Few works of art divide us quite as much as Wagner’s Ring Cycle – and few are as open to frequent reinterpretation.
This is widely apparent in a new study of the performance history of the Ring at the Royal Opera House by John Snelson.
Snelson is Commissioning Editor of the indispensable red programme books at the ROH. The meticulous research and detail that characterises his work in the programmes is also a strength of this handsome new volume, which has just been published by Oberon Books.
Tracing productions of the Ring from its first ROH staging in 1892 (conducted by Gustav Mahler, no less) right up to the controversial Richard Jones production of the mid-1990s, Snelson’s lucid commentary makes this far superior to the usual brand of ‘coffee table’ book. The many archival documents are cleverly sculpted into a narrative that often resembles a cultural and social history of the 20th Century.
It’s interesting to observe how German opera went in and out of fashion over the decades. At first, the Ring was something of a novelty, as Italian and French opera had dominated the repertoire for much of the 19th Century. As Snelson tells us, when Augustus Harris decided to give the Ring in German at Covent Garden in 1892, it necessitated the changing of the company’s name, which had until then been the ‘Royal Italian Opera’.
The reaction of the early critics was lukewarm, treating the music as highly controversial, and the revealing quotations from contemporary reviews talk about the singers’ battles with Wagner’s orchestra-dominated method of operatic composition.
An anti-German sentiment after both World Wars led to a number of interesting comments from the critics. I particularly like Snelson’s selection of a quotation from the Daily Sketch in 1924, when the Ring was performed in German for the first time post-war. ‘[Die Walkre] was sung…by a Dutch tenor Jacques Urlus and a Swedish soprano Gta Ljungberg to the accompaniment of a British orchestra, so, in spite of the reversion to the original language of Wagner, this was by no means an exclusively German triumph’ (p.43).
– The Daily Sketch from 1924.
Throughout Snelson’s study, references to newspapers, diaries and opera programmes form a solid background to the broader story. The eminently readable commentary covers singers, directors, producers, conductors, and details of the productions as well as contemporary reactions to them. Both the ambiguity and universality of the Ring are conveyed. The book is surely indispensable to modern producers and anyone interested in opera production, revealing as it does the pitfalls of staging opera’s biggest project.
The generously reproduced illustrations range from costume and set designs to photographs, programme covers and advertisements.
There are extracts from an illustrated two-volume guide to the Ring from 1898, showing beautifully detailed plates of major scenes from the synopsis. A particular highlight is a letter from Bruno Walter to the managing director of the ROH in 1931, recommending singers for the role of Loge.
An admirable aspect of the book is the generous amount of marginal detail accompanying individual plates and illustrations, frequently elaborating, for instance, on the roles a particular singer took, his or her strong points and contemporary opinions on them. A shame they are in such small print, for they are invaluable in an illustrated history of this kind.
The organisation of material is intelligent, both in terms of the spread of dates over six chapters and in the connection of related material. A prime example is the two-page spread on Jean and Edouard de Reszke, who appeared in the Ring together quite regularly; the marginal detail is typically pithy.
Inevitably, there are small problems. The book doesn’t cover the latest Covent Garden Ring Cycle by Keith Warner, which is perhaps not Snelson’s fault but does leave one wishing for an extra chapter it would have made a useful peroration. I intensely dislike the use of a red font for longer quotations, though that’s perhaps just a personal reaction. And in spite of two thorough appendices on singers and roles, there is no index, making it difficult to locate certain names, for example.
However, the photographs of rehearsals and of costumes worn by Kirsten Flagstad and Josephine Veasey are wonderful, revealing every aspect of Ring productions. The way Snelson has taken a wide range of sources and probed them for meanings is an ideal approach from which many a musicologist could learn, and the book is surely indispensable to all Wagnerians.