In advance of its production at the Met, Jasper Rees looks at Wagner's Ring Cycle.
The Instant Expert: get in the loop on Wagner's Ring Cycle
Float through any social event with M's fast facts. This week Jasper Rees looks at Richard Wagner, whose Ring Cycle is being staged at the Met and is being shown in Abu Dhabi.
THE BASICS, PART ONE Opera's ultimate genius, Richard Wagner (1813-1883) composed across four decades a series of works that are almost all seen as masterpieces. From the early works in the romantic tradition - Der fliegende Holländer (1843) and Tannhaüser (1845) - through to the imperishable Christian allegory Parsifal (1882), he pushed the boundaries of an art form, draining away any hint of frivolity or gaiety to be found in the great works of Mozart and Italy's bel canto composers.
THE BASICS, PART TWO Wagner came to regard his works as more than mere operas. They were music dramas or, in his coinage, "total works of art" in which elements of the performance - the music, the drama, the poetry and the visual spectacle - melded into an organic whole. Unlike anyone before or since, Wagner undertook to supply the libretto to his own music.
THE APPRENTICESHIP It is difficult to imagine such a monumental figure in German culture as young and untried, but he was born in the Jewish quarter of Leipzig, the ninth child of a clerk in the police service. His father died when he was a baby and for a time he took the name of his stepfather, who handed down his love of music. He began working on his first opera at 20. Rienzi, his first critically acclaimed work, came seven years later.
THE LENGTH After his early successes (none of which did much to alleviate Wagner's crippling debts), his operas grew gruellingly long. Though a marathon for audiences, it's the musicians who have the real endurance test. In the seventh hour of the 27th rehearsal for Die Meistersinger, the principal horn Franz Strauss (the father of Richard) downed tools that he could play no more. "Then take your pension!" cried the irritated conductor, Hans von Bülow. The indispensable Strauss did as he was told, and a shocked orchestra manager had to use all his diplomatic skills to lure him back to his seat.
THE ORCHESTRA Wagner oversaw the creation of instruments to meet his demands for a uniquely dense orchestral sound. He is the only composer who has had an instrument named after him: the Wagner tuba has a rich sonorous sound and can be found all over Wagner's scores, most notably in The Ride of the Valkyries, which Coppola fans will know from Apocalypse Now.
THE THEATRE Ring Cycle was premiered in its entirety in Wagner's own bespoke theatre. The Festspielhaus in Bayreuth was the final piece of the jigsaw in his artistic vision. Funded by "Mad" King Ludwig II of Bavaria, its design was adapted by Wagner without the architect's permission and included a hooded pit in which the composer's vast orchestral forces played invisibly to the audience and in near darkness. The theatre has been run by his descendants ever since, and no other operas but Wagner's are performed there.
THE FANS Wagner's work inspires obsessive, unrivalled devotion. Posterity has failed to come to a resolution about Wagner's anti-Semitism. He deplored the music of Mendelssohn but had Jewish friends. Hitler's enthusiasm for Wagner's supremely Teutonic worldview has found the composer's music effectively banned in Israel.
THE DISSENTING OPINION Wagner's operas go on too long. Best to enjoy his lush scoring without all the prolixity. If you haven't got a spare five hours, just listen to the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, often referred to "the unkindest cut of all".
Abu Dhabi Festival's four-day HD screening of the Ring Cycle from the Metropolitan Opera in New York continues at Vox Cinemas, Marina Mall on April 1 and April 3. See www.abudhabifestival.ae
The four most noteworthy compositions
DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG (1868) A rarity for Wagner, being a comedy set in the real world of 16th-century musical guilds in Germany, rather than a mythical elsewhere.
TRISTAN UND ISOLDE (1865) The love drama inspired by one of Wagner's many affairs famously begins with the Tristan chord, a dissonant departure from all previous musical thinking, resolved five hours later by the most ecstatic musical climax.
DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN (RING CYCLE) This epic drawn from Norse myth is the towering expression of Wagner's vision. It consists of four operas composed over four years from 1853. But the first performance of Das Rheingold wasn't until 1869 and the first complete staging, including Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, not until 1876.
PARSIFAL (1882) Perhaps the purest expression of Wagner's genius. He referred to this redemptive meditation on the Grail legend as a Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage.