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 – 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.


WDBX Opera Overnight: Wagner, Moussorgsky

English: Facsimile from the manuscript final b...

Manuscript page from Tristan und Isolde (Image via Wikipedia)

We started tonight’s edition of WDBX Opera Overnight with a classic recording of Richard Wagner‘s Tristan und Isolde.  Tristan und Isolde was written between 1857 and 1859 (but not staged until 1865), and is considered one of the more influential works of the 19th century,  It did things with chromaticism and tonality that laid the groundwork for much of what would come during the 20th century, and inspired a significant group of major composers, including Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg.  (It can also be said to have inspired a group of composers who recognized but rejected his influence, including Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.)

Tonight’s performance was recorded live at the 1966 Bayreuth Festival, with the following cast:

  • Wolfgang Windgassen –  if any person were ever seem to be fated to inevitably become a Wagnerian tenor, it would be the person who bore a name such as Wolfgang Windgassen.  But his gifts were no fluke – his father, Fritz Windgassen, was himself a noted Heldentenor, his mother, Vali von der Osten, was a coloratura soprano, and her sister, Eva von der Osten, created the part of Octavian in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier.  Windgassen sang all of the great Wagnerian tenor roles, and he was a mainstay at the Staatsoper Stuttgart, succeeding his father as principal tenor and eventually becoming its artistic director.
  • Birgit Nilsson – Swedish soprano who is generally mentioned along with Kirsten Flagstad as being the greatest dramatic sopranos of the 20th century
  • Christa Ludwig – German mezzo-soprano whom we have heard in multiple performances over the past few months.
  • Claude Heater – also a noted Wagnerian tenor who is featured in a side role in this recording.  He is also known for his portrayal of Jesus in the classic movie Ben Hur, which never showed his face (the character was shown only from the rear, in keeping with the wishes of Lew Wallace, who wrote the book upon which Ben Hur was based).
  • Eberhard Wächter – another mainstay of our show, as he participated in so many recordings that have achieved high regard over the years.
  • Erwin Wohlfahrt
  • Gerd Nienstedt
  • Peter Schreier – German tenor who was noted for his performances in the works of Bach, and for his performances of lieder.  After the end of his singing career, he has focused his attention on conducting.

Karl Böhm conducted the Bayreuth Festival Choir and Orchestra.

Feodor Chaliapin with Sergei Rachmaninoff, c. 1890

Feodor Chaliapin (l), with friend Sergei Rachmaninoff, c. 1890

For our second recording of the evening, we have a rather interesting excerpted recording of Modest Moussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.  It is not my normal practice to play portions of a piece of music, as I want to hear the complete piece, thereby giving me the opportunity to understand the composer’s intentions for the music.  But this recording is a special case: a live recording, from 1928, that features the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin singing his signature role.  Chaliapin was born in 1873, and died in 1938, long before technology allowed for the recording of full operas.  All of Chaliapin’s surviving recordings exist on 78s (or even earlier recording media), which require an extensive amount of preservation work just to make them listenable.  The result is an interesting document that brings back one of the great voices in musical history.

Chaliapin’s achievements did not stop with his vocal talents: he put so much effort into his acting that some of his characterizations were considered startling (indeed, many of the surviving pictures of him show him in costume with elaborate makeup).  In fact, his 1907 premiere at the Metropolitan Opera was considered disappointing in part because audiences did not expect the frankness of his character portrayals (his next visit in 1923 found audiences that were far more accommodating).  This philosophy of musicianship did not limit itself to on-stage portrayals, as composers and performers such as Sergei Rachmaninoff (shown above with his good friend Chaliapin in 1890) picked up on these ideas and used them to make their performances more believable.

Chaliapin also is important because he championed Russian composers.  His presence in the West (after the Bolshevik Revolution, he generally remained in Western Europe due to professional reasons, although he stated that he was not opposed to the Soviet administration; he eventually made his home in Paris) allowed him to bring the work of these great Russian composers to an audience that otherwise might not have been exposed to them.  It is at least partially because of Feodor Chaliapin that we are blessed with the awareness of the beauty of the works of men such as Moussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakof, Prokofiev, etc.

In tonight’s performance, the Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London, were conducted by Vincenzo Bellezza.  It should be noted that the supporting cast was largely Italian, and sung their roles in Italian, while Chaliapin sung in Russian.  Such multi-lingual performances like this were fairly common, even into the 1940s.  The cast:

It should also be noted that a full performance of Boris Godunov is normally in the 3h 30+ minute realm, whereas tonight’s recording is only 1 hour 12 minutes.  At some point in the future I have selected a full rendition of Boris Godunov for presentation.  But this recording isn’t so much about the piece is it is the musician.