From the sublime to the ridiculous: our critics' best and worst bits of Wagner's Ring Cycle

Gods and monsters... the Norns in Gotterdammerung in Keith Warner’s staging for the Royal Opera House.
Gods and monsters... the Norns in Gotterdammerung in Keith Warner’s staging for the Royal Opera House. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian
Gods and monsters... the Norns in Gotterdammerung in Keith Warner’s staging for the Royal Opera House. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Ahead of Radio 3’s broadcast of all four operas, we asked our writers which moments of the epic they love the most – and which they hope to never hear again

Last modified on Mon 15 Feb 2021 07.14 EST

The galumphing comedy of Siegfried leaves me cold

The list of operas I’d happily never sit through again grows longer by the year, but Siegfried has been very near the top of it for a long time. I’m not a perfect Wagnerite by any means (another of his greatest works would also be on my blacklist), but nor am I a Wagner-phobe: I find Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung totally compelling parts of The Ring. Yet the galumphing comedy of Siegfried leaves me utterly cold, and even the glorious scene between Erda and The Wanderer that opens the third act can’t begin to redeem the whole work.

But everything changes with Götterdämmerung; it inhabits a different space from everything that’s preceded it – darker, musically more chromatic, a world in which humans, rather than gods, rule. And that shift is signalled from its opening moment, in the hollow wind chord with which its prologue begins, establishing the remote key of E flat minor, about as distant as it could be from the C major in which Brünnhilde and Siegfried’s love duet ended the previous instalment so triumphantly. It’s a simple, most magically potent gesture. Andrew Clements

Mariinsky Theatre’s staging of Das Rheingold at the Royal Opera House in 2009
Visceral power of sound … Mariinsky Theatre’s staging of Das Rheingold at the Royal Opera House in 2009. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Layers of ecstatic shimmering that slow your pulse

My first staged Ring was the busman’s holiday of a lifetime: Francesca Zambello’s production at San Francisco Opera was the endpoint of a 1,600-mile road trip. After that dash to curtain-up, the opening minutes were revelatory. Das Rheingold’s prelude emerges – barely more than a distant resonance – from the rumbling of bassoons and double basses. A single chord rises slowly through the horns. Cellos start to circle it, then the upper strings, in layers of ecstatic shimmering that slow your pulse and fold you into the Ring’s epic, otherworldly temporality. Inevitably, what follows isn’t uniformly subtle or immersive. Siegfried’s act one forging of Notung – rhythmic anvil-whacking, four-square pomp and all – has all the heroism of a toddler armed with a spoon. But the cycle’s longueurs are quickly obliterated by the passages you feel as much as hear: passages that leave you invigorated, even transported, by the visceral power of sound. Flora Willson

Burkhard Ulrich and Ben Heppner as Mime and Siegfried in Siegfried at the 2008 Aix-en-Provence festival
Burkhard Ulrich and Ben Heppner as Mime and Siegfried in Siegfried, at the 2008 Aix-en-Provence festival. Photograph: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images

Bellowing and roaring

From Bayreuth to Longborough, Cardiff to the Coliseum, there’s no time I’ve been to a complete Ring cycle without wanting it to start all over again. I even love Siegfried (opera, not man). But one of the best moments for me is the end of Die Walküre. Wotan has confined Brünnhilde to a rock. His one concession is to allow her a protective circle of flames. He calls on Loge, Norse god of fire, who summons music of epic, overwhelming beauty. This “Magic Fire Music” brings the opera to a close.

The most horrific moment comes in act two of Götterdämmerung (the cycle’s final opera). The evil Hagen, bellowing and roaring, summons his vassals to “welcome” Gunther and his bride, the betrayed Brünnhilde. The vassals respond with a half-crazed chorus. Horns whoop, low brass explodes, strings grind out repetitively. The music gathers pace and turns into a manic danse macabre: a moment of terrible, sickening, ironic triumph. Fiona Maddocks

Brindley Sherratt (Fafner) and John Lundgren (Wotan) and Gunther Groissbock (Fasolt) in Das Rheingold at the Royal Opera House in 2018.
Brindley Sherratt as Fafner, John Lundgren as Wotan and Gunther Groissböck as Fasolt in Das Rheingold at the Royal Opera House, London, in 2018. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

I love it like a guilty pleasure

After the Norns have sung their gloomy story-so-far summary at the start of Götterdämmerung, the sun rises: Brünnhilde’s theme climbs ever more hopeful up the orchestra until, finally, over the musical horizon strides … Siegfried! Our hero! And, just in that moment, he truly is heroic: his jaunty (and previously slightly annoying) horn call has been stretched out into a glorious peroration, played fortissimo by dozens of brass instruments. You’d be mad to think this is the finest music in the Ring – it probably isn’t even actually the finest music in the prologue to Götterdämmerung – but I love it like a guilty pleasure: it is a thrilling moment, promising adventure and great music to come. And Götterdämmerung has so many of the Ring’s best bits, making it worth sitting through the scenes with Gunther and Gutrune, who are useful as a plot device and a foil for their deliciously evil half-brother Hagen, and otherwise just dull. Erica Jeal

Pompous rhetoric, intellectually and musically empty

When I first went to the Ring I found act two of Die Walküre the toughest nut to crack. It’s long, dark and in five separate scenes. The score lacks the thrills of acts one and three. There isn’t much action until Hunding is killed at the end. Yet now, Die Walküre act two is unquestionably my favourite part of the whole cycle. The length, the darkness, the difficulty and the depth, all that brooding by Wotan and anguish from Brünnhilde as well as the radicalism of the writing, grip me anew every time. This is also the Ring’s pivotal moment, when the old order of Wotan and the gods is revealed in its bankruptcy and Brünnhilde begins the journey towards her destruction of it. Strangely, this magnificent act is immediately followed by my least favourite Ring moment of all, the Ride of the Valkyries at the start of act three. This may be the most famous music in the Ring, but it is just pompous rhetoric, intellectually and musically empty. I can’t wait for the Valkyries to leave the stage free for Wotan, Brünnhilde and Sieglinde and their anguish. Martin Kettle

Die Walküre in Keith Warner’s staging for the Royal Opera House.
Die Walküre in Keith Warner’s staging for the Royal Opera House. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The irrepressibly chirpy Woodbird

I’ve always found Siegfried to be a bit of a testosterone laden – dare I say it? – bore. All that manly anvil-banging, sword-forging, dragon-slaying, Teutonic boys-own adventure stuff gets a bit much after a couple of hours. For that reason, I particularly enjoy the entrance of the irrepressibly chirpy Woodbird in act two. There was a memorable concert performance at the Edinburgh festival a couple of years ago in which the last-minute stand-in soprano Danae Kontora hopped on to the stage clad in white jeans and a very sparkly jacket combo. Her party-ready Woodbird was visually one in the eye for all that machismo – and she sounded gorgeous to boot.

As an approach to any marathon broadcast of The Ring, there’s always the classic undergraduate music society drinking game. Enlist a group of like-minded opera-loving friends (in an appropriately socially distanced fashion, of course), each pick a leitmotiv or two (there are a lot of lists online) and a shot. Every time your chosen motif appears in the musical mix down a drink. By the climax of Götterdämmerung the flames are going up, the shots are going down and the gods of Valhalla won’t be the only ones sinking into oblivion. Rowena Smith

Das Rheingold at Hungarian State Opera in Budapest, 2015, staged by Géza M Tóth
Das Rheingold at Hungarian State Opera in Budapest, 2015, staged by Géza M Tóth. Photograph: Zsolt Szigetváry/EPA

The god who desires his own destruction

My response to the Ring’s four operas has changed over time, and recently I’ve been listening more and more to Siegfried after performances in Manchester and London renewed my admiration for a score I had long undervalued. The scene between Wotan and Erda that opens act three is among Wagner’s greatest, a devastating encounter between the god who desires his own destruction and the primordial wise woman, whose knowledge is fading as a new human era looms.

The act was begun in 1869 after Wagner paused for 12 years on the score, and you really sense the fires of renewed creativity in the swirling exhilaration of the prelude and the tragic yet exalted colloquy that follows. In act two, however, the fight between Siegfried and Fafner is arguably the weakest section of the entire cycle, a passage of almost crude vigour, lacking in inspiration compared with everything that surrounds it. Tim Ashley

Peter Coleman-Wright (Gunther), John Tomlinson (Hagen) and Lisa Gasteen (Brunnhilde) in Gotterdammerung at the Royal Opera House in 2006
Peter Coleman-Wright as Gunther, John Tomlinson as Hagen and Lisa Gasteen as Brunnhilde in Götterdämmerung at the Royal Opera House in 2006. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Too much tiresome clanging

I once met a man who claimed to have sat through 14 Ring cycles, including a country and western version. I have only seen three staged productions: Richard Jones’s in the 1990s at Covent Garden; Jürgen Flimm’s at Bayreuth in 2003; and more recently Keith Warner’s, again at Covent Garden. I’ve also taken in a few concert performances, but they never have the same impact. There’s no pleasure to be had if you can’t boo the director for setting the action on a nuclear submarine.

There are many thrilling scenes, but top of my list is the final part of Siegfried, where our hero finds Brünnhilde asleep on a rock ringed by fire and is horrified to discover she is an actual woman. It builds to an ecstatic love duet – a sustained burst of light at the end of a tenebrous four hours. It is also central to the tetralogy: Siegfried and Brünnhilde are coming to terms with love, fear and their own mortality; gods are giving way to anxious men and women; passion is displacing power.

As for my least favourite part: anything involving Mime and metalwork … so, much of the rest of Siegfried. But that soaring final passage more than makes up for all the earlier tiresome clanging. Stephen Moss

A glorious focal point of the whole cycle

Long before Bayreuth, Anne Evans made her debut as Brünnhilde in Welsh National Opera’s 1980s Ring cycle, with Reginald Goodall conducting Die Walküre. For me, that performance from Evans set the benchmark for every other. But, as we’re all proving, Wagner has always been a love/hate matter and, ironically, my two extremes come in quick succession in act three. I also hate the Ride of the eight Valkyries with their pillion corpses, but, then, hot on her sisters’ heels comes Brünnhilde, the Valkyrie of the title. Bringing with her Sieglinde, whom she has rescued, their arrival heralds a glorious focal point of the whole cycle. Brünnhilde – at her most proactive and most defiant of her father, Wotan – reveals to Sieglinde that she, Sieglinde, is bearing Siegmund’s child and to name him Siegfried. It’s a brief and urgent annunciation, making Sieglinde’s own grateful realisation – O Hehrstes Wunder! – with its redemption through love motif all the more singularly radiant. Rian Evans

BBC Radio 3 broadcasts the Ring Cycle from 17-20 February (then available on BBC Sounds). Performances were recorded at London’s Royal Opera House in autumn 2018, with Antonio Pappano conducting the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Cast details for Das Rheingold (7-10pm, 17 February); Die Walküre (5-10pm, 18 February); Siegfried (5-10pm, 19 February); and Götterdämmerung (5-10pm, 20 February).

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