Great moments in opera: Das Rheingold

March 12, 2010

This week I have been listening to Das Rheingold, the first part of Wagner’s colossal tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen.  I hope to follow up by listening to the rest of the cycle over the next month or so.

This will be just the second time that I have listened to the Ring cycle in its entirety.  On the previous traversal I listened to Solti’s famous recordings.  This time, however, I am going to try Karajan’s set.  I have also borrowed DVDs of each of the four operas: I had hoped to get all four in the Metropolitan Opera production conducted by James Levine, but I was unable to lay hands on his Das Rheingold. Consequently I have that one in the Bayreuth production from the 1970s, conducted by Pierre Boulez.  I am not sure that I will have time to actually watch the DVDs, but we’ll see.

I did have time to watch Das Rheingold — it is much the shortest of the bunch — and although I found Bayreuth’s nightmarish steam-punk production quite awful, and the singing unremarkable, nonetheless seeing the opera staged, with subtitles, has improved my understanding of the story.  I have also been quite heartened at how my comprehension of the music has improved since the first time that I heard it.  Wagner deploys a vast tapestry of leitmotifs throughout the Ring, of course, and several of the most important ones are first sounded in Das Rheingold: the motive of Nature, of Valhalla, of the Rhine Gold, of the Ring, of the Giants, and of Renunciation, to name a few of those that I picked up fairly consistently.  Other motives, such as those of Erda and Freia, I still cannot identify very clearly.

To try to summarize the plot of Der Ring is asking for trouble, but perhaps I can succeed in potting Das Rheingold. The Nibelung dwarf Alberich steals the Rhine gold and fashions from it a Ring, the virtues of which grant its wearer the power of world domination, on one condition: he must first renounce love.  Alberich does so.  Meanwhile there is trouble amongst the gods: Wotan needs the Ring to pay off two giants who have just completed building Valhalla.  He steals it from Alberich, but not before Alberich places a curse on it: the Ring will bring destruction to whoever possesses it.  Sure enough, the giants don’t have the Ring for more than a few minutes before one kills the other and retires to a remote place where, assuming the shape of a dragon, he guards the Ring jealously.  Now bereft of the Ring, but in possession of a brand new house, Wotan and the other gods cross the rainbow bridge to Valhalla.  The end.

The music of Das Rheingold is at times amazingly beautiful, but not most of the time.  Most of the time it is dark-toned, crabbed, and gruff.  This is a good match for the clattering, dank underworld where the Nibelung live, though it seems less appropriate for the dwelling place of the gods.  There are no set “arias” in this opera, and the moments of beauty, mostly in the orchestra, come and go far too quickly for my tastes.

My favourite music in Das Rheingold is undoubtedly the orchestral prelude.  It is an amazing piece of work.  The whole thing begins with a single chord, out of which Wagner slowly draws several of his most important leitmotifs: for Nature, the Gold, and the Ring, for instance.  The motive of Nature dominates the prelude; it is an undulating figure that seems to shimmer ever more beautifully and richly.  Here is a fine performance with Georg Solti at the helm.  The prelude ends at about 4:10; it is followed in this clip by the Rhine maidens’ song.

The other segment of the opera that I want to showcase is the scene in which Alberich curses the Ring which Wotan has just stolen from him.  It is an ugly but powerful monologue.  Unfortunately I cannot find a performance on YouTube, so I am forced to choose something else.  Here is the final scene, in which the gods enter Valhalla.  This clip is from the Bayreuth production DVD that I watched.  A giant lies dead on the stage, having just been killed in a fight over the Ring.  At the beginning, the motive of Valhalla is heard repeatedly in the orchestra.  At roughly the 5:00 mark, we hear the Rhine maidens, from whom the Rhine gold was originally stolen, recalling their lovely song from the opening of the opera.  Then the gods make their way across the bridge and into Valhalla.  The beauty here is largely in the orchestra, especially as things draw to a close.

I am not going to dwell at this time on the “interpretation” of the Ring, though I will think out loud about it as the cycle progresses.

Next time: Die Walküre.

One Response to “Great moments in opera: Das Rheingold

  1. […] Der Ring des Nibelungen: Das Rheingold […]

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