In the year 1848, the continent of Europe was convulsed by revolution. In France, King Louis Philippe was driven from his throne and a republic proclaimed. Northern Italy and Hungary revolted against the overlordship of the reactionary Habsburgs. In Frankfurt, Germany’s first freely-elected assembly was convened to seek the unification of the German states by democratic means. In London, Marx and Engels published the first edition of the Communist Manifesto.
Even the small German kingdom of Saxony, a placid backwater, was not spared the general excitement. Royal troops, augmented by reinforcements from Prussia, clashed with revolutionaries in the streets of Dresden. In the midst of the crisis, the king’s own kappelmeister, or court composer, issued a quixotic appeal to his master to abdicate and proclaim Saxony a socialist republic.
The name of the composer was Richard Wagner, and it was in the crucible of revolution that he conceived his most ambitious work, a gargantuan cycle of four operas called the Ring des Nibelungen. It was a project that would take 27 years to complete.
The Houston Grand Opera is presenting the Ring, one opera per season over four years, commencing with the prologue, Das Rheingold. I caught the last performance of Rheingold on Saturday night and it was magnificent.
In Rheingold, it is most obvious that Wagner originally intended the Ring as an allegory of capitalism. The Rhine’s gold is magic: if forged into a ring it will give absolute power to its owner. But there’s a catch: whoever forges the ring must first renounce love. Alberich, a twisted dwarf who belongs to a subterranean race called the Nibelungs, is willing to make that sacrifice. He steals gold from its guardians, the Rhine maidens, and uses the Ring to enslave his fellow Nibelungs, forcing them to toil day and night in his gold mines to pile up ever-increasing wealth for him.
Meanwhile, Wotan, the king of the gods, has commissioned a fortress for himself called Valhalla. The stronghold has been built by two giants, named Fafner and Fasolt. As payment, Wotan has promised the giants the hand of Freia, sister of his wife, Fricka. Fricka scolds Wotan for making a careless bargain, reminding him that Freia is guardian of the golden apples, which the gods must consume every day in order to preserve their youth and strength. To this, Wotan replies that he never intended to hand over Freia. Rather, he has sent Loge, the trickster of the gods, scouring the earth to find to find him a way out of his promise. Loge tells Wotan about Alberich’s horde of gold, and suggests that he offer the Nibelung treasure to the giants in lieu of Freia.
The giants accept Wotan’s bait-and-switch. Wotan and Loge descend to the lower depths, kidnap Alberich, and force him to disgorge his riches as a ransom. Alberich is at first content to be robbed, since he knows that as long as he has the Ring he can work his slaves even harder to make good the loss. But when Wotan wrenches the Ring itself from Alberich’s finger, Alberich pronounces a terrible curse on it and all who may come to possess it:
Its wealth shall yield
pleasure to none…
Care shall consume
the man who commands it,
and mortal envy
consume those who don’t…
It will bring no gain to its lord;
No sooner has Alberich cursed the Ring than Fafner and Fasolt fall out over how to divide Alberich’s plunder. Fafner kills Fasolt for the Ring—the first of many who will fall prey to Alberich’s curse before the story comes to an end three operas later.
Wotan is taken aback by the curse’s power, but only for a moment. Valhalla awaits. Donner, the god of thunder and lightning, conjures up, through some of Wagner’s most heavenly strains, a fierce storm followed by a glimmering rainbow bridge, across which the gods troop to their new home—“safe,” or so they fondly assume, “from all fear and dread.” (watch)
The Houston production is the work of a Barcelona-based theatre group called La Fura Dels Baus. One critic described it as “retro-futuristic”—by which he meant, presumably, that it will remind the average operagoer of Star Wars or 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Traditionalists don’t like it. They point out that the Ring was inspired by old German and Scandinavian legends and insist that the staging reflect its origins. True enough, but Wagner was also inspired by many other sources, including Greek drama, Eastern mysticism, and the philosophy of Schopenhauer, with the result that he created a fable of timeless and universal significance.
So, while I, too, am a traditionalist, I found myself thinking that perhaps the best way of staging the Ring in the 21st Century is by treating it as if it were a work of science fiction, allowing viewers to draw their own lessons from the story itself.
What lessons may the viewer draw? The brief synopsis I sketched earlier can’t begin to do justice to the complexities Rheingold. But based on just the bare bones, isn’t it possible to look on Wotan as a harassed, visionless and unprincipled CEO who can’t see any further ahead than the next quarter’s balance sheet? Can we regard the theft of the Rhine gold as a metaphor for the reckless exploitation of the earth’s resources and the terrible consequences that must follow? Can we see Alberich’s oppressed Niebelungs as exploited illegal aliens or toilers in the sweatshops of the developing world? Can we see America’s privileged one percent in their own gated Valhallas, imagining themselves “safe from all fear and dread”? Above all, can we see in the relentless ambition that drives so many business executives, politicians, athletes and performers a willingness to sacrifice everything—even love—to attain its object?
Wagner’s Ring endures because it is timeless and universal, and because it contains some of the most sublime music ever composed. Next season, HGO will mount the next opera in the cycle, Die Walkure. I can’t wait.