San Francisco is preparing (bracing?) itself for the San Francisco Opera's launch of an "American Ring" with its local premiere of Francesca Zambello's conception of Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold on June 3. I have already contributed to the preparations with an account of Anthony Tommasini's review of this production when it was presented by the Washington National Opera. The Wagner Society of Northern California has planned an all-day symposium for June 14 entitled "Gold Rush – Forging the American Ring;" and the San Francisco Public Library will host its usual preview lecture event. Nevertheless, I tend to cast my lot with Anna Russell, who described such preparatory events as being delivered by "great expert[s], primarily for the edification of other great experts," which tend to leave those poor souls in the audience "as befogged as before."
In some ways the whole Ring des Nibelungen cycle poses the same sort of problem that one encounters with War and Peace. It's hard enough to keep track of everything that happens over the course of four operas, the shortest of which (Rheingold) is 2.5 hours (and is intimidating in its length because there is no intermission); but the overwhelming sequence of events is matched by an equally overwhelming cast of characters. Indeed, it terms of individual characters, Rheingold boasts the largest cast, with four gods, three goddesses, and seven "demigods," who are definitely not of the mortal world but who lack divine status. These include three "Rhine Maidens" (also called "daughters of the Rhine"), two Nibelungs (a race of dwarfs, who are gifted craftsmen working in caves beneath the surface of the earth), and two giants, whose brute strength was contracted by Wotan, chief of the gods, for the building of the castle Valhalla (Hall of the Valiant) to house not only the gods but also mortal warriors who die heroically in battle. (Die Walküre has the same sized cast. However, eight of them are Valkyries, only one of whom, Brünnhilde, figures significantly in the action.) My point is that anyone new to the Ring is likely to feel confused by the cast listing in the opera program even before trying to take on the synopsis on the next page.
However, it is important to remember that narrative structure shares a significant property with musical structure, which is that complexity is almost always a matter of embellishment. Thus, just as I have approached musical complexity by taking a "syntactic" approach to sorting out the embellishing and the embellished, one can do the same with the events that unfold in the course of the four Ring operas; and the best way to do that is to regard all of those cast lists as embellishments and focus on the Ring of the title as if it were the central character. In all fairness, however, I should point out that this is not the way Wagner approached his project. Drawing upon the Nibelungen Lied, Wagner began with the goal of relating the legend of the death of the hero Siegfried and then "worked backwards," addressing how Siegfried became a hero, how he came to be born, and, ultimately, why he came to be born. Having developed the plan for his four operas through an act of backtracking that would be the envy of any Prolog programmer, Wagner then realized his composition by "working forwards" through the plan. From my point of view, however, this overlooks why these four operas are often called the "Ring Cycle;" and it is only if we consider all of the events from the point of view of the Ring itself, so to speak, that we appreciate the cyclic nature of the conception.
The very title of the first opera ("the gold of the Rhine") encourages us to take this approach: Before worrying about Siegfried's origins, we address those of the Ring itself, which is initially an enchanted lump of gold at the bottom of the Rhine guarded by those three daughters of the Rhine. The essence of the enchantment is that this gold will bestow absolute power on anyone who can forge it into a ring but that such a craftsman can only succeed by first renouncing love. That is basically all you need to know about the Ring. All you need to know about Das Rheingold is that it is a story of three thefts:
- Alberich, a Nibelung craftsman, steals the gold from the daughters of the Rhine, having renounced love after each of the three of them rebuff ("Pfui!" in the libretto) his efforts to woo them, and forges the Ring from the gold.
- Wotan steals the Ring from Alberich, offering it as an alternative to the terms of his original contract with the giants. (There is an important irony here: One of the attributes that gives Wotan his chiefly status is that he is the god of laws and contracts.) In response to Wotan's theft, Alberich casts a curse on the Ring.
- The giants, brothers Fasolt and Fafner, accept Wotan's offer. However, as soon as Wotan concludes the deal by giving the Ring to Fasolt, Fafner kills Fasolt in order to steal the Ring from him. This is the first manifestation of Alberich's curse.
Lots of other things happen over the 2.5 hours of this opera: Alberich and the Rhine Maidens, arguing over the Valhalla contract, forging the Ring, and a massive climax in which the seven gods and goddesses cross a rainbow bridge to enter Valhalla. However, these are all embellishments, far from irrelevant but still embellishing. So, in the spirit of such reduction, let's breeze through the remaining three operas:
- Die Walküre: Wotan conceived a "cunning plan" to recover the Ring. This will be achieved by a hero, who will be conceived from the incestuous union of two of his own illegitimate children, Siegmund and Sieglinde. He enlists another illegitimate daughter, Brünnhilde, to assist him in his plan; but his wife, Fricka, objects that the plan violates all the laws (for which he is responsible) of house and hearth. Fricka forces Wotan to forbid Brünnhilde's intervention in the plan, but she disobeys. Wotan punishes her by making her mortal but then protects her by putting her to sleep on a rock surrounded by impenetrable fire.
- Siegfried: This is the child of Siegmund and Sieglinde. His first act of heroism is to forge a sword from the shattered remains of the sword Siegmund had used in abducting Sieglinde. He then uses the sword to slay Fafner, who used the power of the Ring to turn himself into a dragon to protect his ill-gotten gains. Siegfried also uses the sword to shatter Wotan's staff, on which all laws and contracts have been recorded. Now possessing both the Ring and its curse, he discovers the fire-surrounded rock, rides through the fire, kisses Brünnhilde, and awakens her.
- Götterdämmerung: Now it is the turn of Alberich to recover the Ring. Actually, he is now dead; but he haunts his son (he renounced love but not sex) Hagen, whom he conceived with a queen of the Gibichung tribe. Hagen plots to kill Siegfried by first arranging for him to marry the Gibichung princess Gutrune and then enlisting the support of the betrayed Brünnhilde. After Siegfried has been slain, Brünnhilde realizes that she was deceived. She builds a funeral pyre for him and immolates herself along with his body. The fires of the pyre rise high enough to consume Valhalla. The Rhine Maidens recover the Ring from the ashes of the fire. Hagen makes one last attempt to retrieve it and drowns. The gold has been restored to its original position at the bottom of the Rhine. (As Russell puts it, "You're exactly where you started forty hours ago!")
What I have tried to do in this summary is focus on how the Ring changes hands, which it does in every opera except Walküre, which is about planning for a change of hands. If Billy Wilder believed that you could understand any plot by following the money, you understand this one by following the Ring (which endows the holder with both power and money). Everything that does not directly involve following the Ring is detail, however memorable that detail may be (as with the Walkürenritt, which begins the third act of Die Walküre).
Will all this translate effectively into an "American Ring?" Tommasini's report from Washington was certainly positive enough, and he is not known for pulling his punches. Thus far in the San Francisco Chronicle, Joshua Kosman has chosen to focus on Mark Delavan, who will be singing Wotan, describing the baritone's tumultuous past as one of "alienating everyone he came across;" but then, in my approach to synopsis, Wotan is not particularly big on winning friends and influencing people. My own expectations hinge more on conductor Donald Runnicles, whom I heard conduct the last San Francisco Opera Ring and enjoyed thoroughly. One cannot conduct Wagner without a strong sense of how to endure by controlling expenditure of energy, and Runnicles has that sense down pat. At his last performance his capacity for endurance assisted the audience's; and that can make all the difference when you are confronted with 2.5 hours without an intermission!