San Francisco Opera offered a new production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen this summer. I went to the full cycle constituting four operas: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung. As my first cycle, the whole experience was very intense and overwhelming. Compared with clips from other productions I saw in my pre-theatre research, this production is very modern, completely beyond what I had imagined. It is a combination of visual feast with music indulgence. It is truly the ultimate form of art. By the end of the cycle, It feels like that I have aged a few centuries. Wise or not, a lot to contemplate.
The director of the opera Francesca Zambello wrote a poignant Director’s Note. Talking about the end of the story: “The gods are gone, but the mortals, especially the women, who are left represent the beginning of a new order. Is it a feminist approach? No, but it suggests the power of female leaders to heal the scars of destruction.” She points out that the inspiration behind this production is partly #MeToo and partly environmental. This message is conveyed throughout the cycle. My favorite characters is Brünnhilde. San Francisco Opera introduces her as:
Compassionate, selfless yet incredibly fierce, Brünnhilde is the protagonist of the story and is considered Wagner’s most noble character. Brünnhilde is the daughter of Wotan and Erda, the earth goddess. She, along with her sisters, are Valkyries—warrior maidens who speed through the sky to bring bodies of fallen heroes from the battlefield to Valhalla. There these heroes are revived and protect the gods against their enemies.
Brünnhilde is Wotan’s favorite daughter and their bond of affection is very close. Yet unlike her father, she believes love is the most important value to uphold and it is this belief that ultimately severs their relationship. When Wotan, bound by his duties, orders Brünnhilde not to protect his son Siegmund in his battle with Hunding, Brünnhilde goes against her father’s wishes and tries to save Siegmund, whom she knows Wotan loves dearly. Despite having incurred Wotan’s anger, Brünnhilde continues to defend love, protecting Siegmund’s cherished wife Sieglinde from his wrath.
Brünnhilde’s courage and self-sacrifice restore the universe to its natural order. Choosing to join her beloved husband Siegfried in death, Brünnhilde immolates herself to free the world from the ring’s curse, banishing wealth and greed and proving that the real power in life is the redeeming force of love.
Peter Bassett wrote a great article What Price Love. In his words, The Ring is “an extended love story…love is the thread that binds the whole story together—not love confined to a single pair of individuals but love as the alternative to hatred and revenge, power and property, greed and envy. The story begins with love’s renunciation and ends with its triumph as the one irreplaceable, transforming ingredient in a new world order.” It is: “the power of love versus the love of power”.
I cannot do Der Ring des Nibelungen justice by describing it in my own words yet. Short of seeing it again in theater, reading synopsis and listening to the recording is of some comfort. I am also curious how artists in future productions might transform Der Ring des Nibelungen and integrate their own interpretations to its performance. My hope is to return to future productions.
Here are the descriptions from SF Opera for your reference.
In the cycle’s prelude, greed and vengeance trigger a chain of events fraught with corruption and struggle.
The three Rhinemaidens, guardians of the river’s golden treasure, laugh and play, scarcely noticing the Nibelung Alberich, who tries with no avail to catch the sexy girls as they taunt him. They explain that this gold is all-powerful: if fashioned into a ring, its wearer would rule the world. But they are content that the gold is safe, since whoever would steal the treasure must renounce love. Hearing this secret, Alberich renounces love and escapes with the Rhinegold.
Fricka reproaches her husband Wotan for having promised her sister Freia to the giants Fafner and Fasolt as payment for constructing Valhalla; Wotan replies that he never meant to keep his word. When Fafner and Fasolt arrive to claim Freia, Wotan informs them that they must settle for another form of payment. Fafner, aware that the gods would lose their eternal youth and power without Freia’s golden apples, decides to take her hostage. The fire god Loge suggests that the giants might find Alberich’s gold an acceptable substitute for Freia and proposes that Wotan steal the gold, a portion of which Alberich has forged into a ring. The giants take Freia home until evening, when they will return to claim the Nibelung’s gold as ransom. Wotan asks Loge to accompany him to seek Alberich’s treasure.
In the underground caverns of Nibelheim, Alberich tries on the tarnhelm—a magical chain mail helmet his brother Mime has forged that transforms the wearer into any size or shape—and torments Mime. Wotan and Loge arrive and Alberich suspiciously questions them, warning of his plan to overthrow the gods and rule the world. Loge tricks Alberich into using the Tarnhelm to transform into a toad, and Wotan and Loge seize him and drag him to the surface of the earth.
Back on the mountaintop, Loge and Wotan tell Alberich that they will free him only if he yields all his gold, the tarnhelm and the ring. After the ring is torn from his finger, the Nibelung leaves and places a curse upon it: until it returns to him, trouble, envy, and death will befall all who possess it. The giants return with their hostage Freia and demand the Nibelung gold, the tarnhelm and the ring in exchange for her. Erda, the earth goddess, appears and warns Wotan to yield the ring, spelling doom for the gods. Wotan then surrenders the ring, and Fafner kills Fasolt to claim the ring, the tarnhelm and the hoard for himself. Fricka urges Wotan to turn his thoughts to Valhalla, and Froh summons a rainbow bridge to take them there.
A father’s blinding ambition and a daughter’s profound defiance drive the story forward in the cycle’s dramatic second installment.
An exhausted fugitive seeks refuge in a dismal home built around a mighty tree. Sieglinde tends to her unexpected visitor. When her husband Hunding arrives home, the stranger relates his sad tale: attempting to protect a young woman from an unwanted arranged marriage, he killed her brothers and was forced to escape her avenging kinsmen. Hunding reveals that he was part of the hunting party searching for the stranger. He offers Siegmund shelter for the night, but advises him to prepare for a fight the next day. Sieglinde drugs Hunding’s drink so that the stranger can flee to safety. She, too, had been an unwilling bride and remembers that at her wedding, an unknown old man had thrust a sword deep into a tree trunk, but no man has had the strength to pull it out. The stranger realizes that this must be the sword his father had promised him and rejoices in reborn hope and newfound love for Sieglinde. Sieglinde recognizes him now as her long-lost twin brother, Siegmund. In great excitement, Siegmund triumphantly pulls the sword from the tree, and the lovers run off into the night.
Wotan exhorts his daughter Brünnhilde, a Valkyrie, to protect his mortal son Siegmund in his coming duel with Hunding. But Fricka, Wotan’s wife and the protector of marriage, is outraged at the adulterous and incestuous love of Siegmund and Sieglinde and forces Wotan to let Hunding triumph. Wotan tells Brünnhilde that she must let Siegmund die in combat. In vain, Wotan had been grooming Siegmund to be a “free hero”: a free-willed mortal unaided by the gods, unbound by Wotan’s treaties, and consequently the only one capable of regaining the cursed ring that Wotan was earlier forced to yield. Siegmund and Sieglinde rest during their flight. While Sieglinde sleeps, Brünnhilde appears to Siegmund, instructing him to follow her to Valhalla after his death. But deeply moved by Siegmund’s devotion to Sieglinde, Brünnhilde decides to disobey Wotan’s orders and save Siegmund’s life. After Hunding arrives and begins his battle with Siegmund, the furious Wotan appears and shatters Siegmund’s sword. Allowing Hunding to easily kill Siegmund, Wotan then strikes Hunding down as well. Having defied her father, Brünnhilde gathers up the broken sword pieces and leads Sieglinde to safety.
Brünnhilde’s eight sisters, the Valkyries, are on their way to Valhalla to report on the fallen heroes they have gathered. When Brünnhilde arrives with Sieglinde, the Valkyries refuse to harbor them for fear of Wotan’s wrath. Brünnhilde gives Sieglinde the broken sword pieces and sends her to seek refuge in the forest where the dragon Fafner hides, for Wotan will not follow her there. Sieglinde takes some comfort in the knowledge that she will bear Siegmund’s son, whom Brünnhilde predicts will be the greatest of all heroes. When Wotan arrives, he condemns Brünnhilde for her betrayal and sentences her to be stripped of her divinity and left asleep on the mountaintop, to be claimed by the first mortal man to awaken her. Brünnhilde begs Wotan to surround her with a ring of magic fire so that only the bravest of men would attempt to awaken her. Wotan agrees, regretfully leaving his daughter to her long sleep, surrounded by terrifying flames.
A fearless young hero battles otherworldly challenges on a journey to discover his destiny.
Mime has set up a metal forge in a deserted area near the spot where a transformed Fafner guards the treasure. Siegfried demands a sword from Mime, but every weapon the Nibelung forges is easily shattered by Siegfried. Commanding Mime to reforge the fragments of a sword purportedly left to Siegfried by his deceased mother, the young man learns more from Mime about his heritage. Wotan, who now wanders the world incognito, approaches Mime and challenges him to a battle of wits, proposing that they each pose three questions to the other. When Mime is unable to answer the final question, Wotan reveals that only a fearless person can reforge Siegfried’s sword, and that person will kill Mime. After Wotan departs, the terrified Mime resolves to teach Siegfried fear in order to save himself. But Mime faces a dilemma: if Siegfried learns fear, who will forge the sword that can kill Fafner and regain the golden hoard? When Siegfried returns to claim his sword, Mime is eager to teach the young man to fear. Siegfried, still immune to fear, successfully reforges Siegmund’s sword and goes off with Mime to reclaim the golden hoard from Fafner. Mime has brewed a poisoned drink to give Siegfried after he triumphs over Fafner.
Alberich, eager to regain the golden hoard, keeps watch near the place where Fafner guards it. Meanwhile Fafner has used the tarnhelm to transform himself into an invincible form. Wotan arrives and warns Alberich of Mime’s designs on the ring and then rouses Fafner so that Alberich may demand the ring from him in exchange for warning him of Siegfried’s approach. Fafner refuses, and Wotan leaves. Siegfried arrives with Mime, who tries to make him fear Fafner. But Siegfried instead resolves to approach Fafner and sends Mime away. Siegfried listens to the birds and fashions a makeshift pipe to imitate them. When the pipe fails to communicate with the birds, Siegfried tries his horn. Fafner emerges and Siegfried kills him. The dying Fafner warns Siegfried against Mime’s treachery, and his lifeblood renders Siegfried instantly able to understand the birds. When Siegfried enters Fafner’s abode, Mime approaches Alberich and the two brothers fight over the golden hoard. Siegfried emerges with the tarnhelm and the ring, and Mime and Alberich hide. A Woodbird warns Siegfried to beware of Mime, who emerges and offers Siegfried the poisoned drink. Now able to understand the true meaning of Mime’s words, Siegfried refuses it and kills Mime. The Woodbird counsels Siegfried to penetrate the wall of fire surrounding Brünnhilde, his destined bride, and offers to lead him to her.
Wotan visits Erda in a last-ditch effort to avert a disastrous future. When she advises him to seek guidance from Brünnhilde, he tells her of their daughter’s disobedience and punishment, and the dismayed Erda becomes unwilling to reveal more. Wotan releases Erda, informing her that he will bequeath the world to Siegfried. Siegfried arrives and Wotan questions him about his sword. Siegfried becomes irritated and tells the old man to leave. Wotan bars Siegfried’s way with his spear, which Siegfried shatters, accusing Wotan of having killed his father. Wotan collects the fragments of the spear as we see him for the last time. Siegfried plunges through the fire and awakens the sleeping Brünnhilde. Though Brünnhilde realizes that she is now a mortal woman and must obey Siegfried, she welcomes him and submits to her fate.
The cycle reaches its transcendent climax with a suspenseful tale of bravery and sacrifice, treachery and betrayal, destruction and renewal.
The three Norns, daughters of the earth goddess Erda, are busy weaving the rope of fate. Predicting Valhalla’s imminent fall, they notice that the rope of destiny is starting to fray and unravel. As the sisters try to make it taut, it snaps and they descend in terror to Erda. At dawn, Siegfried and Brünnhilde awaken from their night together. Though fearful that she may lose him, Brünnhilde encourages Siegfried to travel in search of heroic challenges. He gives her the ring as a pledge of his love.
In their home on the Rhine, Gunther, leader of the Gibichungs, and his sister Gutrune plot how to secure the Ring. Their half brother Hagen, son of Alberich, advises Gunther to marry Brünnhilde. By means of a magic potion, Siegfried could be induced to forget his vows and win her for Gunther in return for Gutrune’s hand. Siegfried’s horn call announces his approach. Gunther welcomes him, and Gutrune seals his fate by offering him the potion. He drinks and instantly forgets all about Brünnhilde and agrees to bring her to Gunther. On Brünnhilde’s rock, Waltraute visits her sister and tells her that she must yield the Ring to the Rhinemaidens or all is doomed. When she refuses, Waltraute departs in despair. Dusk falls as Siegfried appears, disguised as Gunther by means of the Tarnhelm. He wrests the ring from the terrified Brünnhilde and claims her as Gunther’s bride.
Alberich appears to Hagen and urges his sleeping son to win back the Ring from Siegfried. As dawn breaks, Siegfried returns and announces he has won Brünnhilde for Gunther. Hagen calls everyone to witness the joining of the two couples: Brünnhilde and Gunther, Siegfried and Gutrune. As they enter, Brünnhilde notices her ring on Siegfried’s finger. She deplores the trickery through which she was won and proclaims Siegfried to be her true husband. The hero, still under the potion’s spell, vows that he has never wronged the woman, and Brünnhilde angrily swears that he is lying. Bent on revenge, she reveals to Hagen the hero’s one vulnerable spot: a blade in his back will kill him. Taunted by Brünnhilde and lured by Hagen’s description of the Ring’s power, Gunther joins in the murder plot.
On the banks of the destroyed Rhine, the three Rhinemaidens bewail their lost treasure. Siegfried approaches and the maidens plead for the ring, but he ignores them. When Siegfried’s hunting party arrives, he describes his boyhood with Mime, the killing of Fafner, and finally—after Hagen gives him a potion to restore his memory—his wooing of Brünnhilde. Pretending indignation, Hagen plunges a spear into Siegfried’s back and the hero dies. At the Gibichung hall, Gutrune nervously awaits Siegfried’s return. Hagen tells her that Siegfried has been slain by a wild boar, but the woman accuses Gunther of murder and Hagen admits the crime. Quarreling over the ring, Hagen kills Gunther but recoils in fear from the prize when the dead hero raises his arm. Brünnhilde appears and orders a funeral pyre built for Siegfried. Musing on the gods’ responsibility for his death, she returns the ring to the Rhinemaidens and walks into the pyre’s flames. As the world is consumed by fire, the Rhine overflows its banks and the Rhinemaidens, dragging Hagen to a watery grave, regain their treasure. Brünnhilde’s death frees the ring of its curse.