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Prelude to an Epic: Wagner's 'Das Rheingold'

There were a few famous 19th-century musicians who seem to have been competing for the title of "most long-winded composer." When it comes to orchestral music, for example, it's a tossup between Gustav Mahler and Anton Bruckner, who both wrote single symphonies lasting well over an hour.

With opera, though, there's one composer who has the field all to himself: Richard Wagner. His operas Die Meistersinger and Parsifal are both among the longest of all time. But those two are pipsqueaks when compared to his epic, The Ring of the Nibelungen — a cycle lasting some 16 hours in all.

It's true that Wagner's Ring is actually four dramas, not just one. But together, they tell a single, continuous story — in a form Wagner called "music drama." And that one story takes four evenings to perform.

Still, the individual works of the Ring do stand quite nicely on their own. And the opening drama, Das Rheingold, is actually one of the most concise operas Wagner ever composed. At about two and a half hours, it's easily the shortest drama in the cycle — and it can seem even shorter than it really is. Das Rheingold is a 160-minute spectacle that flies by in a flash, introducing vivid new worlds where gods, giants and dwarves all vie for ultimate power. But while the story is surely compelling, the whole thing does take place in just one act — with no intermissions. So, if you plan on listening to it all in one go, you might think about packing a lunch.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Das Rheingold — which the composer called the "Preliminary Evening" of his Ring cycle — in a performance from the Washington National Opera. It's the first installment in what the company calls "An American Ring," an ambitious and inventive production of Wagner's complete cycle. The Washington production of Das Rheingold stars baritone Robert Hale as the god Wotan, and also features a vivid performance by baritone Gordon Hawkins as Alberich, the vengeful Nibelung whose passion and anger sets the entire story of the Ring in motion.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

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