Ranking Richard Wagner's Operas
When someone says “German opera,” they usually mean the works of Richard Wagner.
Wagner was unique in that he did not want his works to be mere entertainment; he believed in the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk (many translate this as “total work of art,” but I prefer “complete work of art”). He went so far as to write his operas’ libretti, calling them poems, and even built an entire theater in Bayreuth for his works to be performed. Wagner was such a perfectionist that he barred his first three operas from performance at Bayreuth because they were “immature”.
Ranking his operas is tricky business. Because Wagner wrote his libretti and believed them to be equally important as the music, this ranking will take into account not only the music but also the story.
Overall, the question of the article is, which Wagner opera is the best example of Gesamtkunstwerk?
10. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
At over 4 hours in duration, Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg is the longest opera ever composed. Although its main motif, heard in the strong overture and triumphant, almost regal, ending, is beautiful, Wagner’s only comic opera is far from perfect. Meistersinger is often criticized for having an underwhelming plot and few exciting moments. It is also lambasted for the continuous repetition of its main theme. Whereas many complain of the repetition of Meistersinger’s main theme, some admire it, arguing that Meistersinger is a prime example of Wagner’s genius ability to keep audiences interested through the interesting development of a simple melody.
As for the plot, Meistersinger is considered inferior to Wagner’s other libretti. A good story is imperative to Gesamtkunstwerk, and Meistersinger as a story is nothing special.
Wagner is known for his music’s ability to transform, and Meistersinger fails in this respect. Since it is supposedly a comic opera -- in reality, it is far from comic, offering none of the chuckles of a Nozze di Figaro or L’elisir d’Amore -- Meistersinger doesn’t contain the raw emotional struggles of Tristan und Isolde or the psychological conflict of Die Walkure. If we could see some of the classic Wagnerian energy and drama in this opera, Meistersinger would certainly be better. Ironically, Meistersinger was composed between Tristan und Isolde and the finale to Der Ring des Nibelungen, two of the most powerful pieces of music ever written.
Wagner, with Meistersinger, was trying something different, testing his artistic abilities. As a writer of comedy, one must admit, Wagner is not sublime.
We must bear in mind, though, that ranking 10th out of Wagner’s operas does not disqualify Meistersinger as a work of genius. Some highlights in the opera include the Act 3 Quintet, “Selig, wie die Sonne,” and the Act 3 Tenor aria “Morgenlich leuchtend im rosigen Schein.”
9. Der Fliegende Holländer
Wagner’s first “mature’ opera,” Der Fliegende Hollander, has a simple plot with an awe-inspiring ending and is accompanied by tempestuous music. The storminess of the strings -- beginning with the turbulent overture, which oscillates between the crashing waves of a storm and the calm, peaceful waters of the after-storm, and continuing throughout the opera -- perfectly describes the strength of the seas and, indeed, of the plot itself.
The opera, 2 ½ hours long, divided into three acts, but whose music never pauses until the end, is considered ‘easier’ and less heavy than Wagner’s later operas. Though Wagner’s musical ability is still in development at this point in his life, Hollander gives us obvious hints of the Wagner to come. In particular, Senta’s Ballad in Act 2, which starts calmly, with a note to the Sea motif, but builds to a strong climax, demonstrating Senta’s passion, is a preview to Wager’s later masterpieces. We almost hear the Immolation Scene or Liebestod, developing between the bars of this heartfelt ballad.
All in all, to say that Hollander is less mature than Wagner’s later works and, therefore, inferior is a mistake. Hollander is unique in many respects, including the simplicity of its plot -- Hollander is a straightforward romance -- and even simpler main theme. Hollander is a perfect example of Wagner’s ability to tell the story through the music not only through leitmotifs and their development, but through a picturesque cinematic score, second only to and reminiscent of the Ring Cycle.
The third installment in the epic Ring Cycle, Siegfried, named for its hero, is unique in various respects. Although not a comic opera, Siegfried is the most lighthearted opera of the Ring, with little drama. Siegfried has many cute moments: moments such as the interaction between Siegfried and the little Woodbird. The plot’s fairytale-like character perfectly fits with its main character, the epitome of innocence and adorable ignorance.
Despite its fun plot and happy ending, Siegfried contains the darkest voices of the whole saga, with the vast majority of the opera sung by males. Additionally, Siegfried is arguably the climax of the Ring: it marks the transition of power from God to Man, the breaking of Wotan’s power, symbolized by the breaking of his spear and his acceptance of it, and the waking of Brunnhilde, transformed from Goddess to mortal. This subtle symbolism is accompanied by truly grand music.
Siegfried also marks a transitioned Wagner. Having paused his work on the Ring following the completion of Das Rheingold and Die Walkure for 12 years to work on Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, Wagner combined all his musical skill and experience into this opera. Siegfried is a conjunction of all the work that Wagner had composed to date.
Many consider Siegfried to be a weak work, not of much general importance in the Western canon, but it is important to remember the significance of this opera not only within the Ring but in the entire history and development of Wagner as an artist.
7. Das Rheingold
Beginning with a soft Eb on the contrabasses and building, excitedly, into the genesis of the Rhine and Rheinmaidens, and continuing, without pause, for over 2 hours, Das Rheingold has some of the most ethereal music that Wagner ever composed.
The Ring Cycle is a story of a natural lust for power, represented by the Ring. In this tetralogy, we go from a story of Gods building their kingdom to a tale of Man tearing down that kingdom. Das Rheingold is the former. Though Rheingold does give us a preview of the chaos to come, particularly that involving Wotan, it lacks the symbolic depth of the other three Ring operas.
Rheingold, though, gives us some of the most awesome moments Wagner ever created. The finale, wherein the Gods triumphantly ascend into their newly built castle, Valhalla, is not only accompanied by perfect music but is also one of the most dramatically ironic moments in theater. We, the audience, know that the Gods are literally heading for their doom; Erda warned that the Ring would bring twilight to the Gods; even Wotan knows, deep down, that he will never be the all-powerful God he wants to be. -- But the Gods still blissfully ascend! Additionally, as the Gods joyfully skip to their new home, the murdered Fasolt lay just a few feet away from them -- surely a warning of the death that the Ring would bring to the world. The opera is capped off with Loge chuckling at the Gods’ impending doom, and the Rheinmaidens calling for their precious Rhine-gold, and declaring the Gods “false and weak.”
Few works of any art form are quite as controversial as Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal. Nietzsche dubbed its plot a “curse on the senses and spirit,” and yet he praised the music, asking in a letter, “has Wagner written anything better?” And Nietzsche is not the only person to have criticized Parsifal’s plot; many others have arraigned Parsifal for countless reasons. All who criticize it, it seems, never fail to commend its music! In Nietzsche’s 1888 book Der Fall Wagner (The Case of Wagner), he wrote that Parsifal was Wagner’s greatest musical masterpiece, noting, “I wish I had written it myself.”
Though Parsifal’s plot is of controversy, its music is undoubtedly among the best Wagner ever composed. German composer Max Reger said of Parsifal, “When I first heard Parsifal at Bayreuth, I was fifteen. I cried for two weeks and then became a musician.”
The Parsifal prelude, often played as a concert piece, is exquisite, starting calm and sweet, but growing into a more mature hymn-like piece, going from a simple theme on the cellos to a celestial chorale in the brass, followed by the typical Wagnerian waves of the strings. One might argue that the prelude to Parsifal represents not only Parsifal’s journey but the development of his character, starting as a simple boy and becoming a hero.
Parsifal, as a whole, is distinct in that it contains some of Wagner’s most solemn, quiet music. Though the plot moves along somewhat slowly, the music is incredibly divine. It is yet another example of Wagner’s innate ability to make his audiences feel “spellbound” (as Gustav Mahler said he felt following a performance of Parsifal) through music.
Parsifal’s first act ends with a backstage voice referring to Parsifal as “Der reine Tor” (The noble idiot). “The noble idiot, enlightened by compassion” becomes a hero in this Wagnerian classic.
The conclusion to the Ring Cycle wraps up the tale of lust and power with a Godless story. It is very important to note that whereas Rheingold is a tale of primarily Gods, Gotterdammerung is almost entirely Human.
The highlight of Gotterdammerung is its finale, and when I say ‘finale,’ I do not mean only the heavenly beautiful melody of the last few bars, but the entire final section, from Siegfried’s death and the dynamic Trauermarsch to the tear-inducing Immolation scene and the crashing walls of Valhalla. The ending of this saga is nothing short of cathartic, leaving us amazed, pondering not only the wondrous music but the magnificent text.
In Gotterdammerung, Wagner teaches us about the foolishness and naivete of Gods and the petty desire of Man for power, and he concludes his saga by returning to where he began: in the Rhine, with the Rheinmaidens jollily playing with their gold and Alberich lurking, sneakily, beneath them. It is a never-ending cycle; it is the circle of life.
We wonder whether Brunnhilde’s choice was wise or foolish; we think about Hagen’s urges; above all, even in an opera wherein he does not appear (but is mentioned), we analyze Wotan’s psychology. 18th-century psychologists went as far as to refer to the Ring Cycle as the “first manual for psychoanalysis.” This is what makes Wagner unique; in analyzing his operas, the poem is equally, if not sometimes more important than the music.
Let’s be honest, though; it really is Wagner’s music that brings us chills.
The music of Tannhauser, from the opening tension in the Venusberg to the final chorus, is brilliant. The exceptional overture’s themes are used so much throughout the opera that one might say that the opera is a mere extension of the overture.
Tannhauser, referred to as “Heinrich” in the opera but “Tannhauser” in the script, is one of Wagner’s more fascinating characters. He is a carefree, essentially happy person who seeks pleasure and joy, but is left in pain and despair as a punishment for his Hedonism. Another interesting character is Wolfram: he is a devoutly religious man, in love with Elisabeth -- both reasons to see Tannhauser as an enemy -- but he is a loyal friend to Tannhauser nonetheless, ultimately saving him from the scourge that is Venus, and remaining faithful until the end.
Tannhauser’s plot moves by quickly -- arguably too quickly -- for Wagner. The story’s rapid progression does not allow for the same dramatic depth of Wagner’s other operas. For example, the relationship between Tannhauser and Elisabeth is far less interesting than that between Siegfried and Brunnhilde or even Senta and the Dutchman. From the first act to the last scene, we are told, basically, that the two share a very deep love without ever seeing it at work. Wagner does not portray that love the way he does in Die Walkure or Tristan und Isolde, through a poetic libretto and romantic music. If Tannhauser included a long scene that truly demonstrates how the two characters feel for one another, Tannhauser would be far more effective. Regrettably, the story’s pace did not allow this to happen.
Of course, one might counter-argue that there is no better description of love than in the final scene, wherein we discover that Elisabeth has sacrificed her life for Tannhauser’s salvation. This touching finale is accompanied by a final repetition of the opera’s main theme.
Tannhauser’s third act is, indeed, flawless, starting with a solemn prelude and then blending into the brilliant Pilgrim’s Chorus. The final trio between Wolfram, Venus, and Tannhauser is an example of Wagner’s ability to lift us off our seats. He shows what each character is thinking and feeling in a 15-minute swoop of music, and we become fully immersed in the drama.
The act also includes a beautiful baritone aria, “O du mein holder Abendstern.”
Many consider the prelude to Lohengrin to be the greatest piece Wagner ever composed, starting with soft high notes on the strings -- a hint to In Fernem Land -- and growing steadily into a triumphant climax. The prelude climaxes with two bombastic cymbal crashes, before decrescendoing back into soft strings, representing the descent of the Holy Grail from heaven to earth.
The opera includes some of the most instantly recognizable pieces of music ever composed, such as the Prelude to Act 3 and Wedding March (Known today as “Here Comes the Bride”), as well as the Gralserzählung (Grail tale) wherein Lohengrin tells the story of the Grail and declares his identity to Elsa and the people of Brabant.
As a story, Lohengrin is wonderful, giving us victorious, happy moments such as the brilliant finale to Act 1, as well as tearful moments, such as Lohengrin’s departure from Brabant. Lohengrin lacks, though, the unstoppable tears induced by Wagner’s later works.
Lohengrin is a continuation of Wagner’s work on Tannhauser. One can’t ignore the similarities between the two works: the long, show-stealing preludes; the recurrence of a simple, recognizable theme throughout the opera; and the religious aspects of the plots. One opera is really not better than the other; Lohengrin, because of its plot’s structure, is just slightly more effective as a romantic story.
2. Die Walküre
Die Walkure has some of the most touching music ever composed and arguably the best descriptions of love in all of music. The first act begins with a thunderous Vorspiel, after which Siegmund arrives at Hunding’s house. The act is all about Siegmund and Sieglinde and their passionate love. It includes pieces such as “Winterstürme” and “Ein Schwert verhieß mir der Vater.”
The second act is the longest, and it includes Wotan’s monologues, which Wagner wrote were the most important parts of the Ring Cycle, and ends almost frighteningly, with Wotan angry and seeking revenge. The third act is the most fascinating. It begins with the famous Ride of the Valkyries and ends with Wotan’s farewell to Brunnhilde.
Walkure is not only splendid musically, but it is one of Wagner’s greatest achievements poetically. At the heart of the opera is Wotan’s desire to be powerful, to be godly, but he realizes, in the final act, that his power is paltry. This hurts him, and he is left in despair,
going on to travel the world in disguise as the Wanderer in Siegfried. Wotan’s denial, struggle, and eventual acceptance of his fate are remarkable.
The Ring Cycle is the best example for leitmotifs in all of opera, and Wotan’s conflict is demonstrated best not through words, but music. Wotan’s spear breaks in the third act of Siegfried, but technically it is broken far earlier -- it breaks in the music. The spear’s leitmotif, one of the most important in the Ring, representing power and law, is used throughout the Ring; in the third act to Walkure, this theme is modified, played in a major key, representing not Wotan’s power, but his love. The imminent novelist Phillip Hensher notes, “Wotan’s love lies in the breaking of his power.” This is demonstrated through this music. Wotan’s power -- his spear -- breaks not in Siegfried, but in Walkure, as he lays his favorite daughter to sleep, stripping her of her Goddessness.
Another example of Wagner’s talent in storytelling through music is in the opera’s last bars when the orchestra plays the haunting and brilliantly orchestrated Magic Fire music, and Wotan declares that “only the bravest man shall be able to pass my flames.” As Wotan sings these words, though he doesn’t know of Siegfried and Siegfried hasn’t even been born yet, the orchestra plays Siegfried’s leitmotif, telling us who that brave man will be!
The emotional power of the third act to Walkure, not only music-wise but story-wise, is immense. Indeed, it is hard to think of any musical work in history that is quite as tear-inducing as Walkure -- except for...
1. Tristan und Isolde
Few operas make us cry. Tristan is one of them.
But why is it this opera in particular that draws such an emotional response? Unlike Walkure and Gotterdammerung, the brilliance of Tristan has little to do with its plot. Indeed, the reason why Tristan is so divine is 100% its music. And that’s why it is no. 1 on this list -- Wagner, after all, was a composer. Tristan is an opera whose drama is solely in the music, and that comes to show how powerful that music is.
And the key to the music is that which drives the music forward: the Tristan chord.
This strange chord opens the opera, continuing throughout the opera’s many hours, never resolving but rather growing as Tristan and Isolde’s love, passion, and pain build up. It is intentional that there is no resolution to this chord, for as conductor Antonio Pappano noted, “their love is never-ending, the pain is never-ending.” The chord only resolves at the very end of the opera, after Tristan and Isolde have died, and their pain finally disappears and their love finally blossoms.
Equally dramatic is the opera’s finale, known commonly as Isolde’s Liebestod. This rant, practically raved by Isolde in a moment of madness and oblivion, concludes with the resolution of the Tristan chord just moments after Isolde utters her final words. Is this ending a happy one? -- after all, it ends with the lovers reunited, with the Tristan chord resolved, and with Isolde uttering the words “utmost rapture” -- or is it a sad one -- ending with murder, chaos, and despair? These are just a few of the questions we contemplate at the end of this piece.
What we are left with at the conclusion of this opera is not confusion, but a complete sense of what love is, what passion is, what undying bliss and never-ending elation are; what pain, death, and constant ecstasy are!
The opera is a transfiguration, a true epitome of Gesamtkunstwerk.