Responding to “the Ring”

Iain Scott’s 10 most breathtaking, heart-stopping, tear-inducing, anxiously-waited-for moments in Wagner’s epic cycle.

OPERA CANADA MAGAZINE – FALL 2006

Wagner’s Ring is like a first kiss. You know you will always cherish the experience, but you also expect further repetitions will be even more pleasurable. Like running a Marathon or climbing Everest, the Ring is not for everyone. Every Ring cycle demands unusual commitment and stamina, not only from performers, but also from audiences. A full cycle, seen over the course of a week, can leave you emotionally shattered, physically exhausted and yet exhilarated beyond anything else I know. My wife tells me it’s like giving birth to a child: it takes a decent recovery period before the drive to go through it again recurs — but it does!

Either to assist your introduction to the Ring or to reinforce your love of it, I offer you my pick of the 10 most magic moments, either musical or dramatic, from the 14-to-17 hours of the Ring (the conducting really can make that much difference in the timing).

Let’s admit from the outset that the definition of a “moment” in Wagner covers the spectrum from the flash of a Valkyrie’s eye to the astonishingly controlled, 20-minute crescendo of the incomparable Todesverkundigung scene from Act II of Die Walküre. It must also be admitted that the famous phrase, “bleeding chunks,” aptly describes any attempt to extract segments from the inextricably intertwined fabric of music, drama, leitmotifs, and ideas.

Nevertheless, here are 10 moments in sequence, for any neophyte to anticipate and for any experienced “Ringhead” to cherish. These may be controversial. You may have others in mind. (One of my best friends recently told me that his most magic moment comes with the final cadence, when it’s all over, but he was joking …I think.)

1 Creation ex nihilo

Nothing in opera is as original or arresting as the way in which our Ring experience begins in Das Rheingold. The lights go down, ideally into complete darkness. Traditionally, the conductor is already unobtrusively in place.

There is a moment of total silence.

Then, almost subconsciously you are alerted to a deep rumbling sound. You become aware of eight double basses quietly playing on an open string, tuned down a semitone. You know this is the famous E-flat, which, according to a vision Wagner famously had on a visit to La Spezia in Northern Italy, is the ur-sound of the universe. As a bassoon is added, then a French horn, the magic of Wagner’s ability to create metaphors, allegories, archetypes and symbols out of pure music begins. We feel this must have been how the universe began.

We experience millennia of evolution. Over a hugely elongated timescale, we hear first nature and then water appear. Then, after an almost interminable gestation, life suddenly appears in the waters, babbling incoherent syllables. Finally, the wonder of speech evolves.

We are immediately reminded that Wagner’s is a world of metaphors and that one of the most powerful themes of the Ring is the inter-relationship of human consciousness to Nature.

Over the course of the cycle, we will be shown an inconvenient truth as we watch what happens when humanity loses its touch with Nature.

2 The moral crux: “Nothing by force!”

My second magic moment is a dramatically pivotal turning point that highlights another key theme explored in the Ring–the use and corruption of power. Like so many crucial moments in life, this point passes quickly, almost unnoticed, its significance only recognized later on.

In the second scene of Das Rheingold, the clumsy, unsophisticated giants Wotan has used to build Valhalla tell him that they expect him to deliver on his promised payment for their work. Their reward is Freia, the Goddess of love and custodian of the golden apples that keep the Gods’ immortal. Wotan prevaricates. Donner, his Secretary of Defence, is full of bluster, and like any subordinate, wants to look good in the eyes of his boss. He says something like “I have often bombed weaklings. I’ll solve our problem with my munitions!”

Wotan suddenly intervenes. To the descending musical theme that represents his spear (constitutional law and order – I like to think of it as peace, order and good government), he overrules Donner and makes a momentous decision: “Nichts durch Gewalt!” or “Nothing by force!”

This crucial intervention changes everything. It provides a powerful counter-argument for those who believe that Wagner somehow caused Hitler. It is a mystery that the Führer could have so misunderstood and perverted the meaning of the Ring. Wagner has Wotan courageously resist Donner’s offer of a speedy “final solution.”

The Ring teaches schoolyard bullies, Tony Sopranos and occupants of corner offices that those who use power thoughtlessly do so at their peril. Every action has consequences. The Ring is a human story about a leader who tries to achieve his aims, without the use of force, war, or arms. It is a meaty parable for all militarists and pacifists to ponder.

3 The big idea

As Das Rheingold draws to its conclusion, Wotan is dispirited, thwarted and frustrated. He has rejected force, but has embraced theft. He has been overruled by an even higher divinity, the Earth Mother. He tries to put a bold face on things to show leadership. We are at the ceremonial inauguration of his new corporate HQ. His family and cabinet are about to cross a Rainbow Bridge.

As CEO, he is expected to make a stirring speech, full of metaphors about sunrise and sunsets, strengths and opportunities. In the middle of his oration, he pauses as his mind dwells on his organization’s weaknesses and threats.

He is about to resume his speech when out of nowhere he has a brilliant flash of inspiration, an inspired idea.

The key point is that he says nothing. We hear his thought, not from his lips, but from the orchestra. A leaping seven-note theme, not heard so far, rings out on a trumpet. Wotan has a plan that will only be spoken of in the next opera, and a tool–a sword, represented by the trumpet theme–to help put the plan into effect.

This serves as a reminder that if we only read the Surtitles to understand what is going on, we miss so much. Wagner’s orchestra is where we find thought, which sometimes reinforces, sometimes contradicts and occasionally, as here, supplements the words.

4 The curved ball

My fourth moment is as troubling today as it was on first hearing. As the moment when the sword is to be pulled from the tree approaches in Act I of Die Walküre, we expect to associate it with other mythological climaxes, such as Arthur pulling Merlin’s sword from the stone. Such a moment will be a sign of a unique, god-given promise.

It comes as a surprise, then, that the musical accompaniment is not a new heroic theme. The orchestra gives us the Rhine Maiden Woglinde’s warning about the Renunciation of Love.

Clearly Wagner is signaling something deeper than we expected here. This Renunciation of Love theme reoccurs at another key moment in Die Walküre, when the father, Wotan, loses his daughter, Brünnhilde, and kisses her eyes at the conclusion of the opera.

Perhaps when we renounce something, there are unforeseen, compensatory gains. Certainly, these moments are symbolic of the many unresolved paradoxes in the Ring, a reminder that for some things in life, there are no satisfactory explanations.

5 Mightiest of miracles

By the time we reach the third act of Die Walküre, we have learned to appreciate the complex significance of Wagner’s leitmotifs. During Sieglinde’s exit lines, we hear a soaring, searing musical theme, but just once. It will not recur until that calming, satisfying, salve-the-soul cadence at the end of the entire cycle.

This leitmotif used to be known as the Redemption Theme, but is nowadays accepted as The Glorification of Brünnhilde. It expresses an appreciation for her femininity, her maternal and wifely love, for the depth of her wisdom. It is an insight into her compassionate soul.

Believing that she has nothing to live for, and craving the release of death, Sieglinde has been told she is carrying her brother-lover’s child. Imbued with new purpose, she apostrophizes the Valkyrie who saved her: “O hehrstes Wunder! Herrlichste Maid!”–“Oh mightiest of miracles, most glorious of women.”

I remember how I waited for Jessye Norman to sing this inspiring line at the Met. Now I look forward to the equally incomparable Adrianne Pieczonka singing it in the Toronto production.

6 The big hug

From earliest childhood, a hug uniquely expresses familial love, understanding, and comfort. It is the closest of all family gestures.

Towards the end of Die Walküre, a disobedient daughter must be punished. Her defence is “You know I understood your deepest thoughts, father. I did what you really wanted, didn’t I?”

Her theme of being a soulmate swells five times. As it reaches its thundering climax, father and daughter hug each other.

Anyone who has ever been a father, or a daughter, cannot fail to empathize.This moment triggers the deepest resonances of family love, whatever else may have clouded the complexities of a relationship.

7 There be dragons

In Western imagery, a dragon is a symbol of our worst fears. A hero or a saviour is one whose actions protect us. Think of Perseus or Beowulf or St. George. To confront a dragon symbolically is to make us ponder what we fear most and why. Confronting and overcoming fearful situations creates character growth.

Wagner’s analysis of fear is one of the fascinating obverses of the theme of power explored in the Ring. George Bernard Shaw saw Fafner, in his dragon form, as a metaphor for those who have no concept of how to use a newfound fortune to create value or bring relief to others. Fafner has become inert, defensive, a miser, concerned only with himself.

The lesson of the dragon and his fate is twofold: that money is a gift that must be used for others, and that our worst fears can be overcome by courage.

8 The new dawns

Every new dawn is a symbol of awakening, new possibilities, potential. It is similar to the Spring that comes into the bleak lives of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre. Every dawn is also a symbol for the transition from the dark of our unconscious thought to the bright day of our rationality.

There are several dawns in the Ring. The first is the transition from the depths of the Rhine to the brave new world of the Gods in Das Rheingold, often known as Wotan’s dawn. The most long-drawn-out daybreak is the hero’s arrival on Brünnhilde’s mountain top in Act III of Siegfried, which represents a new dawn for both of them. These two have another dawn in Scene II of the prologue of Götterdämmerung, after their first night together.

For me, however, the most magical dawn is also the most complex and haunting. It is the dawn of Hagen’s day, just before Siegfried returns from Brünnhilde’s rock to the Gibichung Hall in Act II of Götterdämmerung. This dawn is full of menace and shows that its potential can be for good or evil.

Whenever I think of dawns, I am reminded that Dämmerung means not only decline and fall, but also twilight, and twilight comes twice a day. I always appreciate it when a stage director ends the “Twilight of the Gods” not with a sunset, but with a new dawn, implying that a new cycle of potential and challenges will now begin.

9 The party rally

My ninth magic moment is “the” chorus, because this is the only time a chorus appears in the entire cycle. This is an even more extended musical “moment” than Hagen’s dawn. It comes right in the middle of Act II of Götterdämmerung, and is dramatically a preparation for the crucial trial scene, which will be full of accusations, defences, and the ambiguities of the truth.

This choral scene is straight out of a French grand opera by Meyerbeer. It is loud, thrilling, spectacular, pulse-quickening and riveting. It begins with the otherworldly sound of three steer-horns. It is primal and primitive, evoking memories of our tribal heritage.

It reminds us of how people behave at political rallies and conventions. The Vassals symbolize the needs of most people to be followers, thirsty for information and anxious for leadership.

10 A pause for reflection

The destructive cataclysm that ends Götterdämmerung is a director’s nightmare. All the old symbols of the old government are ceremonially incinerated. A great deluge drowns Hagen and carries away the bodies of Brünnhilde and Siegfried. It washes away all traces of their form of civilization.

My final magic moment is very brief, a moment of silence. Just before we hear the redemptive theme of appreciation for all that Brünnhilde has done (the same theme we heard Sieglinde sing as she departed in Die Walküre), the orchestra pauses.

This silence is one of Wagner’s greatest masterstrokes. Better than any dramatic action or beautiful music, this pause reinforces that great art is not mere entertainment, but a catalyst for reflection on the very meaning of life. For a moment, we see ourselves in this reflection.