There are, as many interpretations of the Ring as there are CDs. Tom Service thinks that at least he knows what it's not about - maybe: It’s a question that has taxed musicians, philosophers, politicians and audiences ever since its sensational premiere in 1876 in a specially built theatre in Bayreuth, a temple to the ego and ambition of its creator, Richard Wagner: what does the Ring cycle mean?
Is it an exercise in futility, as the mid-20th-century musical satirist Anna Russell says, in which you end up in the final bars of The Twilight of the Gods exactly where you started four operas earlier, with the same Rhinemaidens, the same river, the same gold? Or is the Ring a philosophical discourse on the limits of power and the limitlessness of love? Or a creation myth that contains its own destruction in the conflagration of the Gods and Brünnhilde’s suicidal immolation on the funeral pyre of her lover, the tainted hero Siegfried?
No one has found a universally accepted verdict. Yet what hasn’t been achieved in 144 years of countless books and treatises, Radio 3 listener Robert Boot attempted in just 10 words: ‘Gods homeward headed’ – that sums up the first Ring opera, Das Rheingold; ‘Close relations wedded’ – that’s Die Walküre, as Siegmund and Sieglinde consummate their incestuous love; ‘Auntie bedded’ – the third opera, Siegfried, since Brünnhilde and Siegfried are aunt and nephew through Wotan, the leader of the Gods; ‘Hero deaded’ – that’s the trajectory of The Twilight of the Gods.