All You Need To Appreciate Wagner’s Ring

"A MAGIC SCENE contrived to please the eyes and ears at the expense of the understanding." Lord Chesterfield's opinion of opera may be generally correct, but one's mind must be prepared if one is to fully enjoy Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs cycle of operas.  This explains why.

We greatly enjoy Patrice Chéreau's production on DVD inspired by Bernard Shaw's political interpretation in The Perfect Wagnerite.

If you read only one book it should be Thomas May's Decoding Wagner which comes with two CDs - one of "greatest hits" from the Ring and one from the other operas.

The exhaustive Richard Wagner archive includes the synopsis, libretto and sources for all four operas. Rudolph Sabor’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen: A Companion is invaluable, as are his Translation and Commentary for each opera.  The five paperback volumes are available separately or as a boxed set.

Joachim Köhler's enthralling biography Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans gives a fully documented analysis penetrating the smokescreen Wagner set up to hide the origins of his ideas, his musical masterpieces and his often disgusting behaviour.  Bryan Magee's The Tristan Chord, published in Britain as Wagner and Philosophy, is delightfully easy to read yet it gives one a profound understanding of all of Wagner's works.

Thanks to Wagner's narcissistic personality disorder and emotional conflicts, his characters have great psychological depth, so the Ring also demands a Jungian interpretation.  How that illuminates our own experiences is best shown in Jean Bolen’s book Ring of Power.  The Jungian ideas may be summarised thus:

In the flowing realm of the unconscious Self, the Rhinemaidens protect the gold with its life-giving power or libido. Alberich snatches the gold into the Shadow, that unloving part of the unconscious personality which self-esteem will not permit one to recognize as one's own, and which may be projected onto others. To mature one must overcome the Shadow.  This Wotan does, but his castle building expresses inflation of the Ego, an exaggerated consciousness of one's own importance.  This leads him to contract with Giants, whose egos are even more inflated.

The slaying of the giant Dragon by Siegfried in an heroic struggle represents the deflating of Ego. His love of Brunhilde is a vital union of the conscious Ego with the spiritual aspect of the unconscious.  Siegfried's death ends domination by the Ego, and Brunhilde's immolation entirely burns away the distinction between Ego and Self. The return of the ring to the Rhinemaidens' realm completes the process of individuation by which a person becomes a psychological individual, that is, a separate, indivisible whole.  Now the Self is experienced as a numinous, transpersonal power, as God. It is often symbolized by a mandala, a ring.
Appreciation of the music is greatly increased by knowledge of the leitmotivs.  The Ring Disc is a CD-ROM that plays the entire Ring (with Solti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic), while displaying the piano-vocal score and German libretto with English translation; it also includes a list of leitmotivs, synopsis, and character descriptions.

A comparison of the Ring with Star Wars is one of the many delights of the Richard Wagner Web Site. The Wagner Library contains English translations of his prose works and related articles (some very strange).

Árni Björnsson’s Wagner and the Volsungs details the sources Wagner used in compiling the libretti of the Ring. It shows that he derived at least 80% of his material from Old Icelandic writings (the Prose Edda, Eddic poems, and various sagas); 15% is common to both German and Icelandic texts, but no more than 5% is solely from German books such as Das Nibelungenlied. The Gotterdammerung concept of the world being consumed by fire, and the flames surrounding Brunnhilde's mountain fastness, were known to Wagner from Icelandic sources alone, and may have been inspired originally by Iceland’s frequent volcanic eruptions.

A must-read article in the British Medical Journal argues that the potion taken by Tristan and Isolde was brewed from a nightshade plant such as henbane. That could also be true of the potion given to Siegfried, because henbane contains scopolamine, the date rape drug, which induces retrograde amnesia.

The best acoustics for Wagnerian opera is found in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, which looks as it did in 1876 when Wagner built it as a temporary theatre. You need to plan well ahead to get tickets for Bayreuth, but it is far easier and much more enjoyable to book with International Curtain Call: you will be escorted by the genial owner, Gerry Glaser, an opera buff who provides not only excellent seats and first-class hotel accommodation but also gourmet meals and site-seeing with wonderful guides.

And if you dislike the soprano you might resort to using a Lycopersicon esculentum.

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