Living our lives, our love and lust, against the background of terror attacks, political and religious in nature. While listening to Wagner. It wasn't my idea. Buñuel went there first. In the last scene of “Cet obscur objet ...” we hear music from Die Walküre. The scene in which Sieglinde recognizes in Siegmund her long-lost brother. Earlier in the movie we are treated to Die Walküre's ouverture (nerd-info: it's the Böhm-Ring). It was not the first time Buñuel used Wagner's music. In his first two films (Un Chien Anadalou and l'Age d'Or - which he made in collaboration with Salvador Dali - he used music from Tristan und Isolde).
An audience in cyberspace was certainly something Wagner couldn't have envisioned but being the man who invented the invisible orchestra he would, perhaps, be kind to the idea of an invisible audience. People from all over the world who are able to witness his Bühnenweihfestspiel thanks to state-of-the-art technology (and Cosima doesn't have to worry anymore about Parsifal being performed outside Bayreuth, Bayreuth is coming to you).
Until the day that it becomes all clear that we were just missing Donald Trump's subliminal messages all along (It was all a joke folks!) I will have, with Karajan's Ring, the perfect summer drug. Submerging in beauty can be a tempting thing. In times of an unforeseen future (read: possible unnerving scenarios) even more than in days of wine and roses. Enter the Ring-cycle that Herbert von Karajan recorded between 1968 and 1970. Karajan, his approach more a concert performance than a staging of a music drama, delivers a gripping Ring. More gripping than I remember - from excerpts I heard on a CD with highlights and Das Rheingold (the first complete Wagner opera that came in my possession). Despite some objections I had beforehand (slow tempi and Karajan's iron grip on both singers and orchestra that prevents the drama to really unfold itself), this is a cycle I would rather not be without. Listening to it can perhaps be an indulging affair, a guilty pleasure it certainly is not. For that its qualities are undeniable.
Karajan's quest for beauty
It was recorded round the same time that Solti finished his Ring cycle and I have to admit that I like Karajan a whole lot more. Solti serves the adrenalin and is the man for the special effects. He, undeliberately, shows that true drama can't exist without real beauty (his reading almost sounds like patchwork and he is pretty much a stranger to legato). In Karajan this is almost the other way around. Every “Oh” and “Ah” is sung with an obligation to beauty. Belcanto, pushed to the limits, even at the expense of drama and narrative. Against Wagner's own intentions who, when it came to singers, said that he preferred actors who could sing above singers who could act.
In Die Walküre Gundula Janowitz sings, with a silver lining, an intoxicating and moving Sieglinde (her rendition of Strauss' Vier Letzte Lieder under Karajan was David Bowie's favorite birthday-present-to-give). But with beauty as a goal, almost in itself, her Sieglinde doesn't delve as deep as, for instance, Lotte Lehmann does for Bruno Walter (his first act Walküre from 1935 is da bomb). Jon Vickers is a heroic Siegmund and an exception to the rule that Karajan preferred small voices. Besides Vickers we have Jess Thomas (famous Lohengrin for Kempe) and whatever it is - Karajan's wish for intimacy that hits rock bottom here or Thomas being past his prime - his Siegfried disappoints. This Siegfried-Siegfried is too timid and, moreover, out-voiced by the Mime of Gerhald Stolze. The Götterdämmerung-Siegfried of Helge Brillioth is a lot better.
There is beauty, also in the Fricka from Josephine Veasey. Even in places where her character (and the story) could use a jagged edge more than a clean cut. She would rather spend the rest of her days scrubbing floors than work for Karajan again. For her, the master of detail stepped across a few lines too many in his desire for perfection.
Helga Dernesh is not the ideal Brünnhilde. I made acquaintance with her in Karajan's studio Tristan (also with Vickers) and her Isolde lacked warmth and compassion (you needed a lot of love potion to fall for her). She fares a lot better here than on that recording but she comes nowhere near the pantheon of great Brünnhildes where Nilsson, Varnay and Leider dwell. Not that it matter much. We can have an entertaining football match whilst not having Messi and/or Ibrahimovic on the pitch.
When Dernesh finally gives back the damned ring to the Rheinmädchen and Valhalla is burning, we are not burning ourselves on the flames. The world, even on the verge of perishing, is having an obligation with beauty more than it's bothering about its own non-existing. Perhaps this is Wagner in a nutshell. We're doomed and we don't care because damnation never felt so good. The world is ending and it sounds more beautiful than we could have imagined (and the only thing you need for a convincing staging is smoke).
"Erzählen und nicht zelebrieren." It is, in short, Hartmut Haenchen's approach for Parsifal. From Karajan can be said that he has a taste for “zelebrieren”. Having his career started in Austria and Germany between two world wars. His role, before and during the second one, controversial almost until his death, Karajan has wanted - with his ideas about music in an ideal sound – to make a pledge for the beauty and the vulnerability in man. It lifts this Ring far above average while it keeps, at the same time, the human aspects of Wagner's music drama in a blister. We can have a story with Gods, giants, Nibelungen and Walsungen, the motivations and emotions of the characters are, of course, purely human.
In one's search for the ideal Ring one balances the pros en cons. And after more than three Ring recordings one gives up the idea that there is such a thing as one Ring that rules them all. The next logical step is to become a Ring-collector and value each recording on its own merits. And find out that the one Ring that rules them all is in your head. And in your head only. Krauss reminds me of its humanity, Böhm of its drama, Karajan of its beauty, Boulez of its modernity and superb architecture, and Solti how to annoy the neighbours. The one true Ring is a work of progress. Shaped by countless hours of listening to a lot of different recordings and by attending several live-performances. The merger out of that. That's the one Ring you ultimately live with.