Reflections on Der Ring Des Nibelungen

I set myself the challenge over the winter break of listening to Der Ring Des Nibelungen, Wagner’s epic cycle of operas telling the story of the fall of the gods and the assent of free-thinking man. Or, to put it another way, how to avoid being corrupted by the power of technology and knowledge. Or to put it differently again, the fight between gods, men, dwarves, giants and dragons!

Opera is traditionally shrouded in social pomposity, but after listening to each of the operas and reading the stories, I don’t know why this is the case with Wagner? Where Peter Jackson coats his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit stories in cinematic spectacle, Wagner works on a much more psychological level. Themes emerge from characters who are facing dilemmas of personal challenge. This is not a world of certainty, but one of reflection. Everyone has a role to play, but only some are capable of breaking free from the predetermined archetypes that are laid out for us, and think independently. These themes emerge in both the telling of the stories and in the form of the music.

It’s my initial and very simplistic reading that Wagner is asking questions about how we deal with the world that we have been born into and encounter? Wagner is asking to what extent it is possible for us to manipulate other people that we encounter in our lives to our own ends? He is proposing that our human view of life is naïve. That our actions lead us to making reckless mistakes that cost us our ultimate happiness? Are we at the mercy of unseen powers controlling our lives, or are we in charge of our own destinies.

Perhaps most simplistically those who lust after power and control, according to these allegories, are doomed to die as a result of its corrupting influence. Though it seems to me that each of the protagonists and antagonists have a legitimate claim that justifies their skewed view of life. The dwarf Alberich is treated with disdain by the Rhinemaidens who guard the gold that frames this drama. His lust for power, wealth and control is unleashed when he steals the rock and forges it into the ring of power.

Wotan, on the other hand, is a figure of diminished and continually diminishing power right through the drama. His role as the king of the gods is to hold the balance of power and to ensure that the contract that are made are held to. The problem is that Wotan’s life has got just a bit too complicated. He wants to settle down in his newly built fortress, but he’s been tricked into paying a price to the giants that built it that he doesn’t want to pay. So he goes looking for an alternative to offer the giants. On hearing about the ring of power he undertakes an elaborate scheme to win the ring and to pay off his debt. Subsequently, the rest of the operas are about his efforts to undo this mistake, and the cost that it has on the gods and their all powerful position.

I can certainly see why so many people become fanatical about Der Ring Des Nibelungen – though not to the extent of the Nazis perhaps! It’s a story that is tied into mythology and deep-seated questions about humanism, autonomy and the challenge of the modern word, technology, knowledge and language. I’m looking forward to seeing some version on DVD, and finding out more about this festival of drama.

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