Andrew Burke

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The Ring Cycle
Posted on: 2006-09-21

On Sunday evening I finished watching over fourteen hours of Teutonic Gods and Heroes. Over the course of six days, I saw all four operas in Wagner's Ring Cycle. I must be getting older, because I actually enjoyed this - while I had trouble sitting through 90 minutes of classical music when I was a teenager. It helps that I had seen three of the productions before, and had listened to the entire cycle on a trans-continental road trip a few years ago, but still, I'm happy that I didn't get too hideously bored. The only part that felt particularly slow was the end of Siegfried, where the plot has essentially ended and there's a long semi-melodic but unlikely love duet between the two protagonists - but even that didn't feel as slow as the first time that I saw it.

The ending of Gotterdammerung was much improved - for the fiery end of Valhalla, they lit up the ceiling of the opera house, and the crowd on stage looked out at the audience. Since Valhalla represents aristocratic decadance and greed throughout the cycle, it was a bold move to have the new opera house and the audience (who paid a minimum of $75 a ticket to be there) stand in for it.

I understand the music better now: having all of the operas in the course of one week really drives the lietmotifs into your head - your subconscious starts adding strings and horns to everyday conversations in the real world, and they start to infect your dreams. One could be picky and note that in using the lietmotifs Wagner only had to write about half an hour of real music, while just mixing them up to spread over half a day worth. The Ramones could probably get through the basics of the Ring Cycle in about fifteen minutes. Of course, the real art is in the way that these simple patterns are mixed and modified underneath the drama, never quite the same way twice, but always familiar.

After each production as the directors came out for their bows, various people around us started booing very loudly - I was a little shocked, since the productions were well done, even if not in a 'traditional' way. Someone explained to me (while we took the endless stairs down from the back of the fifth balcony) that this is actually a tradition from Bayreuth or something - akin to standing up during the Hallelujah Chorus or shouting out extra lyrics during 'Money Money'. Knowing this actually puts me ahead of the critic from the Globe & Mail who figured that it was people who didn't like Atom Egoyan.

Compressed into one week, it was easier to see the larger shape of the story: taken as a whole, it is much less Dungeons and Dragons than I had expected and more about messy family relationships and thinly veiled anti-aristocratic politics.

I also really noticed the similarities between Wagner's and Tolkien's Rings. They are different works for different purposes, both taken in their own directions from the original nordic sagas - but it's fascinating to see the similar elements shaken up and rearranged:

  • An immortal woman falls in love with a mortal hero and loses her immortalitiy.
  • A powerful magical ring whose bearer can rule the world, and that causes brothers to kill each other over it.
  • A 'grey wanderer' who seems to be an old man with a staff, but who is actually a very powerful supernatural being
  • A hero must realize his destiny by wielding a reforged magic sword that belonged to his ancestors
  • A dead tree symbolises the death of a world
  • Dwarves live under the earth as miners and craftsmen and create magical treasures.
  • The resolution of the plot involves the fiery destruction of a huge castle.

Wagner's work doesn't have Ents or Hobbits, but one could argue that these are improvements. Tolkien thankfully skips the twin incest, and Gollum doesn't creepily echo 19th century antisemitism in quite the way that Alberich does. Tolkien also includes more direct Christian allegory (the Pellenor Fields as Armageddon, Gandalf resurrected, etc.) while Wagner's narrative only has faint echoes that are probably more Campbellian monomyth than direct relation.

The parallels between Tolkien and Wagner are even more vivid in the recent Lord of the Rings movies - something that Peter Jackson admits to in his commentary tracks. Howard Shore's score for the movies is especially Wagnerian - can you tell which of these is the music for the 'Lighting of the Beacons' sequence in The Return of the King , and which is the Prelude to Act 3 of Siegfried?

Wagner vs. Shore.

This isn't so much ripping off as genre reflections - movies have always been rather Wagnerian, especially once they started adding orchestral scores, and John Williams' gleeful appropriations from all over the late 19th century for Star Wars made it even more so.

All in all a great experience, although I don't know if I'll be rushing to do it again soon - I can't afford that kind of time!

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