I have been thinking about Richard Wagner over the last few weeks because I am currently obsessing over Gotterdammerung, the last music drama in his epic four day cycle, The Ring. I have for a long time now wanted to go to the great Wagner opera house in Germany at Bayreuth that was built specifically for the World premiere of The Ring in 1876. Anyone who follows the music blogs on this page will know that I am on an epic journey of my own through the history of music and that I have now reached the year 1875 when the last of the Ring’s four sections was completed. When I reach 1876, I plan to mount my own mini-Bayreuth Festival at home with either DVDs or CDs of the four works played in order over four days just as it is done at Bayreuth. The problem is which version to use.
I have only been to a live cycle of The Ring once, at Covent Garden in 1970, when it was conducted by Georg Solti and when I was totally overwhelmed by the splendour of the whole conception. I have always thought that I could only repeat my excitement by, one day, going to Bayreuth. Then I started looking at the artists currently engaged there and listening to some of their recordings and realized that far from being exciting, a visit to Bayreuth these days could be a painfully depressing experience. The brutal truth is that they just don’t make Wagnerian singers like they used to “in the old days”.
The golden era, as far as recordings are concerned, was just before my time when three never to be surpassed sopranos took on the mammoth role of Brunnhilde the wild-girl goddess turned heroine known to everyone whether they like opera or not by her thrilling, armour-clad Valkyrie.
Those formidable women were the Norwegian dramatic soprano, Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962), maybe the greatest of them all with a voice that was both giganic and powerful and for whom singing over a massive Wagnerian orchestra was never a problem.
Then there was Swedish Birgit Nilsson (1918 -2005) who is the Brunnhilde on Solti’s famous Decca recordings of The Ring and whom I was lucky enough to hear sing the final scene from Gotterdammerung in her farewell concert at the Royal Albert Hall in a magnificent concert conducted by the great Wagnerian conductor Rafael Kubelik.
Finally, there was Nilsson’s exact contemporary the American, Astrid Varnay (1918 – 2006) who first sang the part at the absurdly young age of 23 – triumphantly, radiantly but ultimately recklessly because in mid-life the damage on her vocal chords forced her to abandon soprano roles for lower ones. It was during her later career that I was able to catch her before she too left the operatic stage. She was at Covent Garden in 1968 when I saw her playing the wild and hysterical Kostelnicka in Janucek’s opera Jenufa (1904). I remember her performance as one of the most impressive and unsettling performances that I have ever had in the opera house so I was thrilled to discover that her Munich performance of the same role was filmed there in 1970. I think it shows just how sensational a Brunnhilde she must have made when she was a young – and let’s face it – attractive woman.
After playing a number of different performances of Gotterdammerung over the last few weeks, I have come to a decision, even though I have owned and played the Solti/Nilsson recording all my adult life, I have decided that my ideal Ring cycle when I do my version of the 1876 premiere will be the performance at Bayreuth in 1955 that starred a group of superlative Wagnerian singers including Astrid Varnay singing in their absolute prime at a time that has now seen as the end of an era when Wagner’s operas could be cast with voices that could actually sing the notes, fill the house and interpret the drama without the painful wobbles and screeches that disfigure so many modern performances.
So my ideal trip to Bayreuth would involve time travel – I would love to go back to 1955 for just four nights only for The Ring as performed (and recorded life in primitive stereo) by the conductor Joseph Keilberth. Now issued on CDs for the very first time and, for me anyway, far superior to anything that you will come across on DVD or in any modern CD recordings.
Below you can hear the last, inspirational, wonderful, heart-breaking final part, the Immolation Scene, where Brunnhilde rides her horse into the flames of her hero husband’s funeral pyre, returns the cursed Ring to the Rhinemaidens and by dying, set fire to the gods, including her father Wotan, and redeems something, maybe the World, everybody argues about the meaning of this, by her supreme love. Maybe even Wagner got confused with the complexities of his epic. Whatever the meaning, the music is sublime.
But before that, you have to watch Astrid Varnay as the murderous infanticide step-mother in Janacek’s
Jenufa. Madame Varnay, you were simply magnificent.