RICHARD WAGNER’S Ring of the Nibelungs, known as the Ring Cycle, starts with a low, low E-flat, a half step lower than available on a standard electric bass and, more to the point, on the four double basses the great, flawed composer scored to play it (these must be tuned down); it is accompanied by four more basses playing an octave higher. And this rumble of a chord, adding notes and voices and volume, develops over more than four minutes into a droning, poignant surge very like the sound I heard late at night in bed as a kid and thought was the turning of the world. And actually still think: there’s a rumble, a thrum, deep in the basement of the night.
The house goes quiet, and quieter yet. A cough here and there. I’m in a box among wedding-cake tiers of boxes stage right, up high, inexpensive back seat for the Metropolitan Opera production of Das Rheingold, the first and shortest of the four operas of the Ring Cycle (only two and a half hours, no intermissions), and I’m enjoying the view of The Machine, as they call it, the ingenious, cantankerous, often groaning set, a series of twenty-four god-size isosceles triangles connected by an axle and movable independently by techies wearing black, also by hidden motors. These huge parts — perpendicular to the orchestra pit and big enough to form a stage in their own right, big enough to stand in for trees, for castles, for mountains, for whole forests, for subterranean fortresses, for resplendent rainbow bridges — can be spun 360 degrees and (with the aid of dazzling digital projection) form a myriad of natural settings in the most unnatural environment possible, the singers standing, sitting, lying, flying, swimming: under, alongside, upon, over.
That low, low E-flat! It’s the primordial note, and its development the creation of the world. The set and its occasional clunkiness falls away, and I am transported (along with my 3,799 fellow opera-goers — a full house!), transported to the Rhine River, not today’s man-take-dominion iteration (factories and mines and cooling towers and treatment plants festooning its banks from Switzerland down to the Netherlands, “Europe’s Sewer” having nevertheless come somewhat back to life in the decades since being declared dead in the 1970s), but a Rhine that must have seemed as everlasting as the stars, as potent as the sun, an almighty run (which in fact is the etymological root of Rhine and river as well: run!), eternal. More, in the end, than you can say for the gods of The Ring, who — after sixteen glorious hours of opera — die. The gods die. And the people, of course, go with them. Although, wait: they’re standing there watching. Singing even.
OPERA IS INHERENTLY SILLY. Singers in fancy costume and over-the-top wigs caterwauling in (usually) foreign languages or, if in English, saying incomprehensible or inconsequential things — and so any quick immersion provides this or that skeptical friend plenty of reasons to make fun — this shit’s ridiculous! And Wagner epitomizes everything people think is wrong with the sport. The Ring, it’s often noted, is all but a self-parody, and those Viking-horned hats and steel-cone bras of old-school productions are a staple of caricatures, lampoon, and ridicule in everything from Bugs Bunny cartoons (sung to the Wagner music, with subtitles: “Be vewy quiet / I am hunting Wabbits . . .”) to stand-up comedy (spoken by the late hilarious British snob Anna Russell: “Up here you get Wotan, the head god and a perfectly crashing bore”) to Performance Lab 115’s adaptation using professional wrestlers (they’re damn good, judging by YouTube videos) to Das Barbecü, a country-western version with spicy short ribs, fun idea.
And, of course, infuriating to Wagner fans.
Oh, a joke’s a joke, but most of the jokes miss something, and I’m here to tell you that the thing they miss is something sublime, even awesome, and something it’s a shame more people won’t let themselves experience, something very, very large, as close to an experience of the wild universe as can possibly be mounted in a mere building — even if it’s a grand venue like the Met — an end-of-the-world experience that, if you let yourself open up to it, can leave you shaken, bereft, oddly rapturous. Wagner’s Ring is apocalyptic prophecy, an allegory of the environmental destruction to come — O, mortal planet! — and as opera it’s unmerciful, soaring above any but its own comedy, way, way above. Because greed and attendant environmental apocalypse isn’t funny. And that’s what this grandest of grand operas, this Ring, is about.
IN SHORT (though watching it requires four long evenings), here is the plot of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs: An evil dwarf named Alberich steals the treasure of the Rhine, a glowing cache of gold that will make whoever owns it the ruler of the world. The Rhinemaidens, lifted in the Met production by harnesses attached to The Machine (and blowing ingenious digital bubbles, displacing convincing digital gravel), tease him and taunt him — avaricious Alberich is the classical fool, a kind of subterranean Dick Cheney. And though he has to renounce love to do so (the maidens haven’t imagined this was possible!), he steals the gold, not good. Wagner is reinterpreting Norse mythology, but I can’t help seeing the dwarf as corporate, a being who seems human and gets some of the perks of being human, but unlike humans can actually do without love, which is to say do without morality. A treasure is a treasure to both dwarf and multinational only insofar as it brings wealth and power, beauty only a means to an end, and a chilling end it is.
Alberich has got this evilish, malleable brother (something like the U.S. Congress, or any of a number of parliaments around the world), who, through diligent hammering and negotiation and cornhole-consensus, fashions some of the gold into the eponymous ring (the glowing Ring!)(glowing corporate-friendly law!), the rest into a magic helmet (a kind of marketing/advertising campaign you wear on your head in order to change your appearance, hide your true nature), and now it’s up to the god who really does rule the world, President Wotan let’s call him (one eye is missing, so perhaps he’s not always seeing things clearly), to trick the amoral dwarf into giving up the hoard, another funny scene involving some fanciful shape-shifting on Alberich’s part (under that helmet, which at the Met is a kind of golden washcloth), but ending with a beaten Alberich (ha-ha! — sometimes you really do have to pay for bad business decisions) delivering a curse: whoever hereafter owns the gold will die (see: toxic assets).
The ring and helmet pass through many hands, from Wotan (as payment for Walhalla, the Trump Tower of the gods) to Fafner the Giant (who kills his enormous little brother so as not to have to share — the first union boss?), to the human Siegfried (who in addition to a nasty death is destined to have an opera named after him — good branding!), and at last to Siegfried’s girlfriend, the banished Valkyrie (and whistleblower) Brunhilde, who has the wisdom, even in the face of great temptation, to return the fabulous gold to the river before immolating herself (and her horse) on Siegfried’s funeral pyre, quite as the world comes to an end!!!
(Let my exclamation points stand in for trumpets and tubas, my long sentences for Wagner’s grandiloquence!)
Our allegory is complete: greed has wrought the destruction of all.
I’ve left out a talking bird and Wotan’s spy ravens (as effective as drones, all digital in this version), but even with those and other exciting threads, the story moves vewy, vewy slowly. Sixteen hours’ worth, as I have said, not counting intermissions, and longer in some productions (thank the old Norse gods for Irish coffee!).
But this is because the music, lushly delivered at the Met by Fabio Luisi and the incredible Met Opera Orchestra (the recording won a 2013 Grammy), is traveling on soul time, always invoking nature, boiling and purling in imitation of storms that last all day and rivers that never stop running, flickering and throbbing in imitation of fire that never runs out of fuel and an earth that abideth everything.
And each element gets its tutelary character: Donner the thunder god; Woglinde, Wellgunde, and Flosshilde, the Rhinemaidens; Loge the god of fire; Erda the earth mother, abiding. The stately pace allows for soaring orchestral thoughts, offering the listener time to feel more than narrative surprise, to feel, in fact, well past the story, time for the mind to wander into its own depths, time to plunder existence, and the disasters that await. And what mind doesn’t wander, even gambol, on the banks of an implacable river while the clouds soar past and the lightning flashes and the very earth rumbles?
The corporate mind.
BUT LET ME NOT END on disaster, even if the Ring Cycle does. Because there are lovely, living ways that the work engages with the natural world as well, and ultimately these are what have stuck with me.
Wagner’s famous — and in their day trendsetting — leitmotifs, which are musical phrases loosely or strongly tied to objects, emotions, people, and even states of being, reminded me in my exalted Ring-drunk state of fragrances or birdsong, textures or flavors. When we encounter any of these again (and again, and again) we know immediately what we’re smelling or hearing or touching or tasting before their names even come to mind. We know that this is a skunk, and that a hibiscus (and we think of familiar habitats); we know that keening sound high above is a broad-winged hawk on the prowl (and we fear for voles and chipmunks alike); we know that this particular coarse texture is not only stone but granite (and we recall whole mountain ranges); we know the taste of blood (and all the things it conjures).
Or the leitmotifs remind me of moods — the way I feel after an hour in water, say, the theme gently repeating, minor notes arriving with the storm, waveforms increasing, temperatures variable, mermaids all around me.
Or they remind me of climate, now that we’ve come to it, or bigger yet: planetary orbits, for example, or physical principles, or higher mathematics, all the abstractions, all the things that come in cycles, things we know but can’t experience except intellectually, and that yet are part of nature too: the part that’s not at stake.
In fact, you don’t need the story, you don’t need to read the wonderful Met titles, you don’t even need eyes. All you need is to be there, to be present with the music. The rest takes care of itself. Out of body, that’s where you go, plot and allegory notwithstanding.
And out of body means out of mind, and for hours, a kind of miracle, the sensation of coursing along in the actual endless stream of star stuff that is everything and all of us. Do you hear that melody? Even shifted down to the minor key, it’s familiar, so familiar, and stirring, too, the song of memory and prophecy combined, Brunhilde following her beloved into the flames, the idols of old crumbling before our eyes.
But wait, what’s that emerging from the roar? The happy song of the Rhinemaidens? Those cheerful nixies who sang the very first syllables of this vast Ring Cycle so many evenings ago, as they contentedly splashed about before their gold was taken? Their initial leitmotif went sorrowing after the loss, dropped plangent to a minor key, became a lament, but now here it comes again, and swimmingly: the Rhinemaidens are happy! They hug their gold, lead Alberich to his watery grave! The great stage set begins a gentle wave motion, a deep-blue light rising behind, the music resolving to an abidingly mellow and transcendent chord, a soothing C-sharp major, flowing deeply from the string section.
The river runs on!
The brass is finally quiet!
The earth has outlasted its foes!
This essay introduces readers to an important interpretation of Wagner’s massive work, as a plea against mankind’s suicide through abuse of the earth. However, forget the current MET production with its clunky, Stalinist sets and hideous costumes.
In 1980, the Patrice Chereau production argued just such a pro-environmental interpretation, setting the saga in Wagner’s own time of the industrial revolution. If you want a taste of how powerful, how vital, Wagner’s opera is, look up the last scene of “Das Rheingold” on You-Tube. There in a few moments is an all too nightmarish vision of how we, the current gods, will end the world; terrifying and poignant.
Thank you for this article, which I hope will encourage a further and more serious interpretation of Wagner’s (probably inadvertent) warning to us.
Harriet Rafter, San Francisco
I saw Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Toronto opera house a few years ago and-yes! The dwarves were corporate apparatchiks and the entire stage a vast neoliberal corporate stronghold.
It was as you said: sublime.
I love the ring cycle. about Alberich: I think it’s important to note that he’s not evil initially. he’s just ugly and uncouth. It’s only after the Rhinemaidens tease him and scorn him that he says “if I can’t have love, I will have power with which I can command pleasure”. It seems to me that most evils in the world can be traced to someone feeling unloved and unlovable.
Think you for a brilliant, sensitive and thoroughly revelation of the great depths of Wagner’s masterpiece. I am thrilled to discover someone who can give voice to the depth of Wagner and to the incredible interpretation of the current Met. production. I have been a devote of The Ring for the past 70 years. I consider this Met production to be the epitome of visions Wagner may have had about his mystical vision: metaphor for our world. I am so grateful to the Met for the courage and vision to produce this definitive interpretation of this incredibly inspired masterpiece. Thank you.