At 7:30pm on Tuesday, 2nd October 2012 something truly wonderful started to unfold in WC2. The lights at the Royal Opera House faded, and faded and faded until the entire auditorium was plunged into pitch dark, including the orchestra pit. Then one deep, deep note began to sound. It was joined by another, slightly higher note, then another note and then another. Building and building and building in the pitch dark, the sound rising, more and more instruments joining in. Das Rheingold and my first ever Ring Cycle had begun!
What followed was four evenings and over 16 hours of the most sublime music and singing I think I've ever heard. This was something on an epic scale. It took Richard Wagner 20 years to write Der Ring Das Nibelungen, he even purpose built a theater in which to stage it at Beyreuth in southern Germany. It's probably the most challenging thing an opera house can undertake. In fact, there's probably nothing like it across any art form anywhere that compares to the Ring Cycle. It's simply huge. Not just an opera, but an event. I actually shouldn't call it an opera at all, Wagner referred to his works as 'music dramas', hinting at his dislike of traditional opera and what it represented.
The story of the Ring Cycle is based heavily around Nordic mythology with a good dash of Germanic culture thrown in. It's the story of a gold ring. The owner of the ring has power over the entire world, but the price for this is that they must renounce love. An evil dwarf (why is it always us short people who are evil?!), Albrich steals the gold from the Rehin Maidens in Das Rheingold and forges it into a ring. What unfolds eventually results in the end of the world, which is a good thing it turns out! The plot, as you can imagine, is pretty complicated so i won't go into it here. Just think along the lines of the Lord of the Rings and you're about there (which was inspired by this very music drama).
What is truly wonderful about the Ring Cycle lies fairly and squarely with the absolute genius of Wagner as a composer. You won't hear music or opera like it anywhere, EVER. It's just simply unique. Love him or hate him, Wagner is a musical genius. It's difficult to describe in words the effect that the music of the Ring Cycle has had on me. It's just magical. It's a wonderful unending sound that twists and turns, ebbs and flows and tells a wonderful story along with it. It rarely stops throughout the four operas. There are very few pauses, which in the case of Das Rheingold means around 2hrs 40mins of unbroken playing for an orchestra as there's no interval. At times it's it can be touching and beautiful at others bombastic and thunderously loud (Siegfried's funeral march in Götterdämmerung for example).
I think there are four key musical moments for me across the Cycle. Firstly there's the opening to Das Rheingold, starting with it's single, lonely low note and building, layer upon layer into the most beautiful music before the Rhine Maidens burst into wonderful song. The second is the opening to Die Walküre. Tense, rolling, menacing. Stunning. The third is the most famous of all Wagner music, and probably all opera, the opening to Act III of Die Walküre, commonly know as the 'Ride of the Valkyries' (many will know this from the famous helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now). You've simply not experienced life until you've heard this played by a world class orchestra, live. It's simply an experience like no other. The noise blows you away. If you're not shaken to your core by the experience then you're made of stone. The final moment for me is the closing of Götterdämmerung and the Cycle itself. The world as we've known it throughout the Cycle comes to a clattering, fiery end as the Rhine Maiden's reclaim the ring and their gold and equilibrium is restored to the universe. It's big, bold, dramatic and finally beautiful. You genuinely leave feeling that everything will be ok and that peace has returned to the magical world of the Ring Cycle.
I'm still trying to work out exactly what the Ring Cycle and Wagner has done to me over the last week.... I've laughed, I've cried, I've lost faith in love and had it completely restored again, I've gasped, I've sighed and I've spent HOURS leaning forward in my tiny Lower Slips seat at the opera house. I've been completely drawn into Wagner's mythical world of giants, dwarfs, gods, valkyries, superheros and Rhine Maidens. One thing I am certain of though, and it's a fact, is that music is a simply wonderful, wonderful thing and Wagner is an absolute genius. Here's to a week of the unforgettable. Das Ende!