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 – Beethoven, Wagner

Portrait of Beethoven in 1804, by which point ...

Portrait of Beethoven in 1804 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our first opera of the evening was the only operatic work written by Ludwig van Beethoven, and it is considered to be one of his great masterpieces.  Fidelio was premiered in Vienna as a three act work on November 20, 1805.  Subsequent revisions shortened it to two acts, which were premiered later in 1805 and 1806, and finally in 1814.  The 1814 revision, with a premiere that featured Johann Michael Vogl and which was attended by a 17 year old Franz Schubert, was a considerable success.  The opera is noted for the three overtures that Beethoven wrote for it at various points in the revision process.  Three of the overtures have entered the regular concert repertoire, although I believe that what we will hear tonight will be the third.

Tonight’s recording is a 1998 recording that features Gosta Windbergh, Inga Nielsen, Wolfgang Glashof, Alan Titus, and Kurt Moll.  Michael Halász directs the Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia and the Hungarian Radio Choir.

The next opera that we’ll hear this evening is 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 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 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.

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.

WDBX Opera Overnight – Wagner, Ravel

Hans Sachs, leader of a famous 16th-century Me...

Hans Sachs, leader of a famous 16th-century Meistersinger school in Nuremberg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Tonight’s show will be taken up largely by a single opera, Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  This is a unique work among Wagner’s catalog, as it is one of only two operas, and his only mature opera, that is based on a historical time and place, and not on a mythical or legendary setting.  It uses no supernatural or magical events, and was based on an original story that Wagner wrote himself (most of his operas he based on myths or legends).  It was also Wagner’s only mature comedy, and is a full implementation of the influence of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, whose work Wagner discovered in 1854.  It is also the only instance where Wagner used a real-life person, the noted Nuremburg Meistersinger Hans Sachs, as the basis for one of his characters.

 

Franz Betz (1835 - 1900), german baritone

Franz Betz (1835 – 1900), German baritone, originator of the role of Hans Sachs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

He first conceived of the work while on vacation in Marienbad in 1845, in what is now the Czech Republic, and wrote a first draft of the story at Marienbad.  He then put the concept aside until 1862, when he began work on the libretto.  The overture was premiered in concert on November 2nd of that year, but Wagner did not complete the opera until 1867.  The full opera was premiered on June 21st, 1868 in a production sponsored by King Ludwig II of Bavaria that was a great triumph for Wagner.  Over the years, the opera has been controversially used as a rallying point for German culture, most notably during the Nazi era, but that does not change the work’s importance as a great work of art.

 

Tonight’s recording is from 1974, and features Karl Ridderbusch (German bass-baritone who was noted for his interpretations of the Hans Sachs role), Jean Cox, Klaus Hirte, Frieder Stricker, Hannelore Bode, and Anna Reynolds.  The Bayreuth Festival Choir and Orchestra is conducted by Silvio Varviso.

 

Portrait de Maurice Ravel (1875 - 1937)

Portrait de Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

We’re going to conclude the show with two works by Maurice Ravel that bear the same title.  Ravel wrote Shéhérazade, ouverture de féerie in 1898 as an overture for an opera of the same name.  It was his first orchestral piece.  He never published it, but he conducted it on May 27th, 1899 in Paris.  He never completed the opera, but he wrote a song cycle with the same name for solo soprano or tenor with orchestra in 1903, using three poems by Tristan Klingsor.  It was premiered on May 17 1904.  We will hear both works, the overture following the song cycle, in a performance by solo soprano Catherine Dubosc with Charles Dutoit leading the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

 

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.