This past Sunday afternoon I saw the concluding performance of Die Götterdämmerung at the Houston Grand Opera.
Götterdämmerung is the last of a cycle of four titanic operas by Richard Wagner known collectively as the Ring des Nibelungen. The cycle takes some 20 hours to perform. Götterdämmerung itself runs five and a half hours.
Sometimes the operas are performed in succession over the course of a week with day-long intervals in between to let the singers rest. Houston Grand Opera chose to present one opera a year for four years. So as of Sunday, I have seen my first complete live version of the Ring.
If I felt a sense of accomplishment, I can only imagine how Wagner felt when he completed the work in 1874. He wrote the words and the score. It took him 26 years. For much of that time he endured poverty and neglect, illness and ridicule—with little help and little prospect that his masterpiece would ever be performed in its entirety.
It is a ridiculous oversimplification to say that Wagner was a proto-Nazi who stoked German nationalism by setting old legends to music. It is true that Wagner drew on German myths for the Ring. He also drew on Norse myths from Scandinavia and the Icelandic Sagas. He cherry-picked what he wanted from various folklore traditions.
He was also influenced by Greek tragedy—Aeschylus in particular—and Eastern mysticism. Nor was that all. Anyone who studies the Ring can detect the influence of Feuerbach, Schopenhauer, Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Hegel and the German Romantics.
That’s still not all. Decades ahead of Sigmund Freud, Wagner grasped the fact that myth informs psychoanalysis. The study of myth can illuminate the darkest recesses of the human psyche. Wagner’s Ring shows human nature at its most exalted and debased. It shows us who we are—which is one reason why some people feel an intense aversion to Wagner; he reveals what some would prefer to leave covered up.
And yet for all the breadth and profundity of the work, the moral of the Ring can be summed up in a single sentence: The world is corrupted by greed and lust for power, and is redeemed through self-sacrificing love.
The Ring tells the story of a lump of magic gold which, if forged into a ring, will give absolute power to its wearer. The catch is that whoever would forge the gold into the ring must first renounce love.
Early in in the story, a repulsive dwarf named Alberich does just that in order to steal the gold from the Rhine Maidens, who are its guardians. Alberich forges the ring, but it is stolen from him in turn by Wotan, the king of the gods. Enraged, Alberich curses the ring, vowing that it will rouse consuming envy in all those who do not possess it, and bring only death to those who do.
Alberich’s curse is fulfilled. By the end of Götterdämmerung, the struggle for the ring has destroyed the power of the gods themselves and caused the death of the hero Siegfried.
In the opera’s cataclysmic final scene Siegfried’s bride, Brünnhilde, orders that Siegfried’s body be burned on a massive funeral pyre. Taking the ring from Siegfried’s finger and placing it on her own, she mounts her horse Grane and rides into the flames, calling on the Rhine Maidens to reclaim their gold from her ashes.
The Rhine overflows, the Rhine Maidens take back the ring and, in their heavenly fortress of Valhalla, the now impotent gods are consumed in the general conflagration.
So is that the end of everything, or are we simply back to where we started?
The theme of the river Rhine, which is the first music to be heard in the cycle, is heard again at its conclusion. The age of gods and heroes has passed, but nature endures. The world goes on, awaiting the next evolution. Wagner does not tell us what it will be, but the last notes in the Ring give us cause for hope.
Staging the Ring is, needless to say, a heroic task in itself. Götterdämmerung alone requires nearly 300 people—cast, creative team, stage hands, orchestra, chorus and supers. But when all the elements together, as they did for the HGO, the effect is awe-inspiring.
I haven’t the words to describe the effect that this production had on me last Sunday afternoon. I can only quote something that the critic Lawrence Gilman wrote some 80 years ago:
“Everywhere in Wagner’s greater works is this artist’s blend of grandeur and exquisiteness, his cutting of cameos and his twining of golden threads, and the mountain chains that his imagination throws against the sky. Always his speech is level with his imagination, his vision, his sympathies, his will. He is the master of a language so manifold, so magical, that it can say the final thing about a linden’s fragrance and a god’s defeat, and light the far horizons of the spirit’s world.”
That, I think, as well as anything, sums up the towering genius that is Richard Wagner.
Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com. Like this post? Share with your friends using the button below! Also be sure to like PunditWire on Facebook.