Der Ring des Nibelungen

at the Reykjavík Arts Festival

Wagner’s Ring and its Icelandic Sources
Stofnun Sigurðar Nordals 1995

Wolfgang Wagner in Reykjavík

You could have heard a pin drop. We are in the National Theatre of Iceland on 25 January 1993, where our guests from Bayreuth, Wolfgang Wagner and his wife Gudrun, are meeting the board of the Reykjavík Arts Festival. They have come to Iceland at the request of the festival board to offer their advice on plans to stage a Wagner opera for the first time in Iceland at the 1994 Reykjavík Arts Festival, an event that will tilso mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Iceland in 1944. Wolfgang Wagner has just put forward his ideas, saying — if my memory serves me right:

„This occasion offers the opportunity to do something unique, something that has never been done before. Because of the ties between the works of my grandfather, Richard Wagner, and your medieval literature, I feel we should definitely consider the idea of producing a one-evening version of Der Ring des Nibelungen. In choosing the parts for this shortened version, special account should be taken of the Icelandic background. The excerpts sung could be linked together and placed in context by a spoken narrative in Icelandic. It is of great importance that as many Icelandic artists as possible should participate in the production so that the interpretation and performance of the work will reflect the knowledge and understanding of the nation which so long ago created and put in writing the literary heritage upon which Der Ring des Nibelungen is so largely based.“

Wolfgang Wagner is obviously highly motivated. Everyone present is caught up in his sense of creative excitement and inspirational enthusiasm.

The idea comes as a surprise. Most of us had expected Wagner to say that conditions in Iceland precluded the possibility of producing any of his grandfather’s works except, perhaps, for Der fliegende Holländer. Some were even convinced that Icelandic singers could not be trusted with the roles of a Wagner opera, and had foreseen the suggestion of a guest performance from Germany.

The discussions continue throughout the whole of the rest of this day and the next, and various possible venues are considered. In addition to the National Theatre, Wagner visits the Icelandic Opera and the Reykjavík City Theatre. We even take him to see the Laugardal’s sports hall and spend some considerable time there. The sports hall has the advantage of the least limitations of space compared to the other alternatives, but it is clear that practically a whole theatre would have to be constructed inside it. Wolfgang Wagner paces back and forth across the court. In one corner some boys are playing soccer, and Wagner is often close to becoming involved in the game. It is not easy to imagine these surroundings as a setting for the dramatic world of Richard Wagner, but Wolfgang Wagner sees the potential, and points out ways in which a production could be made possible in the hall. But this would call for major changes to the interior of the building, which, in his opinion, could only be justified if they were of future benefit not only to the building itself but to Iceland’s cultural life in general.

Cooperation between Reykjavík and Bayreuth

As Wolfgang Wagner’s visit draws to a close, the decision is made to undertake a thorough examination of the possibility of Icelanders staging the Ring along the lines mentioned above. A ten-week plan of procedure is drawn up. This includes studying the whole Ring with a view to cutting the work down from 15 hours to three. The plan is that the linking narrations will take an additional 30 minutes. Wolfgang Wagner undertakes to find a conductor. Here in Iceland, information will be gathered on Icelandic singers, directors and set designers, from whom he will suggest his choices. Over the next few weeks, there is constant communication between the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth and. the Reykjavík Arts Festival.

By May 1993, a draft abridgement of the Ring has been made under the supervision of Wolfgang Wagner, in collaboration with the Arts Vestival. A shortlist has also been drawn up of Icelandic singers who might sing the roles in the Ring. It is soon established that fifteen Icelanders are able to participate, while three additional singers will be required from abroad for the roles of Brünnhilde, Wotan and Siegfried. About the same time, an erstwhile “Icelander”, Alfred Walter, a friend and colleague of Wolfgang Wagner’s agrees to conduct the work. He had previously worked with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra as principal conductor. At the beginning of June, stage director Þórhildur Þorleifsdóttir is offered the demanding task of directing the abridged version, and Sigurjón Jóhannsson is asked to design sets and costumes. They both accept.

At the same time as the artistic outlines of the production are being sketched out, the Reykjavík Arts Festival board has been busy grappling with the financial and practical problems. The National Theatre has been chosen as the location for the event, and a unique agreement has been made with three cultural institutions to join forces with the Reykjavík Arts Festival for the project: the National Theatre, the Icelandic Opera and the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. At this point it becomes clear that our goal is within reach. It is possible to mount a special Icelandic production of Der Ring des Nibelungen and, furthermore, this Icelandic version will probably be the first one-evening version of the Ring to be staged anywhere in the world.

Visits to Bayreuth

It all began in July 1992. I was on my way to Bayreuth, with my husband, Árni Tómas Ragnarsson, to see Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser. Shortly before our departure, the new board of the Reykjavík Arts Festival had met. Besides myself, other members present were the chairman of the board Valgarður Egilsson, the poet Sigurjón B. Sigurðsson (Sjón) and the artist Kristján Steingrímur. “Get hold of a Wagner opera for us,” Valgarður had said, before I left the meeting.

Árni Tómas was familiar with the extremely helpful staff at the press office in the Festspielhaus from his former visits. When we arrived in Bayreuth he put forward our request to Barbara Christ and Peter Emmerich for an interview with Wolfgang Wagner on behalf of the Reykjavík Arts Festival. We were invited to come backstage after the performance of Tannhäuser. In between going onstage, bowing and receiving applause, the production’s director, Wolfgang Wagner, listened to the proposal of these two Icelanders, who wanted to celebrate 50 years of their Republic by staging the first Wagner opera in the country’s history. Wolfgang Wagner’s initial reaction was very favourable. He said that he had been interested in Iceland for a long time, not least because of the literature, which was so important to Richard Wagner. A year later, we were back in Bayreuth, now with Valgarður Egilsson and Stefán Baldursson, director of the National Theatre. The final preparations were being made for the production of the Ring at the 1994 Reykjavík Arts Festival. Wolfgang Wagner would bear the title of artistic supervisor of the production. He generously offered any further help which he and his theatre could provide, as they had done up till now. We received great assistance from Stephan Jöris and Dorothea Glatt, who are among Wagner’s closest colleagues. It is rumoured that, where singers are concerned, Frau Glatt is like the all-knowing Erda. And it was she who suggested the foreign guest singers for the roles of Brünnhilde, Wotan and Siegfried.

Director Þórhildur Þorleifsdóttir and stage designer Sigurjón Jóhannsson were also in Bayreuth to immerse themselves in the fascinating world of Richard Wagner and the Festspielhaus. Conductor Alfred Walter too came to Bayreuth and had a meeting with Wolfgang Wagner, at which some final refinements were made to the choice of scenes from the operas. We had now reached the point of no turning back. The production would go ahead.

The shortened version of the Ring at the Arts Festival

The draft abridgement of the Ring which had been drawn up by May 1993 was the basis of the production staged at the Arts Festival in 1994. In view of the fact that the abridgement had a double purpose, i.e. to take special account of the Icelandic background of the Ring, and to give an insight into the work as a whole, including its musical and dramatic climaxes, it is hardly surprising that it proved impossible to cut the four operas down to three hours. In the end, the total length of the excerpts was approximately four hours, plus the linking narrations. The performance, with two intervals, took five hours, a length unprecedented in Icelandic theatre.

This Icelandic version included 30 of the Ring’s 34 roles. Mime was Cut, as were the three Norns in Götterdämmerung. Eighteen singers took part in the production, twelve of them singing more than one role.

The “Reykjavík Ring” is in three acts. The first is based upon excerpts from Das Rheingold, starting with the Prelude and followed by the second half of Scene 1 with the Rhinemaidens and Alberich (from “Lugt, Schwestern”). The remainder of this opening act is set in the world of the gods, first with two brief excerpts from Scene 2 (the beginning and the entrance of Freia, fleeing from the giants) and then the bulk of Scene 4 (from “Her den Ring” to the end of the opera).

The second act of the Icelandic version derives from Die Walküre. It begins with the Prelude to Act One and the entrance of Siegmund, followed by Siegmund’s famous “Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond” in Scene 3 and onwards to the end of Act One. From Act Two, we hear the Prelude leading into Brünnhilde’s appearance on the warpath with her battle-cry; the final section of Fricka’s confrontation with Wotan, in which she demands that Siegmund die in the duel with Hunding, followed by the first half of Wotan’s monologue to Brünnhilde; then comes Brünnhilde’s Annunciation of Death to Siegmund, slightly abridged, but not disjointed; and finally the scene of Siegmund’s death to the end of the act. The next excerpt is the famous Ride of the Valkyries, from the beginning of Act Three. The act concludes with the final scene (from “In festen Schlaf’), in which Wotan punishes Brünnhilde by putting her to sleep on the Valkyrie rock, surrounded by flickering flames.

The third act of the “Reykjavík Ring” is based upon the last two operas of the cycle, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. The act opens in the middle of Siegfried, in Act Two, Scene 2. The fearless hero Siegfried appears, to the sound of his famous horn call. He kills the dragon Fafner and acquires the gold, unaware of its significance. The second section begins in Act Three, after Siegfried has made his way through the fire and woken Brünnhilde, and comprises a slightly abridged version of their love duet from “Heil dir, Sonne”, to the end of the opera. From Götterdämmerung comes the whole of Act Two, Scene 3, starting with Hagen’s summoning of the Gibichung vassals, and most of the following scene up to the oath. The next excerpt depicts Siegfried’s death in Act Three, Scene 2, (from “In Leid zu dem Wipfel”), and is followed by the Funeral March and, finally, by Brünnhilde’s Immolation (from “Starke Scheite”), the very last scene of the entire Ring.

Overall, one may say that this abridgement of the Ring follows the course of the Rhinegold rather closely: the destiny and power of the gold as it passes from the Rhinemaidens to the dwarf Alberich, who makes from it the allpowerful ring, and thence through the hands of gods, giants and men, before finally returning to the Rhinemaidens, with which the narrative comes full circle. The story of the gods plays a large part, while the world of the Nibelungs is left out of sight. The Wälsungs are prominent, the Gibichungs less so. It is fair to say that the version performed in Reykjavík includes most of the highlights of the cycle that have often been selected in the past and performed in the concert hall or on record as introductions to the Ring.

The premiere in Reykjavík, May 1994

The production was premiered at the National Theatre in Reykjavík on 27 May, in the presence of President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, and our distinguished guests from Bayreuth, Gudrun and Wolfgang Wagner. It fell to Þórhildur Þorleifsdóttir, Sigurjón Jóhannsson, and Alfred Walter to shape this material into a consistent production together with all the other artists and musicians who had come to participate. To assist them, the Arts Festival brought in an excellent poet and expert on Wagner, Icelandic literature and music, Þorsteinn Gylfason, who wrote the linking narrations to be recited by two actors playing the parts of Loge and Erda. Only Siegfried could put together the broken sword Notung. Our talented Icelandic artists had no less success with these fragments of the Ring cycle. The delight of our audiences, together with appreciative reviews in newspapers and opera periodicals all over the world, bear witness to their triumph.

It is Wolfgang Wagner, though, who deserves the greatest honour and gratitude for the unfailing support and inspiration that he brought to those of us who sit on the board of the Reykjavík Arts Festival. He gave us the courage needed to undertake this ambitious project, which will live in the memories of those who saw and heard it as one of the greatest triumphs in the history of theatre and opera in Iceland.