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.


WDBX Opera Overnight – Der Ring des Nibelungen, Part 3; Bach, Schütz

Lauritz Melchior

Lauritz Melchior, one of the all-time great heldentenors, who played Siegfried 47 times during the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

We continue tonight with our playing of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen.  As we have stated in the last two weeks, Wagner wrote the libretto between 1848 and 1852, writing the four operas in reverse order.  The music, on the other hand, was written in the order of the narrative.  Wagner had the music for Siegfried written up to the end of Act 2, at which point he set the opera aside while he wrote Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  He picked up where he left off in 1869, and had the rest of the cycle completed by October of that same year.  Although he had completed the music, Wagner delayed publishing the opera because he wanted the cycle premiered in its entirety, not in individual parts (King Ludwig had insisted on hearing Das Reingold and Die Walküre upon publication, in spite of Wagner’s objections).  The premiere was also delayed because of Wagner’s desire to have a theater built for his music.  Siegfried was eventually premiered on August 16th, 1876, in the newly completed Bayreuth Festspielhaus, as part of the first complete performance of the cycle.

Tonight’s recording is from Karl Böhm’s excellent live recording from the 1967 Bayreuth Festival.  We hear Wolfgang Windgassen (like Lauritz Melchior, one of the all-time great heldentenors), Erwin Wohlfahrt, Birgit Nilsson (one of the all-time great Brünnhildes), Theo Adam, and Gustav Neidlinger.  Böhm leads the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra & Chorus.

en: Mathilde Wesendonck 1850. Painted by Karl ...

Mathilde Wesendonck 1850. Painted by Karl Ferdinand Sohn. Öl a. Lwd. StadtMuseum Bonn, Inv. Nr. SMB 1991/G313 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For our second piece this evening, we’re going to hear one of Wagner’s few non-operatic works.  The Wesendonck Lieder is a song cycle that Wagner wrote while writing Tristan und Isolde, using poems by  Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of one of Wagner’s patrons, and the focus of an alleged love affair of Wagner’s.  Wagner used the music as studies, and eventually used some of this material in Tristan und Isolde.  The cycle was initially written for female voice and piano, but eventually set the 5th movement, Träume, for chamber orchestra in 1857.  The rest of the orchestration was completed by the noted Wagnerian conductor Felix Mottl.  There have been other orchestral arrangements of the cycle, but Mottl’s is the most commonly performed version.  Tonight’s recording is a 2010 recording, with Measha Brueggergosman singing.  Franz Welser-Möst leads the Cleveland Orchestra.

Our next work is an oratorio by Johann Sebastian Bach, written for Ascension Sunday, which was celebrated today.  Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen (Praise God in his Kingdoms), BWV 11, was likely composed in 1735, with Bach recycling older material, as he often did.  It was first performed on May 19, 1735.  The text is presumed to have been written by Picander, who used multiple Biblical sources.  Tonight’s recording is a 1989 recording, with Emma Kirkby, Evelyn Tubb, Margaret Cable, Wilfried Jochens, and Stephen Charlesworth.  Andrew Parrott leads the Taverner Consort & Players.

Our last work of the evening is a piece by the German early Baroque composer Heinrich Schütz.  Schütz wrote Kleiner Geistlicher Concerten sometime around 1639, in the midst of the Thirty Years War, as an attempt to console those who had lost so much to the violence that surrounded them.  We shall hear a 1990 recording of the Concerto Vocale, under the direction of Rene Jacobs.

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’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen, Day 1; Puccini, Britten, Barber

The giants seize Freya. One of Arthur Rackham'...

The giants seize Freya. One of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations from 1910 to Wagner’s Das Rheingold. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.


A page from Wagner's autograph score of Das Rh...

A page from Wagner’s autograph score of Das Rheingold (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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 RheingoldAlthough 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.


Richard Wagner Festspielhaus am Grünen Hügel i...

Richard Wagner Festspielhaus am Grünen Hügel in Bayreuth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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 WindgassenAnja 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.


Italiano: Frontespizio del libretto d'opera &q...

Italiano: Frontespizio del libretto d’opera “Turandot” di G. Adami e R. Simoni musica di Giacomo Puccini – edizioni G. Ricordi & C. Milano – Prima rappresentazione alla Scala di Milano 25 aprile 1926 (Photo credit: 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.


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.


English: Leontyne Price (b&w) by Jack Mitchell

Leontyne Price, photographed by Jack Mitchell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.