Opera Essentials: Der Ring des Nibelungen
As the curtain goes up on Keith Warner's production, a guide to Wagner's epic operatic cycle.
Der Ring des Nibelungen is a cycle full of musical and dramatic extremes. The music ranges from Siegmund and Sieglinde’s rapturous love duet in Die Walküre to Hagen’s terrifying summoning of Gunther’s vassals. It encompasses Wotan’s despairing Act II monologue in Die Walküre and the violent close to Act II of Götterdämmerung, as well as Siegfried’s joyful forging song in Act I of Siegfried and the idyllic depiction of nature in Act II of Siegfried. Throughout the cycle, the richly varied orchestration and the use of motifs eloquently depict characters’ states of mind and events in the drama.
“A constant source of wonderment for all orchestral players is how a single human brain could contain so many notes, so many sounds and textures and still be providing challenges to performers more than 130 years after the notes were first put onto the page.”
- Nigel Bates, former Section Principal Percussion with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Wagner began working on Der Ring des Nibelungen as early as 1848, initially planning a single opera entitled Siegfrieds Tod. It took him more than twenty years to complete the cycle, with a pause in the middle during which he wrote Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Der Ring des Nibelungen was first performed in its entirety at the first Bayreuth Festival in August 1876 in the opera house Wagner designed specially for it.
The plot of Der Ring des Nibelungen was inspired by a vast array of sources, including the Norse sagas and the epic German Nibelungenlied. Wagner wrote his own libretto. He worked into it ideas about the nature of love, morality and happiness drawn from his own life as well as from philosophers that he admired, including Feuerbach and Schopenhauer.
“To watch Wagner construct and stage the Ring is to watch a master storyteller at work. He shaped the original myths so deftly that it comes as quite a shock to find there is no world-destroying ring in Norse mythology.”
- Sarah Lenton, writer on 18th- and 19th-century theatre
The Royal Opera’s production of Der Ring des Nibelungen uses symbols from myth and Wagner’s time, and even from the 20th century and the present day, bringing out both the realistic and fantastical elements in this operatic cycle. Genetics, astronomy, philosophy, 19th-century ideas on drama, industrialization and psychology are all explored in the designs and in director Keith Warner’s interpretation.
“It is an overwhelming task to put on 16 hours of music theatre that requires high quality singing and playing; strength, endurance and preparation; stunning theatrical effects; and the telling of the story of a world from its beginning to its end. This alone makes the Ring cycle the greatest challenge for an opera house to take on, and sets the standard for what we can achieve.”
- Kasper Holten, Director of Opera
The quotations accompanying this article are taken from the Royal Opera House programme book for Der Ring des Nibelungen. Programme books are available to buy before performances at the Royal Opera House at sales points in the Main Entrance Foyer, the Paul Amphitheatre Lobby.