A Guide to Wagner Week
New to Wagner and don’t know Niebelheim from Nürnberg? The guide below will introduce you to the epic dramas featured in our upcoming free streams and get you ready for an eye-opening week of opera.
Tristan und Isolde
Inspired by Wagner’s own tortured affair with the wife of his patron, this searing masterwork is based on Arthurian legend and tells of an illicit romance between a Breton nobleman and the Irish princess betrothed to his uncle and king. The composer’s larger-than-life sensibilities are on full display throughout the score: Along with intoxicating orchestral music that surges in tandem with the couple’s burgeoning passion and a chord left symbolically unresolved until the last moments of the opera, the opera also features one of the repertory's most soaring and ecstatic final climaxes, as Isolde surrenders to a love so powerful that she transcends life itself.
Like many of his German Romantic contemporaries, Wagner found great inspiration in Scandinavian mythology, whose stubborn and intemperate gods and goddesses stirred up enough drama to fuel many hours at the opera. His magnificent four-part series Der Ring des Nibelungen (a mouthful often shortened to just “the Ring cycle”), is an epic tale modeled on the ancient Norse sagas. In this first installment, Wagner introduces the lustful and conniving dwarf Alberich, who steals a hunk of gold from the Rhinemaidens, forging from it an all-powerful ring and setting into motion a series of events that will leave the world—and its roster of gods, goddesses, demigods, giants, and mortals—forever changed.
The dazzling and plot-heavy second episode in the Ring cycle intensifies the intrigue by introducing several characters who will greatly impact the shape of the drama. All are the illegitimate offspring of Wotan, the philandering king of the gods. In Act I, we meet the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, separated at birth but reunited when the heroic Siegmund, fleeing his enemies, takes refuge in Sieglinde’s hut in the forest. It’s an instant incestuous love connection between the two strangers, heightened by some of Wagner’s most rhapsodic music. All that stands in their way is Sieglinde’s oafish husband, Hunding, whom Siegmund soon dispatches with a sword he found buried in a nearby ash tree. In Act II, we meet Brünnhilde and her sisters, leader of the pugnacious warrior maidens known as the Valkyries, and another of Wotan’s children. Brünnhilde has been instructed by her father to destroy Siegmund, but she defiantly protects him instead. By the end of the opera, all plans are botched: Siegmund and Hunding are dead, Sieglinde, carrying her brother’s child, has escaped, and Brünnhilde is punished for having disobeyed Wotan by being transformed into a mortal and enclosed in a forbidding circle of fire. To reward you for waiting for the third act, the composer unleashes his most famous and spectacular anthem—the famous Ride of the Valkyries.
Siegfried, the strapping son of the Völsung twins, is fully grown and living in the woods with the dwarf Mime—brother of the lustful Nibelung from Das Rheingold. Mime’s scheme is to recapture his brother’s ring, currently hoarded by Fafner, a miserable giant who has transformed himself into a dragon. Siegfried has other ideas, and upon meeting Wotan, who visits him in the guise of a mysterious wanderer, he resolves to kill Fafner himself with the sword his father plucked from the ash tree, and do away with Mime in the process. Being an epic hero who doesn’t know fear, he easily succeeds at both endeavors, and eventually chances upon the circle of fire in which Brünnhilde (his aunt and the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen) lies asleep. He rescues her, and they begin one of opera’s most bizarre yet thrillingly romantic relationships—and one whose uncomfortable nature is once again swept away by Wagner’s infectious, soaring music.
In some ways, the soapy, thrilling final episode of the Ring cycle poses the greatest challenge for a director, as it involves the destruction of the gods and their glorious home, Valhalla. At the center of the drama are Siegfried and Brünnhilde, whose romance is doomed from the start: Hagen, chief minister of the Gibichung clan, intends to steal the ring for himself by wedding Brünnhilde to his half-brother Gunther and Siegfried to their sister, Gutrune. Gunther drugs Siegfried so that he will agree to wed Gutrune. At the wedding party, the unwitting Brünnhilde is crushed and infuriated by Siegfried’s infidelity, shaming him in front of the Gibichungs and banding with Gunther to hatch an assassination plot. Siegfried is still wearing the cursed ring when he is killed. When the ring is brought back to the Gibichungs, Hagen, Gunther, and Gutrune fight each other for it. Brünnhilde is so disgusted by their behavior and world-weary that she takes the ring and rides her horse into Siegfried’s enormous funeral pyre—an immolation that leads to cleansing apocalypse. The Rhine overflows, reclaiming its gold, Valhalla burns with its gods inside, and a new age dawns.
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
The longest opera in the standard repertory, but also one of its most charming, this colorful portrait of medieval Nuremberg is Wagner’s only comedy. You’d never guess Wagner wrote it in the midst of a depression so paralyzing it threatened to derail his career: His Paris production of Tannhäuser had been a fiasco; his work on the Ring cycle was at a standstill; and in 1866, his estranged first wife, Minna, died of a sudden heart attack. But this folksy yet philosophical story evinces none of that personal crisis. At the center of the opera is a contest for the hand of a beautiful woman; appropriately enough, it is the man with the most beautiful song who will get to marry the wealthy goldsmith Pogner’s beautiful daughter Eva. Yet the girl’s heart inclines in a different direction: She has already set her sights on Walther von Stolzing, a handsome knight from Franconia. Naturally, a number of obstacles threaten to derail Eva and Walther’s future, but Wagner’s nimble comedy, as deftly crafted and as humorous as anything by Donizetti or Mozart, ultimately arrives at its promised happy conclusion. Add to the intrigue a number of Wagner’s most compelling psychological portraits, including the character of Hans Sachs, the town’s cobbler and reigning poet, and you have a rollicking night of laughter and glamorous singing—as well as a healthy dose of wisdom.
As renowned for its harmonious overture as for its romantic storybook characters, this three-act masterwork features some of the composer’s most groundbreaking and unforgettable music, as well as a theme the young Wagner would revisit again and again later in his career—the redemptive and transcendent power of a woman’s love. The enchanting plot harks back to medieval history: Wolfram is an earnest Minnesänger (a kind of lovesick 13th-century troubadour) who desires the virtuous Elisabeth. She, however, has eyes for another: the rebellious knight Tannhäuser, who in turn cannot get over an overwhelming sensual experience in the realm of the goddess Venus, and is banished for singing her praises at court. Only saintly Elisabeth’s death can atone for his misdeeds.