WDBX Opera Overnight: The Conclusion to Wagner’s Ring Cycle (officially, Part 4); Mussorgsky, Bizet

Deborah Voigt

Deborah Voigt, as Brünnhilde in a recent performance of Götterdämmerung at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Tonight, we reach the last portion of Richard Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle, Der Ring des NibelungenGötterdämmerung, like last week’s Siegfried, was premiered on August 17, 1876, at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus as part of the first complete performance of the cycle.  The title is the German translation of the Old Norse phrase Ragnarök, which in Norse mythology referred to a prophesied war of the gods that would bring about the end of the world.  Of course, Wagner took liberties with the myth, as he did with much of the plot for the cycle.  This opera features the only time in the entire cycle that Wagner would use a chorus.  Wagner was also especially aggressive in his use of tonality – starting with act 3 of Siegfried, he transitioned from traditionally defined keys to something close to “key regions”, with a heightened use of dissonance and chromaticism.  His use of such techniques (which we also find in Tristan und Isolde) is considered a direct predecessor to the methods developed by Arnold Schoenberg, only Wagner’s work here preceded Schoenberg’s by a full 25 years.

1875 engraving of the Bayreuth Festival Theatre

1875 engraving of the Bayreuth Festival Theatre (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tonight’s recording, as with the recordings that we have heard over the last three weeks, is from a legendary 1966 live recording at the Bayreuth Festival.  The cast is comprised of top-notch Wagnerians, led by Wolfgang Windgassen, Birgit Nilsson, Josef Greindl, Thomas Stewart, Ludmilla Dvoráková, Gustav Neidlinger, and Anja SiljaKarl Böhm directed the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus.

Português: Retrato por Repin, 1881

Portrait of Modest Mussorgsky, by Retrato por Repin, 1881 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our next piece of music is a song cycle by Modest Mussorgsky.  He wrote The Nursery (Russian: Детская, Detskaya, literally Children’s [Room]) between 1868 and 1872, using his own lyrics.  This was written right around the same time that he wrote his operatic masterpiece, Boris Godunov.  It is not sung very often in the West, due to the difficulties that come with singing in Russian, but it is widely considered to be one of the more important song cycles of the late 19th century.  We shall hear the Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Alexandrina Milcheva singing, with Svetla Protich accompanying on the pianoforte.

For our final piece of the evening, we will hear a set of 5 songs by Georges Bizet, all written between 1866 and 1872.  The set includes two settings of poems by Victor Hugo, Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe and La coccinelle, a poem by Alphonse de Lamartine, Chant d’amour, a poem by Édouard Pailleron, Tarantelle, and a poem by Louis Delâtre, Ouvre ton cœur.  Cecilia Bartoli sings to the piano accompaniment of Myung-Whun Chung.

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WDBX Opera Overnight – Der Ring des Nibelungen, Part 2; Bartók, Ravel

English: Sieglinde (Therese Vogl) offers Siegm...

English: Sieglinde (Therese Vogl) offers Siegmund (Heinrich Vogl) a horn of mead from Act I of the 1870 production of Wagner’s Die Walküre. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We are continuing tonight with our hearing of the second installment of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen.  As we stated last week, Wagner wrote the cycle backwards, starting with the ending and finishing with the prelude, Das Reingold, which we heard last week.  Tonight’s opera, Die Walküre, was written between 1851 and 1856, but was not premiered until 26 June 1870 (shown at right, with Therese and Heinrich Vogl, the husband and wife original interpreters of the Sieglinde and Siegmund roles), as he interrupted composition of the cycle so that he could write  Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The first performance of the Die Walkure as part of the full cycle did not occur until August of 1876, after the completion of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.

Of course, the result is some of the most absolutely thrilling music in the history of classical music.  Even as the size, scope and scale of the Ring makes a full production of the cycle a major accomplishment, Die Walküre easily stands on its own as an exhilarating experience, possibly matched only by other works of Wagner’s, such as Tristan und Isolde.  It is no wonder that Wagner’s influence was so significant during the latter half of the 19th century, both positive and negative.  Love or hate, he could not be ignored.

Bayreuth Festspielhaus, in which the Ring was ...

Bayreuth Festspielhaus, in which the full Ring Cycle was premiered in 1876 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tonight’s performance is part of the 1966 Bayreuth Festival live recording of the full Cycle, which we are featuring, one that is considered to be among the best full cycles available.  Tonight we will hear an excellent cast of Wagnerians – James King (Siegmund), Leonie Rysanek (Sieglinde), Theo Adam (Wotan), Birgit Nilsson (Brunhilde), Gerd Nienstedt (Hunding), Annelies Burmeister (Fricka).  Karl Böhm leads the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra & Chorus.

Français : Gravure sur bois de 33 x 27 cm de B...

Illustration by Gustave Doré for Perrault‘s tale Bluebeard, upon which Bartók’s opera was based. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our next work for the evening is a one act opera by Béla Bartók.  Bartók composed Bluebeard’s Castle in 1911 for a competition that Bartók entered, using a libretto by his friend Béla Balázs, which was in turn based on a fairy tale by Charles Perrault.  It is usually sung in Hungarian, although there are several German translations, and an English translation was published in 2005.  At one point Bartók did not think that he would ever hear it performed, but the success of his ballet The Wooden Prince earned him the backing that allowed for a premiere in May 1918.  The work is a challenging piece to stage, especially if it is sung in the original Hungarian.  While it is rarely staged, it will occasionally be performed in concert.  Tonight’s recording is from 2003, and features Péter Fried and Cornelia Kallisch.  Peter Eötvös leads the SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra

Our last work for the evening is a song cycle for high voice with orchestra by Maurice Ravel.  Ravel wrote Shéhérazade in 1903, and it was premiered in May of 1904.  It was inspired by a collection of poems by his friend Léon Leclère, which Leclère titled Shéhérazade in honor of the well-known symphonic suite by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, of which both Leclère and Ravel were fans.  Ravel was also inspired by Debussy’s recently premiered Pelléas et Mélisande.  Victoria de Los Angeles performs in this 1963 recording, with the great early 20th century conductor Pierre Monteux (he directed the premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande, among other works by Debussy, Ravel, and other composers of the day)  leading Concertgebouw Amsterdam in one of his last recordings.

WDBX Opera Overnight – Wagner, Puccini

Richard Wagner, Paris, 1861

Photograph of composer Richard Wagner, Paris, 1861 (catalog number 007); this was taken when Wagner was in France for the premiere of Tannhauser.

We have another interesting show for you this evening, with two great operas featuring two great tenor/sopranos duos.  We begin the evening with Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser.  Wagner based the libretto on a poem by Heinrich Heine, the same poet who inspired Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, although Wagner also found some inspiration in a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann,  the 15th century folk ballad Das Lied von dem Danheüser, and a collection of folk legends from Thuringia called Der Sagenschatz und die Sagenkreise des Thüringerlandes.  Heine published his poem in 1837, and Wagner (who wrote all of his own librettos) wrote a draft libretto in prose in 1842.  He began the composition of the music in the summer of 1843, and completed the full score on April 13, 1845.  It was premiered on October 19 of that same year, with Wagner’s niece Johanna (who had assisted him during the compositional process by singing the parts as he wrote them, thereby serving as a partial inspiration for Wagner’s vision of the lead soprano part) singing the part of Elizabeth.  The opera was not initially as successful as some of Wagner’s previous works, and he spent parts of 1846 and 1847 revising it.  He also produced a well known revision of the opera in 1860 for a special performance in Paris, and that revision was itself revised in 1875.

Grace Bumpry

Grace Bumpry, from some time in the 1960s, during a performance of Carmen

Tonight’s recording is a legendary live recording from the 1962 Bayreuth Festival.  It is commonly referred to as the “Black Venus” because of the presence of Grace Bumpry, the first black singer to appear at Bayreuth.  Along with Grace Bumpry (whose Venus is quite prominent in Act 1), we hear Wolfgang Windgassen and Anja Silja in the lead roles, along with Eberhard Wächter, Gerhard Stolze, Franz Crass, Georg Paskuda, Gerd Nienstedt, and Else-Margaret Gardelli.  The Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra is conducted by Wolfgang Swallisch, and the production was staged by Wagner’s grandson Wieland Wagner, who for years ran the Bayreuth Festival and is credited for initiating the modernist trend in Wagnerian productions (and who was in a relationship for a while with Anja Silja, tonight’s lead soprano).

Anja Silja, c. 1966

Anja Silja, c. 1966

Promotional poster for Giacomo Puccini's opera...

Promotional poster for Giacomo Puccini's opera "Turandot", from 25 April 1926. (Image via Wikipedia)

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.

Birgit Nilsson as Turandot

Birgit Nilsson as Turandot, possibly for a Metropolitan Opera performance, date unknown

But a mere recounting of the music’s history fails to touch on the beauty that inhabits this music.  Puccini’s music, while a continuation of the Italian musical tradition established by such great writers as Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi, was fully modern for the 1920s.  He showed with traces of Wagnerian inspiration, but also suggesting hints of influences from Debussy and, later in his life, Stravinsky.  Puccini also had a taste for exotic locations and influences, as many of his operas were set outside of Italy, and two of them (Turandot and Madama Butterfly) were set in the Orient.  Puccini wrote demanding roles, and Turandot attracts the best sopranos and tenors.  He also had a gift for melody, and Nessun Dorma, the soaring tenor aria that helps lead off Act 3, is one of the more easily recognized melodies in all of music.

Tonight’s performance is a 1966 recording that features top vocalists Birgit Nilsson 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.