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On 17 August 1876, Richard Wagner’s extraordinary twenty-six-year project, the Ring Cycle, came to its mighty conclusion when the fourth and final instalment, Götterdämmerung, was premiered in Bayreuth.
It was an extraordinary occasion in musical history: the first complete performance of the Ring Cycle (with Götterdämmerung as the final piece in the jigsaw), a creation that still captivates with its potency today.
Such is the mythological nature of the story, it is almost impossible to sum up the epic plot in a succinct way. What we can say, though, is that this immense tale of Norse mythology set to music was universally acclaimed when Hans Richter conducted its premiere performance. Before Wagner, opera had been a relatively predictable art form: male lead and female lead fall in love, everything looks rosy, and barely ten minutes later everyone’s in tatters as at least one of the main characters has died (usually because of suicide or murder).
Through the Ring Cycle, Wagner took the notion of opera and extended its possibilities ten-fold. He also demonstrated his complete grasp of writing for the human voice: it is almost impossible to listen to Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene from Act III and not feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up as this dramatic soprano solo thrills and chills in equal measure.
Illustration: Mark Millington