The Ring of the Nibelung, ranked act by act (Part 1 of 4)

I am a sucker for ranking things, especially artistic things. I know that it goes against everything art stands for, but as long as you don’t treat it as a search for objective truth, but rather as a tool to help collect your thoughts about a variety of works, it can be a lot of fun. And it’s great fun to read other people’s lists and say “You put what as #7?” As I recently made my nth journey through Wagner’s Ring cycle, it occurred to that it might be fun to rank its constituent parts.

The rules: each opera is broken up into acts, except for Das Rheingold, which is broken up into scenes, since that’s all it has. Prologues and interludes are considered part of the following act (or scene). Here, therefore, spread out over four nights in homage to the original, are the 13 parts of the Ring cycle, from worst to first:

13. Siegfried, Act Two. How can an act featuring a battle to the death with a dragon be boring? Somehow Wagner has managed it. First you get Alberich and Mime bickering for a while, then Siegfried finally shows up and (spoiler alert!) duly dispatches the dragon in a disappointingly brief scene, then we are subjected to an interminable “comic” scene as Mime repeatedly attempts to poison Siegfried despite the fact that Siegfried can read his thoughts by virtue of tasting the dragon’s blood. At least the Forest Bird scene provides a few moments of desperately needed relief. No wonder Wagner took a twelve-year break after composing this act before continuing.

12. Götterdämmerung, Prologue and Act One. There is plenty of good music here, but it is just too damn long. If I recall correctly Wagner even had second thoughts about the length afterward. I actually like the Norns’ scene and am generally happy to listen to any scene with Hagen in it, and the climax with Siegfried and Brünnhilde is great, but it takes so long to get there. I always think we’re really close to the end and then Waltraute shows up and I realize how far we still have to go, argh. At least you get to snicker at “Siegfrieds Rheinfahrt”. My advice when listening is to break it up into two or three chunks. Of course in a live performance you don’t get that luxury.

11. Das Rheingold, Scene Two. It’s surprising how undramatic this scene feels given that it consists almost solely of gods (and giants) yelling at each other. For one thing, none of them are particularly sympathetic (of course, this is an issue throughout the whole cycle). There are a few bright spots in the midst of the relentless exposition (the Valhalla theme emerging out of the mists as Wotan wakes, the giants’ heavy metal walk-on theme) but they’re the exception.

10. Das Rheingold, Scene Three. This edges ahead of Scene Two by virtue of the awesome intro 9/8 anvil music. Once we actually emerge into Nibelheim it’s not all that interesting, and the trick by which Wotan and Loge trick Alberich is eye-rollingly stupid, but at least it doesn’t last all that long, and the Tarnhelm theme is pretty cool.

Coming up next: ranks 9 through 7!


5 Responses to “The Ring of the Nibelung, ranked act by act (Part 1 of 4)”

  1. Liza Daly says:

    the climax with Siegfried and Brünnhilde is great, but it takes so long to get there

    This is true of many things.

  2. Zoe Lang says:

    Hi Dan, thanks for passing along this list! What I find even more excruciating, actually, is the end of Act II of _Siegfried_ (let’s say after the dragon part, which is kind of cool) into Act III (right where Bruennhilde wakes up, actually). There are so many reasons, but here are a few:

    1) The bird. The bird is great. Lovely in fact. But it spends too much time giving information, especially considering…
    2) At the start of Act III, Siegfried basically ignores any and all information that the bird told him in the previous act (‘I wonder who this is atop the hill of burning fire’ — were there numerous hilltops ablaze or something?);
    3) There is a point in the overture to Act III where Wagner resorts to a descending chromatic scale. That tells you that you are in for a looooooooooooong act! But it does pick up, in my view, as you go along.

  3. dfan says:

    Yeah, I’m with you on most of that, but I actually do like the Wotan scenes that start out Act III; Wagner even manages to make an Erda scene interesting. Then things admittedly grind to a halt for a while before Brünnhilde wakes up – I’m always surprised how long that takes.

  4. Dave says:

    The beginning of Siegfried Act II is Alberich and Wotan, not Mime. The only choice I really disagree with is Gotterdammerung Prologue and Act I. The duet between Siegfried and Brunhilde is possibly my favorite scene of the entire cycle, somedays that is. And in general I think the music of Gotterdammerung is the best. Wagner at the height of his powers. Only parts of Walkure are better imo

  5. dfan says:

    You’re right about Siegfried Act II, of course, thanks.

    The Götterdämmerung Prologue and Act I would move up a ton in my ranking if they were broken up in performance. I assume you mean the Prologue duet between Siegfried and Brünnhilde rather than the end-of-Act-I duet, though I have to admit it’s one of my least favorite parts of the opening sequence – their love feels kind of generic and forced to me.

Leave a Reply