Saturday, February 20, 2010

Four Nights at the Opera: Der Ring Des Nibelungen

I love music; I can listen to it all day, on any format you give me, until my head splits open and my ears bleed rock n' roll all over the keyboard. And because I am a nerd, I must do more than love my music: I must hoard it, categorize it, analyze it, and most importantly, pontificate about it. Yes, it falls to me to listen to things, and tell the rest of the world whether it's worth their precious time or not.

As a mere human, however, I am sadly limited. There is just too much recorded music to listen to in one lifetime, and so you will probably never get to hear my conclusive opinion about Swedish Death Metal, or Zimbabwean Electric Folk, or many other genres which may or may not exist. I'm just not likely to get around to it. But every once in a while, I like to take a step out of my pocket pop/rock universe and explore something "weird." And in the depths of our vulgar modern days, what could be weirder than opera, the highest tower in the ivory skyline of classical music?

So when I found a complete recording of Richard Wagner's magnum opus, Der Ring Des Nibelungen, on iTunes for a mere twenty dollars, well, I knew what I had to do. I had to buy it, and I had to listen to it, and then I had to let the world know what I thought.

So that's what I did.

The Ring Cycle, as it's known by the lazy of tongue, is an intimidatingly monumental work of the late Nineteenth Century, composed of not one but four individual operas, intended by the composer to be performed as whole over the course of four nights. It's an epic tale of heroes , gods, magic rings, dragons, and the end of the world, so you know Wagner means business. The language is German, and the setting is the imagination of the ancient Germanic myths, spliced and rearranged in dramatic fashion, presumably in order to include references to as many as humanly possible.

Because it's in German, I entered the arena at a significant disadvantage: I had no idea what the hell was going on. I partially overcame my handicap by reviewing the individual plots of the operas on Wikipedia; furthermore, I ran the titles of the individual tracks through Babelfish, in order to give myself a rough idea of where I was in the narrative. It worked, barely. In a nutshell, here's how it all goes down:

The first opera, Das Rheingold, introduces us to the Norse Gods (Odin, Thor, Loki, etc), renamed in German fashion (Wotan, Donner, Loge, etc) and fighting with giants and dwarves over a magic ring. The ring was forged by Alberich, a lustful dwarf who stole a magical hoard of gold from the nymphs of the Rhine river. What can the ring do? Well, it grants its bearer the power to conquer the world, but also drives him insane and inspires jealous rage and desire in those around him. This does not sound familiar at all. The ring comes with a magic helmet (magic helmet!?), which transforms the giant Fafner into an invincible dragon.

The second opera, Die Walküre, tells of how Wotan set up the hero Siegmund to defeat Fafner and claim the ring. Unfortunately, Siegmund throws a wrench in this plan by having sex with his long-lost sister, Sieglinde, earning him the wrath of the gods. Wotan reluctantly decrees that the pair must die, but the Valkyrie Brünnhilde takes pity on them, and manages to save Sieglinde and her unborn child. For her insubordination, Brünnhilde is then sentenced to a magical sleep within a ring of fire, to be awoken only by a great hero. I think we can all see where this is going.

The third opera, Siegfried, tells the story of the creatively named progeny of Siegmund and Sieglinde. Orphaned from birth and raised by Alberich as part of a convoluted plan to reclaim his lost treasure, Siegfried asks the dwarf Mime to reforge his father's sword (this also does not sound familiar). Mime fails in this task, so Siegfried forges it himself, and proceeds to slay the dreaded Fafner. Siegfried gains magical powers from the dragon's blood, and slays Mime, who intended to betray him. Siegfried then discovers the sleeping Brünnhilde; she awakens, he gives her the ring, they fall in love, and sunshine and happiness reign o'er the land.

The final opera, Götterdämmerung, sounds like the most awesome curse word in existence, but it isn't. Siegfried goes off in search of adventure, and comes across King Gunther. On the advice of Hagen, Gunther's half-brother and Alberich's son (good Lord this is confusing), Gunther and his sister Gutrune decide to trick Brünnhilde and Siegfried, respectively, into marrying them. Siegfried drinks a magic potion that makes him forget about Brünnhilde; disguised as Gunther, he then kidnaps Brünnhilde for Gunther and seizes the ring from her. Brünnhilde discovers the treachery, and vows revenge; Siegfried is killed by Hagen on Gunther's command, as punishment for his dishonorable behavior; Hagen kills Gunther and attempts to claim the ring, but is thwarted by Siegfried's still-moving hand; Brünnhilde builds a massive funeral pyre, returns the ring to the nymphs of the Rhine, and finally burns Siegfried and herself. This leads directly to the destruction of Valhalla and the gods, in a clear and obvious manner that certainly needs no explanation from me.

Neat story, Wagner. So how's the music? Very, very interesting. The series is famously characterized by the extensive use of leitmotifs, which is a real boon for a novice like me; the sudden recurrence of a musical theme, such as the famous "Ride of the Valkyries," helps somewhat in keeping of track of the characters and plot in such a dense, impenetrable story. I could hardly tell most of the characters apart (with the obvious exception of females and males), but with a leitmotif here and a quick Babelfish translation there, a semblance of order ultimately emerges. Making sense of this semblance, however, is an awful lot of work.

It's largely my own fault. The music is only one part of Wagner's whole creation, as essential to the whole as it may be. By necessity, I missed out on the elaborate staging that goes with a proper performance of the Ring, and while Wikipedia is helpful, it's no substitute for a real libretto. Thus, the poor opera naif is up a creek with nary a paddle or a magic helmet to save him. I can hardly say I experienced the entirety of the saga without its visual, dramatic elements.

Of course, I didn't go in wholly ignorant of Wagner. Thanks to Francis Ford Coppola, everybody knows the Ride of the Valkyries, and I recognized several other pieces from various sources. I was also fully aware of the more troubling context surrounding Der Ring des Nibelungen: namely, the composer's antisemitism and the subsequent appropriation of his work by Hitler's Reich. Though it is a plain anachronism and slander to say that Richard Wagner was a Nazi, his music was put to the Nazi's purposes, and his legacy of racism is tied up with that of the nineteenth century, which for my money was the most deeply racist epoch in western history.

But is Der Ring Des Nibelungen a racist opera? I may be ignorant of its subtler themes, but it doesn't seem that way to me. The legends and myths that inspired it are older by far than the modern racist phenomenon that troubles us to this day, and whatever purpose Wagner may or may not have had in mind in celebrating the German "race," it's the more ancient aspects of the story that shine through the brightest. At any rate, condemning the work because of its historical circumstances is hardly a fitting treatment for such an ambitious piece of art.

Besides, as I said before, I like music. Wagner's Ring is not only "important" music, but big, dramatic, and often very beautiful music. It may not be a very good introduction for opera noobies, especially in such a denuded format, but it kept my attention for four nights and gave me plenty to think about. If you're in the mood for a little dragon slaying, why not give it a try?


For the record, the version of the Ring which I bought from iTunes was recorded by the Orchestra Sinfonica E Coro Della Radio Italiana, with Wilhelm Furtwängler. I don't know who any of these people are, but I thank them for their hard work, and for making that work available to me at such an absurdly low price.

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