In all of Western culture there is nothing quite like Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (“The Ring of the Nibelung”). Based on Wagner’s own retelling of stories from ancient German and Icelandic mythology, it consists of four separate but intimately related operas—some of them among the longest ever written—usually performed 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 Der Fliegende Holländer. The composer himself inadvertently contributed to this slighting of Rheingold by calling it a “preliminary evening” to the rest of the Ring.
After finishing Lohengrin in 1848, Wagner wrote the libretto—or, as he liked to say, poem—to a new opera, Siegfried’s Death (known today as Götterdämmerung). Realizing that he needed to explain how the events of that opera had come to be, he added Young Siegfried (the opera we now know as Siegfried) in 1851. The following year, feeling further explanation was needed, he finished the libretto of Die Walküre.
“In order to give 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.”
While 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 artwork of the future. As his ideas on the nature of opera changed, so did the nature of his libretti. Götterdämmerung has marvelous monologues, a thrilling love duet, a sensational vengeance trio—all of which can be excerpted and performed on their own (as can some of the orchestral passages). By the time Wagner had arrived at Das Rheingold in 1852, he had come to the conclusion that the drama should not be interrupted by musical set pieces but ought to unfold seamlessly.
The vocal writing therefore had to be different from the way singers had been treated in operas before. At the same time, the orchestra would become as much an integral part of conveying the drama as the soloists onstage. “The music shall sound in such a fashion that people shall hear what they cannot see,” Wagner wrote to Liszt. In fact, sketches show that as Wagner was in the preliminary stages of composition he was not only thinking of the words, but of the stage directions as well, writing music that reflected the movement of the scene.
In order to realize his new conception of music drama, Wagner developed the system of leitmotifs—short segments of melody, rhythm, or harmony that are associated with a character, a dramatic event, an object, or an emotion. Beginning with Rheingold, Wagner’s music springs almost entirely from these building blocks, which he molds or combines to reflect shifts in the drama on stage. But his leitmotifs are much more than mere musical “sign posts.” They can let the audience know what a character is thinking or why an event is taking place. Musical motifs relating to specific characters or situations were nothing new in opera at the time, but the degree to which Wagner employed this idea had no precedent. “I am spinning my cocoon like a silkworm,” he wrote to Liszt as he was working on Rheingold, “but I spin it out of myself.” (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 difficult tasks Wagner faced was how to begin Das Rheingold. What kind of music could possibly launch not just this opera, but the entire Ring cycle? He later related the events that inspired the creation of the prelude (as always with Wagner, his reminiscences are to be taken with a grain of salt). 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 awoke 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: a low E flat softly played by the doubles basses, then, four measures later, a B flat added by the bassoons. Another 12 measure later a single French horn (“very sweetly” says the score) intones the notes of the E-flat major triad up the scale for over two octaves, followed by a second horn, 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, growing from a single cell. At the climax, the Rhinemaidens suddenly break into song—representing joyous, unspoiled nature itself.
In addition to writing music unlike anything heard before, with the Ring Wagner was making demands on the physical stage that went beyond what seemed even possible at the time: the opening scene of the Rhinemaidens swimming around as if in mid-air; the shift from the depths of the Rhine to the airy mountaintops of the gods, with Valhalla seen in the distance; the descent to Nibelheim and the journey back; Donner, the god of thunder, summoning the swirling mists, then dissipating them on cue with his hammer, conjuring up a rainbow bridge over which the gods would walk to their new home…
Wagner eventually overcame all the musical, scenic, and dramatic challenges he had created. The fact that he not only managed to do so, but that the whole of the Ring cycle seems to flow effortlessly from Das Rheingold, raises its stature from a mere prologue to a theatrical masterpiece all on its own.
Wagner did not wish for any part of the Ring to be staged until the cycle could be presented as a whole. He realized this would require a “great festival, to be arranged perhaps especially for the purpose of this performance,” as he had already mentioned to Liszt before a note of the music had been written. But against Wagner’s wishes, Das Rheingold had its premiere in Munich on September 22, 1869, on the express orders of the composer’s ardent admirer and patron, King Ludwig II. Another seven years would pass before Wagner was able to present the Ring in its entirety, in the theater at Bayreuth that was built specifically for it (and that still serves as the home of the annual Wagner festival).
Das Rheingold was first heard at the Met on January 4, 1889. The program carried a note stating that, “For this opera the scenery has been ordered from Germany and the costumes and armor are 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,î noted one New York newspaper the day before the premiere. In fact, Wagner himself had raised no objections to a break when Rheingold was given in Berlin in 1881. The Met presented the work both with and without intermission well into the 20th century. In Robert Lepage’s production, the drama unfolds in one uninterrupted act, as the composer conceived it. —Paul Thomason
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera.