In the third act of our series on concise opera plots, it’s all German all the time. Specifically Wagner, or, as I like to think of him, Vague-ner. Not that he’s vague so much as his plots seem to wander all over the place, much like a hobbit on his way to Mount Doom.
You may remember that I promised this post way back in May 2015, after writing the first two acts of this plot production. At the time, I had recorded HD versions of the Metropolitan Opera’s entire “Ring” cycle on my trusty DVR, which turned out to be not so trusty. And so, watching and summarizing Wagner’s epic masterpiece was put on hold. Until now.*
I’ve included the three other Wagner operas I’ve seen live (Der Fliegende Holländer, Lohengrin, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) in this post, but it focuses on the oft-quoted Der Ring des Nibelungen, a series of four “music-dramas” that tell the story of a little person who forges a magic gold ring of power that everybody covets. Also, there’s a sword that needs to be pieced back together. Sound familiar?
Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases.
—Sure, Tolkien, whatever you say.
SPOILER ALERT: There are no puppies or unicorns, but there is a rainbow. Who says Germans aren’t lighthearted?
Richard Wagner, Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) (1843)
Based on: a retelling of the Flying Dutchman legend by Heinrich Heine
Notable Cultural Reference: Captain Video and His Video Rangers
Setting: Norway, 18th century
Storms + sleepy watchman = stealth ghost ship. Math is fun! Enter the Dutchman, cursed to roam the seas until he finds someone faithful unto death. Since Captain Daland values gold more than his daughter, he invites the stranger home. Cue Senta, who’s hanging with her friends, spinning and singing, as girls do. The stranger looks exactly like Senta’s Tiger Beat Dutchman portrait, so she’s all in. Unfortunately, ex Erik strives to remain relevant and his whining drives the Dutchman away. Senta throws herself into the sea, thereby lifting the curse. Like dogs, they all go to heaven, so it’s cool.
Richard Wagner, Lohengrin (1850)
Based on: medieval German romance; the chanson de geste Garin le Loherain
Notable Cultural Reference: Father of the Bride and every wedding you’ve ever attended
Setting: Antwerp, 10th century
Swan, swan, hummingbird, swan. Actually, scratch that, there’s no hummingbird. There’s also no baby duke Gottfried! Count Friedrich accuses Elsa, Gottfried’s sister, of foul play so he can rule instead. Visiting King Henry decrees God will judge through single combat. A knight appears (via swan boat) to fight for and marry Elsa; however, she can’t ask his name or birthplace. She eventually does. Nosy parker. So, Lohengrin, knight of the Holy Grail and protector extraordinaire, must leave. And… swan. OMG, baby Gottfried is a f*cking swan, y’all. Ortrud’s a witch and cursed him ages ago. Elsa, stricken with grief, falls dead.
Sung in: German
Memorable Music: “Treulich geführt” (aka the Bridal Chorus, aka “Here Comes the Bride”)
Knight Walther, in town on business, spots Eva and falls hard. Alas! Eva is to marry whoever wins the local song contest. David, who crushes on Eva’s companion Magdalene, explains the rules of mastersinging (it’s a thing, okay?). Walther can do this, no problem (he can’t). Burgermeister Meisterburger Beckmesser, who also wants to marry Eva, fumes. He serenades a disguised Magdalene by accident, much to the dismay of David. Fight! Fight! Walther (literally) dreams up the perfect song and cobbler Sachs stirs the pot by ensuring Beckmesser plays the fool. For some reason, this takes almost six hours to play out.
Sung in: German
Richard Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) (1876)
Based on: Norse sagas and a medieval German epic poem
Length (with no intermission): 15 hours
The “Ring” cycle consists of four operas intended to be performed together in sequence: Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods, or, as I like to say, Goddamn It’s Long). They tell the story of the theft of the Rhine gold and the forging of it into a magic ring of power and the tragedies that befall those who possess it. The four operas total about fifteen hours (without intermission) and follow multiple generations of mortal men and gods. Balance is only restored when the ring is destroyed by fire. Think The Lord of the Rings, but with more women.
Richard Wagner, Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold) (1869)
Notable Cultural Reference: Xena: Warrior Princess: “The Rheingold”
Length (with no intermission): 2 hours, 30 minutes
Pretty but dumb Rhinemaidens let dwarf Alberich steal the Rhine gold and forge a magic ring of “boundless might.” Meanwhile, Wotan and Fricka build a shiny new castle but won’t pay contractors Fasolt and Fafner, so the giant brothers take Fricka’s sister Freia hostage. When the gods realize they can’t live without Freia’s Fountain of Youth™ apples, Wotan and sidekick Loge trick Alberich and steal his ring as ransom. Alberich curses his “precious” to bring woe to all who possess it. Gold, gold, gold. Bicker, bicker, bicker. Fafner clubs Fasolt to death. Everybody else scampers over the rainbow bridge to Valhalla.
Sung in: German
Memorable Music: “Bin ich nun frei” (aka Alberich’s Curse)
Siegmund is on the run. He shelters with unhappy wife Sieglinde and husband Hunding, recounting his tale of woe. (Mother dead! Sister abducted!) Siegmund and Sieglinde have the hots for each other, but, gross, they’re twins. Remember cheapskate Wotan from Rheingold? He’s their father! Wotan instructs favorite Valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde to protect Siegmund, but Fricka wants to punish the couple. Brünnhilde tries to save Siegmund but only manages a pregnant Sieglinde and a shattered sword. Wotan leaves Brünnhilde sleeping on a rock surrounded by a ring of fire. As you do. The Valkyries are all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Cowards.
Sung in: German
Memorable Music: Hojotoho! (aka Ride of the Valkyries)
Nine Valkyries? Hey, aren’t there nine Nazgûl? I thought so.
—Me, just now.
Richard Wagner, Siegfried (1876)
Notable Cultural Reference: Django Unchained
Length (with two intermissions): 4 hours, 50 minutes
We open on Mime, brother of ringmaker-heartbreaker Alberich, who has, in a not-at-all-suspicious twist, adopted the fearless son of Sieg2. It’s a small world after all. Mime thinks Siegfried can get him the One Ring. You remember, the one with the fratricidal giant Fafner? FYI: He’s now a dragon (don’t ask). Strider the “Wanderer” arrives and poses a few riddles, Siegfried drinks blood and learns to speak bird (again, don’t ask), and Mime gets what’s coming to him. A broken sword is forged anew, a spear is shattered, and Siegfried awakens a sleeping Brünnhilde with a kiss. Also, there’s a bear.
Sung in: German
Memorable Music: Siegfried’s Horn Call
At first, Siegfried mistakes Brünnhilde for a man and, when he removes her armor, cries ‘That is no man!’ My god, Tolkien, you are shameless.
Richard Wagner, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) (1876)
Notable Cultural Reference: Excalibur
Length (with two intermissions): 5 hours, 15 minutes
Norns of Exposition™ provide a “previously on” and serious foreshadowing. Siegfried puts a ring on it, but eventually bails, heading straight into the hands of those plotting against him, including Hagen, Alberich’s son. Very, very long story short, Siegfried is mindwiped and gets the One Ring back, earning Brünnhilde’s wrath. Meanwhile, Wotan moans about losing his spear (not a euphemism) and prepares for the worst. Tricksy Hagen kills twice over to get the ring but a ghostly Siegfried says “Nein!” Brünnhilde takes one for the team, riding the ring straight into the fires of Mount Doom. Fire and flood cleanse all.
Sung in: German
Memorable Music: Siegfried’s Funeral March
Tune in next time for the unknown, but not unsung, at least when it comes to the movies. I promise it won’t take me three years.
*I’d like to give a special shout out to the woman who couldn’t use her own set of tickets to the San Francisco Opera’s most recent production of The Ring as well as @revgirrl who got them for me. I didn’t always agree with the staging or production choices, but the singing was fantastic across the board. Bravo!
**If you are thinking of commenting that this should be “fewer” instead, please read this first.