As fantastic a flight of fancy as Wagner’s Ring Cycle may be, the stories contained within it are more than simply entertainment. Like all good stories, they tell also us a little bit about their creators and the contexts in which they emerged, as well as leaving a room for us to add our own interpretations and perhaps to learn something about ourselves. Coming to Das Rheingold for the first time on Wednesday night, the opportunity to comment on more than just the Mariinsky Opera’s particular production was difficult to resist, but as there’s quite a lot to say, I’ve decided to keep it separate from the review below.
Given that Wagner was writing in Europe around the turn of the century, Das Rheingold can be taken as a transparent enough commentary on the rise of industrial capitalism and the greed and materialism it fosters. While Wagner doesn’t necessarily offer us a solution to the problems of modern society, his characters’ unquenchable lust for power and wealth at the expense of love, compassion and justice certainly doesn’t do them any good in the long-run. This is most apparent in Alberich’s subjugation of the Nibelungs, who, according to Mime, used to be happy to work together as equals; as friends, brothers and comrades. Wielding the powerful ring he has forged, Alberich forces his fellow dwarves to sweat for his own gain, sending them crawling into dark and dangerous mine shafts to dig out the gold hidden within. As the ring already gives him the power to satisfy all his material needs, however, Alberich no longer even has any practical use for the horde of gold that is piled up in front of him. Instead, it simply sits there as a display of his affluence until it is stolen away from him by another, equally greedy ruler, whose own story in many ways parallels the dwarf’s: he, too, robs from others in order to possess and inhabit the hall that he will later recognise as empty pomp.
Though Wagner’s anti-Semitism is an undeniable fact, to view the bigotry of Jewishness in Music as a precursor to Nazism is arguably reductive: the fate of the loveless Alberich, along with Erda’s dark warnings to Wotan to resist the temptations of the ring, might easily be read as a kind of prophetic caution against the tyranny of totalitarian regimes. Wagner was a racist, but he was also, at least theoretically, a revolutionary, who advocated a return to nature rather than a military march into the future: this seems like a philosophy that would have sat uncomfortably with the dictatorships that sprang up over the course of the 20th century.
Leaving off debates about the large-scale politics of the piece, however, the thing I found most fascinating about Das Rheingold was actually how the women emerge from the drama. I was surprised that the plot continually directs us towards its female characters and their pleas, seeming to urge both the audience and the men within the story to let them in, take note of their opinions and, most importantly of all, to heed their warnings. It is, after all, the first mother, Erda, who ultimately persuades Wotan to give up the ring, but long before that fatal scene, Fricka is already chastising her husband for his shameful bargain with, and subsequent betrayal of, the giants Fafner and Fasolt. “Had I but known of your contract, I would have resisted your deceit,” she says. “But you men ever ignored the women, deaf to us, that you might deal with the giants alone.” As she fears for the loss of her beloved sister, Freia, we are moved to pity her, still more so when Wotan implicates her in the bargain and she responds with her reasons for wanting the hall to be built: “Sadly, I must consider ways to keep my husband faithful […] I thought that a beautiful home might keep you here.”
The most pitiable creature in the story is of course Freia herself, who is offered to the giants in exchange for the building of Valhalla, and subsequently relinquished in exchange for a mound of gold, deemed by them to match her value. Even Wotan cannot fail to feel the disgrace of this: it’s clear as day that we’re supposed to condemn his terrible treatment of his sister.
Finally, of course, there are the Rhinemaidens, whose youthful gaiety evaporates after their beautiful treasure is stolen by the bitter, vengeful Alberich, whose lecherous advances they have mocked and spurned. At the end of Das Rheingold, Alberich is stripped of his powers, the giants fairly paid and Freia returned safely home – yet the Rhinemaidens, promised retribution and the return of their gold by the tricksy Loge, are left empty-handed, and their plaintive wailing and lamenting ominously disturbs the peace of the gods as they attempt to settle into their new home. If ever there was a clear sign that we should watch out for the women, it’s here. Of course, we know that the next part of the tetralogy concerns the awesome Valkyries and introduces Brünnhilde, Wagner’s take on perhaps one of literary history’s most interesting female characters. But even without this knowledge, it’s not hard to see where things are going.
All of this is not to anachronistically label Wagner as some sort of feminist: the uncomfortable details of his own messy personal life should be enough to dissuade anyone from that (though it’s possible to see some of the dialogue between Wotan and Fricka as Wagner’s own guilty conscience speaking). But if he considered himself a revolutionary, then judging from his art and his writings, he must have envisioned women as playing an important part in his new world order.
“The true human being is both man and woman, and only in the union of man and woman does the true human being exist. Only through love, therefore, do man and woman become human.”
Thus wrote Wagner, revealing a belief in the transformative power of love that forms an essential part of the story he would tell over the course of his four Ring operas. Alberich’s and the Rhinemaidens’ fatal flaw is to conflate love and lust, thus underestimating both. It is arguably this naïve misunderstanding that sets off the chain of theft, deceit, treachery and murder that ultimately leads to the overthrow of the gods and the end of the world as they know it. It is, however, a mistake that Alberich will never make again: it is only after renouncing love and taking the Rhinegold instead that he realises how dearly bought the latter has been. But, he says, if he can no longer enjoy love, he can still indulge in carnal pleasures. Never does Alberich appear more grotesque to us than when, cruelly presiding over his Nibelung slaves, he boasts to Wotan and Loge about how he plans to sate his lust on the beautiful women of the world above Nibelheim.
All this sets us up nicely for a more in-depth exploration of love and defiance of convention in the story of Siegfried and Brünnhilde that will follow. More on this to come.
The Mariinsky Opera’s Der Ring des Nibelungen continues at the Birmingham Hippodrome on Saturday with Siegfried, and concludes with Götterdämmerung the following day. For more information and to book, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.