Wagner: Orchestral Music from Der Ring Des Nibelungen
New York Philharmonic / Zubin Mehta
CBS Masterworks 1P 7628
Wagner’s music isn’t as bad as it sounds.
Also called, for simplicity’s sake, The Ring, Wagner’s monumental, excessive opera is a cycle of four thematically-linked operas centered around Norse myth.
At the start of the opera, the titular ring is purloined from a dwarf named Alberich by Wotan. But a pair of giants then steal it from Wotan (not smart: Wotan’s title is, after all, King of the Gods) and his grandson Siegfried sets out on a hero’s journey to locate the jewelry. Romance appears in the coupling of Siegfried and Brunnhilde, a “Rhinemaiden”. Many other mythic people and creatures, distinguished by their own leitmotif, are encountered on Siegfried’s peregrinations.
Sound familiar? That’s because it’s the gist of The Lord of the Rings, which is based somewhat less Germanic-ly on Wagner’s work. And if you thought the film trilogy was long, an average performance of Wagner’s Ring takes about 15 hours, give or take five ten minutes. So if you want to hear versions of “Ride of the Valkyries” in slightly differing registers and transpositions in the time it takes to take a train almost halfway across the US, then this is the opera you must attend. The cycle premiered in 1876 and has tormented anyone taking a casual trip to Bayreuth ever since.
As for this recording, all Wagner performances sound more or less the same to me. But I can say that the album artwork by Henrietta Condak (whom I’ve mentioned before as possibly one of the best graphic designers ever) is amazing. Wagner holds a knife in one hand, while a gold ring and a horned helmet hover just above him. Pop art, Soviet propaganda posters, Art Deco and Nordic fairy tale illustrations meld into a highly stylized amalgamation.
Note: Vikings have been misrepresented, at least in regards to their choice of headwear, for a long time. It’s pretty well established now that they never wore the horned helmets that have become so inextricable from their warlike, large-statured image in contemporary culture. Carl Emil Doepler, a costume designer, is responsible for integrating the horned helmet into the fashions of Norsemen and -women. He introduced his fearsome headwear in 1876, not too surprisingly, for the premiere of Wagner’s Ring cycle.