Arts & Events

The Ring, Or Wagner as Scam Artist

James Roy MacBean
Saturday June 16, 2018 - 09:52:00 AM

Ernest Newman famously wrote of Wagner that “The ‘problems’ of his operas are generally problems of his own personality and circumstances. His art, like his life, is all unconscious egoism.” Discussing both Verdi and Wagner, Peter Conrad wrote that “For Verdi there is no god, so music must fill up the absence; for Wagner there is no god, so he must personally assume the role.” Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, currently mounted by San Francisco Opera in all its 17-hour glory mixed with tedium, (or is it tedium mixed with occasional glory?), is Richard Wagner’s arrogant attempt to rewrite the history of the world and cast it in his own image. Opening night of the first Ring cycle was Tuesday, June 12, for Das Rheingold. Two more complete Ring cycles will continue through July 1. 

The Ring begins with an act of greed, a grasping for wealth and power as a substitute for lack of sex. In Das Rheingold, the Nibelung Alberich, a mean-spirited, misshapen individual, fails to entice the frolicsome Rhinemaidens to have sex with him, but he learns from the Rhinemaidens that only by renouncing love might someone have a chance to win the submerged gold in the river. So Alberich renounces love and brazenly steals the gold. His stolen wealth gives him power over all the other Nibelungs, whom he makes his slaves. Whipping them to work ever harder for his own personal aggrandizement, Alberich becomes the ultimate robber baron, the arch capitalist who enslaves his workers. His appetite for wealth and power is insatiable. Though he has renounced love, he has not renounced lust. He plans first to subjugate all men, then to force himself on their women who have shunned him in the past, making them slaves to his sexual desires. 

Thus Wagner begins what is a long, tortuous tale about his own gripes with modern society. Where greed rules and money is the measure of all things, what role is left for art, for the art of music? Where Wagner’s gripes are concerned, they are legion. But among his many gripes, the Jews hold a special place. In his anti-Semitic screed “Das Judenthum in der Musik/Judaism in Music,” Wagner writes, “According to the present constitution of this world, the Jew in truth is already more than emancipated: he rules, and will rule, so long as money remains the power before which we and all our doings and dealings lose their force.”  

It has been noted that in the Ring cycle, two characters have a peculiarly distinctive style of musical speech: these are the brothers Alberich and Mime. They and they alone, in recitative after recitative, sing in hissing, squealingl voices. Wagner, as we know from his essay on “Judaism in Music,” found the Jews’ way of speaking extremely repugnant. “Who has not been seized,” he writes, “with a feeling of the greatest revulsion, of horror mixed with the absurd, at hearing that sense-and-sound confounding gurgle, yodel, and cackle….?” Many commentators on Wagner’s Ring have speculatively identified Alberich and Mime as Jews. Alberich, as we have seen, sets the plot of the Ring in motion with a criminal act of greed when he steals the gold from the Rhinemaidens when they won’t have sex with him. Now possessing this wealth and power, Alberich enslaves his fellow Nibelungs. Even Mime, his brother, is physically and mentally abused by Alberich. Forced to work at his forge for Alberich’s accumulation of ever more wealth, Mime whines incessantly in his hissing, squealing caricature of a voice. We’ll hear far too much of that whining voice in the five and-a-half hours of Siegfried, the third of Wagner’s tetralogy.  

Where the current San Francisco Opera production of the Ring is concerned, director Francesca Zambello has updated her original 2011 staging, introducing more projections of water and nature imagery. Seeing the Ring as apocalyptic, Zambello notes that “we tried to incorporate more nature so that as the universe is destroyed, we see the annihilation of the natural world in sharper contrast.” So, yes, there is assuredly a dynamic of nature versus culture in the Ring. Wagner, as usual, sees things in terms of good versus evil. Nature is good; Culture, especially this money-grubbing culture, is evil. Zambello also seems to understand that the notion of a “twilight of the Gods” might not be about gods per se, but rather about the human gods of industry and commerce who rule our current world.  

In the course of the four operas of the Ring, both Wotan, the chief god, and Brünnhilde, his daughter, become less godlike and much more human. Even as early as the closing moments of the first opera, Das Rheingold, Zambello stages the rainbow bridge to Valhalla as nothing more than a gangplank to an unseen ocean liner. The ‘gods’ Wotan, Fricka, Freia, Donner, and Froh proceed up the gangplank wearing white suits and white hats as if they were simply boarding a cruise-ship. Loge, the god of fire, laughs cynically at them as they prance up the gangplank. Loge, alone among the ‘gods,’ seems to sense the scam in all this posturing by the so-called gods of industry and commerce. Loge also leads Wotan, the chief god, to descend to Alberich’s underground factory in Das Rheingold. And Loge tricks Alberich into using the magic tarnhelm to make himself into a tiny toad, which leads to his capture by Wotan, who steals the Ring from Alberich’s hand. Does Loge perhaps represent the attitude of Wagner towards these pompous ‘gods’? And if so, why does Loge disappear from the rest of the Ring cycle, though, unseen, he provides Wotan with the fire to encircle the sleeping Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, an act that sets in motion the downfall of the gods? 

Where the cast of this Rheingold is concerned, I found Greer Grimsley’s Wotan to be vocally underwhelming. Grimsley’s bass-baritone is in my opinion too light for the role of Wotan. It lacks both darkness and power. In the role of Alberich, German bass-baritone Falk Struckmann was excellent, arrogant at one moment and wheedling the next. As Fricka, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton was also excellent. Her Fricka takes no nonsense from her husband Wotan. As Freia, goddess of everlasting youth, soprano Julie Adams sang grandly, expressing her dismay at the mercy of the giants Fasolt and Fafner. These latter, sung respectively by bass Andrea Silvestrelli and bass Raymond Aceto, were their usual clunky but physically impressive giants, clomping to and fro on stilts, it seemed.  

Mime was his usual whiney self, sung here with an appropriate edge by tenor David Cangelosi. Tenor Stefan Margita was a cynical, quite detached Loge. The Rhinemaidens were admirably sung by soprano Stacey Tappan, mezzo-soprano Lauren McNeese, and mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum. Erda, the earth mother, was sung by mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich, who will sing Siegmund in Die Walkure, performed Das Reingold’s minor role of Froh; and baritone Brian Mulligan, who will sing Gunther in Die Götterdämerung, sang the minor role of Donner. San Francisco Opera’s former music director Donald Runnicles returned to lead the orchestra in a taut performance of the opening night’s Das Rheingold. In the forthcoming operas of the Ring, we’ll see and hear how Wagner places himself and his music at the center of this world-historical scam.