Revisiting "Der Ring des Nibelungen"

Update: Scroll below to "Siegfried" and "Gotterdammerung"

I awoke this morning with a tune in my head. Humming it to myself, I realized it was music from the opera "Gotterdammerung," the final opera of German composer Richard Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen," more commonly known as Wagner's "Ring Cycle." (Oh, that old chestnut!)

Anyway, I couldn't get the music out of my head. I don't know when I last heard it. A couple of years ago, perhaps. But I do remember when I had first heard it. It was back in 1990. PBS was airing a special Met performance of "The Ring" (not to be in any way confused with Tolkien's "The Ring"), with conductor James Levine at the podium, and I settled in for what proved to be a long week of opera viewing. You see, Wagner's "Ring Cycle" consists of four operas ("Das Rheingold," "Die Walkure," "Seigfried," and "Gotterdammerung" ... translated as "The Rhinegold," "The Valkyrie," "Seigfried," and "Twilight of the Gods") which were aired on good ol' Channel 2 over four consecutive nights, in German with English subtitles. The entire four-opera performance totalled nearly 15 hours in length!

"Der Ring des Nibelungen" is perhaps the most ambitious undertaking in the history of classical music ... or any music for that matter. It took Wagner some 26 years to complete! The music itself was so revolutionary that it was necessary for Wagner to assemble a greatly expanded orchestra and to invent new instruments (including the Wagner tuba) in order to create the sounds he envisioned. Wagner even had a new opera house built to accommodate the elaborate production, the enlarged orchestra, and to better meld the sounds produced by the musicians with those singing on stage. In every way, it was HUGE!

If you've never seen it before, give it a try. Start with "Das Rheingold" - part one - it's only about two and half hours long. "Gotterdammerung," on the other hand, is about five hours long!

Over the next four days I'll be updating this particular blog entry with a synopsis of each of the four operas. It's a tale of gods and demigods, of mortals and Valkyries, of love and revenge, of a ring that holds mighty powers, and of those that wish to possess it. So tune in here (and scroll down) for more.

"Das Rheingold" (163 minutes): In this first opera of the Ring Cycle, the curtain rises on the River Rhine wherein live three Rhinemaidens guarding the precious and magical rhinegold. Only by renouncing love can the gold be made magic. A dwarf by the name of Alberich (a Nibelung) arrives and steals the gold from the Rhinemaidens.  Meanwhile, the gods Wotan (the king of the gods) and Fricka (his wife) are overseeing the construction of Valhalla, which is being built by giants in exchange for Freia (Fricka's sister - the goddess of love). Wotan's sidekick Loge (the demigod of fire) tells him of the stolen rhinegold and of the magic ring that Alberich has forged. Wotan offers the gold to the giants in order to free Freia from bondage. The giants agree, so Wotan and Loge descend to earth to trick Alberich and steal the gold, but not before Alberich puts a curse on the ring. Wotan returns to Valhalla and pays the gold ransom (including the magic ring) to the giants. The giants fight over the gold, and one is killed. As the curtain closes, the gods enter the newly completed Valhalla. (Musical excerpt from "Das Rheingold": Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla, complete with anvils) 

"Die Walkure" (244 min) Things start to really get interesting. It's years later. A bloke named Siegmund, who happens to be the illegitimate son of the god Wotan and a mortal woman, arrives at a house during a storm seeking shelter. He is admitted by a young woman named Sieglinde (who happens to be Siegmund's long lost twin sister, but they don't know that just yet). Sieglinde is unhappily married to Hunding, and during this stormy night Siegmund and Sieglinde fall in love. (See the complications arising?) Hunding arrives home, and due to some earlier bad blood between the two (it seems they met before) it is decided that Hunding and Siegmund will fight to the death in the morning -- after a good night's sleep ... and perhaps a big breakfast. Sieglinde drugs Hunding, Siegmund draws a magic sword from a stone, and the young couple flee. Meanwhile, in Valhalla, Wotan is visiting with yet another of his illegitimate children - his daughter Brunnhilde (who is one of the Valkyries -- a group of nine warrior women, yes all Wotan's daughters, who collect fallen soldiers from the battlefield and bring them to Valhalla ... and then collect the 5-cent deposit on each ... that's just not funny). Wotan instructs Brunnhilde to protect Siegmund during his upcoming showdown with Hunding. Fricka arrives and in a jealous fit (perhaps due to the fact that everywhere she turns is another of Wotan's children via another woman) instructs Wotan to instruct Brunnhilde to allow Siegmund to die. Phew! Wotan caves to his wife (let's face it, the guy doesn't have a leg to stand on). Hunding ultimately catches up with Siegmund and Sieglinde, who is now pregnent with Siegmund's child (yes, they are brother and sister!), and the two men do battle. Zzzzzzzz.... I'm sorry, it's been a long day and I'm tired. I'll have to pick this up in the morning. Until then .... zzzz ...... Ok, I'm back, fully rested. Let's see, where were we? Ah yes, so Siegmund and Hunding do battle. Brunnhilde disobeys her father's orders and protects Siegmund, but Wotan arrives and causes Siegmund's sword to break, allowing Hunding to kill him. In his despair, Wotan kills Hunding. Brunnhilde then takes the pregnant Sieglinde on her horse and away they fly back to a mountaintop where all the Valkyries hang out. Wotan arrives, Sieglinde flees, and Brunnhilde remains behind to face the wrath of her father. Once again, I'm sorry ... gotta head off to work ... never enough time, always interruptions ... I'll finish this off later (I told you this opera was long!). Okay, I'm back again. Long day on the mail route. So there is Brunnhilde on this mountaintop, with Wotan. It's a painfull scene to watch as Wotan realizes he has to punish his favorite child. First he makes her mortal, which leaves her defenseless. Then he decides to place her in a magic deep sleep, leaving her to the first bloke that passes by. But then Wotan softens up, and tells Brunnhilde that he will encircle her in a ring of magic fire, courtesy of Loge - demigod of fire, through which only an heroic warrior can pass.  The opera ends with Brunnhilde asleep, encircled by fire, and Wotan exiting stage left ... just another day in Valhalla! (Musical excerpt from "Die Walkure": Ride of the Valkyries -  you may remember this music from the helicopter attack scene in Apocalypse Now ... or from Bugs Bunny's "What's Opera, Doc?" as Elmer Fudd sings: "Be very quiet --- I'm hunting wabbit")

"Siegfried" (253 min) Years pass. Something close to 20 years. Earlier, Sieglinde died giving birth to her son, Siegfried, who was then raised by the Nibelung Mime (the brother of Alberich, who originally stole the rhinegold from the rhinemaidens back in the first opera ... you do remember the first opera, I hope?!). Siegfriend is in possession of the broken pieces of his father's sword, and is hoping that Mime can forge them into a proper sword. One day, Wotan - who is Siegfried's grandfather - appears and enters into a series of riddles with Mime. The final riddle answer reveals that only a person without fear can forge the sword. That person, it turns out, is Siegfried himself. Wotan next visits the Giant who possesses the ring (except that now the Giant has been turned into a dragon). He also encounters Alberich. Later, Siegfried arrives and slays the dragon. The dragon's blood, which spills on Siegfried's hands, gives the young man special powers. He can now understand the song of the woodbird. And he can now read Mime's mind ... just in the nick of time as Mime was plotting to poison him (so he slays him as well). From the woodbird, Siegfried learns of a sleeping woman atop a mountain encircled by fire. Upon arriving there, he first encounters Wotan. Siegfried breaks Wotan's spear with his sword and travels on to the fiery rock upon which Brunnhilde sleep. He kisses her, awakening her from her slumber. The two fall in love. The encounter with Brunnhilde teaches the young Siegfried fear. Thus ends another day in the Rhineland! (Musical excerpt from "Siegfried": Forest Murmurs )

"Gotterdammerung" (281 min!) And so we arrive at the last opera - Gotterdammerung. It's a great German word. Gotterdammerung. It just rolls off the lips. Say it ... Gotterdammerung.  Ahhh, what a great word! It translates as "Twilight of the Gods." So, picking up the action - Siegfried and Brunnhilde are in love, which is a bit weird because one is the aunt of the other in this crazy universe where Wotan begat pretty much everyone (their family tree must look like a telephone pole). I didn't mention this earlier, but Siegfried now has the Ring, which he took from the giant/dragon he slayed in the earlier opera, and presents it to Brunnhilde. He then takes Brunnhilde's horse and goes off to do battle with ... frankly I've forgotten at this point. He arrives at this great Hall where a brother and a sister are plotting to drug him in order to cause him to forget about Brunnhilde, so the brother can marry Brunnhilde and the sister can marry Siegfried (I don't understand why they don't bypass this complicated plan and simply marry each other - it worked for Siegmund and Sieglinde ... see "Die Walkure"). The drug does the trick, Siegfried falls for the sister, and then, dressed as the brother, visits Brunnhilde and steals back the ring. I know, it's getting confusing. At some point, Brunnhilde realizes she was tricked by Siegfried (not knowing he was drugged) and joins forces with the brother (and yet another brother) to kill Siegfried. So the two brothers invite him on a hunting trip and do him in, claiming it was a hunting accident ... it is unclear whether Dick Cheney was there as well. Of course, upon Siegfried's death Brunnhilde now knows that he was in fact innocent, and she rides her horse into his funeral pyre, which saves tremendously on funeral costs. The flames rise up to Valhalla where the gods meet their ultimate end. Twilight of the Gods indeed! Curtain closes. (Musical excerpt from "Gotterdammerung": Siegfried's Funeral Music)

I wish to thank those of you who came along on this lo-o-o-ong operatic journey, which began with my initial blog post on Sep 24 and ends today, Oct 1. If any of this sounds remotely interesting, I encourage you to watch "Der Ring des Nibelungen." If it is not of interest, there's always Monday Night Football. Until next time...   

Jack Sheedy

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