Now I’m ready to tell you about seeing my first live performance of the complete Ring cycle. I’ll begin with an organized list of the dramatis personae, only a few of whom are ordinary mortals. Rather than clutter up the text by giving both the role and the singer each time, I’ll refer only to the role names here and give credit to the singers in an appendix, which lists them all in convenient reference form. It also shows in which opera or operas each one appears. As an indication of the scope of the Ring, no character appears in all four operas, and only Alberich, Wotan, and Brünnhilde appear in as many as three.
That’s not quite true. The real headliner of the series is inanimate but has an important role in all the operas except Die Walküre. I refer to the Magic Gold and will have more to say about it later.
There are many different types of non-mortals, and we’ll list them from the top down. I use the term non-mortal rather than immortal because they are definitely not immune to violent death. First, the Gods, who live in the sky. According to Teutonic mythology there are lots of them, but the Ring only deals with 5: the head god Wotan, his wife Fricka, Fricka’s sister Freia, and her brothers Donner and Froh. Closely involved with them is the half-god Loge, God of Fire.
Next come the non-mortals of the earth, the Giants Fafner and Fasolt. Apparently they are a dying race, since after Fasolt is killed, Fafner refers to himself as “the last of the Giants”.
Down in the mines are the Nibelungs, the Dwarfs, led by Alberich who’s a really bad lot. His brother Mime isn’t much better. There are dozens more, but those are the only named ones.
Far, far down in the center of the earth lies Erda, the Earth Mother – oldest of the Gods and by far the wisest. She sleeps and dreams and her three oldest daughters, the Norns, take those dreams and spin them into the reality of life, all in some undisclosed location.
Our Pantheon is completed by the three Rhine Maidens who live at the bottom of the Rhine. Their ancestry is unclear. They refer to their Father, but that surely can’t be Wotan. We meet them in the opening scene of Das Rheingold where they are a naïve trio happily singing and dancing about the Magic Gold which they should be guarding. They have one of the loveliest melodies in the entire cycle, and sing it in close harmony. Anna Russell describes them as, “a sort of aquatic Andrews Sisters.”
The next category is a large one and could be titled “Wotan’s descendents”. It includes the 9 Valkyries, led by Brünnhilde whom Wotan fathered by Erda, the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde whom he fathered by an unnamed mortal woman, and Siegfried, son of the twins.
One more half-mortal, Hagen. Alberich the Dwarf wanted a son so he seduced a Mrs. Gibich. Hagen lives in a great castle along with his half-siblings Gunther and Gutrune who are legitimate children of the Gibiches. These latter two, along with Hunding, the unloving husband of Sieglinde, make up the entire fully-mortal cast of the entire Ring Cycle.
But, there is one more character: a little Forest Bird. In many productions she is just an off-stage voice visible only to Siegfried, but in the SF Opera production she is delightfully visible.
And that’s the “Who” of it all. Now, for the “What”. Here is an extremely condensed outline of what happens from the opening sunrise on the Rhine to the final destruction of Valhalla and the start of a new age. It’s intended just as a reminder – a peg so we can all be in the same place later on. If you don’t already have some familiarity with the story you may want to read the excellent version in Wikipedia.
On the other hand, if 2½ pages of text is more than you want, how about this Twitter version (140 characters) from Lisa Anderson, one of the stage managers: Dwarf steals gold, incest, Ride, fire, magic sleep, hero, treachery, stabbing, more fire, ring goes home, everything burns, rebirth.
- Alberich steals gold from Rhine maidens; forges Ring and magic helmet Tarnhelm from it.
- Giants finish building Valhalla and demand Freia as payment; agree to accept gold instead.
- Wotan and Loge trick Alberich, steal Ring, Tarnhelm, and all his gold, and pay it all to Giants. Alberich curses Ring.
- Fafner kills Fasolt, takes entire payment for himself, goes off to cave and uses Tarnhelm to turn himself into a dragon.
Between operas Wotan pays an extended visit to Erda and fathers 9 daughters by her. He also fathers twin children by an unidentified human. Enough time elapses for all his children to become young adults. Erda’s daughters become the Valkyrie, mighty warriors who transport fallen heroes to Valhalla to become Wotan’s elite guard. The twins become separated very young and Sieglinde is forced into an unhappy marriage with Hunding.
- The twins are reunited, fall in love, and run away from Hunding. Siegmund now has magic sword Nothung, which Wotan had conveniently left embedded in a great ash tree which grew in the middle of Hunding’s house.
- Wotan tells Brünnhilde, the chief Valkyrie, to be sure that Siegmund kills Hunding in the forthcoming battle between them. Fricka confronts Wotan and demands that Wotan make sure that Hunding kills Siegmund because of the relation between him and Sieglinde; in the words of Anna Russell, “Not only is she already married which makes it immoral, but she‘s his sister which makes it illegal.” Wotan gives in and tells Brünnhilde, change in plans.
- Brünnhilde defies Wotan and tries to defend Siegmund. Wotan breaks Nothung. Hunding kills Siegmund; Wotan kills Hunding, and is furious with Brünnhilde for disobeying orders. Brünnhilde flees with Sieglinde.
- Valkyrie assemble on mountain top, each bearing a dead hero for Valhalla. Brünnhilde shows up with Sieglinde and tells her she must flee for sake of her unborn child. Wotan punishes Brünnhilde by making her mortal and putting her into a magic sleep on a rock where she must marry the first man who wakes her. Surrounds rock with ring of fire so only a hero can be that first man.
Between operas Sieglinde dies giving birth to Siegfried. Mime rescues the infant and raises him.
- Mime can’t mend pieces of Nothung, so 18-year old Siegfried does it himself.
- Siegfried kills Fafner; has Ring and Tarnhelm; tastes dragon’s blood and can now understand bird talk. Little bird warns him Mime plans to poison him to get Ring. Siegfried kills Mime first.
- Little bird leads Siegfried to Brünnhilde’s rock. Wotan tries to bar the way. Siegfried breaks Wotan’s spear with Nothung.
- Siegfried wakes Brünnhilde and they make beautiful music together.
- Siegfried leaves Brünnhilde protected by fire and goes off for another heroic adventure.
- Siegfried visits Gunther in search of adventure. Gutrune gives him magic potion; he totally forgets Brünnhilde and falls madly in love with Gutrune. Hagen tells Gunther about Brünnhilde and Siegfried agrees to help Gunther win her.
- Siegfried uses Tarnhelm to disguise himself as Gunther, passes easily through ring of fire and drags Brünnhilde away to real Gunther.
- Hagen kills Siegfried but Brünnhilde gets Ring – gives it back to Rhine Maidens. Builds funeral pyre for herself and Siegfried so big that it ignites Valhalla.
- A child appears and plants a small new tree of life.
Time for another coffee break, then on to Part III, How
The Opera Nut
Photos by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera
This review by Philip G Hodge appeared in sanfranciscosplash.com on July 14, 2011