Everyone has their national epic. The Greeks have the Iliad and the Odyssey, the French have Le Chanson de Roland, the British get to pick among Beowulf, The Mabinogion, and the tales of the Arthur Cycle, and the Germans have Das Nibelungenlied. The text of the great German epic (shared by the Scandinvians, who called it Volsungasaga and cast it in their own worldview) was lost for about five hundred years, but rediscovered — in several manuscripts, in the eighteenth century. And it was a natural for Richard Wagner.
Wagner’s operas made great use of stories from legend and medieval romance — Tristan und Isolde, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and the like. Wagner decided to write an opera about the great medieval Emperor Frederick Barbarossa that eventually turned into the Ring, and he wrote the cycle backwards. Casting Barbarossa as the mythical hero Siegfried, he wrote what became Götterdämmerung and decided that no one would be able to figure it out without more background. So he wrote Siegfried and then decided that wasn’t quite enough, so he wrote Die Walküre. He finally wrote Das Reingold as a prelude, and the whole cycle, completed in 1874 (after taking twenty years, with time off for Tristan and Meistersinger), was finally performed complete in 1876 at his new theater at Bayreuth.
The plot is, needless to say, complex and often convolute. (See below for links to detailed synopses of the four operas.) In general terms, the cycle is about the use and abuse of power and, one of Wagner’s favorite themes, the transformative power of love. The gods, as personified by Wotan, are revealed as possessing no small degree of arrogance and a moral sense that would fit right into our contemporary political milieu. Wotan steals from the dwarf Alberich (the “Nibelung” of the title), among other treasures, a golden ring that gives power over others. Alberich had made the ring with gold stolen from the Rhine, while Wotan is forced to give it up as part of a contract with the giants who have built his new fortress Valhalla — he is, after all, the guarantor of treaties. The ring, as might be expected, brings nothing but disaster to its bearer, who winds up being the hero Siegfried, grandson of Wotan through an incestuous union between Siegmund and Sieglinde, Wotan’s children by a mortal woman. (Wagner didn’t have much use for bourgeois conventions, and the Germanic gods themselves make a mink farm look respectable.) Ultimately the ring betrays Siegfried to his death by treachery, but the valkyrie Brünnhilde, who was first his mother’s protector and later his own lover, sacrifices herself on his pyre as the Rhinemaidens regain their stolen gold. The gods are consumed as Valhalla burns, and although it’s not the Ragnarok of Nordic myth, it’s pretty effective on stage, let me tell you.
The role of love is central in the cycle. Alberich is able to steal and forge the gold because he renounces love. Wotan, in stealing the ring for his own, demonstrates that he doesn’t understand the power of love. (I am reminded of nothing so much as the ancient Greek Eros, a god who offered great rewards to his worshippers, and harrowing punishments when his demands were not met.) It is, ultimately, Brünnhilde who demonstrates that power, and who rights a terrible imbalance in the world by her sacrifice on Siegfried’s funeral pyre.
It’s worth mentioning here also the fire god, Loge, the trickster, whose role is small but crucial: it is he who brings word of the Nibelung’s gold, and he who provides the magical fire that protects Brünnhilde in her magical sleep, and it is also he who provides the spark for the immolation of the gods, while sealing his own doom. Sort of a key player, I’d say, and a personification of those fundamental and ultimately ungovernable forces that we can name but can never really understand. Loge as a character holds himself somewhat apart from the gods, which is certainly appropriate — he’s an outsider, a random factor, the element of chance, although in Wagner’s hands he becomes as much a commentator as player. Wagner is dealing with mythic elements here, the basic themes that inform all of our art, within the framework of a story that could too easily be reduced to an empty entertainment. He avoids that trap quite handily.
Musically, the cycle is probably the clearest example of Wagner’s use of the leitmotiv, the musical phrase associated with a personality, an emotion, or an idea, which he uses throughout the four operas to weave a dense, rich context. In a way, he’s playing with time: when Siegfried shatters Wotan’s spear, we hear the “treaty” motiv that takes us all the way back to Reingold and the settlement with the giants, which begins the slide into tragedy. Siegried’s own theme is first heard in the early parts of Walküre, a forecast of the demigod to come. A friend once complained to me that Götterdämmerung was nothing but grand opera; I explained that if he listened carefully, he’d realize that the three preceding operas were all there in the music, along with all the associations that went with the themes, which gives the final opera in the cycle a tremendous weight — the whole of the thematic content is right there, reiterated and given new connections.
Let me also point out that the music is glorious. Powerful, sensual, evocative, passionate, it is some of the most beautiful and most compelling music ever written.
The drama inherent in these operas is amazing, and this is where the cast bears discussion. Whether these works live or die is dependent entirely on how they are performed, and the cast in this set of recordings is peerless. I had never heard Astrid Varnay, the legendary Wagnerian soprano who sings Brünnhilde, and she was an eye-opener. She reveals a powerful voice that also possesses a particular brightness and flexibility that makes her a completely believable — and very human — demigoddess. Hans Hotter’s Wotan is amazing, as well. I was used to his later recording with Sir George Solti (my version on vinyl), in which his voice was in trouble (he was at the end of his career in the early 1960s) but his acting was in a class by itself. In this version, the voice is younger and stronger and the acting is still superb. He even makes the dreaded Act II of Die Walküre not only bearable, but interesting — I was hanging on every word — while the Leb’ wohl at the end of Act III is still heartbreaking.. Gustav Neidlinger owned the role of Alberich in the 1950s and into the 60s; he is not, here, quite the spitting mass of venom that he portrays in Solti’s recording, but he is chilling and superbly effective, a walking obsession. Regina Resnick as Sieglinde and Ramon Vinay as Siegmund bring something special to Die Walküre: Resnick, in the days before she took on mezzo roles, brings a sensuous weight to her portrayal, while Vinay’s Siegmund is understated and only more powerful for that, turning the Todesverkundigung at the end of Act II into something completely devastating. I was in tears. Wolfgang Windgassen as Siegfried was something new when this recording was made. The great heldentenors of the 1930s and ’40s had heavier, “meatier” voices; Windgassen provides a young-sounding Siegfried, bright, energetic, bumptious, and even mischievous. He has always been my idea of Siegfried, from Solti’s recording, and this one just bears out that impression — the Forging Scene is spectacular. These and the rest of the cast bring the “drama” part of these music dramas to life, proving something that I’ve always believed: you can get away with just singing a role by Verdi, Rossini, even Mozart or Puccini, but if you’re going to do Wagner without getting swallowed whole, you’ve got to sing and act as if your life depended on it.
Clemens Krauss manages to combine all the strengths of the best-known interpreters of Wagner — Solti’s stately majesty, von Karajan’s fine balance of intensity and intimacy, Furtwängler’s dark-edged moodiness, Levine’s intelligence and clarity — and adds a measure of humanity that is the cherry on top. This is a truly insightful reading, going right to the core of every character, every theme, every idea, and laying out plainly what is implicit in the score. Krauss has managed to build into this cycle a kind of momentum that carries the story along effortlessly, and the audience along with it. This recording has been called “the best on records” (New York Times) and the “most compelling and best cast” (Gramophone), and I think I have to agree. (No, I haven’t heard them all, but I’ve heard enough.) If it’s any help, I have Die Walküre in my CD wallet that goes with me everywhere, right there with Depeche Mode. I’m almost ready to change to Siegfried.
(Allegro Music, 2006)