A ring is forged that grants its wearer infinite power. While anyone who sets eyes on this ring longs to possess it, the trinket is actually a dangerous trap that eats its bearer up from the inside and enslaves him. Does this plot sound familiar? You might recognise it from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but the story of a magic band that holds the fate of a parallel universe in the balance dates back further. It was actually the German composer Richard Wagner who first wove an epic tale around this central motif (itself drawn from early Germanic epic poems) when he created the four-part Ring Cycle of operas between 1850 and 1874.
In writing the cycle’s words and music, Wagner created one of western culture’s most ambitious works, a musically overwhelming epic on a scale not attempted before or since.
Now, Abu Dhabi residents can experience the cycle themselves, as a superb production in HD from New York’s Metropolitan Opera screens at Marina Mall’s Vox Cinema between March 27 and April 3.
While the Ring Cycle’s cultural ripples reach far beyond the opera world – many novices immediately think of women in horned helmets and The Ride of the Valkyries when you mention the word opera – there’s no denying that the Ring can seem forbidding.
Running over four long nights, the cycle’s mix of deathly serious heroic struggles and music booming like heavy artillery is neither light entertainment nor entirely immune from parody. Nonetheless, if you persevere you’ll soon find out why the Ring Cycle remains a touchstone of European high culture. A work set in a collapsing world where even gods are flawed and the exercise of total power only destroys, it has proved a singularly effective metaphor for both the rise of all-powerful technology and the global battles of the past 100 years.
A bit of preparation makes the cycle more approachable, so here are some brief pointers to help you through.
The king of the gods, whose name persists in the word Wednesday (“Wotan’s day”), is the Ring Cycle’s real hero. Though powerful, he is a flawed figure who, in a very modern twist, commissions a splendid palace from giants without having the means to pay for it. Forced to cover the debt by handing over his sister-in-law Freia, the goddess of youth and beauty, he vows to buy back her freedom with a magic ring that grants its bearer omnipotence. Wotan steals the ring from its maker, the dwarf Alberich, who loads it with a curse. Meanwhile, in Freia’s absence, the gods start to age and sicken.
Wagner’s female characters are an impressive bunch, and his warrior goddesses are no exception. Illegitimate daughters of Wotan, these fearsome women incite mortals to violence in battle, so that they can see which warriors are worthy of joining their father after death. The bravest of the lot is Brünnhilde, who disobeys Wotan’s orders to slay her half-brother Siegmund and thus pushes the gods further towards their final catastrophe.
Definitely the cycle’s weakest link, Siegfried is Wotan’s mortal grandson, a fearless warrior who nonetheless comes across as a dim-witted, petulant brat. Having acquired the magic ring himself, Siegfried murders his treacherous guardian Mime, the brother of Alberich the ringmaker, and rescues Brünnhilde, who has been punished by Wotan for her disobedience by being struck unconscious within a ring of fire. The pair fall in love, but when Siegfried goes off in search of adventure, things soon go awry.
Wagner’s mould-breaking scores swept away the barrier between arias (songs) and recitative (sung dialogue), meaning the action continues seamlessly without any loss of dramatic momentum. Instead of the show-stopping arias we expect from Italian opera, Wagner punctuated the Ring Cycle with leitmotifs, theme tunes associated with particular characters or situations that recur periodically through the story. Unlike some other operas, the orchestra’s role in the Ring is no less important than that of the singers. Indeed, the Ring contains some of the greatest orchestral music ever, filled with stunning nature poetry such as the opening bars’ evocation of the Rhine at daybreak, or the forest murmurs that greet Siegfried as he puts on the ring.
The Met’s current Ring boasts two singers who are not just unbeatable musically, but also among opera’s greatest actors – the Welshman Bryn Terfel and the American Deborah Voigt as Wotan and Brünnhilde. The Met’s HD series uses close-ups that allow for acting subtlety not usually possible in opera. The production, by the Canadian director Robert Lepage, reshapes the stage space with 24 rotating wedges that also create a constantly shifting backdrop for projections of fires and rockfalls.
The four parts of the Ring – Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung – will screen at the VOX Gold Cinemas in Marina Mall at 7pm on March 27, March 28, April 1 and April 3 respectively. Tickets for each opera are priced at Dh120
Follow Arts & Life on Twitter to keep up with all the latest news and events @LifeNationalUAE