Editor’s Note: The Ring is on at the Kennedy Center until May 22.
“Can you remember when you first felt the power of music?” Clive Staples Lewis could, according to M. Owen Lee, whose Wagner’s Ring: Turning the Sky Round includes passages from Lewis’s account of his own childhood, Surprised by Joy. That moment, for Lewis, was seeing Arthur Rackham’s illustrations in a book, Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods. It led him to track down the synopsis for Wagner’s Ring and compose his own schoolboy poem about Nordic gods even before hearing “Ride of the Valkyries,” for the first time, in a crowded gramophone store. Lewis went on to write The Chronicles of Narnia, as everyone knows, while his friend and contemporary, J.R.R. Tolkien, crafted The Lord of the Rings. Rackham’s name is not so familiar today as are his original illustrations for another book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
In the Washington National Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, Director Francesca Zambello has embraced the nexus between familiar worlds of modern fantasy. In a public conversation at the National Museum of Women in the Arts last month, Zambello talked about traditions of heroism and humanity that connect epic poetry and opera to Star Wars. Hers is an unabashedly “American Ring,” as she described it on that occasion and as I witnessed in four dress rehearsals prior to April 30. Starting out in the American West during the gold rush, it ventures into Appalachian woods, choppy footage of which appears onscreen during orchestral preludes, and eventually arrives at a stark landscape of exhausted earthworks and abandoned factories. The Ring is a “cautionary tale [about the] destruction of natural order by greed on the part of gods and men,” as Zambello puts it. And, although Siegfried — see WNO’s “Who’s Who” page — is an archetypal hero embarked upon his journey, Brünnhilde, in this production, is The Ring’s true protagonist.
Unlike some other canonical works of fantasy, Wagner’s Ring is not about good versus evil, or courage versus cowardice; rather, it is a 14-hour exploration of power and love. Das Rheingold attends to the first theme, setting everything else in motion. A revealing exchange occurs in Scene 4, where Alberich, cursing the ring that Wotan and Loge are stealing from him, charges that Wotan (about whose past transgressions the audience will learn more over time), too, would just as likely have seized the Rhine Maidens’ treasure. When Wotan reluctantly hands over the ring to the giants, his is a rational calculation. Holding Freia as collateral payment for Valhalla, Fafner and Fasolt have deprived the gods of Freia’s golden apples, without which they will age and eventually die. In Zambello’s production, the gods “enter Valhalla” by climbing aboard the Titanic.
In Die Walküre, the focus is love and its consequences. Wotan has been engaging in lots of the former, siring children across heaven and earth. Most notable in his brood are the Wälsung twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde, born to a mortal woman, and Brünnhilde, favorite of the Valkyries and daughter of Erda. The plot hinges on Brünnhilde’s first encounter with the concept of love, when Siegmund refuses to follow her to Valhalla without his beloved Sieglinde. Her subsequent defiance of Wotan’s orders leads to her banishment on a rock surrounded by a ring of fire. Wotan loves his children — above all, his Valkyrie daughter — yet he is compelled to act to preserve a crumbling order and retain fleeting power. Though he kills someone in this opera literally with a wave of his hand, Wotan is a character with only minimal freedom of action.
Wotan’s power rests upon his enforcement of contracts that are runes on his spear. The shattering of his spear by his impetuous grandson, Siegfried, marks the end of Wotan’s power. Before that, Siegfried slays Fafner, who, as Movement Director Denni Sayers puts it: “used to be a builder; now, he does nothing except sit on gold.” Fafner has turned himself into a mechanical dragon that resembles a cross between a garbage truck and the ED-209 from Robocop. When Siegfried wields his sword and pierces the dragon’s wiring, the wounded Fafner falls out of his compartment, a la The Wizard of Oz. Siegfried had hoped that confronting the dragon would teach him fear; only when he encounters Brünnhilde on her rock, however, does he know fear, and it is love. “That’s no man!” he famously exclaims.
The radiance of Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s love lasts only into the first hour of Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”). Siegfried may be the greatest hero in all the land, but his strength is no match for a magic potion concocted by Alberich’s son, Hagen, who pairs both our heroes off with the Gibichungs in a convoluted scheme to win back the ring. After Hagen murders Siegfried on a hunt, Brünnhilde makes her second fateful choice, which brings the story to a close and Valhalla crashing down. She rides her horse into the funeral pyre, demonstrating the redemption of humanity through love. Love triumphs over riches and power; for all of Wagner’s bombast, love is all there is.
Indeed, there is evil in The Ring: greed to the degradation of nature. Yet the villains are not pure evil; the heroes are not always so good. In Zambello’s “American Ring,” Brünnhilde is nobler than the male characters, while Siegfried is not such a nice guy (even when he’s not drugged). Perhaps Brünnhilde is indeed the protagonist, as Zambello contends. To me, it is more likely some composite of Wotan and Alberich; neither Siegfried nor Brünnhilde would mean much without their proxy war. When it comes to that struggle, it is worth pondering the question: just what capabilities does the ring actually provide? DC audiences may well come away recalling Henry Kissinger’s famous lament: “What in the name of God is strategic superiority? What do you do with it?”
James Graham Wilson is a historian at the U.S. Department of State and the author of The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev’s Adaptability, Reagan’s Engagement, and the End of the Cold War. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. government.
Image: Public Domain