There are any number of ways to talk about Wagner’s Ring Cycle, but I guess the most prevalent is just to start talking about yourself. “I well remember the first time I heard Das Rheingold. It was in Rotherham, with my Auntie Sheila standing in for Fasolt due to Dame Blodwen’s throat infection. I can honestly say, it was the single most moving experience of my entire opera-going life to that point in time.”
The next is to start instructing people in ways of listening to it – “If you’re new to the Ring Cycle, a good place to start is the second act of Götterdämmerung, with a handy guide to the leitmotif in your left hand and a box of custard creams in your right. The Boulez recording goes better with chocolate HobNobs, you will probably find.”
Both of these approaches have been much in evidence in Wagner’s bicentenary year, and have reached fever pitch with this week’s concert performance of the whole cycle at the Proms. Interestingly, Wagnerians are at least as likely to start going on about themselves as about Wagner, and the promenaders’ queue is full of people instructing each other about how best to respond to the first appearance of the Redemption Through Love motif.
They have gone so far, indeed, as to evolve various peculiar rituals in response to the master’s work. In the best houses, you don’t applaud the first act of Parsifal – not, however, part of the Ring cycle. You just file out in solemn silence. Why? Well, to give promenaders something to instruct each other over, I suppose.
The responses I find deeply peculiar. Why anyone needs instruction in Wagner beats me. You just sit there quietly for a few hours, soaking it all up, and it’s not exactly difficult – rather an absorbing story, in fact. And the sort of Wagnerian who rushes to share his or her first encounter with the Ring Cycle seems to have missed the point somewhat.
Like no other opera, the Ring operates like a 19th-century novel, exploring the world, and the people in it grow and change like characters in Tolstoy. Behind it all is Wagner’s powerful personality, but he’s not asking you to be interested in him, but in his immense and absorbing world. To come away from that with an urge to talk about yourself seems bizarre; this is something to lose yourself in, like War and Peace.
As I write, we are halfway through the Ring at the Proms under Daniel Barenboim, marking the bicentenary with a week-long performance. In a way, it has been ideal. No producers’ bright ideas; no anti-musical or deliberately perverse gestures; just some of the best singers in the world under the greatest Wagner conductor of his generation, and a Berlin orchestra with the music in its blood and its bones. It has been extraordinary to watch the orchestra for once, rather than bury it in a theatre pit; this one’s players move their whole bodies as they play, so that, unlike a stiff English orchestra, the stage sways and ripples with movement like a field of wheat.
Berliners are used to the magnificence of Barenboim’s Wagner, to the point that it’s usually quite easy to get tickets, even on the day of a performance. But the London audience is astounded, overthrown, trembling with emotion. The end of Die Walküre is always moving, as Wotan says goodbye to his daughter Brünnhilde for ever and leaves her surrounded by flames, glittering in E major.
On Tuesday night, as the great Bryn Terfel left the stage, the audience was silent for 10 seconds of transfixed contemplation before erupting in applause. For many people in the audience, these are going to be experiences they carry with them all their lives. Barenboim was dissatisfied, as genius so often can be; where the rest of the audience saw near-perfection, he saw only problems. He had bawled with rage at the orchestra’s leader at the end of the second act.
If everything went to plan, the audiences for this immense work ought to be disappearing. In an age of tweets and YouTube and five-second exchanges, where is the audience for the five-hour opera coming from? Wagner asks you to surrender a week of your time and your brain – it is truly difficult to do anything between instalments except a little light gardening.
But the audience is, if anything, growing. Perhaps there is a hunger for the immense and absorbing experience; there is an audience for a novel sequence as colossal as George Martin’s Game of Thrones, after all. This week, too, a wise and experienced Man Booker panel longlisted two immensely long novels. They are right to do so. What readers want, if they go to a book or a work of art at all, is the creation of a world and the surrender of the trivial ego for as long as the world lasts.
Personally, I’ve seen it before in its constituent parts, many times, though never the whole cycle from beginning to end. (Once, memorably, I saw Siegfried twice in two days, first in Berlin and then in London – it didn’t pall, unexpectedly.) It always feels special, but this – well, watching this extraordinary conductor, this great orchestra, this incomparable cast – seems like one of the great experiences of existence. I almost feel the urge to start instructing you in it.