A Thrilling Ring Cycle in a Nutshell

By Truman C. Wang

Wagner’s Ring Cycle has been called “a symphony with voices”, so it’s perfect for the concert stage, condensed from 15 hours of the complete cycle to 1.5 hours of orchestral highlights .  The orchestra tells us everything that is happening in the Ring on stage.

Swiss conductor and Music Director of the Paris Opéra Philippe Jordan clearly knew his stuff, conducting from memory, creating natural ebb and flow of tempo in Das Rheingold’s waterlogged Prelude (the woodwinds assumed the vocal parts of the Rhinemaidens).  During the 20-minute excerpt of the Rheingold, we encountered the misshapen dwarf Alberich, the gleaming Rhine gold, the anvil chorus of the Nibelung slaves, Loge’s fire, Donner’s thunder, Froh’s rainbow bridge and finally the gods’ entrance into Valhala – all in crisp, vivid Technicolor details. 

The popular Walküre excerpts opened with the tremendously rousing audience-pleaser “Ride of the Valkyries” and concluded in the tearingly poignant singing line of “Wotan’s Farewell”.  The L.A. Phil strings played gloriously throughout.

The “Forest murmurs” from Siegfried acted as a central interlude, Wagner’s tone-painting delightfully evoked, with flashes of urgency anticipating Siegfried’s coming quest, and the excerpt ending exultantly.   Principal flute Denis Bouriakov ‘sang’ the woodbird with the most disarming charm.

The mood darkened after the intermission; the Götterdämmerung excerpts opened with somber lower strings and soft horns in anticipation of Siegfried’s Rhine journey.  Maestro Jordan generated a hugely passionate and thrilling climax before Siegfried sounds his famous horn call.  But the hero is on his way to be murdered, and in the “Funeral March” the L.A. Phil created marvelously dramatic sonorities in strings and brass, thundering out those mighty chords in the death/funeral sequence.  “Brünnhilde’s Immolation” scene followed.  So powerful was the singing of soprano Iréne Theorin, and so white hot was the final conflagration of brass with the lyrical string apotheosis, that one was almost aware of the heat of the flames. 

The best thing about this concert is that one never had the sense that these were just excerpts; instead, one was carried satisfyingly onwards to the gods’ twilight and the destruction of Valhalla.

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.