The first opera (the prologue) in Wagner's Ring
Cycle, Das Rheingold
, is a beautifully conducted and thoughtfully staged performance. As soon as the clouds of mist have dissipated, while the daring, long-held opening chord is still reverberating, the screen clears to show not only the River Rhine and the three maidens (dressed like prostitutes in this production) assigned to guard the gold hidden there. It also shows an enormous dam (not mentioned in Wagner's text). This is the underwater base of a hydroelectric plant, and its presence tells us two things immediately: that this production takes the story out of the vaguely medieval fantasy world in which Wagner had placed it, and that a basic theme of the four-opera cycle would be power. Alberich, the Nibelung, is willing to renounce the love of women, after stealing the gold from the Rhine, to become the ruler of the world. Another basic theme is greed. The cast is uniformly excellent. The approach of stage director Patrice Chereau carefully balances realism, symbolism, and fantasy. The two giants (Matti Salminen and Fritz Hübner) tower over the gods who are waiting to enter the newly constructed Valhalla; Loge (brilliantly played by Heinz Zednick) appears in a burst of flame; the subterranean lair of the Nibelungs looks something like a prison and something like a mass-production sweatshop. In contrast, the gods look like members of a rather aimless leisure class. Freia, the goddess of youth (Carmen Reppel), whose fate is one of the basic items in the plot, is presented as a lovely but helpless beauty queen. Pierre Boulez conducts this episode. like the entire cycle, with power and precision.
Wagner's ideas of "racial purity" reach a logical conclusion in Act I of Die Walküre. Siegfried, the tragic hero of the cycle, is begotten in an adulterous, incestuous mating of Siegmund (Peter Hoffmann) and Sieglinde (Jeanne Altmeyer), a twin brother and sister. No miscegenation here. Siegfried will not be seen until the next opera in the cycle. For now, the Valkyries (after their famous, musically spectacular ride) are asked to protect Sieglinde, his pregnant mother-to-be, until he can be born. His father is killed in a fight with Hunding, Sieglinde's brutish husband, with Wotan intervening against his will to help the wronged spouse. Wotan has been forced by his wife Fricka, who is the goddess of marriage, elegantly played by Hanna Schwartz. Her victory is a striking display of Wotan's diminishing powers. Brunnhilde, Wotan's daughter and leader of the Valkyries (Gwyneth Jones), disobeys a paternal prohibition, rescues Sieglinde and hides her in safety to wait out her pregnancy. For this, she is punished by losing her divine status and being left asleep for years, surrounded by a circle of magic fire, until a hero (Siegfried, who has not yet been born) will come to rescue her. This episode is extremely well-sung, with particularly notable work by Hoffmann, Altmeyer, Schwartz, Jones and Donald McIntyre as Wotan, while conductor Pierre Boulez and director Patrice Chéreau work smoothly together to define the opera's overall form and continuity.
Siegfried is the most eventful of the four Ring operas: the hero of the cycle grows to maturity, forges his father's broken sword Notung, kills the dragon Fafner and the dwarf Mime, takes the cursed ring, frees Brunnhilde from the spell that has kept her asleep, and falls in love with her. It is all presented, powerfully and as efficiently as the self-indulgent text will permit. Not seen in the cycle's previous operas are Manfred Jung (Siegfried) and Norma Sharp (the Forest Bird), the central figure of the cycle and one of the most peripheral. Sharp is lovely in her brief appearance. Jung is the most controversial bit of casting in the cycle; his voice and acting have been criticized, but they seem to be up to the standard for this role, Perhaps the criticism really applies to Siegfried, who is neither intelligent nor compassionate, but a naive youth who knows nothing of the world and has never seen a woman. Jung conveys these qualities effectively. Wagner's ideal hero turns out to be a bit of a proto-Nazi in his own naive way, swaggering arrogantly, killing the dragon Fafner and the dwarf Mime with hardly a second thought, and blithely assuming that he deserves all the good fortune that comes his way. Wagner may have thought he was inventing another sort of hero, but this Siegfried rather faithfully reflects his creator's personality. Jung's characterization faithfully follows the text of the opera and it is compelling for those who can take their Wagner without illusions, those who have come to terms, for example, with the self-centered, unsympathetic personality that emerges from his wife Cosima's voluminous and blindly adoring diaries.
According to director Patrice Chereau, "Götterdämmerung undoubtedly presents a world in which no values exist any more... a world in which it is difficult for anyone to believe in anything any longer." It is truly, as its title proclaims, "The twilight of the gods." Siegfried is tricked, drugged, and treacherously murdered by power-hungry humans, deceived into betraying Brunnhilde, who remains faithful without hope. An air of weariness and decadence pervades the action and much of the music (though the score includes two of Wagner's finest instrumental inventions: Siegfried's Rhine journey and his funeral music.) A new note is the introduction of a chorus of humans (effectively used by Chereau) for the first time in the cycle. The heyday of the gods is over; now, world domination is sought by a human family, the Gibichungs. The cursed ring is stolen from Brunnhilde, who has kept it as a token of Siegfried's love. Siegfried, who has taken the ring in disguise, has been drugged and deceived into wooing Gutrune, a Gibichung. Brunnhilde is forced to marry Gunther, another Gibichung, but still faithful to Siegfried she commits suicide on his funeral pyre. The fire spreads to destroy Valhalla. The ring, snatched from Siegfried's dead hand, is dropped into the Rhine, where it is restored to its rightful place, and the situation returns to the normality of the time before Das Rheingold. The Gibichungs, new to the cycle, are well-portrayed by Franz Mazura and Jeanne Altmeyer, and Fritz Hübner is impressive as the treacherous Hagen. Gwemdolyn Killibrew stands out as Brunnhilde's ally Waltraute. As always, Pierre Boulez conducts with a clear vision of the total work. --Joe McLellan