Everyone has a bucket list, and one of the items on mine—and my husband, Steve’s—is seeing Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, known as the Ring Cycle. (Literally, it means the ring of the Nibelungen, a race of dwarves who live underground.) For those who are not familiar with opera, Wagner was an EXTREME composer who wrote a four-part opera that runs 16 hours. Only the strong can last through the entire series. We could not afford to see the Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but fortunately, the Met version was filmed and shown at our local movie theater so that impoverished opera fans, such as we, could enjoy it.
The operas premiered between 1869 and 1876 in Munich and Bayreuth, Germany, both of which are in Bavaria, where they drink lots of beer and wear lederhosen. The composer, Wilhelm Richard Wagner, led a life characterized by political exile, stormy love affairs, poverty and repeated flight from his creditors. His Ring Cycle takes four days to see in its entirety. The story is about the downfall of the Norse gods and it is a combination of Lord of the Rings, Sleeping Beauty, The Sword and the Stone, The Towering Inferno and The Days of Our Lives (Norse style) all wrapped up into one.
|The Rhinemaidens from the original Das Reingold production.|
Part One—Das Reingold (the gold of the Rhine River) is about three snarky Rhinemaidens who guard a hoard of gold at the bottom of the Rhine River, and an angry dwarf, Alberich, who steals it from them. Alberich forges a magical ring and helmet from the gold, and tries to take over the world. At the same time, the Norse gods have hired two giants to build Valhalla, a castle on a high mountain where the gods plan to live. (It is not clear where the gods were sacking out before then, but they seem pretty excited about having a house.)
Wotan, leader of the Norse gods, promises the giants one of his daughters, the Goddess of Youth, as payment for the house. (After all, a woman is a woman, but a castle is a place with indoor chamber pots and tuberculosis.) Then some of her brothers point out to dad that if the Goddess of Youth leaves, no one will be able to maintain the enchanted apple trees which give them all eternal life. (Got to think these things through, Wotan. Real estate is not always a good investment, especially versus immortality.) So Wotan and the trickster Fire God, Loge, steal the dwarf’s gold (after all, it was already stolen) and re-gift it to the giants in lieu of Wotan’s daughter. (The dwarf, naturally, has cursed the gold ring so whoever wears it is somewhat doomed.)
One giant puts the golden ring on his finger, decides he doesn’t want to share the rest of the gold and kills the other giant, who is his brother. He finds a cave on the edge of the forest, turns himself into a dragon—because the helmet has magical powers—and makes a career of guarding his gold.
The Valkyries, circa 1870: Wotan's goddess daughters rode
into battle to bring the souls of dead heroes back to Valhalla..
Part Two—Die Walküre (the Valkyries) is about a brother, Siegmund, and sister, Sieglinde, who fall in love and want to get married, but Sieglinde is already married to a horrible man who kidnapped her when he burned the family house down and killed their mother. And you thought The Housewives of New Jersey was lurid? Coincidentally, Siegmund and Sieglinde are the children of Wotan and a woman he fooled around with behind his wife’s back.
Wotan’s wife, Fricka, who is also the Goddess of Marriage, is not very happy about the incest thing or the violation of Sieglinde’s “sacred” marriage. So Fricka makes Wotan promise he will not help Siegmund in battle against the angry husband. Wotan has left a magical sword imbedded in a tree trunk—a phallic symbol that only Siegmund can extract. But Wotan will have to break that sword and let Sieglinde’s horrible husband impale Siegmund. Eventually, that’s what happens, but not before one of Wotan’s Valkyrie daughters, Brünnhilde, tries to save the incestuous young lovers because she knows that’s what her father really wanted.
(Yes, this is very complex and it gets even worse.) For trying to help the young couple, Brünnhilde is punished by Wotan. She is stripped of her immortality and left in a sleep state, and can only be awakened by a man who knows no fear. (In today’s world, such a man would be known as a psychopath, but in ancient Norse times, he was revered.) The last thing Brünnhilde does before she is left comatose on a mountaintop is to send Sieglinde off to a remote forest because she is pregnant with her dead brother’s baby. (Reality shows be damned!) Thus ends part two.
Part Three—Siegfried, is about that baby. An ugly dwarf, Mime, steals the baby, Siegfried, from Sieglinde while she lies dying after childbirth. He also steals the enchanted broken sword from Sieglinde that Siegfried’s father wielded in his fatal battle. (Coincidentally, Mime is the brother of the dwarf, Alberich, who originally stole the Reingold.)
Mime knows, somehow, that Siegfried will grow up to kill the dragon guarding the gold and he wants to control Siegfried to get to that fortune. Siegfried melts down the broken sword and forges a new one. Then he runs off and kills the dragon. Upon tasting the dragon’s blood on his sword, he is imbued with the ability to understand people’s thoughts, at least for one scene. He learns his dwarf “father,” Mime, hates him and intends to poison him and take all the gold. So Siegfried runs him in with the magical sword (like any self-respecting psychopath) and goes merrily on his way to find his sleeping bride, whom he learned about from a magical talking bird. He finds Brünnhilde, wakes her with a kiss, and they fall in love. Naturally, there is much singing.
|Wagner in one of his happier moments.|
Part Four—is Götterdämmerung (the twilight of the gods). Siegfried gives his cursed gold ring to Brünnhilde and she gives him her steed, Grane, who has slept along with her all these years. (Grane wakes up when Brünnhilde does. As far as the viewer knows, Siegfried does not have to revive the horse with a kiss.) Siegfried rides off into the world to do heroic deeds. He’s given a potion to forget Brünnhilde by a sister and brother who want to marry Siegfried and Brünnhilde, respectively. It’s very complicated, but it all boils down to this: Siegfried is stabbed to death, Brünnhilde builds a funeral a pyre for him and jumps into it, and Valhalla and the gods are engulfed in fire. The only happy campers in the end are the Rhinemaidens, who finally, after four days of opera, get their gold ring back and sing joyfully about it. Karma, I guess.
And there you have it. So what have we learned from this larger-than-life soap opera of the gods encompassing sex, power, betrayal, incest, deception, murder and self-immolation—all sung to 16 hours of powerhouse music? If you’re walking along the Rhine River in Germany and see three snarky Rhinemaidens goofing off when they ought to be guarding their gold, back away slowly….