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Wagner’s lyric-less ‘Ring’ gets the TFO treatment

Bill DeYoung



Michael Francis. Photo: The Florida Orchestra.

The final Masterworks concert series in The Florida Orchestra’s 55th season brings forth music by German composer Richard Wagner, whose musical innovations, in classical music and in opera, are still in use today.

“What’s Opera, Doc?” Image: Warner Bros.

Perhaps Wagner’s most famous work, The Ring of the Nibelung (aka The Ring Cycle), is full of dramatic, powerful orchestrations. It includes “The Ride of the Valkyries,” the bombastic score that has been used in everything from the napalm-bombing scene in Apocalypse Now to the Bugs Bunny cartoon What’s Opera, Doc, the first-ever animated short added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

Wagner’s epic, nearly 16 hours long, takes four nights to perform. Its full premiere took place in 1876, at an opera house he designed and built, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.

TFO isn’t performing the Ring Cycle, which includes an epic story, for opera singers, based on Norse mythology (that’s why Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and everybody else who pokes fun at operatic pomposity wear those horned Viking helmets).

The performances Saturday (at the Mahaffey Theater) and Sunday (at Ruth Eckerd Hall) are of The Ring Without Words, an arrangement by conductor Loren Maazel.

“What Maazel has done, very intelligently, is taken the main bits which are just for orchestra alone, and then tied in some of the other sections to follow the whole narrative journey,” explains TFO music director Michael Francis, who’ll conduct. “He’s reduced nearly 16 hours to just over an hour. You have the very first notes, and the very last notes, and all the major orchestra highlights in between.”

In other words, no words. There’s no opera in it.

“Obviously there are quite a few things you have to leave out,” says Francis, “but it has all of the major milestones. And that’s what’s so impressive about all this.”

Wagner is credited with the introduction of the leitmotif, a recurring theme or musical idea to introduce (and then re-introduce) a character, a situation or an emotion. So the presence of Siegfried, Brünnhilde, Alberich and the other major characters is depicted musically.

(Leitmotif is used frequently by John Williams and other contemporary composers for film.)

Projections above the orchestra will not so much tell the story as provide guideposts. “You can follow along during the various scenes – I think there are 20 or 21 of them,” says Francis. “So you can see when Siegfried’s killing a dragon, when the two twins are having a child … at times, it feels like a precursor to The Lord of the Rings, with a dash of Game of Thrones thrown in.”

(The story revolves around a ring of power, which our heroes seek to destroy. Scholars of J.R.R. Tolkien insist The Lord of the Rings was not “inspired” by Wagner’s tale, as they both borrowed heavily from mythology.)

Still, it’s not The Animated Wagner. “We’re not going to bombard you. We don’t want it to be a comic. It’s really subtle. We just want to give you a sense of ‘Well, what’s going on here?’ Your imagination can go into it and make of it what you want.”

Francis (and the orchestra) will conduct a deep-dive into Wagner, the story of The Ring Cycle and its musical tricks, treats and innovations at an “Inside the Music” open rehearsal event Thursday at the Mahaffey. Admission is “pay what you can.”

“In many ways it’s the best preparation for the big, big thing on Saturday and Sunday,” he explains. “Because you’ll know the music and you’ll understand it – and when you come back to hear it complete, it’ll be a powerful experience for everyone.”

He’ll unlock the mystery of the leitmotif moments. “What I will do is give you the main ones to listen for as we go along. I can’t do them all – there are hundreds of them.”

Whenever Wagner is discussed, mention is always made of the fact that he was a notorious anti-Semite. It’s part of the composer’s legacy.

Francis has a ready answer. “With so many composers we have this issue of ‘How do we separate the composer from the music?’” he says.

“I think what we see in Wagner is a deeply troubled person. A very troubled soul that somehow was the source of this most amazing music.”

Tickets for “The Ring Without Words” are here.

The concerts will also include a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, with soloist Dejan Lazic.










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