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English National Opera Guide : Wagner : Das…
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English National Opera Guide : Wagner : Das Rheingold (1984)

by English National Opera, Nicholas John (Series Editor), Richard Wagner (Librettist)

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Richard Wagner

Das Rheingold
The Rhinegold

English National Opera 35

Calder, Paperback, 2004.

8vo. 96 pp.

First published, 1984.
Reprinted, 2004.

Contents

List of Illustrations

The Beginning of 'The Ring' John Deathridge
'The Rhinegold' – The Music Roger North
Language and Sources of 'The Ring' Stewart Spencer

Thematic Guide Lionel Friend

'Das Rheingold' poem by Richard Wagner
'The Rhinegold' English translation by Andrew Porter

Scene One
Scene Two
Scene Three
Scene Four

Contributors
Discography Cathy Peterson
Bibliography

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If there is a music drama (not opera) always in need of a guide, this is Das Rheingold. In this exceptionally dense work, merely two and a half hours long, Wagner introduces, and even develops to some extent, most of the leitmotifs that build the rest 12 hours of Der Ring des Nibelungen. The text is of paramount importance, too. There are significant flashbacks in the later parts of the cycle, but they make little sense unless you are intimately familiar with the “prelude”. The singing is relentlessly declamatory, more firmly bound to the text than in any other of Wagner’s works. The characters are bizarre bunch of gods, dwarfs, giants and Loge, the demigod of fire; all of them flawed creatures, yet none even remotely human. The mood is oppressively bleak, dark and pessimistic; except for much of the first scene, there is no relief whatsoever. It has been well said that the Ring is basically about the two major, but mutually incompatible, driving forces of human nature, the craving for love and the craving for power. This is most true, on the whole; but its Vorabend, in particular, is all about power.

In short, Das Rheingold is a difficult work to appreciate. It requires a good deal of preparation before attending a performance or listening to a recording – and intense concentration during these activities. That is to be expected. Like every great art, it works on both emotional and intellectual level; it is an exhausting yet liberating experience. First it seduces you; then it grows on you; finally it becomes part and parcel of you. The process is life-long, and however much time and energy it may require for its development, you may be sure your personal benefits will vastly outweigh your expenses.

And yet, a number of people, apparently unaware of the profound truth in the cliché “no pain, no gain”, find it easier to blame Wagner for his faults than to make the effort to understand him. The blaming often amounts to spectacular misunderstanding. Browsing the Internet for opinions on Wagner is a sobering experience indeed! The most unforgettable negative criticism of his plots I have ever come across is that he left three harmless creatures like the Rhinemaidens to guard such obviously priceless stuff like the Rhinegold. Isn’t it amazing how stupid some people are? I hope it was a joke I didn’t get.

This ENO guide will not give you any in-depth analysis. It is not meant to. Nor is it possible to do that in less than a hundred pages, half of them occupied by the complete libretto and Andrew Porter’s superb singing translation. The three main essays are authoritative discussions by eminent Wagnerian scholars. With the possible exception of the first piece, however, the rest consists of material that’s either boringly irrelevant or better served elsewhere.

The essay by John Deathridge is a painstaking analysis of the complicated origins of the Ring. Somewhat ironically, it is more appropriate to Götterdämmerung than to Das Rheingold, but let that pass. A more significant flaw is the author’s slight propensity for muddled sentences that obscure his point. He is prone to put pretentious vocabulary to a dubious use. I am not sure, for example, what he means by “the Ring project began to leave operatic reality for more utopian realms”, nor am I any the wiser after reading his impressively argued, but nevertheless quite unimportant, claim that Wagner disingenuously presented “his interest in history and myth as a fundamental aesthetic and intellectual confrontation”. Lest you think I am taking these out of the context, here is a longer example:

Furthermore, he had introduced another new element in the 1851/52 version of The Ring that is not to be found in the initial plan of 1848: Alberich’s curse on love. This, the focal point of the opening scene, was now the complement of the new ending. The contrast between lovelessness and love went hand in hand with that between fear that grows out of lovelessness, and the fearlessness that guarantees love. Thus if Siegfried’s fearlessness in Siegfried could be seen as a reverse reflection of Wotan’s fear of the end in The Valkyrie, the curse on love for the sake of power at the beginning of the cycle became a distorted mirror image of the dissolution of power for the sake of love at the end, and Brünnhilde’s message to the survivors of the gods’ catastrophe a direct antithesis of Alberich’s curse. The moral dialectic of this arrangement, contained as it is within a rather rigid system of opposites, accounts for the seeming permanence of the ambiguities of The Ring. But there is no doubt, too, that it caused Wagner a great deal of heartache about the ending. Hildebrandt’s and Shaw’s claim that Wagner’s volte-face was a reaction to the outcome of the 1848/49 Revolution was not about the new ending of 1851/52, but really an interpretation of other, much later attempts to alter the ending again in the spirit of Schopenhauer and Buddhist philosophy. At the last minute Wagner found a solution that contained only remnants of his attitude to the revolutionary politics of 1848/49 and had less to do with either Feuerbach, Schopenhauer or Buddha than is generally thought.

Great writer Mr Deathridge is not; passages like this I had to read thrice until I grasp their meaning. I’m still not sure that I do. I wish the author had elaborated on the last sentence from the quote above, but apparently he was in haste, so he recommended the work of Carl Dalhaus and his own “The End of the Ring” (“publication forthcoming”) and two sentences later finished the essay abruptly.

But Mr Deathridge nevertheless makes several exceedingly interesting points. It is refreshing to read for a change that Wagner’s revolutionary youth didn’t have such a tremendous impact on his work as Kurt Hildebrandt, Bernard Shaw and so many others since them have believed; I venture the outrageous opinion that the same is true of Wagner’s notorious anti-Semitism as well, but that’s not the place to elaborate on that. Mr Deathridge doesn’t make an especially strong case, but neither does he present weaker argumentation than the other party. The information is scarce and difficult to interpret, but it seems that the prose draft of The Young Siegfried, completed by May 1851, seven months before Louis Napoleon’s coup d'état in Paris, already contained the phrase “the end of the gods”. Further study of the sources suggests that Wagner might have thought along these lines even before the Dresden revolution; he completed Die Nibelungensage (Mythus), the very first draft that contains in condensed form virtually the complete Ring, as early as October 4, 1848. Mr Deathridge has the audacity to claim that the drastic revision of the ending from 1851/52 is actually closer to Wagner’s – or at any rate Bakunin’s – political ideals:

After expanding The Ring in 1851 and 1852, Wagner gave the cycle a radically new ending which replaces the original choral scene announcing the restoration of Wotan with a monologue by Brünnhilde who, sounding as if she has just finished reading the complete works of Ludwig Feuerbach, defines the new social order as the emergence of ‘love’ (Liebe) in antithesis to law (Gesetz). She then proclaims the opposite to what she had said in the first version of the ending: the downfall of the gods. The burning of Valhalla now symbolized the dissolution of the law of the gods and as a political allegory, almost four years after the Dresden Revolution, it actually brought Wagner closer to, and not further from, the ideas of his former comrade-in-arms, the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.

Can you imagine the Ring ending with a massive choral scene that reinstates Wotan and Valhalla as all-powerful and everlasting? Clearly, the ending change was extreme. Another fascinating historical curiosity is Wagner’s reticence as to the inspiration and the beginnings of the most massive project in his life. Mr Deathridge boldly suggests that it was “perhaps both shyness and a way of heightening his own claim of originality by soft-pedalling the popularity of the subject in Germany at the time.” Shyness is the last thing Wagner may be accused of. The other reason sounds much more probable and Mr Deathridge supports it with some tantalising bits of history. Most notably, in 1844 one Friedrich Theodor Vischer, by way of being philosopher himself, published Vorschlag zu einer Oper (Suggestion for an Opera), an essay expounding on the grand dramatic opportunity that lies in the heroes from the Nibelungen saga, including their “innate Germanness” and so on and so forth, you get the idea. Two years later, one Louise Otto, by way of being Vischer’s disciple, even wrote a libretto for a “grand heroic opera” in five acts based on the same subject; this was published in 1852 and Schumann reportedly showed interest in setting it (nothing came out of this, of course). Much to his credit, Mr Deathridge is careful to separate Wagner’s towering achievement as dramatist from such nationalistic and amateurish stunts:

Yet there is no concrete evidence that Wagner knew the work of either Vischer or Otto. If he did know about their proposed Nibelungen operas, any fears he might have had about the originality of his own project were unfounded. Vischer did not accept that a Nibelungen opera could be written by a composer with symphonic ambitions – an opinion that would hardly have endeared him to Wagner in the 1840s when the idea of symphonic opera was already beginning to take hold in a work like Lohengrin. And Wagner’s combination of German and Scandinavian sources in The Ring alone developed the material far beyond what Vischer and Otto had managed to do with the German epic poem Das Nibelungenlied, the only source they seriously considered. Wagner’s assertion in a letter to Liszt (November 20, 1851) was fully justified: when the first plan for The Ring was written down in 1848, he had regarded it from that moment on as his own ‘poetic property’.

Roger North’s essay on the music is disappointingly technical. He is riddled with musical examples (some quoted in the text, others indirectly via the Thematic Guide), but he is much concerned with minute details which I can neither read on paper nor hear on CD. He is strong on tedious description but weak on genuine analysis. He tells you in excruciating detail where this or that motif occurs, but he seldom bothers to mention why on earth it does occur at this very place. His bizarre speculations about “the The Rhinegold symphony” whose “scherzo [the transformation music betweens Scenes 2 and 3] is now well under way, owing not a little to that of Beethoven’s Ninth” are supremely superficial.

Mr North does have an illuminating moment here and there, but I would suggest you skip his essay completely and listen to Deryck Cooke’s magisterial analysis on DECCA (2 CDs, 140 min total timing, recorded in 1967). He is infinitely more revealing about Wagner’s leitmotifs, not to mention far more suitable for non-musicians as every word he says is illustrated, not just with musical examples in the booklet, but with musical extracts from Solti’s Ring on the CD. To give but one example of Wagner’s astonishing use of leitmotifs which Deryck explains with unsurpassed clarity, the joyous cry of the Rhinemaidens – “Rheingold! Rheingold! Heiajaheia! Heiajaheia!” – is later transformed into, among other things, the motifs symbolising “the power of the ring”, “the servitude of the Nibelungs” and, even more amazingly, Hagen’s baleful “Hoiho” and the sinister main motif of the Nibelungs that appears in the strings while Wotan and Loge are descending in Nibelheim between Scenes 2 and 3. Wagner split the original motif into two parts and by varying tonality, tempo, dynamics and orchestration encompassed almost the whole Ring. There are countless similar examples in Deryck’s talk. Just think of the endless possibilities for imaginative interpretation they open.

Deryck Cooke’s I Saw the World End (1979) is, of course, an essential reading. It is the perfect complement to his talk and the next stage after the ENO guide. Sadly, the study was left unfinished at the time of Deryck’s death, but at least the part about the text of Das Rheingold was completed. The whole plot was largely Wagner’s invention, based but vaguely on his mythological sources, and in Deryck’s hands this speaks volumes about the significance of the whole cycle. The introductory chapter also goes into some detail about the music in less technical and more profitable way than Mr North does.

Stewart Spencer is best known for his literal translation of the complete Ring (the ideal companion to Mr Porter’s much freer singing version), first published in 1993 as part of Wagner’s Ring of Nibelung: A Companion. But he is also a notable scholar in his own right, an experienced swimmer in the dangerous Wagnerian waters; even a great white shark like Barry Millington has admitted that Mr Spenser’s grasp of the huge literature on Wagner is better than his. Praise doesn’t get much higher in these circles.

Mr Spenser’s erudition is on fine display here. He quotes important excerpts from Wagner’s prose works and letters about the kind of language he tried to create in the Ring, he explains the profound influence of the Germanist Ludwig Ettmüller (1802–1877) on the composer (downplayed in Mein Leben, of course; Wagner never was keen on admitting his debt to anybody), and he tentatively suggests that Wagner’s sources might have been less extensive than is generally believed. Finally, he reaches this startling conclusion that may explain the notorious obscurity of the Ring as far as the text is concerned:

By transferring an essentially lyric form to an epic drama and by mistaking the conscious and highly elaborate artistry of the Eddaic poems for a spontaneous outpouring of the popular spirit (an error he shared with the nineteenth century as a whole), Wagner has counterfeited a style which proves more of a hindrance than a help to our understanding of the text. It is significant that he largely abandoned Stabreim in his later librettos, and that in his open letter to Frederic Villot in 1860, in which he summarised his aesthetic views of a decade earlier, he forbore to mention the device at all.

Unfortunately, the essay on the whole is not terribly interesting to the ordinary reader. But a linguist who specialises in Old Nordic poetry would probably find it an engrossing read. Mr Spenser talks about Hebungen and Senkungen (lifts and dips), different Eddaic verse-forms, and other esoteric stuff that I find singularly uninspiring. His fine last paragraph on the sources is almost entirely a quotation-paraphrase from I Saw the World End. So Deryck Cooke has superseded this essay, too.

In short, get this book mostly for the complete libretto and Mr Porter’s wonderful translation. These are the only parts that don’t disappoint at all. The opening essay by Mr Deathridge, convoluted as his style may be, does contain a number of stimulating observations. The contributions of Messrs North and Spenser are rather more specialised and will appeal mostly to restricted circles of readers; the common mortal who can’t read music or isn’t interested in the subtleties of Old Nordic verse may not find them very appealing. Read and see for yourselves. Although the cover is surprisingly pretty for the series, the numerous illustrations inside are even darker and fuzzier than usual. Nice introduction to Deryck Cooke’s in-depth analysis, but not on par with other ENO guides dedicated to Wagner. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Jan 4, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
English National Operaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
John, NicholasSeries Editormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Wagner, RichardLibrettistmain authorall editionsconfirmed
Deathridge, JohnContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
North, RogerContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Porter, AndrewTranslatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Spencer, StewartContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0714540781, Paperback)

English National Opera Guides are ideal companions to the opera. They provide stimulating introductory articles together with the complete text of each opera in English and the original. The opening evening of Wagner's four-part cycle,The Ring of Nibelung, stands apart as more naive and picturesque than the others. But it immediately establishes the huge scale of the overall work, and the extraordinary musical language that will be displayed throughout. It is a miracle of musical history that Wagner's 1850 conception could be brought to completion, in an organic whole, some 25 years later. Stewart Spencer discusses the way in which Wagner fuses genuine mythology with his own invention and John Deathridge places The Rhinegold in the context of The Ring and its century.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:59 -0400)

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