ArtsATL > Music > Preview: Wagner’s legendary and seldom-staged “Ring” coming this week to a theater near you

Preview: Wagner’s legendary and seldom-staged “Ring” coming this week to a theater near you

(Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
New York's Metropolitan Opera spent a whopping $16 million to mount Richard Wagner’s massive “Der Ring des Nibelungen.” (Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Richard Wagner’s vast epic, “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (the “Ring”), is arguably the greatest musical achievement of mankind. But it has never been performed in Atlanta. Nor is a live performance likely here in the foreseeable future, simply because of its artistic and logistical demands. It costs the earth to stage and perform this cycle of four operas, which clocks in at roughly 15 hours, not counting intermissions.

Starting Wednesday, May 9, however, Atlantans will have a chance to experience the “Ring” firsthand, in proper sequence and over a reasonably short time frame, via the Metropolitan Opera’s HD telecast at local theaters.

The cycle, completed in 1874, was written over the course of 26 years and called for an orchestra much too large to fit into any pit that existed at the time. Wagner persevered, confident that an opera house would be built for him. And eventually, thanks to King Ludwig of Bavaria, it was. Partly because of the cost, Ludwig became the first monarch in history to declare bankruptcy. But the premiere was the artistic sensation of its generation.

Today, the “Ring” is performed in major opera houses around the globe, despite the huge financial risks it involves. In the last few years alone, the Scottish Opera and the Los Angeles Opera each virtually collapsed from the cost of their respective “Rings.” Tickets generally sell out well in advance of performance dates, and opera lovers are often willing to travel great distances to experience the “Ring.”

Both musically and in terms of its dramatic structure, the “Ring” is quite complex. Every character, emotion and object is described by a leitmotif (a little tune), and these are musically related to one another in ways that correlate with the relationships of what they describe. The genius of the “Ring” is that the entire opera is a tapestry of these leitmotifs, with the correct musical description always being played as something is happening.

Film critic Roger Ebert once described a movie by writing that a plot description would “continue uninterrupted through the business section and end up somewhere on the sports pages.” The “Ring” would go beyond that, requiring extra sections. Fortunately, there are plenty of sources that review the plot, so I will avoid that here.

Although it takes its structure from Greek drama, with three tragedies and a prelude, each on separate evenings, the sources for the “Ring” are mostly Germanic and Nordic myth. The important thing to know is that the “Ring” is among the most open of all artworks and can be the frame for a vast array of metaphors. This has created an entire cottage industry of writing, not to mention stage directors.

The Met’s production, designed by Robert Lepage, has been quite controversial. It cost roughly $16 million to mount (this is far from the most expensive of “Rings,’ but it’s the most expensive production ever at the Met). The main set component, nicknamed “the machine,” weighs 45 tons, enough that the Met’s floor and foundation had to be reinforced before it could be installed. The production is essentially a straightforward presentation of the “Ring” events, taking place against the backdrop of a giant, highly flexible platform, using very advanced projection technology. Few people seem enthusiastic about it. Traditionalists, who adored the Met’s previous “Ring” production, would probably be unhappy with almost anything else. And those who prefer cerebral modernist productions, which usually involve elaborate visual concepts or metaphors, are angry to see such an opportunity wasted.

But this is an important “Ring.” I attended one of the cycles last week, and the performances are, in most cases, about as good as you can hear anywhere today. The Met’s orchestra may be the finest Wagner orchestra now playing. The performances to be telecast are conducted by James Levine for the first two operas and Fabio Luisi for the last two. Levine’s approach is more spacious, while Luisi’s is more dynamic and energetic. And while I found Luisi to be among the most thrilling Wagner conductors I’ve heard, this came at a price: many of the singers strained to be heard over the gigantic sound of the orchestra.

“Ring” casts are invariably compromises. Some of the principal roles are not entirely singable by anyone currently singing. That said, this is almost as fine a cast as can be assembled. The surprise star is Eric Owens as Alberich, a role he sings here for the first time. His bass-baritone voice is immense and he brings humanity to a role often simplified into a villain.

Another bass-baritone, Bryn Terfel, is excellent as Wotan. The role of Brunnhilde is sung by dramatic soprano Deborah Voigt. And Siegfried is portrayed by Jay Hunter Morris, a heldentenor. Note that bass-baritones, dramatic sopranos and heldentenors are all voice categories created by Wagner, who wanted a specific sound for his characters. (He also invented some of the instruments in the orchestra, including the famous Wagner tubas.) The vast army of gods, giants, mermaids, valkyries and all the other characters is extremely well cast and impressive.

Whether you’ve experienced the “Ring” many times or are a complete neophyte, the important thing is to take advantage of this rare opportunity. The video and sound quality are beyond anything ever realized in a transmission before. Wagner always emphasized that the important elements in the “Ring” should be apparent to an audience member with no special preparation. I don’t necessarily buy that, but the wonder of the “Ring” is that it can be enjoyed regardless of where you are on the spectrum. And you’ll always want to return to it, again and again.

All of these performances have been broadcast previously over the last two seasons. The difference now is the ability to experience the “Ring” in a relatively shorter time frame. Wagner specified that the four “Ring” operas should be spread over six days, as is still done at Bayreuth, the opera house Ludwig built for him. This is important not only so you can keep track of the libretto, but because the effect of the music is cumulative. The leitmotifs change, darkening and becoming more chromatic over the course of the operas. The HD cycle is more spread out than would be ideal, but sometimes you have to take what you can get.

“Das Rheingold,” the first of the operas, takes place on Wednesday, May 9, at 6:30 p.m. “Die Walkure” will follow on May 14 at 6:30 p.m., then “Siegfried” is next on May 16 also at 6:30, followed by “Gotterdammerung” on May 19 at noon.

Six metro-area theaters will show the Metropolitan Opera production.

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