The Ring: A brief survey of performances and works

For those interested, I have put together a brief review of some of the performances and books available on Wagner’s Ring. For the Wagner afficionado this survey will be pathetically thin, so please feel free to supplement in the comment section. But for those who are new to Wagner, it should be sufficient to get you going. It is important to keep in mind that reading the libretti before viewing any opera is important. Much more so for Wagner. The story of the Ring is intricate and there are too many characters (thirty-four) to take in on first viewing without some preparation. Even if you are proficient in German, much will be lost if you are not familiar with the libretti.

Compact Discs

There are over a dozen Ring’s on CD and I have not had the opportunity (that is, money), to hear many of them. The Karajan version is quite good, but will not grab the novice like others. I cut my teeth on the Böhm version and will always love this recording. The orchestra is great and at times, magical – especially in Rheingold. Many have panned Theo Adam’s Wotan, but I actually like the way he sings the part.

My favorite is the Solti Ring. Solti brings out all of the musical drama of the Ring (too much for some palates). The orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, is unrivaled except for the Berlin Philharmonic in the Karajan version. The cast is almost uniformly excellent. Hotter, Nilsson, and Windgassen sing the principal roles. The minor parts are sung equally well (worth mentioning are Neidlinger, Flagstad, King, Crespin, Ludwig, Sutherland, and Fischer-Dieskau. And two future Brünnhilde’s, Helga Dernesch and Gwyneth Jones, sing in the female ensembles.) If you have $180 laying around, this is the one to buy.

Digital Video Discs

There are at least four Rings available on DVD. The best for the first-timer is probably the Metropolitan Opera’s traditionally staged version. The orchestra is quite good, but the singing is uneven. James Morris’s Wotan is exceptional as is Matti Salminen’s Hagen. But while Hildegard Behrens does a nice job in developing Brünnhilde’s character from a warrior-goddess to a vulnerable maiden she is vocally weak.

The Chereau-Boulez version performed at Bayreuth is the best. It is set in the 19th Century and so will annoy the traditionalist. But the singing and acting more than make up for this. The orchestra is also first rate. Of the modern Wotan’s James Morris is usually considered the best, but I prefer the intensity and gravitas of this version’s Donald McIntyre. Gweneth Jones is the best Brünnhilde on DVD (although not the best per se) and Heinz Zednik (Loge and the Siegfried Mime) steals the show every time he is on stage. The twins (Siegmund and Sieglinde) are sung by Peter Hoffman and Jeanne Altmeyer. They are not great vocally, but their passion more than offsets this. (Some may think Hoffman’s acting is ostentatious at first, but it improves upon multiple viewings.)

The most recently produced version was conducted by de Billy in Barcelona, but was originally staged in Berlin. The production is said to be “postmodern” (whatever that means) but the stage is cluttered, the lighting is abhorrent, and the costumes absurd (the giants, for example, are robots). All this could be forgiven if the music compensated adequately, but it does not. Falk Struckmann’s Wotan is appalling. (Although he sings well as Pizarro in the Met’s Fidelio). His dress (and demeanor) would fit in at a Metallica concert, but does not work as the king of the gods. Avoid this one.

I have not viewed the recent Stuttgart version, but from all accounts, it is a disaster.


The best introduction to Wagner is Bryan Magee’s, Aspects of Wagner (Oxford). Short and readable, it covers Wagner’s various theories of opera (especially his earlier one) and throws light on why so many have either come to hate or idolize Wagner’s music. Magee’s other book on Wagner, The Tristan Chord (Metropolitan Books) is also very good, but more of a chore to read. He covers Wagner’s philosophical influences and how these were translated into his music. Another work worth consulting is Philip Kitcher and Richard Schacht’s, Finding an Ending: Reflections on Wagner’s Ring (Oxford). While I do not agree with much of what they say (their take on the character Siegfried is wrong almost from start to finish) and their writing style is stilted and academic, there is much food for thought here.

The standard biography of Wagner is Ernest Newman’s four volume work, The Life of Richard Wagner. Newman’s book is considered definitive, but is tedious reading. (One gets, for example, more information than he is ever likely to want to know about Wagner’s domestic life). Less arduous is Ronald Taylor’s Richard Wagner: His Life, Art, and Thought.

7 thoughts on “The Ring: A brief survey of performances and works

  1. One book that I forgot to mention is William Berger’s, Wagner without Fear. This book gives a brief biography of Wagner as well as helpful overviews of each of the ten operas. He mixes in just theater legends and gossip to add just enough color to make for an enjoyable and easy read.

    The book does suffer from a number of defects, but I’ll mention just two.  (1) The author’s chatty, “I’m just a regular guy who likes opera” style becomes cloying after a while. And his attempts at humor (which are many) are almost all abortive. (2) His approach to Wagner’s philosophy and political thought is conventional and uninteresting — typical PC stuff.

  2. Well, I’m not sure how much would be lost not pre-studying the libretto if someone were proficient in German: we would have to ask someone with that qualification. However, I would urge people not to hold off jumping in due to lack of time or opportunity to study the libretto. If you can take a swimming lesson before wading in, consider doing so; but if not, wade in anyhow.

  3. The more I think about it, the more I think that someone proficient in German would indeed get as much out of a first viewing as it is possible to get in a first viewing.

    I think an English-speaker watching the titles can almost get that much. In fact, when the Met production was broadcast for the first time on PBS in the 80s, I watched part of it with a classically-illiterate friend and he picked up a lot. Probably as much as I got in the first six or eight listenings.

    More than the language, I think other propensities dominate here. It takes me several viewings even to “get” the simplest of operas. But that’s fine. It just prolongs the pleasure.

  4. For those who have not discovered Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of the Ring, this site has a nice selection. Lewis said of them that the seemed to be the very music made visible. At least this was his opinion in his youth.

    There are 64 drawings given in the sequence of the operas. My favorites are 18, 31, 33, 34, 47, and 56. A diverting exercise is to figure out the scene for each illustration.

    For the advanced, here is a challenge: Give the opera, act, scene and circumstance of each of the following illustrations: 6, 14, 16, 30, 36, 37, 38, 39, 41, 53, 55, and 58. The winner will receive a free one-year subscription to First Word.

  5. How on earth do you have time to study opera, history, theology/philosophy, raise a family, teach full-time, and write lengthy, in-depth articles in a blog and consequently interact/debate with intellectual peons like myself?

    Share your secret with me. Combined with my megalomania, such a skill might enable me to take over the world, or at least Western Europe, or at least Andorra, before I die.

  6. Keith-

    Opera (okay, Wagner) is like a religion. It becomes part of your life and devotion to it can’t be helped.

    As for the other things, remember that I am quite older than you and can draw upon years of experience and study. After twenty years at the grindstone, you too will have a well of resources to draw from.

    There is a good deal of truth in the old adage: age and treachery will always overcome youth and enthusiasm.

    The key to fruitful study is to ask the right questions, read the right books and not be afraid to come to iconoclastic conclusions. Add to this: think, think, think. Think about everything.

    This is the “secret”. Do this and in twenty years (perhaps even in much less time) you will no longer be impressed by me. And as a fringe benefit you will also no longer be tempted with megalomania.

  7. Wagner’s 29 year old great-granddaughter, Katharina Wagner, may be taking over Bayreuth when Wolfgang Wagner departs. Wolfgang has been the director of the festival for 56 years.

    And what should we make of this? A Jew, Daniel Barenboim, and his mostly Jewish Divan Orchestra will be performing Wagner’s music in Hitler’s theater in Berlin next year. The Jews really do own everything now.

    In fairness to Barenboim, his orchestra does include a large number of Arabs. And he is a fine pianist. His interpretations of Beethovan’s middle sonatas are good. Better than, say, Ashkenazy’s.

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