Opera + Classical Music Features

Why I Love… Das Rheingold

Our ‘Why I Love’ series now tackles Wagner’s Ring Cycle. First up – Keith McDonnell’s thoughts on Das Rheingold

The preliminary evening of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold, is far more than a mere introduction to the monumental saga which follows. I’ve always been slightly bemused by its lack of popularity compared to the three operas which follow, as it has all the ingredients required for a thrilling night at the opera. It’s jam-packed with oddballs and grotesques, and that’s even before we take into account a dwarf changing into a toad and then a dragon thanks to a magic hat, so what’s not to like? It’s the same length as a movie, clocking in around the two hours, twenty minutes mark (considerably longer if you opt for Reginald Goodall’s recording in English, but I wouldn’t advise it), and has a cinematic sweep that is lacking in the later instalments. With four scenes that take us from the depths of the Rhine, to dry land, via the sulphurous underground domain of the dwarves, and back again, the action never falters.

In the later operas, Wagner relies heavily on repetition as characters chat to one another, often at considerable length, about what’s already happened. Handy if you nodded off somewhere along the line, less so if you’ve been paying attention, as these drawn out exchanges can test the stamina of even the doughtiest of Wagnerians. In Das Rheingold there’s none of this. Sure, Loge, the half-god of fire, fills everyone in on what’s happened since Alberich stole the gold from the Rhinemaidens, fashioning a ring that will give him absolute power, but that’s news to us as well. While this preliminary evening doesn’t exactly take place in real time like the rest of the Cycle, its forward propulsion and plot twists and turns is edge of the seat stuff.

As Wagner’s purpose is to set the scene, there are plenty of loose ends as well which will be resolved later on, but what makes Das Rheingold particularly exciting is that we, the audience, are introduced to the musical themes which providing the building blocks to the entire cycle. Wagner called them leitmotifs – and they’re associated with a person, place, idea or feeling. No two musicologists will ever agree on everything, but the general consensus is that there are somewhere between 42 and 53 leitmotifs in Das Rheingold alone. Doing your homework is important when it comes to The Ring, as a prior knowledge of these (maybe not all) certainly enhances your musical understanding of how it all fits together.

Das Rheingold starts off in the depths of the Rhine, and there can be few more magical openings to any opera. Out of the darkness we hear a low E♭ on the double basses, then after a couple of bars the bassoons enter with a B♭ and this continues until gradually we hear the undulating theme associated with the Rhine, rising arpeggio-like, slowly at first, before speeding up in anticipation of the Rhinemaidens’ appearance. In fact there are 136 bars of this chord of E♭ – the most famous ‘drone’ music ever penned. Barry Millington hits the nail on the head when he suggests this protracted chord not only represents the depths of the Rhine, but “the birth of the world, the act of creation itself.”

“With four scenes that take us from the depths of the Rhine, to dry land, via the sulphurous underground domain of the dwarves, and back again, the action never falters”

Musical riches abound, whether it’s the sonorous Valhalla theme introduced at the start of the second scene by the Wagner tubas, the visceral excitement of the descent into Nibelheim, enhanced by 18 anvils hammering away the Nibelung leitmotif, or the bombastic, hollow entry of the Gods into Valhalla which concludes the work – Das Rheingold has it all.

Das Rheingold also lays bare the main theme of the Ring – the lust for power, and the consequences of pursuing that power by deception. And with 14 characters, made up of Rhinemaidens, gods, dwarves and giants, trying to stage it convincingly certainly tests the mettle of any director. But as this is the first instalment of The Ring, it’s where a director lays his or her cards on the table, and gives us a clear indication of the direction they’re going to take us.

Patrice Chéreau’s centenary production for the Bayreuth Festival (1976) caused a right old hoo-ha as he set the first scene on a hydro-electric dam where the gold was stored, watched over by three Rhinemaidens of dubious moral standing. But this was his and designer Richard Peduzzi’s ‘bold statement’ and gave notice their Ring was going to be like no other that went before. This staging quite rightly gained iconic status, it is well sung, and while many bemoan conductor Pierre Boulez’s ‘unheroic’ account of the score, it zips along nicely with crystal-clear orchestral textures. It’s available on DVD and given the clarity of the storytelling would be my first choice for anyone coming new to the work.

Twelve years later in Bayreuth, German director Harry Kupfer took a very different approach. His designer Hans Schavernoch stripped Das Rheingold back to the bare bones, with the action taking place on a giant highway, stretching back into the distance. Lasers represent the Rhine while the gods are represented as gangsters – as morally reprehensible as Alberich. Again, there’s a great cast led by John Tomlinson as Wotan, but at times Daniel Barenboim’s conducting can be a bit heavy-handed. It’s certainly the antithesis to Boulez’ interpretation. This too is available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Another staging worth exploring is Kasper Holten’s for The Royal Danish Opera. Staged in flashback from Brünnhilde’s perspective, his vision of the Rhine – a young man in a swimming pool – is certainly one of the most arresting, and shocking as there’s no gold; Alberich literally rips his heart out. Maybe not one for the faint-hearted, but highly recommended.

So there you have it. These are just some of the reasons why I love Das Rheingold, and why I think it’s the most exciting opera in The Ring. But over the next month my colleagues will put forward equally persuasive arguments as to why the remaining operas are the most ‘loved’. We shall see…

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