Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark. This week? The disastrous 1876 premiere of one of opera’s most iconic works: Wagner’s Ring Cycle…
142 years on, it is still hair-raising to read about the first performance of Richard Wagner’s four-part magnum opus, Der Ring des Nibelungen. By the time of its premiere, which began in Bayreuth on 13 August 1876 and concluded five days later, Wagner had been working on the Ring, on and off, for some 28 years. But long preparation times are no guarantee of a smooth opening night.
“First performance of Rheingold, under a completely unlucky star”, wrote Wagner’s wife Cosima in her diary after the first night: “Betz [the singer playing Wotan] loses the ring… a stagehand raises the backdrop too soon during the first scene change and one sees people standing around in shirt sleeves and the back wall of the theatre.” The other three evenings went somewhat more smoothly – although the final two performances had to be postponed by a day when Franz Betz (the same singer who lost the ring) lost his voice.
It all could have been much worse. The singers seem to have tolerated the surrounding chaos – even though they were only being paid expenses – and the staging survived both some questionable costumes (“almost ludicrous… Alberich with coat and epaulettes…” raged Cosima), and, legend has it, the accidental delivery of Fafner the dragon’s neck to Beirut, some 3,500 km away. Perhaps more problematically, the tiny town of Bayreuth was overwhelmed by so many opera-goers, and food became scarce. “On the very day of my arrival, I learnt the meaning of the words ‘struggle for existence’,” quipped Tchaikovsky in a report he wrote for a Russian newspaper. But Wagner’s astonishing ambition shone through it all.
After Wagner’s death in 1883, Cosima kept a firm grip on stagings in Bayreuth, sticking to Wagner’s intentions. But in later times, Bayreuth housed several radical reinterpretations. In the years after World War Two, tainted by its close association with the Nazis, the festival deliberately broke with tradition, adopting a minimalist style which suggested that the philosophical themes of the Ring did not demand a literal, naturalistic staging. Later productions – including Patrice Chéreau’s legendary ‘Centennial Ring’ of 1976 – have also boldly challenged preconceptions.
Wagner put the town of Bayreuth on the map, of course, so it’s unlikely any packages get sent to Beirut in error these days. But every new theatre production is still a complex, nerve-fraying undertaking – especially when you’re producing 15 hours’ worth of opera, and even more so when the work continues to attract radical ideas. The Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, for instance, staged the entire cycle in a single day in 2013. Contrastingly, in 1999/2000 Staatsoper Stuttgart unprecedentedly assigned different directors to each of the four operas. Meanwhile, for his 1999 Amsterdam production Pierre Audi brought the orchestra out of the pit, putting them in view of the audience – particularly daring because it was Wagner himself who invented the orchestra pit. But Audi’s move also seems fitting, when it is the sheer brilliance of the music, above all, that makes us return to Wagner’s work time and again.