Das Rheingold(Perfs 9th and 23rd Feb 2014)
|Woglinde: Emma Peaurt||Fasolt: Oliver Hunt|
|Wellgunde: Emily Blanch||Fafner: Antoine Salmon|
|Flosshilde: Lindsay Bramley||Freia: Liz Stock|
|Alberich: Oliver Gibbs||Froh: Daniel Meades|
|Wotan: Gerard Delrez||Donner: Stephen Svanholm|
|Fricka: Elizabeth Russo||Mime: Ian Massa-Harris|
|Loge: Jonathan Finney||Erda: Jemma Brown|
Background: Wotan, as chief of the gods, seeks to rule the world, and has fashioned a spear from a branch of the World Ash Tree (in Norse Yggdrasil), upon which all the laws and treaties he rules by are carved. This brutal act will eventually lead to the Ash Tree dying and the end of the world. In an effort to obtain wisdom, he has sacrificed one eye to drink from the waters of knowledge that flow from the roots of the Ash Tree. He has also asked the brothers Fasolt and Fafner, (two giants and leaders of their race), to build him a fortress in exchange for their keeping the peace. Wotan has offered them the goddess of love, Freia, in return for this deed, but only because he believes Loge will help him find something else to exchange her for.
Scene One – In the River Rhine. Woglinde is guarding the Rhinegold, a piece of golden rock rising up from the riverbed. She is shortly joined by her sisters Wellgunde and Flo?hilde. As they swim about, joyously singing, Alberich, a dwarf from Nibelheim (underground) climbs up through a crack in the riverbed. Falling desperately in love with the Rhinemaidens, he seeks to woo each in turn, finding each more lovely than the last one, but his advances are repulsed by Woglinde and Wellgunde. Flo?hilde leads him to believe that he may have a chance with her, but again she betrays him at the last, and swims up to join her sisters. Laughing and jeering at the ugliness and awkwardness of Alberich, they sing and swim, still teasing him mercilessly. As he flails and slips on the rocks, the sun suddenly shines through the river, and the gold starts to gleam in the depths. Asking what it is that glows so brightly, Alberich becomes fascinated as the Rhinemaidens tell him of the power inherent in the gold, particularly if it is fashioned into a ring, it will make the wearer ruler of the world. Flo?hilde bemoans her sisters to caution, as their father had cautioned them, but Wellgunde and Woglinde remind her that only the one who will forswear love can obtain the gold, and Alberich is full of lust and desire. Alberich in the meantime has thought deeply, and realising that he cannot be loved by the Rhinemaidens, decides he will forswear love and, in a sudden rage, swims up the rock and grabs hold of the gold. Furiously, he curses love, the gold is released, and he takes it back down into the depths of Nibelheim, as the Rhinemaidens lament its loss.
The first orchestral interlude sees the scene change from the depths of the Rhine to a rocky summit above the river. In the background, on the other side of the cliff valley through which the Rhine flows, stands the newly built Valhalla, fortress of the gods.
Scene Two – The Rocky Summit. Wotan and his wife Fricka lay resting. Fricka wakes first and tries to stir Wotan, who is dreaming of Valhalla. As he wakes he looks at the magnificent fortress, and sings of how it is just as he dreamt it to be. Fricka reminds him of the price to be paid for it, her sister Freia, but Wotan flippantly shrugs this off. Fricka states how cold and cruel he is to have offered her sister as pledge to the giants, and had she been there at the negotiations she would never have allowed it. Wotan returns that he never truly intended to give Freia to the giants, but did not Fricka also want a home built? This she cannot deny, but counters that it was to keep her husband from wandering and philandering. Wotan rejoins that he must be free to wander the earth to know men’s minds, and cannot be constrained even by the mightiest of fortresses. He reminds Fricka that he offered to sacrifice his one remaining eye to marry her, but it is because he thinks highly of all women that she disapproves. Fricka asks him to stay true to his word and protect Freia, as she runs toward them, pursued by the giants, Fasolt and Fafner. They have come for their payment, but Wotan offers anything other than Freia. The giants are outraged that Wotan would go back on his word, and Fasolt reminds him of the laws and treaties carved into his spear. Fafner cautions Fasolt that the gods will never easily give up Freia, but to ransom her will be good. Wotan is worried as Loge has not appeared. The giants try to take Freia by force, but at her screams her brothers Froh and Donner enter, to protect her from the giants. Wotan averts a fight between Fafner and Donner with his spear, reminding them that his word is law. Finally Loge arrives, much to the other gods’ annoyance, and Wotan’s relief. Loge, when Wotan reminds him that he promised to find another payment to offer the giants, replies that he has thought long but cannot find that which never existed (i.e. a replacement for love). Wotan reminds Loge who, out of all the gods befriended him, and to be careful not to invoke his fury. Loge relates how he has travelled all over the earth, but cannot find anything to replace that of a woman’s beauty and love. Except, he heard from the Rhinemaidens of a dwarf, Alberich, who chose to forswear love and has stolen their magic gold. He promised to relate this to Wotan. Furiously, Wotan asks how he is to help others when he himself is in desperate need, but the giants on hearing this tale begrudge Alberich the gold, as he has often done much harm to them. They say that they will accept this gold in exchange for Freia. Wotan counters that the gold is not his to give them, and the giants’ greed makes them demand too much. After Loge tells them all that Alberich has forged the ring of power, Wotan realises that he has to deal with this threat to his own position. The giants take away Freia as ransom for the gold, and give the gods until sunset to bring it to them. As Freia leaves, a strange mist descends on the gods and they begin to look much older, except for Loge. He is unaffected as the golden apples tended and offered by Freia to keep the gods youthful were rarely offered to him. Wotan rises as Fricka laments this sorry state of affairs, and commands Loge to take him to Nibelheim.
The second orchestral interlude describes Loge and Wotan’s descent into Nibelheim via a sulphur crack, descending through the rocks deep into the earth, at one point passing through the caverns where the Nibelungs work tirelessly in forging the gold for Alberich.
Scene Three – In Nibelheim. Alberich drags his brother Mime through a crevice, and demands he hand over the Tarnhelm, a magic helmet that gives the wearer the power to change shape or become invisible. Mime has tried to delay, as he hoped to keep it for himself, but as he does not wield the Ring, he cannot guess the magic secret. Alberich then makes himself invisible and inflicts a beating on Mime for trying to steal the Tarnhelm. He then hurries off to oversee the Nibelungs at work. As Mime lies moaning, Loge and Wotan arrive in the scene, and ask Mime what has happened. Mime relates how Alberich enslaved the Nibelungs, and describes his very recent drubbing, much to Loge and Wotan’s amusement. Alberich reappears, commanding the Nibelungs to pile up the gold for him, and berates Mime for talking to strangers. Commanding his terrified Nibelung slaves back into the caverns to search for more gold, (which the Ring gives him the power to find), Alberich’s attention now turns to Loge and Wotan. He asks why they have come, and Wotan, affecting great courtesy, says it is to witness the glories of Nibelheim, the wonders of which he has now heard. Alberich suggests it is really out of envy and jealousy. Loge now takes the lead, and questions Alberich’s powers. Gloating in his pride, Alberich suggests that the gods beware the day when he, with all the gold in his possession, will be able to satisfy his lascivious desires on all women, and even the goddesses above, and make slaves of everyone in the whole world. At this, Wotan angrily threatens him, but the comment is deflected by Loge, who wishes to see proof. He asks Alberich how he can protect himself and the Ring, and says he does not believe the power of the Tarnhelm. Unable to resist this challenge, Alberich demonstrates by turning himself into a monstrous serpent, at which Loge feigns terror and Wotan congratulates Alberich. Then Loge asks if Alberich could also use it to make himself smaller, to hide in cracks and crevices, like a toad. Alberich happily obliges, and turns into a toad, at which Wotan, guessing Loge’s intent, treads on him. Loge removes the Tarnhelm from Alberich’s head, and ties him up, as they take him with them back up to the rocky summit.
The third and final orchestral interlude describes Wotan and Loge’s ascent to the rocky summit of the second scene, but with the added drama of carrying Alberich as a hostage. The urgency with which the music builds suggests that time is running out for Wotan to pay the giants.
Scene Four – As Scene Two, the background still shrouded in mist. Loge pushes Alberich through the sulphur crack and into the foreground, and tells him to admire the world he sought to conquer. He asks sarcastically which little corner Alberich had in mind for Loge to dwell in. Alberich splutters that Wotan and Loge are shameful villains, and threatens vengeance. Loge reminds him that he can only act on this threat by setting himself free, and he can only do that by paying a ransom. Wotan demands the gold and the hoard. Alberich rages at them, but in an aside realises that more gold is easily obtained through the ring. Loge releases his right hand, and Alberich silently commands the Nibelungs to bring up the gold. He asks to be set free again, but Wotan refuses until all the gold has arrived. Alberich suffers as the Nibelungs see their master held captive as they bring in the gold. He commands them not to tarry, and then asks for the Tarnhelm to be returned to him, but Loge insists it is now part of the ransom. Again, Alberich rages, but then realises that he can get Mime to make another with the ring. Loge asks Wotan if he can be set free, but Wotan demands the ring from Alberich. Alberich offers his life, but Wotan only wants the ring. Alberich accuses him of shameful robbery and offending all that was, is and ever shall be if he takes the ring from him, but Wotan counters that it was through theft Alberich obtained the gold from the Rhinemaidens. He silences Alberich and wrestles the ring from his finger. Alberich screams that he is defeated and destroyed. Loge sets him free, and Alberich lays a curse on the ring, claiming that all who hold it will perish, and all who do not will yearn for the ring. All will become slaves to the ring until it is returned to him. He scurries off back through the sulphur crack to Nibelheim.
The mists begin to clear as Loge sees the giants returning with Freia in the distance. Fricka, Donner and Froh return to the scene, and ask if Wotan has the gold, Loge replies that Freia will soon be returned to them. The giants arrive, and Fricka goes toward her sister, but Fasolt warns her that Freia is still theirs until the gold has been paid. Wotan suggests that Freia’s height and width be used as her measure, and the giants place their staffs into the ground. Loge and Froh pile up the gold between the two staffs, but Fafner warns them not to pack it too loosely. Finally, the gold is used up. Fafner says he can still see the shine from Freia’s hair, and demands the Tarnhelm. Finally, Fasolt walks to the front to see if he can still see Freia, and claims he sees her eye shining at him. Loge calls them insatiable as all the gold is gone, but Fafner reminds him of the ring. Wotan counters that he will never part with the ring, and Loge says he is merely keeping it to return it to the Rhinemaidens. Wotan asks what Loge means, and he replies that it was his promise to the Rhinemaidens, but Wotan says Loge’s promise does not bind him – he will keep the ring. Fasolt and Fafner begin to drag Freia away and claim that without the ring the old bargain stands, while the other gods beg Wotan to give it to the giants. Suddenly, the stage darkens, and Erda rises through a rift in the rocks. She is the primeval Earth goddess, and direst danger has brought her in person to warn Wotan of the curse of the ring and the fate of the gods if he keeps it. He wishes to know more and begs her to stay, but she vanishes, leaving him to thoughts of dread and fear. He tries to follow her but is restrained by Fricka and Froh. Donner tells the giants that they will get the ring, and Wotan makes his decision – Freia is returned to the gods, and Wotan throws the ring on the pile of gold. Immediately Fafner begins to pile up the gold, and Fasolt tries to assert his rights to his share. He asks the gods for justice, but Wotan turns contemptuously away. Loge advises him to ignore the gold and gain the ring. Fasolt claims it as his prize for giving up Freia, and in the ensuing argument over the ring, Fafner clubs him to death. Wotan and the other gods are shocked at the power of the curse, and Loge says how lucky Wotan has been to have gained and then lost the ring. Fricka sees Wotan lost in deep thought, and reminds him that the fortress remains empty, waiting for its lord. Wotan ponders on the bad wages he has used to pay for it, but Donner creates a storm to dispel the mists still lingering. As he disappears his hammer is heard hitting the rocks and the thunder and lightning clear the air. Fafner has collected all the gold into a sack, and departs as Froh creates a rainbow bridge across to the fortress which now gleams wondrously in the evening light, as Wotan acknowledges its beauty and immense presence. He asks Fricka to accompany him into Valhalla, and she asks what the meaning of the name is? Wotan replies that through the heroes who will dwell in it, and his deeds to come its meaning will become clear. As they go to ascend the rainbow bridge, Loge sees them heading for certain doom, and wonders whether he should turn back into fire and simply burn them all now? He leaves the question open, and goes to joins them in Valhalla. As they cross the bridge the Rhinemaidens are heard lamenting the loss of the gold, and Wotan, irritated, commands Loge to shut them up. Loge tells the Rhinemaidens to bask now in the golden splendour of Valhalla, and the gods laugh as they finally, triumphantly enter Valhalla.
RICHARD WAGNER (1813-1883) – Das Rheingold, the inexhaustible myth.
Richard Wagner’s epic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) comprises four operas: Die Walküre (The Valkyrie); Siegfried and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), and a preliminary evening Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold). It is unlike any other operatic work seen before or since. It stands as a testament to the genius of a man who is probably the most talked and written about composer in the world. George Bernard Shaw once said of him: ‘If Wagner had not existed, it would have been necessary to have invented him!’ The Ring marked a change in Wagner’s own compositional styles and to drama and music throughout the West in general.
When in 1848, having completed Lohengrin, Wagner began working on the text of Siegfrieds Tod, (Siegfried’s Death, which eventually became Götterdämmerung), he realised that he would need to explain many of the earlier events that lead to the destruction of the Ring and the Gods of Valhalla than could feasibly be performed in one opera. In 1851 he started writing Der Junge Siegfried (The Young Siegfried), which we now know simply as Siegfried, but at the end of this he still felt more explanation was needed. This led to the text of Die Walküre, also in 1851, and finally of Das Rheingold which he completed in 1852.
At the same time as writing the libretti for The Ring, Wagner also wrote numerous essays and books, the most important to the composition of The Ring, and in particular to Das Rheingold, were The Work of Art of the Future (1849), Opera and Drama (1850-1) and A Message to my Friends (1851). Inspired by Greek tragedy, Wagner realised that opera had the potential to combine several art forms, (he used the term Gesamptkunstwerk or “total art work” to describe this combination), from poetry, drama, costume, mime, dance, song and instrumental music in the presentation of myth as subject matter. As Wagner said ‘The unique thing about myth is that it is true for all time; and its content, no matter how terse and compact, is inexhaustible for every age.’ (It is interesting to note that this was exactly what the pioneers of opera in 16th and 17th Century Italy had been trying to achieve.) He applied these theories in the composition of The Ring, Tristan and Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Parsifal. However, only in Das Rheingold does he so clearly follow his own theories. He himself termed it music drama, (a forerunner, it could be said, of the cinematic experience), where the orchestra gives the audience the emotional context of the drama unfolding on-stage – what goes on inside rather than outside people – the ‘emotionalizing of the intellect’.
He drew his inspirations for The Ring from Germanic and Scandinavian myths and legends, particularly the 13th Century German Nibelungenlied (Song of the Nibelungs) and the Icelandic poet Snorre Sturluson’s Edda and Saga of the Volsungs, and adapted the stories to suit his own needs. The Volsungs in the Edda and the Saga of the Volsungs in the Scandinavian tradition point to generations of Volsungs before we reach the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, let alone Siegfried, but by careful analysis, Wagner freely adapted, compressed and moulded the stories to meet his requirements. Many characters become amalgamated into one, others are simply not important enough to warrant an appearance.
Musical composition on Das Rheingold began in 1853 and finished in 1854, but the whole cycle was not completed until 1874, as between 1857-69, having composed, but not scored the first two acts of Siegfried, Wagner concentrated on other projects, mainly Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Although Das Rheingold and Die Walküre were performed separately in 1869 and 1870 respectively, the first complete performance of the whole cycle had to wait until 1876, once Wagner had completed the building of his own theatre at Bayreuth, and these performances were conducted by Hans Richter. Specifically designed to maximise the performance of his music, the Bayreuth theatre design hid the orchestra completely from view of the audience, allowing them to concentrate on the action of the opera instead. The London premiere of The Ring was given at Her Majesty’s Theatre in May 1882 under the baton of Anton Seidl, and the first performance in English was in 1908 at Covent Garden, again conducted by Hans Richter.
As the critic Eduard Hanslick wrote after watching the first complete performances of the whole cycle in 1876, The Ring is ‘something essentially different from all that has gone before, a thing alone and apart. […] Three main considerations distinguish this music in principle from all previous operas, including Wagner’s: first, the absence of independent, separate vocal melodies, replaced here by a kind of exalted recitative with the “endless melody” in the orchestra as the basis; second, the dissolution of all form, not just the usual forms (arias, duets, etc.) but of symmetry, of musical logic developed in accordance with laws; third the exclusion of multiple-voiced pieces, of duets, trios, choruses and finales, not counting a few odd passing entrances. […] The descriptive powers of Wagner’s fantasy, the astonishing mastery of orchestral technique, and many musical beauties exert a magic force to which we surrender readily and gratefully’.
Wagner achieves this magic force and orchestral mastery through the use of leitmotivs (leading motives, associated with important emotions, themes, characters, events or objects in the drama), which form the base of the composition, but which he cleverly and intelligently adapts to each new dramatic moment. This provides unity and continuity through what is otherwise four separate fully through-composed operas, and a tool which other composers, particularly Puccini, would use in their operas. As Hanslick said, gone are the set pieces for chorus (they only really feature in Götterdämmerung, in Act II as the Gibichung Vassals of Günther, and possibly as the screams of the Nibelungs in Das Rheingold), individual arias, duets, trios and other such trappings of standard operatic performance and composition. Instead, the drama continually drives the music forward, and one could argue that the music also helps to drive the drama forward too.
Das Rheingold introduces many of these leitmotivs and is composed as four continuous scenes, with musical interludes during each scene change. The opera starts on a pedal E flat, and develops into a melodic version of the E flat major chord. From this grows the Rhine theme, or basic Nature motive, that permeates through many of the leitmotivs in the opera, including the Rhinemaiden’s theme, the Gold (before Alberich steals it to make the Ring, which has its own theme), Erda’s theme, and Donner’s theme when he conjures the storm in scene four. Other important themes are presented too, such as the Ring, (these include the power of the Ring, servitude of the Nibelungs, and even Valhalla, a static symbol of Wotan’s power), Wotan’s Spear, (his dynamic symbol of power), Loge’s magic fire, Love, Love’s Renunciation and so on. For a greater understanding of the leitmotivs in the whole cycle and how they are inter-related to many other themes, Deryck Cooke’s recording An Introduction to Der Ring des Nibelungen (Decca 443 581-2) is an excellent starting place, and numerous books have been written analysing the leitmotivs and The Ring cycle.
All the characters we meet in Das Rheingold are non-human as we have entered a world of myth. Unlike the later three operas, there is no obvious human element in the story, and yet, Wagner’s portrayal of the gods, dwarves, giants and water-nymphs is actually incredibly human, as they show us reflections of ourselves.
The most human characters are probably Wotan and Alberich. It could easily be argued that the two are really different sides of the same character, so completely different in outlook, yet both wanting and achieving the same things. Both seek power, Alberich through the creation of the Ring, Wotan through his spear, which he made from the World Ash Tree. Both seek to rule the world, and both forswear love, Alberich by cursing it to obtain the gold, Wotan by offering Freia (the goddess of love) as payment to the giants for building him Valhalla. Wagner hints at this relationship clearly during the course of the opera, as Loge refers to Alberich in his scene two oration as “nacht-alberich” (night-elf), and Alberich in scene three refers to Wotan and the gods as “Lichtalbern” (light-elves). (So multi-faceted was Odin in Norse mythology that Wagner’s intimation makes perfect sense.) The difference is how each goes about obtaining their goals – Wotan through laws and contracts and a sense of nobility, Alberich through subjugation and slavery, with great sadism and cruelty. When Wotan finally snatches the ring from Alberich in the opening of scene four, the music accompanying him as he sings “Nun halt’ ich, was mich erhebt, der Mächtigen mächtigsten Herrn” (Now I possess that which will make me the mightiest of mighty Lords!), is of such noble colour that we know he would rule wisely. Alberich on the other hand would not, as his music in scene three clearly demonstrates.
Possibly the most complex character in Das Rheingold is that of Loge, the demi-god of fire. Not being completely godly allows him the unique position of commentator on the events in Das Rheingold, also somewhat like the Greek chorus. He is the agent through which Wotan finds the solution to his dilemma of how to free Freia from the obligation to the giants. It is Loge who leads Wotan to Nibelheim and succeeds in trapping Alberich, something Wotan alone could not have achieved. It is he who has heard the laments of the Rhinemaidens and brings the news to the gods of the theft of the Rhinegold. And it is he, who at the end of the opera realises the gods may just be heading towards disaster. At the end of Götterdämmerung, he is the agent of the god’s eventual demise, as Valhalla is consumed by his fire. Wagner reflects this musically too, as Loge’s music is chromatic, fast, flickering and changeable.
The other gods, Fricka, Freia, Froh and Donner play lesser, but still important roles in the drama, Fricka particularly reminds Wotan of his own laws and acts more like a conscience on him, seeming to nag and belittle him. The giants symbolise human baseness, our lower instincts and nature, but also they remind us of our naivety and innocence, as they take Wotan quite literally when they ask for Freia in return for building Valhalla. And the Rhinemaidens and Erda belong to and serve Nature, as their music is derived directly from the Nature motive at the start of the opera.
One final point that distinguishes Das Rheingold from the other three operas in The Ring is the timescale. Although all three other operas occupy a human time-frame of approximately thirty years, the duration of the events in Das Rheingold could take place anywhere between a single decade and a millennia. The gap between scene one and scene two has to allow Alberich time to forge the ring and enslave his people, and amass the gold and the hoard. The Rhinemaidens mention their father, a water-sprite probably far older than the gods’ themselves, and the gods are not yet secure in their position as rulers of the world. Erda too is an ancient goddess, and has come to warn Wotan of the fate that awaits him if he keeps the ring; such is the power of the curse. Scene two through to the end of scene four is supposedly one day, sunrise to sunset, but to a god how long is a day? How long after the events of Das Rheingold are the events of Die Walküre? The beauty is we will never know, and it is up to each director that chooses to tackle this wonderful piece of total theatre to determine. The myth continues to be ‘inexhaustible in every age’.