I’m driving across the American Midwest, on flat interstate highways for twelve hours….
Three maidens sing and play deep within the river Rhine. They are also guarding the gold of the Rhine, which if made into a ring will allow its wearer to rule the earth–but only if that person renounces love. As the maidens swim, a Nibelung dwarf named Alberich tries to woo and play with them, but they mock his ugliness. Hearing the story of the gold from the maidens, who don’t realize his evil potential, Alberich renounces love, makes off with the gold, and sets himself up as ruler of his land Nibelheim.
Meanwhile, the gods in their own realm have a problem. The chief god Wotan has authorized construction of their castle, Valhalla, and the giants who have built the castle demand the goddess Freia as payment. Without Freia’s golden apples, however, the gods will age and die. Realizing that the Rhine gold is now in Nibelheim, Wotan and the fire god Loge descend to the dwarf land, seize Alberich and the gold, and gives the giants the gold and the ring.
But Alberich curses the ring, so that its owners will eventually be killed and robbed of the ring. Sure enough, the giants fight for its ownership and one is killed.
Both Loge and the earth goddess Erda warn Wotan that the ring should be returned to the Rhine maidens, but Wotan (who rules through treaties carved onto the shaft of his spear) is bound to forgo the gold as per the authorization of Valhall’s construction.
The gods proceed into Valhalla (all but Loge, who believes he may someday destroy the gods for their deceit and acquisitions, but he’s still not sure). Wotan, however, is haunted by Erda’s prophecies and begins a relationship with her (reluctantly tolerated by his wife Fricka) to gain more information. The resultant offspring of Erda and Wotan are the Valkyries, immortal warrior women who take the souls of fallen heroes to form Valhalla’s army. Wotan also fathered offspring by a mortal woman, so that an offspring (who unlike Wotan is not bound by treaty to the surviving giant, Fafner) may someday seize the ring.
Years later, the home of warrior Hunding and his wife Sieglinde are visited by a fleeing man, who identifies himself as Wehwalt. They give Wehwalt hospitality, and he tells his story. He has been wandering ever since discovering his mother dead and his twin sister abducted. Circumstances have left him pursued by enemies but without suitable weapons for himself. Hunding identifies himself as one of his pursuers and, although he is obliged to give him hospitality, they must fight in the morning. As Hunding sleeps, however, Sieglinde expresses her hope for a hero to save her from their awful marriage. Falling in love with each other, they realize that a sword, left in the ash tree at Sieglinde’s house, was in fact left by his father years before. Further, they realize they are the separated twins and that he is Siegmund. He pulls the sword from the tree (something no one else had been able to do) and they escape the house.
A little later, the goddess Fricka informs Wotan of this situation and demands that Siegmund must die for his crime of incest and adultery. Wotan confides in his favorite Valkyrie daughter, Brünnhilde, the whole story of the gold, the giant, and his bitterness at having to kill Siegmund. Wotan is at an impasse, because of his treaty with the giants he cannot just steal the ring, but the ring can only be taken by “a free hero,” and Siegmund (Wotan realizes) is just as much as servant of the gods as the Valkyries.
Wotan orders Brünnhilde to assist in Siegmund’s death and take him to Valhalla. But when Brünnhilde meet the fleeing twins, Siegmund refuses to go because Sieglinde cannot accompany him. In fact, he swears to kill both himself and Sieglinde, which causes a moved and impressed Brünnhilde to take his side.
When Hunding arrives, however, Wotan shatters Siegmund’s sword and allows Hunding to kill him. Disobeying the god, Brünnhilde takes both Sieglinde and the shattered sword and escapes.
When Wotan catches up to her, he punishes Brünnhilde by declaring she must become mortal, placed in a magic sleep on the mountainside, and thus be available to any man who discovers her. She challenges that she disobeyed Wotan because she actually understood his true desire–she acted according to his own secret will. In sorrow, he carries out his judgment but summons Loge to surround her with magic fire. She will be mortal but will not be victim to any passerby: “Whoever fears the point of my spear,” declares the god, “shall not pass through the fire.”
Hidden away, Sieglinde is pregnant by Siegmund’s child, who is named Siegfried. (The name, combinations of words for “freedom” and “victory,” signals that he is the hero—unattached to Wotan through any treaties or subservient relationships—on whom Wotan has pinned his hopes).
We haven’t heard from the Nibelung dwarfs for a while, but now we return to them. Sieglinde is cared for by Mime, the brother of Alberich. She dies in childbirth, and Alberich raises Siegfried. But his motives aren’t altruistic; understanding Siegfried’s significance, Mime hopes the boy will slay the giant Fafner, who guards the magic ring. Mime wants the ring for himself. Once the boy understands his own background story, he takes the remains of his father’s sword, recasts it (which Mime had been unable to do), and sets out.
The giant Fafner, sleeping in a cave in the form of a dragon, is awakened by Siegfried’s horn. Unafraid (because he has never learned fear), Siegfried soon slays the dragon and takes the ring. Mime tries to take the ring for himself by poisoning Siegfried, but Siegfried understands the dwarf’s plans and slays him, too.
A songbird tells Siegfried of a woman sleeping on a rock on the mountainside. Meanwhile, Wotan–who has been close by all this time–meets earth goddess Erda and informs him he no longer dreads the prophesied end of the gods. He believes that Siegfriend and Brünnhilde will eventually be able to bring about the world’s redemption after the gods’ ends.
Siegfried arrives, and Wotan tries to block his way. But Siegfried shatters Wotan’s spear, ending the god’s power and authority. He sadly tells Siegfried, “Zieh hin! Ich kann dich nicht halten!” (Forward then, I cannot stop you) and vanishes. Uncomprehending, Siegfried wonders aloud where “the coward” went and proceeds toward the ring of fire. Having proved his fearlessness of Wotan’s spear, he enters the fire easily and discovers Brünnhilde in her magic sleep. Realizing she is a woman—and he has never seen a woman before—he instinctively knows to kiss her, though he is for the first time in his life filled with fear.
Brünnhilde awakes, and they fall in love. They go on their way, but soon Siegfried sets off on an adventure but first gives Brünnhilde the ring as a pledge of faithfulness. (At this point I want to yell at her: “You’re his aunt, you better watch out for him! He’s not very bright.”) Unfortunately, Siegfried ends up among the Gibichungs, dwellers by the Rhine, who are up to no good thanks to the king’s advisor, Hagan, who is the son of Alberich and the king’s mother. Hagen plots with the king Gunther to take Brünnhilde for his wife and to give Siegfried to Gunther’s sister, Gutrune. Thus, Hagen will seize the ring for himself and his father Alberich.
Meanwhile, Brünnhilde receives a surprise visit from her Valkyrie sister, Waltraute. The Valkyrie warns Brunnhilde that Wotan’s spear, with its extensive record of his covenants and bargains, is destroyed and thus his power. Furthermore he has ordered the wood of the World Tree to be gathered around Valhalla so that the kingdom can eventually be set ablaze and the days of the gods brought to an end. Because the ring’s curse is behind the doom of the gods, Waltraute begs her sister to return the ring to the maidens of the Rine. But Brünnhilde will not lose the ring which is also her lover’s pledge to her.
Waltraute leaves. Soon Siegfried arrives, but he is magically disguised as Gunther. He seizes her, takes the ring, and brings her to the Gibichungs. Gunther sounds the alarm and brings his vassals to the hall for a wedding party. Brünnhilde sees Siegfried in his natural form and, realizing she has been fooled, denounces him. Siegfried, still under the sway of the potion, swears on Hagen’s spear that she is lying, but she also swears on the spear that she tells the truth.
Unfortunately, a vow made on a weapon means that the person speaking falsely will be killed by that weapon. Assuming his treachery, Brünnhilde tells Hagen that Siegfried’s back is his vulnerable place. Hagen uses this fact to carry out the rest of his plot. He gives Siegfried a potion that restores his memory, and as Siegfried sings the praises of Brünnhilde, Hagen claims that Siegfried has shown himself a liar and stabs him.
Siegfried’s body is returned to the Gibichung Hall. In the resulting conflicts, Hagen kills Gunther and Gutrune dies of grief, but Hagen is unable to gain the ring from Siegfried’s finger. Brünnhilde, however, takes the ring herself and orders a funeral pyre for Siegfried. She lights the fire and summons Wotan’s ravens to inform him of the end of the gods. Then she calls to the maidens of the nearby Rhine to regain the ring once the fire purifies it from Alberich’s curse—and with the ring in hand, she rides into the flames.
The fire blazes, igniting the Gibichung’s hall. The Rhine rises, floods, and covers the fire, allowing the maidens to regain the ring. They drown Hagen as he attempts to reclaim it. But as calm is restored to the earth and water, Valhalla can be seen engulfed in flames. The gods and heroes are no more, and all the trouble brought about by the ring’s curse are over. The earth is redeemed for a new era (although Alberich is still at large….).
During a recent solitary car trip lasting twelve hours, I decided to listen straight through to Der Ring des Nibelungen of Richard Wagner, specifically the 1955 recording from the Bayreuth festival, conducted by Joseph Keilberth. This recording features some of the greatest Wagnerian singers of all time: Hans Hotter as Wotan, Wolfgang Windgassen as Siegfried, Astrid Varnay as Brünnhilde, and others like Paul Kuen, Gustav Neidlinger, Gré Brouwenstijn, Ramon VInay, Joseph Greindl, and Hermann Uhde, among others. This was also the period of the great post-war Bayreuth productions by Wagner’s grandsons Wolfgang and Wieland, as reflected in the CD sets’ photographs of the original sets and singers.
As many people know, Wagner’s Ring cycle is four operas, Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). Although Alberich as an on-stage character is not prominent after Das Rheingold, he is the Nibelung dwarf of the title and his influence is everywhere. His renunciation of love, allowing him to steal the Rhine gold, sets in motion the whole drama. But his theft inspires a greater wrong: the theft of the same gold from Alberich by Wotan and Loge, so that Wotan can pay for his realm Valhalla and save the gods’ youth and power by buying back Freia from the giants.
After these crimes are established in Das Rheingold, the three primary operas of the cycle dramatize the unfolding of the consequences of Wotan’s wrongdoing, his attempts to deal with the situation, his eventual acceptance of the end of the gods (“das Ende” he cries in Act 2 of the second opera), and the manner in which that ending plays out. The consequences the gold’s theft are too vast even for the god.
Theft and rape are two related themes that permeate the whole drama. Alberich wants to make love to the Rhine maidens but, rejected, he steals their gold. Wotan steals the gold from Alberich to prevent the abduction/rape of Freia. But he himself compounds his problems via his illicit relationships with the Earth Mother and the mortal mother of the twins. Siegmund, in turn, carries off Sieglinde from her husband and impregnates her, and Brünnhilde’s punishment for taking the twin’s side (Wotan’s first judgment against her) is to be placed into sleep and taken by whoever passes by. And then, of course, Siegfried is deceived into delivering Brünnhilde to another man in marriage. Only when the gold—figuratively raped from the maidens—is returned, can all be well again. That Wotan is the father or grandfather of all these characters deepens the awfulness of the several tragedies.
But love and redemption are two other related themes for the drama. The redemption of the situation—which is the redemption of the world—must happen because of two people who are more free than Wotan: Siegfried, who is a generation removed from being subject to his authority, and Brünnhilde, who can violate his authority because from the love of parent and child she acts from his own heart, not from his deals and treaties. So the opera begins with the renunciation of love and ends, sixteen hours later, with the redemption through love, which is the final leitmotif of the instrumental conclusion.
I had not listened to Wagner’s Ring cycle straight through for a long time. When I was a single pastor living in a rural parsonage, I liked to listen to the 11-LP Wilhelm Furtwängler La Scalia set (with Kirsten Flagstad as Brünnhilde), playing in the background as I worked. At the time, I also collected the famous Georg Solti Ring, and the 1953 Bayreuth Ring conducted by Clemens Krauss. (Krauss was known as a Strauss conductor but the year before he died he conducted this classic recording of the Ring.) This was a period of my life, about which I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, when I collected classical LPs and delighted in many musical discoveries.
A few years ago, when my wife Beth and I were in New York on her business trip, I walked up to Lincoln Center to browse its gift shop. Splurging a bit (actually more than a bit!) I bought the then-newly-released 1955 Bayreuth Ring. It had been the very first stereo recording but was never properly released because of contractual difficulties between Columbia/EMI and Decca (Decca had planned the first studio recording of the Ring, but the best Wagnerian singers of the era were signed to EMI), and because the Solti Ring (commenced in 1958) superseded the 1955 recording as not only a stereo recording but as the first studio recording.
The Solti Ring is an exciting production for listening to Wagner in one’s home (Solti’s dramatic tempos, real cattle horns instead of trombones, actual anvils being struck, the audio manipulation of Siegfried’s tenor into the baritone range when he disguises himself as Gunther). But the great singers of 1955, notably Hotter and Windgassen, were past their prime for Solti. On the other hand, they are in full splendor on that earlier recording. Finally, in the mid 00s, the Testament label released the 1955 Ring—the true first stereo recording of the epic—to great fanfare in the music press. Looking over reviews on Amazon and in print, the consensus of listeners seem to be that the 1953 Krauss Ring and the 1955 stereo Keilberth Ring are “the best” for overall interpretation and the performances of that great post-war generation of Wagnerian singers.
I love the 1953 Krauss ring but decided to listen to the Keilberth Ring for my 12-hour car trip. I hadn’t done the set justice since I splurged on it a while back. I listened to Das Rheingold before I left town, but I still didn’t have time to play the whole cycle before arriving home. I listened to Das Rheingold and then Die Walküre, which got me from northeast Ohio to eastern Indiana. Then I listened to most of Siegfried through Indiana; Siegfried forged his sword as I was approaching Indy. Then I skipped through long passages of Götterdämmerung—the entire, very long prelude, to which I’ve listened many times–and through sections of the other acts. I tend to listen most often to this last opera of the cycle, so it was no loss to the overall “concert” if I skipped through this one.
Hearing all the operas straight through, you get a good sense of the different “sound worlds” of each. Siegfried isn’t pastoral, exactly, but it “feels” more woodland and outdoors than Die Walküre, which more than the others runs you through a gamut of emotions from anguish to joy to bitter regret to danger and flight and back to regret, though with a glimmer of hope at the end. (The Dutch singer Gré Brouwenstijn as Sieglinde stood out to me: I thought she had a lovely, expressive voice and her role really moved me. She also performs Gutrune.). Das Rheingold’s sound world is one of empty grandeur and moral ambiguity. Except for the sorrowful Rhine maidens, there is no one in the opera worth rooting for.
Götterdämmerung is the most “grand opera” of the four, the overall feeling dominated by Hagen and the Gibichungs. You’re startled to hear ensemble singing (especially the summoned vassals in Act 2) after so many hours without that opera style. Yet you can’t say that the opera is a throwback to Meyerbeer, for Wagner’s use of leitmotifs is notably complex and innovative in this drama.
Hans Hotter’s voice isn’t beautiful (Varnay’s and Windgassen’s are, definitely), but he gives so much expression, emotion, and authority in his characterization. He spoils me for any other Wotan. What a joy to hear him in dialogue with Varnay in Die Walküre and with Windgassen in Act 3 of Siegfried. You really do feel like the encounter between Siegfried and Wotan is a life-and-death encounter between mighty and unyielding forces. You hear the sorrow and resignation in Hotter’s voice once Wotan’s spear is destroyed.
As I crossed the Mississippi River and thus was almost home, I listened to Brünnhilde’s immolation and the great conclusion of the whole cycle. (On this recording, the audience sits in silence for a few seconds before erupting in applause.) The music, rather than the Mississippi, transported me to the actual Rhine River that we were pleased to visit a few years ago during our daughter’s choir tour.