2012


Weird. I literally just listened to a Radiolab episode about this very thing not 10 minutes ago. I love synchronicity.
posted by sanka at 7:08 PM on September 8, 2012


I was on a bit of a Ring cycle kick last year and I've been meaning to give the cycle another spin, so to speak. I've got the Chereau version lined up in my queue of stuff to watch.

I listened to Robert Greenberg's lecture series on the Music of Wagner and while I've really enjoyed his previous lectures series, I was a bit let down by the Ring part of it. He does absolutely no motif anaylsis but talks a lot about the George Bernard Shaw-socioeconomic critique of it (the dwarves are the Jews, the gods are the idle bourgeoisie, Wotan's staff is the rule of law, etc.) Interesting, and I picked up a lot of more insight than if I had just read a plot summary, but nonetheless I could have read that in a book. Would have much preferred an audio lecture showing the major motifs and how they're related.

I listened to the Solti production, which is indeed pretty awesome, but I found some of the canned sound effects to be a little corny. Also I'd much prefer watching a video with subtitles rather than listening to a CD with a libretto in hand for 14 hours. I'll probably appreciate it more after watching several more versions of it and know the different parts by heart.

I watched the Levine cycle on DVD and was let down by Brunnehilde and Siegfried. They both seemed a bit out of their death vocally and that wore me down since their singing takes up 3/4 of the opera. Wotan was pretty good, but Hagan, fuckin' Hagen, that singer absolutely rocked. This bit here (starting around the first minute) absolutely terrified me. The power in this guy's voice along with the chorus (this point, 10+ hours into the cycle, is literally the first time there's been more than a few people singing at any one time) is incredible.
posted by alidarbac at 8:37 PM on September 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


"a rare opportunity to encounter in the manner intended"

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think "the manner intended" by Wagner was four night's in a row broadcast on PBS ;)

Meanwhile, Opera Australia is doing the entire Ring Cycle on stage in Late 2013 - with prices starting at $1000. So, getting to see a version on television is at least affordable!
posted by crossoverman at 8:52 PM on September 8, 2012


I'm so glad they're doing this! My wife and I were able to get the special student rush tickets at the Met for the first three operas, but we ran into major scheduling conflicts for Götterdämmerung. It'll be nice to finally find out how the whole thing works out. Fingers crossed for a happy ending!
posted by sleepinglion at 9:02 PM on September 8, 2012


Is there a way to see this on the internet instead of on TV? There doesn't seem to be a "watch live" button on my local affiliate's website, and I can't find anything like that on PBS.org either. Do I have to... I don't know... sign up for, uh, Hulu or something? Please understand that I know very little about the state of television service since, oh, late '90s or thereabouts, so "sign up for Hulu or something" is just a very very vague thing in my mind.
posted by Flunkie at 9:47 PM on September 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is there a way to see this on the internet instead of on TV?

I'm pretty sure that a torrent will go up a few minutes after the airing ends.
posted by mikelieman at 1:54 AM on September 9, 2012


For those with a little cash, the DVD will be released on Tuesday.
posted by JanetLand at 4:58 AM on September 9, 2012


It seems pretty common for PBS to put up free content after it has aired, a la the way NBC works with Hulu or CBS and ABC do on their own sites. That said, I don't think they put up everything.

I watched the whole first season of Downton Abbey on pbs.org, before it became a phenomenon and BBC America nipped that in the bud.
posted by Sara C. at 7:54 AM on September 9, 2012


"Most Wagnerites are terrible."
posted by homunculus at 10:59 AM on September 9, 2012


Sara C., I remember that the second season of Downton Abbey was streaming on pbs.org a few months ago, though it looks like it isn't now.
posted by Pronoiac at 1:00 PM on September 9, 2012


Yeah, they're very close to the vest with their Downton Abbey these days.

I missed the heavily-curtailed streaming period, and then I decided to be all hipster "over it" (sour grapes). Just recently I found the whole second season on Hulu Plus, which I don't subscribe to, but might consider it if they put up BBC America stuff as a rule.
posted by Sara C. at 2:05 PM on September 9, 2012


Is this the production with the odd plank like structure that somehow manages to be the setting for everything in the entire cycle? I remember reading about this.. seems like years and years ago..
posted by mediocre at 4:19 PM on September 9, 2012


Seattle seems to be broadcasting this. Nice.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:02 PM on September 9, 2012


Yes, this is the production with The Machine, the "odd plank like structure." They started rolling out the operas one at a time a few seasons ago and first ran the complete cycles this past spring. My understanding is that they changed some of the blocking and such to help things run more smoothly but I believe the DVDs and the PBS broadcasts are from the earlier productions, but I'd be happy for that to turn out to be wrong.

I was able to see the entire cycle in the house over a week in May (an engagement present) and was thrilled. The flexibility of The Machine was impressive, it made for some very striking images and thought it did well to tie the operas together.


You can see production photos: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung though note that these may not be from the casts used in the recordings being shown.


If you only want to take the time for one I recommend Die Walküre, the second installment. I find it works the best on its own (dramatically) of the four.
posted by mountmccabe at 6:28 PM on September 9, 2012


You had me at "Wagner tuba".
posted by Prince_of_Cups at 10:45 AM on September 10, 2012


I saw the first episode at our local cinema. I thought it was great, especially the stage. I'm looking forward to watching the whole thing. Thanks for posting.
posted by No Robots at 12:14 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm watching Wagner's Dream right now, and they're showing the development of the fucking rad unreal BRILLIANT set design wave/stairs/"machine" thing.
posted by Sara C. at 5:13 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Omigod, the Rhinemaidens look so cool! Maybe I'll be a Rhinemaiden for Halloween this year.
posted by Sara C. at 5:53 PM on September 10, 2012


Maybe I'll be a Rhinemaiden for Halloween this year.

They are a sort of an aquatic Andrews sisters.
posted by hippybear at 5:59 PM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, snap, Norse gods are not having this shit in terms of the stage design.
posted by Sara C. at 6:01 PM on September 10, 2012


That was so awesome! Now I'm even more psyched to watch the whole Gotterdammerung thing.
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:05 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Wagner's Dream was the part of the week I was least interested in, but it turned out to be a great documentary in and of itself. In fact, I shot emails over to a few friends who teach high school theatre classes recommending that they show it to students.

It also makes a brilliant introduction to the story. At 8pm I knew almost nothing about the Ring Cycle beyond that it's based on Norse mythology and maybe about a ring (and maybe inspiration for Tolkein?), and that there are Valkyries and lots of characters with Sieg in their names. I now know the main leitmotif for the Valkyries (Hoyotho Heiha!), the whole story of Siegfriend and Brunnhilde, and most of the overarching themes, not to mention all the brouhaha about this particular staging.

My favorite part is when they talk to the Wagner fanboys at the beginning, and they're all "yeah well everyone's always trying to be all REVOLUTIONARY and DIFFERENT with opera, but really why mess with a good thing?", and then after Gotterdammerung they go back to the same folks, who ware like, "WE LOVE THIS SO MUCH FOREVER."
posted by Sara C. at 8:15 PM on September 10, 2012


The set itself is certainly remarkable as is the conceit of using the single configurable background/set piece for the entire cycle.

Beyond that, though, this is a very traditional, nearly blank staging of the Ring. The projections on the machine are literal, streams and forests and caves. The costumes are armor and peasant garb, not business suits, army uniforms or cowboy hats.

And more importantly there are no real new psychological interpretations of the characters and at times there seemed to be no psychological engagement with the characters at all.

It's not surprising that this production got attacked from both sides, by traditionalists that found it too radical and from the more adventurous that found it too old fashioned.


That being said a slightly blandly staging of the Ring is still the Ring. The music is fantastic and played by a top notch orchestra. The singers were mostly excellent. And there's enough to the story that even if the director isn't doing much to help it along it can still be very compelling.

I wish I was able to watch these on PBS and probably will end up getting the set on DVD.
posted by mountmccabe at 8:48 AM on September 11, 2012


Kill the wabbit,
Kill the wabbit,
Kill the wabbit,
Kill the wabbit...



posted by Skygazer at 3:31 AM on September 12, 2012


Beyond that, though, this is a very traditional, nearly blank staging of the Ring. The projections on the machine are literal, streams and forests and caves.

The "machine" sucks up all the oxygen on the stage. It's a brilliant construct, but it dominates, making it seem like there just happens to be this incidental epic being staged in and on and around it, and the singers stand stiff when they're on it.

All in all I keep finding myself annoyed by how much attention it commands instead of being an organic backdrop for the story.
posted by Skygazer at 3:37 AM on September 12, 2012


"Beyond that, though, this is a very traditional, nearly blank staging of the Ring. The projections on the machine are literal, streams and forests and caves. The costumes are armor and peasant garb, not business suits, army uniforms or cowboy hats."

As a newbie to the Ring, I was okay with that. It was a pretty accessible production. There were definitely parts that I thought were not as emotionally compelling as they probably should have been (Fricka, girlfriend, you do not seem remotely pissed enough at Wotan about selling your sister), but other parts were very moving.

We let my toddler stay up and watch a bit of the beginning of Die Walkure with us. He was transfixed. We asked him what he thought the music meant/sounded like, and he said, "It is very worried and a little scary."

(We let him stay up for the beginning of Siegfried and he just kept shouting back at the screen and had to go to bed, so oh well. Half an hour of opera per week is apparently his limit.)

It was too bad they started airing it so late in the evening; I mean, I know there's no really GOOD time to air seventeen solid hours of Wagner, but I could only stick it out for the first two operas. I missed the end of Siegfried and barely saw any of Götterdämmerung because I was so tired from the first three nights. I'm hoping our library gets the DVD, or I can get it via interlibrary loan, because I'd like to watch the parts I missed.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:08 PM on September 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


The "machine" sucks up all the oxygen on the stage. It's a brilliant construct, but it dominates, making it seem like there just happens to be this incidental epic being staged in and on and around it, and the singers stand stiff when they're on it.

I absolutely didn't feel that way.

I thought the machine was the perfect solution to staging a four opera cycle like this, was unbelievably versatile without being boring or pretentiously minimalist, and really faded into the background well. It was like a cyclorama with moving parts that could become any aspect of a scene, from a river to a horse to a palace, without drawing attention to itself at all. To the point that, at several moments over the course of all the operas, I forgot it was even there.

I especially liked the mix of techy/minimalism with classic/fantasy in the design, but I have a background in design for theatre/film so it's something I tend to notice more than others typically do.

Emotionally/performance wise, I was impressed with how much I was drawn into the story. My understanding of opera, as a relative newbie, is that for the most part, you're there for the virtuoso musical performances and not the drama. What Happens Next is not the point. Rooting for the hero and raging against the villain is not the point, much less a thoughtful deconstruction of who, exactly the heroes and villains are, and why, and how the overarching themes (love vs. power, parents vs. children, the nature of bravery) reflect on the villain/hero spectrum. I was really engaged with the narrative in a way that I'm usually not when it comes to live performance. Which, in my opinion is the entire point of almost all art ever. So yeah, this succeeds, just based on the criteria of "does it do what art is supposed to do".

I made it until the last hour of Gotterdammerung and then I couldn't take it anymore due to exhaustion (not sure if that was phyisical or aesthetic exhaustion) and went to bed. I've decided I'm going to see that one in person ASAP to make up for it.

I am going as Brunnhilde this year for Halloween.
posted by Sara C. at 10:35 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


These are all sitting on my DVR waiting for me to find the ambition, stamina, and time coinciding in my life to watch them. I do look forward to it, but I want to do it right, and right now isn't the time.

Soon. Eventually. Hopefully before my DVR starts deleting things randomly for more space.
posted by hippybear at 7:11 PM on September 19, 2012


That's why I decided to get all 20th century on the PBS primetime schedule last week. If I didn't have an artificial deadline forcing me to watch it (and no pause button, no "I'll finish this up later"), I'd never have watched it.
posted by Sara C. at 7:40 PM on September 19, 2012


KQED in San Francisco aired them the first week in SD instead of HD. But happily, they're also airing them on Sunday nights in HD - part 3 is this coming Sunday.

Also, it looks like there's an HD torrent out for the first part.
posted by Pronoiac at 5:47 PM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


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