In all of Western civilization there is nothing quite like Richard Wagner’s stupendous cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Nibelung’s Ring). Based on Wagner’s own retelling of stories from ancient German and Scandinavian mythology, it consists of four separate but intimately related operas — some of them among the longest ever written — usually given over the space of a week.
Das Rheingold is the first chapter in this epic tale, and it is — quite unfairly — sometimes not given the respect accorded other parts of the Ring. For one thing, it is by far the shortest. At two and a half hours it is one of Wagner’s shortest operas, about the same length as The Flying Dutchman. The composer himself (probably inadvertently) contributed to this slighting of Rheingold by calling it a “preliminary evening” to the rest of the Ring.
In 1848 he finished orchestrating Lohengrin and wrote the poem to a new opera, Siegfried’s Death, (known today as Götterdämmerung). Deciding he needed to explain how the events of that opera had come to be, he wrote the poem to Young Siegfried (the opera we now know as Siegfried) in 1851. The following year, feeling further explanation was needed he wrote the poem to Die Walküre.
“In order to given everything completely, these three dramas must be preceded by a grand introductory play: The Rape of the Rheingold,” Wagner wrote to Franz Liszt. “The object is the complete representation of everything in regard to this rape: the origin of the Nibelung treasure, the possession of this treasure by Wotan, and the curse of Alberich….[By writing this separate drama] I gain sufficient space to intensify the wealth of relationship, while in the previous mode of treatment I was compelled to cut down and enfeeble this.”
During the time Wagner was creating the libretto to his stupendous new work he was also writing books and pamphlets – on theatrical reform, on opera and drama, and the art work of the future. As his ideas on the nature of opera changed, so did the nature of his libretti. Götterdämmerung has marvelous arias, a thrilling love duet, a sensational vengeance trio, all of which can be excerpted and performed in on their own (as can some of the orchestral passages). But by the time Wagner wrote the libretto to Rheingold in 1852 his idea was that the drama should not be interrupted by musical set pieces like arias and duets, but ought to continue unfolding seamlessly.
This meant the music for the singers must be different from the way the vocal line had been written in operas before. It also meant that the orchestral music would be different from anything in the history of opera, with the orchestra being as integral a part of conveying the drama as were the singers onstage. “The music shall sound in such a fashion that people shall hear what they cannot see,” he wrote to Liszt. In fact, composition sketches show that as Wagner was in the preliminary stages of compositing the music he was thinking not only of the words, but of the stage directions, as well, writing music that reflected the movement on stage.
To do this, Wagner developed the system of leitmotivs — bits of melody, or rhythm, or harmony that are associated with a character, a dramatic event, an object or an emotion. They are much more than mere “musical sign posts” that whiz past during the opera. Beginning with Rheingold, Wagner’s music springs almost entirely from these building blocks, which he molds or combines to reflect shifts in the drama taking place on stage. This means the music can let the audience know what a character is really thinking, for instance, or why an event is taking place. There was no precedent in all of opera for this new idiom in which Wagner began working for the first time with Rheingold. “I am spinning my cocoon like a silkworm,” he wrote to Liszt as he composed Rheingold’s music, “but I spin it out of myself.”
Wagner had written no music for five years — from the time he finished Lohengrin until he started composing the music to Rheingold in 1853. (Though the libretti to the Ring operas were written in reverse order, the music was composed from the beginning of the cycle to the end.)
One of the most overwhelming tasks Wagner faced was how to start Rheingold. What music could possibly launch not just this opera, but also the Ring as a whole? How do you covey in music the beginning of Creation? As always with Wagner, his reminiscences are to be taken with a grain of salt, but as he later related events, he had gone for a long walk, then returned to take a nap. Falling into a state of half-sleep, he suddenly felt as if he were sinking into a flood of water:
“The rush and roar soon took musical shape within my brain as the chord of E flat major, surging incessantly in broken chords: these declared themselves as melodic figurations of increasing motion, yet the pure triad of E flat major never changed….I awake from my half-sleep in terror, feeling as though the waves were now rushing high above my head. I at once recognized that the orchestral prelude to the Rheingold, which for a long time I must have carried about within me, yet had never been able to fix definitely, had at last come into being in me: and I quickly understood the very essence of my own nature: the stream of life was not to flow to me from without, but from within.”
There is nothing in all of opera like this miraculous beginning to Rheingold: the note of low E flat softly played by the doubles basses, then, four measures later, the note of B flat added by the bassoons to that basic E flat. And twelve measure later one French horn (“very sweetly” says the score) intoning the notes of the E flat major triad up the scale for over two octaves, followed by another French horn, and then another, until all eight horns are playing waves of arpeggios, all on the three notes of the E flat major triad. Then the cellos, and eventually the entire orchestra join in. It’s a musical depiction of the creation of life itself, growing from a single cell (that first E flat) until the Rhine maidens suddenly break into the song of joyous, unspoiled Nature itself.
In addition to writing music unlike anything ever heard before, in Rheingold Wagner was making demands for the physical stage that went far beyond what was even possible at the time: the opening scene in the Rhine river with the Rhine maidens swimming around as if in mid-air; the shift from the depths of the Rhine to the airy mountain tops of the gods with Valhalla in this distance; descending to Nibelheim and back again; how could Donner summon the swirling mists on stage, then dissipate them on cue with his hammer, conjuring up the rainbow bridge over which the gods would walk to their new home? What did Rhine maidens look like? The Nibelungen? How should the goddess Erda be portrayed so she was not merely (in the words of comedienne Anna Russell) “a green-faced torso popping out of the ground”?
All of this Wagner had to deal with in Das Rheingold. The fact that he not only got it right, but go it so right than the rest of his stupendous Ring cycle seems to flow effortlessly from Rheingold, means this opening chapter deserves respect as not only the cornerstone on which the rest of the Ring builds, but as a musical and dramatic masterpiece all on its own.
Wagner did not want to give any part of the Ring until the entire cycle could be presented as a whole, something he knew would require its own “great festival, to be arranged perhaps especially for the purpose of this performance,” as he told Franz Liszt before a note of the music had been composed. But against Wagner’s wishes, Das Rheingold had its première in Munich on September 22, 1869, on the express orders of King Ludwig II. It was seven years before Wagner was able to present the Ring in its entirety, in the theater at Bayreuth he had built specifically for the work. Even there, the colossal stage requirements Rheingold made were not met to Wagner’s satisfaction.
The program for the first Met performance of Das Rheingold on January 4, 1889, carried the note: “For this opera the scenery has been ordered from Germany and the costumes and armorare from the designs of Prof. Doepier, who made the original drawings for Richard Wagner.” The one-act opera was presented with an intermission between the second and third scenes. “This is the practice of the Imperial Opera House in Vienna, and though open to objection on artistic grounds will doubtless prove a welcome relief,” noted one New York newspaper the day before the première. In fact, Wagner himself had raised no objections to the intermission when Rheingold was given in Berlin in 1881, and until almost World War Two the Met presented the work both with and without an intermission, sometimes during the same season.
Before this new production by Robert Lepage opened the Met’s 2010-11 season on September 27th, Das Rheingold had been given 154 times by the company, far few times than Götterdämmerung (224), Siegfried (255), and Die Walküre (522). But along the way this one-act opera has attracted some of the greatest singers, conductors, and stage directors of their time, all engaged in the Herculean task of bringing to life Wagner’s sublime — and immense — vision.
A slightly different version of these notes appeared in the Metropolitan Opera Playbill September 2010.
The art at the top of the page is part of Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s production of Das Rheingold for the Salzburg Easter Festival 1967 – 72.