By Lynne Gray, PhD
The Met’s second week of Free Nightly Opera Streaming features the entire 2010-11 Ring Cycle on Tuesday through Friday (3/24-27). This uniquely stunning Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen) was designed by Robert Lepage and features “the Machine” – a sometimes temperamental, but always spectacular 45-ton behemoth of a set constructed of articulated steel planks that can be elevated, rotated and twisted into gigantic sculptural elements. Incredibly vivid videos projected onto the Machine’s always changing surfaces create a brilliantly animated backdrop and seamlessly move us from the depths of the Rhine, to Brunhilda’s fiery mountain prison, to Siegfried’s enchanted forest and finally to the unraveling of the fabric of time and the downfall of the Gods.
Wagner’s Ring has it ALL – swords and staffs, giants and dwarfs, maidens and dragons, magic and curses – and, of course, an all powerful ring. An extended family of Immortal Gods toys with Humans, Dwarfs and Giants alike through all four of the operas to their ultimate peril. Its timeless themes and gripping drama continue to this day to fascinate, to excite, and to inspire. In newer works, from the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) to John Williams’s music for the Star Wars films, you will recognize ideas originating in the Ring. The new additions have become fixtures of modern popular culture and you might well want to dip into the massively creative work where it all began.
Tuesday, March 24
Wagner’s Das Rheingold ~2hrs and 53 min (usually with no intermission, but you can use pause!)
Starring Wendy Bryn Harmer, Stephanie Blythe, Richard Croft, Gerhard Siegel, Dwayne Croft, Bryn Terfel, Eric Owens, and Hans-Peter König, conducted by James Levine. From October 9, 2010.
In this first installment of our 4-part epic, we meet the Dwarf Alberich, lord of the Nibelungs, who forever renounces love in order to steal the Rhine’s golden treasure from its guardians – the playful Rhinemaidens. Alberich takes his stolen gold back to his underground kingdom where his Dwarf slaves, including his brother, Mime, forge it into an all-powerful magic ring. In addition they create the Tarnhelm – a magical helmet which allows its wearer to transform into any creature they desire.
Meanwhile on the highest mountaintop, Wotan, ruler of the Gods prepares to move into Valhalla, the magnificent new fortress created for him by Giants – the brothers Fasolt and Fafner. To the horror – and uninterrupted bad temper – of his wife, Fricka, Wotan has promised her sister Freia, goddess of youth and beauty, to the Giant brothers as payment for their work. Needless to say, there is friction (and more than a little consternation) among the Gods who need Freia’s golden apples to stay forever young and healthy. Loge (the demi-god of fire) informs Wotan of the theft of the Rhine gold and of the existence of a magical ring of power. Wotan, therefore, undertakes the journey to Nibelung to obtain (actually – steal!) the gold and the ring in order to buy back Freia from the Giants.
By outwitting and capturing Alberich using a series of clever tricks, Wotan and Loge force him to give up his hoards of gold – including the ring and the Tarnhelm – in exchange for his freedom. Before he leaves, however, Alberich places a curse on the ring – whoever possesses it shall live in constant anxiety and fear, eventually be robbed of it and brutally killed as well. To see who becomes the first to own the ring (and to be killed for it), as well as to witness the Gods finally making their ascent over the Rainbow Bridge into their new home in Valhalla – you’ll have to stay for the rest of this first night’s prelude to the continuing saga of The Ring of the Nibelung.
Wednesday, March 25
Wagner’s Die Walküre ~4hrs and 20 min
Starring Deborah Voigt, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Stephanie Blythe, Jonas Kaufmann, Bryn Terfel, and Hans-Peter König, conducted by James Levine. From May 14, 2011.
As we begin the second installment, many years have passed and a restless Wotan has been wandering in the world of Humans. As Gods are wont to do, he has apparently fathered many children along the way – among them, the nine Valkyries (including Brünnhilde, Die Walküre of the title). The Valkyries are warrior maidens whose job it is to retrieve fallen heroes from the battlefield and bring them up to Valhalla. With his Human mate from the Völsung clan Wotan has also fathered the twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde, who were separated from each other in very early childhood by fierce Human clan wars.
The young Siegmund, on his own for many years, is still fleeing his family’s enemies. Exhausted, unarmed and wounded, he stumbles into a large hut in the forest that is strangely built around a huge ash tree which just happens to contain a sword buried to its hilt in the trunk (which, needless to say, no one has been able to remove). Sieglinde, having been abducted by a rival clan and forced into marriage, is now living in the selfsame hut and is the wife of Hunding. She enters to find the wounded Siegfried, and as she tries to give him help, finds herself inexplicably drawn to the stranger. When Hunding returns, it becomes increasingly clear that he is one of Siegmund’s pursuers. He grants Siegmund lodging for the night, but promises to fight him to the death in the morning.
Keep watching this one to witness the freeing of the magical sword from the tree, the twins’ incestuous love making, Fricka’s resultant anger, the fierce battle that leaves both Siegmund and Hunding dead, the rescue of a pregnant Sieglinde by the Valkyrie Brünnhilde which so angers her father, Wotan, that he makes her mortal and imprisons her in sleep on a mountain of fire until a suitable hero can pass through the flames and awaken her. All this and more is in the jam-packed plot that includes perhaps the most famous piece of music in all opera – The Ride of the Valkyries. This one is my favorite of all four. If you only see one, this is the one to see – and hear – with a nearly ideal cast including heartthrob tenor Jonas Kaufmann, sopranos Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde and Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde and bass-baritone Sir Bryn Terfel as Wotan. Enjoy!
Thursday, March 26
Wagner’s Siegfried ~4hrs and 25 min
Starring Deborah Voigt, Jay Hunter Morris, Gerhard Siegel, Bryn Terfel, and Eric Owens, conducted by Fabio Luisi. From November 5, 2011.
Again, time has passed. In the interim, Sieglinde was found wandering in the woods by the Nibelung smith, Mime (Alberich’s estranged brother). She died giving birth to Siegfried who was adopted and raised by Mime specifically to kill the Giant, Fafner, who now possesses the ring and the Tarnhelm and has used them to transform himself into a fearsome dragon. Are you following?
So – we learn that the now fully grown Siegfried has broken every sword Mime has fashioned for him. Although Siegfried dislikes Mime, he has stayed with him in the hope of learning about his real parentage (Note: Wagner prefers his heroes to be strong but stupid so the most intelligent thing Siegfried does in the entire opera is figure out that a Dwarf could not possibly be his father!). When Siegfried finally forces the story from Mime, he is shown the broken pieces of his real father’s sword (Nothung) – destroyed by Wotan during Siegmund’s ill-fated battle with Hunding (see above!). Siegfried orders Mime to re-forge the sword, but leaves in disgust when Mime is not able to do it.
Wotan, now in disguise and calling himself the Wanderer, miraculously appears at Mime’s door. They engage in a riddle duel to the death (shades of Gollum and Frodo!), which Mime of course loses. Nevertheless, Wotan leaves him with his head still attached, telling him only that “he who does not know fear” can re-forge the sword. Wotan then leaves Mime to forfeit his head to that particular fearless individual.
When Siegfried returns, Mime quickly realizes that Siegfried is indeed the one “who does not know fear” and that Siegfried will kill him unless he can be tricked first into re-forging the sword, and then into learning fear.
The next three hours (!) take us through countless familiar legends from the re-forging of a magical sword; to its use in killing first the dragon Fafner and then the well-deserving Mime (while both Alberich and the Wanderer watch from hiding in the background); to Siegfried’s quest to fulfill his destiny and find a woman sleeping on a rock surrounded by fire (with the help of a bird he can now understand thanks to tasting a drop of the dragon’s blood). By the end of this episode, Wotan no longer fears the coming demise of the Gods. Siegfried learns fear when he awakens his Sleeping Beauty (actually his aunt Brünnhilde!) and experiences love for the first time. Brünnhilde renounces the world of the Gods for the love of a mortal – and are you exhausted yet? If not, there’s still (a significantly cut down!) nearly five hours to go!
Friday, March 27
Wagner’s Götterdämmerung ~4hrs and 45 min
Starring Deborah Voigt, Wendy Bryn Harmer, Waltraud Meier, Jay Hunter Morris, Iain Paterson, Eric Owens, and Hans-Peter König, conducted by Fabio Luisi. From February 11, 2012.
And finally – the one that wraps it all up! During the prologue, the three Norns (daughters of Erda just like the Valkyries although their father probably was not Wotan) are weaving the fabric of Destiny. They remind us of some of the highlights of what has gone on before, but when their threads suddenly break they mysteriously disappear in a flash, lamenting their loss of wisdom.
Meanwhile our sleeping beauty and her hero have enjoyed a brief honeymoon. In an act of loving selflessness, Brünnhilde sends Siegfried off to learn about life and do good deeds, giving him her shield and her faithful horse, Grane – who must have been sleeping all this time as well. As a symbol of his own love and faithfulness, Siegfried gives Brünnhilde the ring of power he took from Fafner’s hoard. After they part there is a beautiful orchestral interlude (often played as a separate concert piece) describing his journey to the Rhine and the deeds that make him a renowned hero.
Next we are introduced to a new branch of the Human family – the Gibichungs – who control much land along the Rhine. There is Gunther, the ruler, and Guntrune his sister, and Hagen, their half brother (the smart one!) who is forcefully advising his siblings to find mates and keep the Gibichung line alive. His choice for Gunther is Brünnhilde, and for Guntrune it is Siegfried (obviously, word has gotten out about our hero and heroine). Hagen gives Guntrune a particularly convenient potion she can use to make Siegfried forget Brünnhilde and fall in love with her instead. So all they have to do is find Siegfried. The hapless Siegfried, of course, comes conveniently knocking on their door.
While Hagen continues his plotting to entrap Siegfried, Brünnhilde is visited on her mountain by her Valkyrie sister, Waltraute. Waltraute tells Brünnhilde that things are not well in Valhalla. Wotan’s sacred spear has been broken and the World Tree cut down for a pyre. She begs Brünnhilde to save the Gods by returning the cursed ring of power to the Rhine Maidens, but Brünnhilde refuses since she is unwilling to part with Siegfried’s token of love.
The remainder of our journey through the “twilight of the Gods” involves potions, disguises, betrayals, deaths and of course, redemptions. The music is glorious, the plot is confusing (or ridiculous depending on your perspective) and the Machine is stunning throughout. Happily, you have 20 hours of availability to get through this one…. you can pause, leave and come back as often as you like or just let it run and listen to the heavenly music as you go about your chores….. Enjoy!