Ranking Richard Wagner's Operas
Updated: Jun 25, 2022
By Alkis Karmpaliotis, High School Student NYC
Founder of AppreciateOpera.org
Richard 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 wrote his own 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 he considered them “immature”.
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 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 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 a comic opera, 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.
We must bear in mind, though, that ranking 10th out of Wagner’s operas does not disqualify Meistersinger as a work of genius -- all of Wagner's music is pristine. 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.
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 but builds to a strong climax, demonstrating Senta’s passion, is a preview to Wager’s later masterpieces.
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. Siegfried has many cute 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 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. 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.
Rheingold 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 -- and even Wotan knows, deep down, that he will never be the all-powerful God he wants to be. The Gods, however, blissfully and unknowingly ascend to their palace. The opera is capped off with Loge chuckling at the Gods’ impending doom, and the Rheinmaidens calling for their precious Rhine-gold, declaring the Gods “false and weak.”
Few works of art are 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?”
Nietzsche is not the only person to have criticized Parsifal’s plot; many others have arraigned Parsifal for countless reasons. All who criticize it, however, 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.” 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 prelude 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 typical Wagnerian waves of the strings. The prelude to Parsifal represents Parsifal’s journey and development, starting as a simple boy and becoming a hero. Parsifal, as a whole, is unique in that it contains some of Wagner’s most solemn, quiet music. It is yet another example of Wagner’s innate ability to make his audiences feel “spellbound”, as Gustav Mahler famously said he felt following a performance of Parsifal.
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. 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 by not only the wondrous music but the magnificent text.
In Gotterdammerung, Wagner teaches us about the Gods' foolishness and naivete and about Man's petty desire for power. 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 temptation; 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.” Only Wagner could do something like this.
The music of Tannhauser, from the opening tension in the Venusberg to the final chorus, is brilliant.
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 third act is 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. There is no better depiction 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.
The final 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 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 recognizable pieces of music ever composed, such as the Prelude to Act 3, Wedding March (Known today as “Here Comes the Bride”), and 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 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.
2. Die Walküre
Die Walkure has some of the most touching music ever composed. 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 said were the most important parts of the Ring Cycle. It ends with Wotan angry and seeking revenge. The third act is the most fascinating, beginning with the famous Ride of the Valkyries and ending 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, 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". Wotan’s denial, struggle, and eventual acceptance of his fate are remarkable.
Wotan’s conflict is demonstrated best not through words, but through music. While Wotan’s spear breaks in the third act of Siegfried, it is technically broken far earlier -- in the music. The spear leitmotif is one of the most important in the Ring, representing power and law. In the third act to Walkure, this theme is modified and 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.” Wotan’s power -- represented by his spear -- breaks not in Siegfried, but in Walkure, as he lays his favorite daughter to sleep, stripping her of her divinity.
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. Wotan declares that “only the bravest man shall be able to pass my flames.” As Wotan sings these words, though Siegfried hasn’t even been born yet, the orchestra plays Siegfried’s leitmotif, letting us know who that brave man will be!
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? Well, at the center of the opera is the famous 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 notes, “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, Isolde's Liebestod -- or "death of love". 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, other than confusion, is a sense of what love is, what passion and love really mean.
The opera is a transfiguration, a true epitome of Gesamtkunstwerk.
Alkis Karmpaliotis is a 15-year-old opera enthusiast living in New York. He founded Appreciate Opera in 2019. You can support him by subscribing to AO and reading through some of his articles and interviews.