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Wagner's opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, is the fourth version of this story (or parts of it) that I've read or seen. The first version I read was Nibelungenlied, which is an anonymous medieval epic poem that I read in a prose translation published by Penguin. I remember that I really enjoyed it, along with Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parsifal, which I read around the same time. Sometime later I read a Norse version of the story, probably Völsunga Saga. I don't remember anything about it. More recently I've twice watched Fritz Lang's two part silent film, Die Nibelungen, which is based on Nibelungenlied.

Wagner's Ring Cycle incorporates elements from several different versions of the story, and his version of the Siegfried story is quite a bit different from the one in Nibelungenlied. In Wagner, Siegfried is led to Brünnhilde by birds after he slays the dragon, and the two of them swear oaths of love to each other. When Siegfried travels to Gunther's castle afterwards, he is given a love potion that makes him forget Brünnhilde and fall in love with Gunther's sister Gudrune. In Nibelungenlied Siegfried travels to Gunther's castle first and falls in love with Gunther's sister Kriemhild. Only then is he recruited by Gunther to woo Brünhild for him. In this version, there is no love between Siegfried and Brünhild. This is the heart of the difference, although there are many other variations. Probably because I came to the other version first, and had it pounded home by Lang's brilliant films, I prefer that story to the one Wagner tells. Nibelungenlied is really Kriemhild's story, and the second half of it is all about her revenge on her brother and his half-brother Hagen for their murder of Siegfried. For Wagner it instead becomes Brünnhilde's story, in concert with Siegfried. If it's not really Wotan's story instead.

This is a very Germanic story of the Will to Power, and it's actually interesting to consider Tolkien's Lord of the Rings as a response to Wagner. Wotan learns that the Will to Power is a desire for self-destruction, which is the only way to be released from desire. Before he learns this Wotan first tries to achieve his will to power by creating avatars in his child, Brünnhilde, and grandchild, Siegfried, but he cannot escape his own self, his own will, other than by intentional self-sacrifice, embodied in Brünnhilde's self-immolation on Siegfried's funeral pyre, which then sets fire to Valhalla and destroys all the gods as well. That's still too much will for Tolkien, who sees the destruction of the will to power only in Gollum's providential self-destructive power grab on Mt Doom. Gollum has the role of Brünnhilde in that he carries the ring into purifying fire, but he doesn't do it through noble self-sacrifice but through a final spasm of will to power. Tolkien's view is less romantic than Wagner's: There is no escape from the will to power via resignation or letting go. It only happens through providence, or through the will to power finally consuming itself.

Well, I've probably gotten myself in over my head on the philosophy there. I'll spare you the comparison to Star Wars and the Jedi ideal of letting go of self and trusting the Force.

I'm tempted to say that unlike Die Walküre and Siegfried, where I liked the first two acts and was bored by the third, in Götterdämmerung I was bored by the first act and enjoyed the second and third. But while there's some truth to that, I'd actually say (as a variation on what I said above) that I prefer Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen to Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, which cover the same story. Lang is grimmer and darker, while Wagner is more exalted and romantic. But another way to say it is that my enthusiasm for the Ring slowly drained away over the course of the four operas, and while I was still watching with analytical interest in the end, I wasn't getting caught up in it. I wasn't finding much of the music of interest, although that may be through unfamiliarity. It's a lot of damned music to absorb! But it didn't help that I continued to find the vocal music not very interesting, and in general just kind of shouty and pummeling and unmelodious. (There's a trio at the end of the second act of Götterdämmerung that's remarkable for how stridently unharmonized the three voices are. It only occurs to me now that the three characters all end up enemies of each other, so perhaps this was intentional. Compare and contrast the various trios sung by the Rhine maidens, which are much more melodious.)

There's no denying what a huge influence the Ring has had. There's no denying that there's a lot going on there, and for me to pronounce judgment after a single time through would be foolish. If nothing else, it has made me want revisit all kinds of things to see and hear them with post-Wagnerian eyes and ears: Lang's Nibelungen movies; the music of Richard Strauss, Mahler, and Schoenberg; the Nibelungenlied and Völsunga Saga; Debussy's opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, which was another attempt to wrestle with the legacy of Wagner. (How I prefer Debussy's uncertain dreaminess!) Shall I say that the music was too brassy for me, or that it often sounded incredibly cheesy? How much of the perceived cheesiness derives from the fact that it has been pilfered endlessly by Hollywood composers looking to jack up the melodramatic tension? Well, I'd love to find a site that's streaming these operas and go through them again just listening to the music this time. Next time I have fifteen hours available to me, ahem.

I mentioned in another post that I feel as though I've been living at the opera house in recent days. As is my wont, I even started to develop routines. One of them was that as soon as I had picked up my ticket at the window (usually I had to wait in line for a bit), I'd head to the ground floor bistro and get a turkey sandwich and a glass of wine, then I'd read a chapter of Iain M. Banks' Surface Tension while I consumed my little meal. Reading space opera in the opera house just seemed like the right thing to do. I highly recommend it.



( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 2nd, 2013 09:23 pm (UTC)
Are you familiar with Das Barbecü?
Aug. 2nd, 2013 09:26 pm (UTC)
Nope. Should I be?
Aug. 2nd, 2013 10:35 pm (UTC)

There's a Ring of Gold in Texas!


there's a Ring of magic gold!


Behold the Golden Boulder left entrusted to the charge
Of three amphibious maidens whose IQs were not so large...

Debut was in Seattle in 1991 -- commissioned as a light companion to the Ring cycle being put on back then. We saw it in Madison years ago and still quote from it.

Aug. 3rd, 2013 02:35 am (UTC)
I told you that the first act of Götterdämmerung was the deadly part, didn't I?

Getting bored with the whole thing before the end is another occupational habit. It's why spacing it out is good. Next time you listen to a recording, take an act or so every two or three days and make it last a month.
Aug. 3rd, 2013 04:45 pm (UTC)
Yes, you certainly got that right, although you didn't warn me that the Prologue and Act 1 added up to over two hours!

I hope I can find the operas streaming somewhere, but I haven't really looked yet.
Aug. 7th, 2013 01:02 am (UTC)
the destruction of the will to power only in Gollum's providential self-destructive power grab on Mt Doom.

Actually, I read this a bit differently -- Gollum's fall is not pure providence, but actually the Ring's power used against itself.

The progression goes like this -- Gollum swears by the Ring to serve "the master of the Precious" and to "never ever ever let HIM have it." Frodo warns him that the Ring is powerful and will hold him to his oath, but might twist it in ways he doesn't expect. Later, Frodo warns Gollum that, if Frodo thought he had to, he would put on the Ring and command Gollum to cast himself into the fire, and Gollum would do it. Then, when Frodo and Sam are nearly at the top of Mount Doom, Gollum attacks them again -- Frodo clearly invokes the power of the Ring -- and he tells Gollum, "If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the fire of Doom."

Then, of course, that very thing happens.

The Peter Jackson movies don't preserve this progression, much to my disappointment.

Not sure exactly how it comments on Wagner.
Aug. 7th, 2013 03:07 pm (UTC)
That's an unusual interpretation that I don't think I've run across before. I'll have to think about that. What I always forget is that Frodo himself succumbs to the Ring's power in the final moment, but your interpretation argues that Frodo has already placed a geis of some sort on the Ring by that point, so his "failure" seems moot.

I've run across a terrific comparison of Wagner's and Tolkien's rings that I'll post about later.
Aug. 7th, 2013 05:13 pm (UTC)
so his "failure" seems moot.

Actually, it's still pretty significant -- the geis would fail if either Frodo or Sam had slain Gollum along the way, for example.

I tend to read it as an underlying argument against "the end justifies the means" as an ethical statement. Instead, "even the wise cannot see all ends." It is the steps they took along the way that allows the quest to succeed, not some uniquely unwavering strength of purpose that Frodo (and nobody else) manages to have.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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