Sunday, 30 December 2018

Listening again to the whole of Wagner's Ring Cycle made me realise what I've been getting wrong about Opera all these years

It's not that I don't enjoy opera: it's just that I've never quite found the best way to enjoy it to the full - i.e. to be truly immersed in it, to be overwhelmed by it. I've attended a few live performances (about 30-35, I suppose),  I own and have listened to quite a few vinyl box-sets, and I've enjoyed CDs of highlights of individual operas and single-artist compilations of great arias and duets etc. But none of them has truly hit the spot in the way that so many live performances and recordings of symphonies and concertos have. I used to blame the mode of consumption...

...(live performances meant chronically cramped opera house seating, annoying audience members humming along loudly to the music or misexplaining the plot LOUDLY and ever so s..l..o..w..l..y  to their dim, elderly or inebriated companions, worrying about getting a cab home, or about whether you can stave off the need to go for a wazz until the fat lady has sung; or getting annoyed at having to turn the LP over every 20 minutes and wondering how it managed to develop serious scratches between the first and second playing, or why there's a constant crackling sound every time there's a quiet bit; or finding it impossible to follow the text translation because, for instance, a non-Teutonic singer is mispronouncing German words so radically that it's impossible to figure out where the hell you've got to etc.).

Then there are the presentational issues: in live, filmed, or televised recordings, the lithe, 21-year old lovely who is dying of consumption and who all the chaps are mad about is being played by a distinctly chunky 35-year old soprano who looks like she could go ten rounds with Tyson Fury; or the chap playing the handsome, dynamic young lurve-machine/man-of-action is a camp, spherical five-footer who looks like he'd suffer a hernia if he got out of bed too quickly - and, besides, can't act for toffee. As for the insistence of talentless opera directors with egos the size of planets to "reinterpret" (i.e. destroy) works of genius by making them all about slavery or women's rights or climate change or trannies, and their mania for transplanting the action from the palace of a 19th Century Neapolitan nobleman to, say, a contemporary sink estate in South-East London - well, I just can't be doing with it (I'm not against all attempts to relocate operas in time and space, but using them for the purposes of left-wing virtue-signalling strikes me as an aesthetic crime which should result in a life-time ban). As for "greatest hits" compilations, they're fine for introducing us to opera, but they rapidly become unsatisfying, because audience members can find it hard to concentrate on the bits in between the show-stopping highlights. (I once attended a dinner where an obnoxious banker - having learned that a fellow-guest was an expert in late 19th century romantic solo piano music, and refusing to be bested - informed us that he too was a great fan of classical music, opera in particular. On closer questioning, it became obvious that what he meant was that he knew a couple of Puccini arias. Wanker.)

But I've no right to be so snobbish about that banker, because we had something in common (besides loathing each other). The real reason I've never been able to respond to opera as wholeheartedly as I would like, I now see, is that I’ve been obsessing about musical nuggets at the expense of the drama. In fact, I’ve subconsciously been treating the story as if its only real function has been to act as a somewhat distracting setting for the musical gems on offer. I only fully realised where I'd been going wrong  after buying a CD set of the Wagner’s Ring Cycle as a birthday present to myself last month (Scorpio, as you ask). I almost went for the great Decca Solti version, whose price has plunged in recent years - but I already have that on vinyl, and I thought I might as well go for an unfamiliar recording. I was tempted by Josef Keilberth's 1955 Bayreuth production (of which the Spectator opera reviewer Michael Tanner is a keen advocate). But, having listened to snippets of it on YouTube, there was just too much extraneous noise for me to cope with (besides, it's pretty damned pricey). So I plumped for the  ridiculously cheap but well-reviewed Marek Janowski’s fourteen-CD set, recorded with the Statskapelle Dresden, which is available on Amazon for a quite ludicrous £20, and I listened to the whole 15 or so hours of it over the course of a week, determined not to let my concentration wander.

I needn’t have worried - the story is utterly rivetting from start to finish. Far from consisting of dreadful quarter hours and sublime moments (as one critic of Wagner characterised his work), I wasn’t aware of a single longueur. We attended a complete Ring Cycle at Covent Garden in the early ‘90s, and yet, ridiculous as it must sound, I could barely recall the overall arc of the narrative or most of the  details. What I could remember were numerous examples of thrillingly glorious, sublime music. Partly this was down to sheer physical discomfort (fittingly, we were in the gods, which, before major  refurbishments, were evidently designed for Alberichs rather than Fasolts). There was also the problem of a distractingly silly time-travel set, a tiny Wotan, a bottle-blonde Brunnhilde well past her sell-by date, who looked a bit of an old slapper in tight leather trousers. But, on reflection, it was largely my own fault - I was waiting for the famous musical passages, the ones I knew and loved, and tending to switch off during all the stuff stuff in between).

Only, there is no stuff “in between” - it’s all vital, original, constantly musically inventive, and astonishingly brilliant throughout: after the first hour or so, you forget it's all about gods and dragons and giants and heroes and suchlike folderol, and simply accept that it's entirely about what it means to be human: about living in a world where we, for good or ill, are the gods and dragons and giants.  The Janowski Ring Cycle isn’t remotely as powerful as Solti’s, and the singers at his disposal aren’t in the same league as those on Solti's masterpiece (considered, at the time of its release between 1958 and 1965, to represent the greatest feat of classical music recording, artistically and technically, up to that point). Nevertheless, Janowski held me spellbound throughout - to the extent that I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. I had, in other words, entirely surrendered myself to the drama, not just to Wagner’s ravishing, heart-stoppingly beautiful and supremely dramatic music (which, to be fair,  I’ve never had any problem appreciating - the fist classical LP I bought consisted of Wagner overtures and incidental music from the operas, the first opera box-set I bought was Das Rheingold,  and the achingly tender Siegfried Idyll was my favourite piece of classical music at university).

If you’re already a fan of The Ring Cycle, or have seen or listened to it and simply couldn’t get along with it, fine. But if you’ve ever wondered what all the fuss is about, and why many people (myself included) consider the tetralogy to be one of a tiny handful of works perched on the very pinnacle of mankind’s artistic achievements, I’d enthusiastically recommend starting with Janowski’s version. It doesn't include the text, so you'll have to get hold of a decent modern English translation: as the only versions online are hilariously, impenetrably archaic, I'd strongly recommend the one included in Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung: A Companion by Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington - bit pricey, but just think how much you've saved on the CDs!


  1. This is an excellent post on Wagner. Wish I had read it many years ago as I continue to be an enthusiastic "favourite excerpts" man. It is also very refreshing to read a piece about the Maestro which does not use the hackneyed expressions "redemption" or "redemptive power". Well done and thank you. You should send it off to "Opera Today".

  2. So much information crammed into such a small space with plenty of humour thrown in for good measure. Thoroughly enjoyable thank you. I'll have to read it again to get the full import.
    I know little about opera, but adore Wagner. Lying in a hot bath on a cold frosty winter's night with only a candle flickering in the steam (no not during the Winter of Discontent) but purely to allow the music to transport one to a different place and ones imagination enhanced by the strange mix of wisping steam and fire throwing fantastical shapes onto wall and ceiling is a fond memory of Blighty and one I can't seem to replicate in steamier climes. Fortunately I left before the men in white coats came knocking at my door.
    Great to see you back in such good form.
    Wishing you and your family a very Happy New Year.