ring cycles and the appreciation of opera

This morning I got a postcard from Scottish Opera, advertising their upcoming production of Massenet’s Werther, and claiming that ‘having joined us for 2009’s Manon, we know you appreciate a good French opera’. I’m not sure that they are qualified to comment on my appreciation with such certitude. I’m not actually convinced of my connoisseurship of ‘good French opera’. Cheeses and chocolate, maybe.

Radio 3 similarly claimed proprietorial knowledge of audience tastes when it broadcast Wagner’s Ring Cycle at a rate of an act a day over Christmas ‘for those of you for whom the prospect of the whole thing is too daunting’ – or for those who don’t enjoy  having too much on their plate, or something, as though it were  a turkey and plum pudding dinner. At least on previous outings of this occasional tradition of offering a Ring Cycle by installment over the festive period, the BBC  had the decency to present it as a concession to those not embosomed in twelve days of nuclear-family jollity, rather than to those of short attention span. A Ring Cycle, like a Test Match, is best savoured  not in bite-size chunks or edited highlights. It’s like a slow sea passage, a continuity experienced at the pace of its own unfolding. That, bah humbug, being said, there is something to be said for hearing it in a range of atypical formats, and the act-a-day version is not an uninteresting one. We can listen to CD recordings in ‘real time’ (actually, I rarely do) or attend a live performances if we can afford to do so. The radio schedule can offer something other to these, and intriguing.

The strangest Ring Cycle that Radio 3 has presented in my time was when it broadcast the whole 17 or so hours  one Easter Monday a few years ago. I contemplated the prospect of waking up to the birth of everything at the beginning of Das Rheingold, and set my radio alarm, but I slept through the quiet opening bars. I cleaned the kitchen floor during the colloqies of Loge, Wotan and Alberich later in the preliminary opera, but I started to follow the text during Die Walkure. By the time I made some dinner at the end of  Siegfried I was mesmerised; by Act II of Gotterdammerung I’d entered an altered state of consciousness and disorientation, no longer certain which recording I was listening to, or whether I recognised themes because I knew them, or because I’d heard them earlier in the day, rather than earlier in the week, which would be the case with a conventional performance, or at some point earlier in my life.  Afterwards  I ranted a bit over drinks and meals – I think this was before blogging took off – that this was silly, because it was unperformable. But even at the time I appreciated the opportunity radio gives to experience these strangenesses, just as I quite like snatching an hour or so of The Ring between feeding and visiting times  at Christmas.

It’s now ten years since Scottish Opera’s own magnificent Ring Cycle, which remains the cultural highlight of my life so far. We saw each of the individual operas rolled out over a three year period at the Edinburgh Festival, before transferring to Glasgow, before the whole cycle was put together in 2003, first in Edinburgh, then in Glasgow. Prior to the searing final performances at the Theatre Royal in November, we were able to sit at home and listen to  Radio 3’s  broadcast of a cycle that we’d attended, where we were among the enthralled audience, recorded in Edinburgh a couple of months earlier.

Even 2009 seems quite a long time ago now: I think I was impressed by Werther, but I can’t really remember.  2013 will also see  the centenary, and bicentenaries, of the births of Britten, Verdi and Wagner respectively, so I shouldn’t be short of performances and broadcasts  of good operas that I do appreciate.

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