This weekend presents one of the few opportunities worldwide to catch a glimpse of Wagner’s epic “Ring Cycle,” made accessible to viewers thanks to Symphony New Hampshire Music Director Jonathan McPhee.
The Essential Ring: Part II comprises two concerts in Nashua and Lexington, Mass., and combines the talent of both Symphony New Hampshire and the Lexington Symphony, with about 100 orchestra musicians and nine vocal soloists total. It’s what McPhee considers the second half of a Reader’s Digest take of “Ring Cycle,” featuring pieces from the Wagner operas Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.
It represents months of work from McPhee, who’s spent the better part of his summer cutting down Wagner’s epic music dramas. In total, “Ring Cycle” comprises four operas, which took Wagner 26 years to write. The first two, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, were featured during The Essential Ring: Part I last spring.
“If you wanted to see a full ‘Ring Cycle’ by Wagner, it would take 18 hours over four evenings. It’s a massive work,” McPhee said via phone last week.
McPhee has been admiring “Ring Cycle” for decades. He can remember the first time he encountered the music — as a kid watching a Looney Tunes episode featuring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. (“Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit!”) He heard the cycle in its entirety as a college student at the Royal Academy of Music at the University of London, when the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden decided to run all four operas back to back.
“The scale of the thing, I think, was the first thing that hit me. In order to have the voices be heard over such a massive orchestra, you need a certain kind of singer who specializes in Wagner repertoire,” McPhee said. “It’s the kind of thing that is so massive that, as a young conducting student at the Royal Academy, I thought, ‘This would be an amazing thing to be a part of, but I don’t ever see it happening.’ … There are like six or seven major opera companies in the world that could do it, and that’s it.”
But he saw hope after the two symphonies he musically directs — Symphony New Hampshire and the Lexington Symphony — were able to come together a few years ago and perform Mahler’s eighth symphony, another massive work.
“In the back of my mind, I was always hopeful that I could find a way to make [“Ring Cycle”] more accessible,” McPhee said. “That was when I was really thinking, ‘This might be a possibility.’”
Planning began more than a year in advance. The company has been talking with top Wagner specialists worldwide, and McPhee has been editing those 18 hours to two three-hour concerts.
“Cutting sections without a bad hiccup is very tricky. The last thing I wanted to do was for [people] to come to this and feel like they’re being yanked from here to here to here because stuff is missing. I wanted to create an evening of music that flows so naturally, so the story is complete, but all the most important musical parts of the orchestra, and the vocal parts, are there,” he said. “I did [The Essential Ring: Part I], and I kept thinking to myself, ‘This is crazy — I don’t even know if it will work.’ … I had doubts until the very end.”
McPhee said “Ring Cycle” compares closely to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings; both center around magic rings with corrupting curses and feature all-conquering swords, romantic partnerships between human hero-knights and demigod females, wise old men with staffs and a hero who fails, dies, and whose descendent returns to fulfill a quest years later.
“Tolkien was a professor at Oxford in England. His specialty was in the same mythology Wagner’s work is based on,” McPhee said.
Prior to “Ring Cycle,” most operas contained minimal orchestral accompaniment, the heavy lifting done by singers. Wagner made the orchestra one of the most important elements of the opera. He was also first to initiate a leitmotif, a constantly occurring musical phrase associated with a particular person, place or idea; think of the shark’s music in Jaws or Darth Vader’s theme in Star Wars.
“It’s funny to me that Wagner had no way of knowing how seriously he was changing opera history, much less an art form that no one could even conceive of — movies,” McPhee said.
Between the big movements are atmospheric details that imply setting, from chirping bird-like notes, courtesy of the piccolos and flutes, to the low, growling noises of the stringed instruments that play when the giant makes an appearance. Supertitles will hang above the orchestra, and whenever necessary, McPhee will fill in the story gaps — though you might be able to tell what’s happening anyway just by listening to the orchestra.
“His music — it’s just kind of storytelling at its finest. It’s so intricate and detailed,” said Sarai Cole, one of the performing soloists, via phone.
McPhee said Part I has already been causing a stir across the country.
“The [Wagner Society of Cincinnati] already asked if it could do Part I in January. I think it’s a very approachable way of really experiencing one of the greatest masterpieces ever written, totally worth the time we put into it,” McPhee said.