Tonight we shall be starting a series that I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time – perhaps as long as 17 years, the length of time that I’ve been hosting radio programming here at WDBX. For the first time since I’ve been here, we are going to do a Ring Cycle. The Ring Cycle, of course, refers to Richard Wagner’s epic four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, The Ring of the Nibelung. Wagner considered it as a trilogy with an Vorabend (“ante-evening”, or a preliminary evening), and he intended the cycle to be performed on consecutive nights. The effort required of the singers is immense, without match in the operatic world, and the singers who are able to withstand the demands of a full cycle are a rare breed, and often become specialists in the music of Wagner. This is not just because of the length of the four operas, but also because of the difficulty of the parts, which require voices of unusual range and strength. Wagner wrote the music for the cycle over the course of 26 years, starting in 1848 and completing the cycle in 1874. Eventually he had a theater built specifically to house productions of the cycle, and the Bayreuth Festspielhaus remains a mecca for opera lovers with its annual productions of the Ring Cycle.
There are numerous difficult choices to make when choosing a Ring Cycle set for our show. There are numerous recordings of the complete cycle, and there are also numerous recordings of the individual parts. For our first Ring Cycle, I’ve acquired a set of live recordings of Bayreuth’s 1966 cycle, considered by many to be among the best recorded representations of the cycle, and which gives excellent sound quality. So, we start with Wagner’s “vorabend”, Das Rheingold. Although this was written as a prelude, it was actually the last of the four operas that Wagner conceived, as he planned the opera backwards, starting with the eventual death of the hero and then working back to include the hero’s youth, and the backstory of the heroine Brünnhilde. At one point in 1851 Wagner was planning for the Cycle to be a trilogy, but by December of that year he decided that a prelude was needed. Wagner completed the libretto by December of 1852, and a fair copy of the opera was completed on September 26, 1854. It was premiered in Munich on September 22, 1869, and it was first performed as part of the Cycle on August 13, 1876.
As I said, tonight’s recording comes from the 1966 Bayreuth Festival, considered by many to rank among the better full-Cycle recordings. The cast consists of Theo Adam, Gustav Neidlinger, Wolfgang Windgassen, Anja Silja, Martti Talvela, Annelies Burmeister, Kurt Böhme, Gerd Nienstedt, Hermin Esser, Věra Soukupová, and Erwin Wohlfahrt. Karl Böhm directs the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, as he did for all four operas in the cycle that we shall be hearing over the course of the next four weeks.
For our second opera this evening, we’re going to hear the last composition by Giacomo Puccini, Turandot. Puccini began composition in January of 1921, using a libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni. He had completed all but a final duet by March of 1924, but was dissatisfied with the text for the duet. He finally received a version of the text that he found satisfactory on October 8th, but two days later was diagnosed with throat cancer. He continued writing while undergoing what was then an experimental radiation treatment, but died of a heart attack on November 29th, 1924. He left 36 pages of sketches, along with instructions for how it was to be completed and whom should complete it – the last part of which Puccini’s son objected to. The job was eventually handed to Franco Alfano, whose contributions were edited by conductor Arturo Toscanini, who had worked extensively with Puccini in the past, and who conducted the premiere. Although there have been a number of recent attempts at revising this last portion, none have managed to stick, and the edition with Alfano’s contribution is the version that is usually heard.
Tonight’s performance is a 1966 recording that features top vocalists Birgit Nilsson (whom we’ll be hearing a lot from over the next few weeks, as she is prominent in our Ring Cycle, just not tonight’s recording) and Franco Corelli, two of the greatest voices of their era, along with Bonaldo Giaiotti, Renata Scotto, Angelo Mercuriali, and the Rome Opera House Orchestra & Chorus under the baton of Franco Molinari-Pradelli.
Our next piece is a short song cycle by Benjamin Britten, written for what he described as “high voice and orchestra”. Our Hunting Fathers, Op. 8, was based on a paper Britten wrote as a schoolboy, titled “Animals”. The paper was so controversial in its pacifism that it got Britten expelled from school, but pacifism remained a life-long passion for Britten, and he held the work in such high regard that he often referred to it as his “Opus 1”. He wrote it for orchestra, even though he had never had done such a composition before, and the work demonstrates a great degree of skill for such arrangements. Tonight’s recording features Phyllis Bryn-Julson with the English Chamber Orchestra.
Our last work of the evening is another short song cycle, this time by Samuel Barber. Despite and Still, Op. 41, was one of Barber’s last compositions, and was written for and dedicated to Leontyne Price, who had originated a number of Barber’s works. Price premiered the piece in 1969, and she also sang the piece at Barber’s memorial service in 1981. Tonight’s recording is by Thomas Hampson, with John Browning accompanying on piano.