(The Ring of the Nibelungs)
The RING CYCLE, Der Ring des Nibelungen, is Richard Wagner’s masterwork. It is thought to be the most monumental work of art to be created by one mind. It all started with his bold idea to set to music his dramatic poem inspired by the story of a hero’s death as told in the “Nibelungenlied” (the tales of Germanic mythology), which he originally entitled “Siegfried’s Death”.
The story line:
The hero Siegfried (descended from both gods and humans), while under the spell of a love potion, betrays the woman he loves – the goddess-turned mortal Brünnhilde. In vengeance she plots his death, but in the end she realizes the truth and her all-consuming love compels her to leap into the hero’s funeral pyre to become one with him in death.
She returns her symbol of love, the RING that Siegfried gave her, back into the river Rhine to be reclaimed by the Rhinemaidens, the rightful guardians of the gold from which the RING was forged. By her immolation, Brünnhilde redeems the world; and by returning the RING, cleanses it of the curse: the curse of death that Alberich, chief Nibelung – god of the Underworld, renouncer of love, and stealer of the Rhinegold – had wished upon whoever touched his RING of power.
Wotan, Brünnhilde’s father and supreme god of the skies, whose lust for power drove him to rob the Nibelung of his RING, perishes as well taking all of his kingdom Valhalla down with him. And so, with the RING back where it should never have been taken from, the cycle completes itself. In the end, love reigns over evil and the old world crumbles, giving way to the new.
As Wagner began to craft his epic poem about Siegfried’s death, he was stymied in the telling of his story. He found himself having to keep going back in time to account for the turn of events: how Siegfried came to be, how Brünnhilde came to love, how the curse fell upon the RING. In other words, he had a lot of explaining to do.
So, borrowing freely from both the Nibelungenlied and the Nordic tales of the Edda and the Volsunga Saga, and exhuming characters (swimming maidens, dwarfs, giants, and dragons) and magical objects from the depths of his imagination, Wagner set upon the most daunting task of his creative life.
What emerged was a set of four powerful operatic works now collectively known as The Ring Cycle: Das Rheingold which tells how the Nibelung came to curse the Ring, Die Walküre which tells about how Siegfried came to be and how Brunnhilde came to know about love, Siegfried which tells about his carefree youth in the primeval forest and his first encounter with woman, and Götterdämmerung which tells about Siegfried’s betrayal, his vengeful death and the fall of the gods.
The work, being an allegory of the human condition, is wrought with a multitude of dramatic and musical symbols – of evil in all its forms and love in all its incarnations – of which Wagner himself wrote voluminous tracts. The story is told as much by each chord of the music as by each word of the poem, just as he intended his music-drama to be.
Though Wagner meant for the works to be staged in succession – as a Stage Festival in a theater built to his own innovative specifications – each opera can stand on its own. (As indeed Rheingold and Walküre, which were finished years ahead of the rest, were separately staged though much against the composer’s wishes.) Wagner fashioned this masterpiece in a rather roundabout way, first writing the poem from end to beginning and then composing the music from beginning to end.
A youthful thirty-five in 1848 when he wrote the poetry for Götterdämmerung, he completed the text of all the works four years later. But he was a graying sixty-one in 1876 when he finally set the last bar of music for the last of the tetralogy. Siegfried’s music proved problematic. A case of composer’s block perhaps? But then perhaps not, for it was during this “dry spell” that he wrote his rapturous paean to passion – Tristan und Isolde and his joyful ode to song – Die Meistersinger.
It was in 1876 when Wagner at last realized the ultimate fulfillment of all his dreams for the music-drama, his “Work of Art of the Future.”
After nine weeks of rehearsals under his direction, The Ring was staged in its entirety for the first time amid fanfare and celebration, with an orchestra of heroic proportions, in a theatre he could call his very own- the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. There were three complete performances of the Ring Cycle, each taking place over 4 days. Today, Bayreuth – having survived the war and the taint of Nazism- lives as a shrine to the man and his music. For several weeks each summer, the town celebrates the Bayreuth Festival and comes alive with the grandiose sounds of the Wagnerian operas, but most especially the magnificent music of the monumental Ring.
But it is not only in Bayreuth where the Ring Cycle has a home. Ever since its premiere performance in Wagner’s time, the world’s major opera houses have aspired to stage their own versions of “The Ring.” Indeed, it is a measure of an opera company’s maturity, of its “having arrived”, so to speak. Today, “Ring Cycle” productions are less rare than they used to be; it is no longer unusual to have several “Rings” being staged by various opera companies throughout the world in the same season. The productions range from the avant garde to the traditional/realistic, but invariably play to capacity audiences who come seeking a musical experience like no other. – © GCajipe /FanFaire