Monday, December 2, 2013

Norse Gods in the Antipodes: Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Melbourne

Over the last week I have spent almost 14 hours at the Melbourne Arts Centre in order to attend the first three operas of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, and there is another 6.5 hour one (that includes 2 intervals) tomorrow night. All up that will total 20 hours and 20 minutes of immersion in German opera within one week – no wonder I’m dreaming about it as well.

Der Ring des Nibelungen

So what is Der Ring des Nibelungen? In English the title means “The Ring of the Nibelung” – a Nibelung being a particular kind of dwarf, or black elf. If this reminds you of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings that would not be surprising seeing as Tolkien was familiar with Wagner’s Germanic and Scandinavian source material: the Nibelungenlied and the Völsunga Saga.

Although both Wagner’s and Tolkien’s works feature a cursed ring of power, a dragon on a golden hoard, a broken sword, an old man with a hat and staff, and a game of riddles, according to Tolkien himself when asked about the similarity of his work to Wagner’s he replied that “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases.” Well, that’s debatable.

Wagner’s Ring consists of four operas, or one opera in four parts, designed to be performed on successive nights in a festival atmosphere. As William Berger explains, The Ring is

“a German Romantic view of Norse and Teutonic myth influenced by Greek tragedy and a Buddhistic sense of destiny told with a socio-political deconstruction of contemporary society, a psychological study of motivation and action, and a blueprint for a new approach to music and theatre.”

From my preparatory background reading on The Ring, that sounds about right.

The Four Operas

The four parts of The Ring are: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung. Featuring recognisable characters from the Norse pantheon: celestial gods, demi-gods, chthonic powers, and heroes, The Ring does not re-tell particular Scandinavian and Germanic myths in its ring-like or spirally-structured narrative, but modifies and re-combines elements thereof in order to tell its own story.

Das Rheingold

The opera begins with Das Rheingold, actually the Vorabend (“fore-evening”, or prologue) to The Ring. At only about 2.5 hours, this is the shortest of the four operas and was designed without an interval. No problem, who needs a break at this early stage? Actual content and the full story can be read about elsewhere so I will just cover the basics.

The opera opens with three Rhinemaidens (Lorelai) swimming about in the River Rhine. An ugly dwarf (Alberich) is initially attracted to them, but after one of them blurts out information on the powers of the Rheingold they are guarding (the possessor of it can rule the world), the dwarf switches his affections from the Rhinemaidens to their gold, and steals it.

In the next scene Wotan (Odin) and Fricka (Frigg) discuss the fact that Wotan promised the giants, Fasolt and Fafner, Fricka’s sister Freia (Freya) as payment for the giants building Valhalla. In order to stop this transaction Wotan needs to provide something in Freia’s stead. Cunning fire deity, Loge (Loki), tells Wotan about Alberich stealing the Rheingold, Wotan wants this and he and Loge descend to Nibelheim, home of the dwarves deep in the earth, to get the Ring and also a hoard of gold with which to pay the giants – instead of paying them with Freia. The giants keep Freia as a hostage until the gold arrives and with her removal from Asgard (where the gods live) they begin to age as they do not have access to her golden apples of youth (actually Idunn’s apples in myth).

Wotan and Loge trick the gold out of Alberich, including the Ring, return, and swap the gold for Freya. Wotan wants to keep the Ring however, but the giants insist that he include it in the deal. Erda the Earth Goddess appears and prophesies that only bad things will result from keeping the Ring. Wotan capitulates and includes the Ring in the exchange with the giants. They then argue between themselves and Fafner kills his brother Fasolt.

See! Bad things come from possessing the Ring! At least Freia is back with the gods. Donner (Thor) causes a thunderstorm, Fro (Frey) commands a rainbow to appear which the gods then use as a bridge (Bifröst) via which they ascend to Valhalla, leaving Loge behind (because here he is only a demi-god).

Das Rheingold’s Sources

As I’ve mentioned above, Wagner’s Ring does not propose to be a re-telling of Norse myth. But in what way is it different? Mythic material in The Ring was sourced primarily from three Scandinavian and two German sources. The Scandinavian material includes the Völsunga Saga (Icelandic, 13th century CE), the Poetic or Elder Edda (particularly the Völuspá), and Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda. The German sources include the Nibelungenlied (Middle High German epic poem), and Thidrik’s Saga of Bern.

The Ring also includes some minor content deriving from other sources: Das Lied vom hürnen Seyfrid, The Märchen of the Brothers Grimm, Die deutsche Heldensage of Wilhelm Grimm, The Deutsche Mythologie of Jacob Grimm, Karl Lachmannís Kritik der Sage von den Nibelungen, the Norna-Gests tháttr, and Friedrich Heinrich von der Hagenís introduction to the first edition of the Poetic Edda.

In regards to Das Rheingold in particular, all traditional content comes from the Prose Edda. This consists of the Andvari story, the builder story, and the Apples of Idunn – the former two which appear in different forms in the Poetic Edda and the Völsunga Saga. Modifications of myth within Wagner's opera are certainly evident, and these include things such as Freya (a Vanir) being the “sister” of Fricka (an Æsir). I’ve already mentioned that Idunn is the keeper of the golden apples, not Freya, and nor is Loki only a demi-god in myth, he is a full deity. In other ways however, the work is faithful to the myth: Freya was a frequent pawn in marriage negotiations, with three giants trying to marry her.

Die Walküre

The next opera in the Cycle is Die Walküre. This is the one with the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” that everyone knows – but it doesn’t occur (in full) until Act III. The back story to this opera is that Wotan, intrigued by Erda’s prophesying, followed her in order to find out more, had sex with her and sired nine Valkyries. A Valkyrie is a type of Battle Maiden – think of the Irish Morrigan. Brunnhilde, who features as a major character in this opera, is Wotan’s favourite Valkyrie.

Between Rheingold and Die Walküre Wotan also sired a twin boy and girl, Siegmund and Sieglinde, on a mortal woman. Eventually the twins are separated, only to meet again as adults and fall in love. At the house of Sieglinde and Hunding, the husband Sieglinde is unhappily married to, Siegmund pulls a sword out of a tree (in Arthurian fashion!) that had initially been placed there by Wotan in disguise. Sieglinde recognises that Siegmund is the man who will free her from her unhappy marriage, and they run away together.

Fricka, as goddess of marriage is affronted by this and demands that Wotan remove his protection from Siegmund so that when Hunding pursues and attacks him, he will die. Wotan capitulates unwillingly to Fricka’s demand and instructs the Valkyrie, Brunnhilde, to appear to Siegmund – which normally means certain death – and to bring him to Valhalla after he has been killed.

Brunnhilde confronts Siegmund and Sieglinde but is so impressed by Sigemund’s devotion to Sieglinde that she disobeys Wotan and attempts to save Siegmund, thinking that this was what Wotan really wanted after all anyway. Unfortunately this all goes pear-shaped, Siegmund is killed by Hunding, Wotan kills Hunding, and Brunnhilde has to flee with Sieglinde, who we now learn is pregnant. Brunnhilde goes to her sister Valkyries with Wotan in hot pursuit, initially the other Valkyries try and protect her but Wotan scares them off.

Sieglinde escapes “to the East” and Wotan then punishes Brunnhilde for her disobedience – I think completely unreasonably – and removes her divinity, rendering her mortal. Brunnhilde is condemned to sleep on a mountain, prey to any wandering man. Brunnhilde manages to negotiate and win the promise that, rather than any man, only a true hero will be able to “take” her. The opera ends with Wotan leaving Brunnhilde asleep within a circle of flame.

Die Walküre’s Sources

It was in this opera that I was struck by how much Wotan and Fricka remind me of the Greek Zeus and Hera, and Brunnhilde of Athena. The primary sources for this opera are the Völsunga Saga and the Poetic Edda. Siegmund is based on Sigmund, and Sieglinde is based on Signy and Hjordis from the Völsunga Saga, while Hunding comes from the Poetic Edda and Fricka is based on “The Lay of Grimnir” from the Poetic Edda. Brunnhilde is a combination of the cold and immortal Valkyries of the early Poetic Edda, and the human warrior princess from the later Poetic Edda and the Saga, in which she is the daughter of a human king.


The third opera in the cycle is Siegfried. He is the child of the Völsung Twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde. The back story to this opera is that Sieglinde, pregnant, was found and sheltered by a dwarf – Mime, the brother of Alberich who we met previously in Rheingold. Sieglinde died giving birth and Mime raised the child, Siegfried, ostensibly through pure charity, but in actual fact so that Siegfried could gain the Ring for him which is currently in the possession of the giant Fafner, now transformed into a dragon. After this is accomplished Mime will have no qualms about killing Siegfried.

Mime is a smith, but every sword he makes for the young Siegfried easily smashes. Mime eventually produces the shattered parts of the sword (named Nothung) that belonged to Siegfried’s father Siegmund, and which Sieglinde brought with her. Siegfried himself re-forges the shattered pieces into a sword. He then goes to the forest, slays Fafner, finds the Ring (and the Tarnhelm), gains the ability to understand bird-talk, slays Mime, and goes off to find Brunnhilde on her fiery rock that the helpful wood bird told him about. On the way he is confronted by Wotan (who had previously had another encounter with Erda), Siegfried smashes Wotan’s’ staff, and proceeds up the mountain to awaken the slumbering Brunnhilde, and they fall in love.

Siegfried is really quite an unlikable personality in this opera, however I expect that it is because of his “heroic” character – he’s arrogant and intolerant, but that’s because, so far, everyone disappoints and disgusts him. If one had not done background reading, it may seem that Mime was hard done by – at least initially before he and Siegfried go to the forest – when really he is the (well, a) villain.

Siegfried’s Sources

The story of Siegfried derives from the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda, and the Völsunga Saga. Act I combines the Siegfried stories from the Eddas, the Völsunga Saga and Thidriks Saga. Act II derives from “The Lay of Fafnir” from the Poetic Edda and portions of the Völsunga Saga. Wotan’s awakening of is modelled on “Balder’s Dreams” in the Poetic Edda, and the awakening of Brunnhilde comes from the Völsunga Saga and “The Lay of Sigrdrifa” from the Prose Edda.


The final opera is Götterdämmerung, which means “sunset”, “twilight” or “dusk” “of the gods”. As I write this I have not yet seen a live performance but only a film screening of the Met Opera’s 2011 production. I’ll see the live version tomorrow night. This is the longest of the Ring operas, and the audience has to arrive in time for a 4pm start!

Frankly, I find the story here becomes quite frustrating. As we recall from Siegfried, as a punishment for her disobedience to Wotan,Brunnhilde has been demoted to “mortal”, and confined in a ring of fire on a mountain top until a brave and worthy warrior awakens her. Siegfried was this hero and now they are an item (even though she is technically his aunt). So, after this horrible removal of her divinity by Wotan and her twenty-year long sleep, are things now looking rosy for Brunnhilde? No!

The opera begins with a scene in which the Three Norns (in myth, named Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld) are spinning the rope of destiny. The Norns used to live underneath Yggdrasil, the World Ash Tree, until Wotan came and cut his staff from the tree, causing it to wither. The tree has since been cut down and its logs piled around the walls of Valhalla. Wotan has given up trying to influence events now – he actually gave up when he said goodbye to Brunnhilde, and he accepts the inevitable demise of the gods – a theme deriving from Norse myth, as depicted in the Völuspá, a part of the Poetic Edda.

It is not clear how long Brunnhilde and Siegfried have actually been together, but in this opera she is happy for him to go off and seek other adventures. Brunnhilde, now an unadventurous mortal woman, stays on the flame-encircled rock wearing Siegfried’s ring – The Ring! – while he takes her horse and journey’s up the Rhine toward the Gibichung’s Hall. Here, regular mortals, Gunther, his sister Gutrune, and their half-brother Hagen (fathered by the dwarf Alberich), are in conversation about reputation, titles and marriage.

Hagen, a plotter, suggests that Gunther marry a remarkable woman he knows about called Brunnhilde who is currently ensconced up on a rock surrounded by fire, and that Gutrune win the hero Siegfried’s heart so that he will go and win Brunnhilde for Gunther – Gunther and Gutrune are unaware that Brunnhilde and Siegfried are already an item, but Hagen knows. No sooner do they mention Siegfried than he actually appears at their hall. Gutrune gives him a love potion and he instantly forgets Brunnhilde and falls instead for Gutrune. Siegfried and Gunther make a blood pact, and then set off for Brunnhilde's rock.

Meanwhile, Brunnhilde has received a visit from one of her Valkyrie sisters, Waltraute, who tries to convince her to part with the Ring so it can be returned to the Rhinemaidens. Brunnhilde refuses and Waltraute subsequently leaves. Siegfried, with the Tarnhelm on his head and disguised as Gunther, then appears, penetrates the flame, and claims Brunnhilde as his (“Gunther’s”) wife.

After spending the night in a cave with the sword, Nothung, between them for purposes of chastity, Siegfried forces Brunnhilde to come to the Gibechung’s Hall where there will be a double wedding: she and Gunther, and (unbeknownst to her yet) Siegfried and Guturne. In the meantime, Hagen has been visited in his dreams by his father, the dwarf Alberich, who instructed him to destroy Siegfried and get the Ring.

Once back at the Gibechung’s Hall, Brunnhilde is understandably horrified, even more so when she realised it was Siegfried who betrayed her and who appears now not to even recognise her. She then becomes (understandably) vengeful, plotting with Hagen as to how Siegfried can be defeated (by stabbing him in his magically unprotected back). This is planned to occur in the morning when the men are out boar hunting.

The next day Siegfried, out on the boar hunt, runs into the Rhinemaidens and almost returns the Ring to them, but in the end doesn’t. He is killed soon after by Hagen and his body brought back to the Hall. Hagen attempts to take the Ring at this stage, but Siegfried’s arm mysteriously rises and he recoils in fear.

Brunnhilde now mourns Siegfried, demands a funeral pyre be built, takes the Ring and puts it on her own finger, telling the Rhinemaidens to come and claim it from the ashes of the pyre. After the pyre is lit, Brunnhilde rides her horse into it to die with Siegfried, the Rhine’s waters wash up to the ashes of the pyre, Hagen tries to take the Ring again but the Rhinemaidens drown him. They then take back the Ring, the waters recede, and Valhalla can be seen burning in the background. Valhalla crumbles and the world begins anew.

Götterdämmerung’s Sources

The Norns in this opera derive from several mythic sources where in each case they are responsible for the fates of mortals: the Völuspá in the Poetic Edda, the “Lay of Grimnir”, and in “The First Lay of Helgi Hunding’s Bane”. The rest of the material from the Prologue comes from the Poetic Edda, the Völsunga Saga, and Thidriks Saga. Act I mainly derives form the Nibelungenlied and the Völsunga Saga. In Act II the relationship between Hagen and Alberich is invented by Wagner, having no mythological basis, and the remainder of the Act derives from the Nibelungenlied and the Völsunga Saga, as does the content of Act II.

The Ring in Melbourne

This year, 2013, marks the 100th anniversary of the first performances in Melbourne of Wagner’s Ring in its entirety. It is only the second Australian, fully-staged production and like the 2004 Adelaide Ring, is being mounted as a full cycle (all four operas – sometimes only one or two are staged per year). At a cost of $20 million, the Melbourne Ring is apparently the most expensive project seen on Australian operatic stages. Directed by Neil Armfield, this is a non-traditional (meaning non-“Norse” set and costumes – no Valkyries with horned helmets etc), post-modern production, that I think, has its good and bad points. 

The operas are extremely long, 5 – 6 hours, with 2 intervals each in Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, and they start really early, around 5pm. This means that it is necessary to bring a picnic (or have pre-ordered special Ring hampers) in order to have one’s dinner at the first interval. The operas finish late too, so if one drinks celebratory champagne afterwards it can increase one’s overall tiredness the next day – and there is only one day in between in which to recover. Today is my recovery day in between Siegfried (last night) and Götterdämmerung (tomorrow night). I’ll write the sequel to this blog post after I’ve seen the conclusion to The Ring tomorrow.

Further Reading:
The Cambridge Companion to Wagner
Wagner without Fear
Richard Wagner and the Saga of the Volsungs
Sources of Wagner's Ring
Asyniur: Women's Mysteries in the Northern Tradition


Rupert of Hentzau said...

Thank you for mentioning that Tolkien's remark is "debatable." While he detested what Wagner had done with Norse mythology (Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were in standing room together at a complete Covent Garden "Ring" in the 1930s), he certainly got the idea for a "Ring of Power" from Wagner, who made it up. There is no Ring of Power in any of the Norse sagas or eddas. (There is a Ring that attracts gold; it is stolen, by Loki, from a dwarf who puts a curse on it. The gold is indeed cursed, and the dwarf indeed gets it back.)

Wagner was so extraordinarily influential in the half century after his death that no one could be cultured and not know his works and themes and methods. Tolkien, who read all the source material, certainly knew Wagner's mythos, and when he was trying to create a MacGuffin for his sequel to "The Hobbit," realized the Ring that Bilbo had found must be it. And the Wagnerian doom fell upon the trophy, deny it as he might.

His Gandalf may or may not owe something or other to the Wanderer in Siegfried. Fafnir is far too dumb and brutish to be Tolkien's witty Smaug.

Caroline Tully said...

Want to appreciate Wagner whilst on a delightful holiday in Iceland? See here: