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.
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 BÃ¶hm version and will always love this recording. The orchestra is great and at times, magical â€“ 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 BrÃ¼nnhilde’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 BrÃ¼nnhilde’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 BrÃ¼nnhilde 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.