Das Rheingold: All That Liveth Loveth

Wow. What a night. It was the first part of the first Canadian performance ofWagner’s Ring Cycle to inaugurate Canada’s first dedicated opera house. The anticipation was sky high and the performance did not disappoint. Even the hall got rave reviews. Due to a sudden case of laryngitis, a Canadian ended up in the primary role, Wotan, and got a home-town crowd ovation at the end. It was all good.

Das Rheingold is the prelude to what is a classical three-part drama. A little two and a half hour set-up. In it we find that Wotan, King of the Gods, has offered Freia, Goddess of Youth (and Love), to two giants as payment for building a magnificent castle, Valhalla. When the gods realize that she tends the golden apples that keep them young, Wotan resolves to ransom her with the Rhinegold that Alberich the Nibelung (dwarf) stole from the Rhinemaidens at the bottom of the Rhine River. Alberich fashioned the Rhinegold into a ring of supreme power, but it is cursed—he had to renounce love in order to take it, and he curses any who wear it to a life of joylessness and violence.

The theme of the opera is the choice between power and love. Alberich spurned love after being spurned by the lovely Rhinemaidens, and chooses the power of the Rhinegold. He immediately enslaves the other Nibelungs and forces them to mine and smith a great hoard of gold and jewels for himself. When Wotan and the trickster Loge, demigod of Fire, go down to the underworld to find the Rhinegold, Alberich’s brother Mime sadly tells how life used to be before the ring of power ruled their lives:

Blithely we smiths once worked at our anvils,
forged for our women
trinkets so fair, delicate Nibelung toys;
we lightly laughed at our toil.
The wretch now compels us
to creep into caverns,
for him alone we ever must toil.

In this world, work is only brings joy when it is in the service of love.

Wotan had earlier charged Loge with finding something to ransom Freia with, but Loge came up empty.

In vaigh sought I, and see now full well:
in the world’s wide ring nought is so rich
that a man will take it as price
for woman’s worth and delight!…

But where life ever is moving,
still scorned alone was my questioning craft:
in water, earth, and air,
none will forgo the joy of love.

Except, Alberich, of course. The sentiment is echoed when Wotan tries to wheedle the ring out of Alberich:

But what can boot thee the hoard,
in joyless Nibelheim,
where treasure nothing can buy?

But Alberich is stubborn and must be tricked out of his gold. When the time comes to hand the hoard over to the giants Wotan balks, and tries to keep the ring for himself. In dramatic and mysterious fasion, Erda, Goddess of Wisdom, rises up to warn him of the consequences of choosing power over love.

Yield it, Wotan! Yield it!
Flee the ring’s dread curse!
Hopeless and darksome disaster
lies hid in its might.

He heeds her warning and gives the ring to the giants, who promptly quarrel until Fafner kills his brother Fasolt. Wotan then knows he has narrowly escaped destruction…at least for the moment. The opera ends with Loge predicting worse troubles to come and the Rhinemaidens calling with watery voices for their stolen gold.

I find it appropriate that Erda, which means “Earth,” is the one to finally convince Wotan to give up the ring. I don’t know if Wagner had any environmental concerns in mind, but to have the Earth warn of the destruction that power and greed inevitably bring couldn’t be more relevant for today. Wotan, as flawed as he is, does better than us in accepting her simple but powerful message.

One of the great things about this opera, and the Ring Cycle in general, is the number and diversity of the female characters. There are six female characters in Das Rheingold, all with different personalities. Fricka, Wotan’s wife, scolds her husband for his desire for glorious Valhalla and pleads for Freia’s freedom, but is later tempted by the Rhinegold and encourages Wotan to obtain it so she can use its power to tame him. I was a little disappointed that Freia, who represents one of the two central principles in the opera, got the fewest lines, consisting mostly of “Help! Help!” But of course, no one can scream for help so beautifully as a soprano! Power and greed were represented by Alberich (sung by Richard Paul Fink), who not only stole the Rhinegold but stole the show last night. He was outstanding and received a loud ovation when he took his bow.

I will have to listen to this opera again to get a better sense of the music. There was a lot to hear. I loved the eerie ring of the Nibelungs’ hammers, and towards the end we got a hint of the Ride of the Valkyries—can’t wait to hear that tonight. Reading the libretto while listening, though necessary at first, is a bit of a distraction. Also, Wagner is not like Italian or French opera that gives you songs you can hum on the way home. Many people call this musical drama rather than opera, which indicates to me that the literary aspect is as important as the musical aspect.

There really is nothing like Wagner, and nothing like the Ring Cycle. People call it one of, if not the, greatest work of art ever produced. Wagner felt that his operas were the first truly complete art, combining visual, literary, and musical arts at a level and scale never before (or since) attempted, and that is exactly the sense I get from it. There is opera, and then there is Wagner.

Tonight, 6:30, Die Walküre. Don’t miss it!