On Wagner’s Ring

It always amazes me that there are people who love Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen without reservation, who find it essentially a perfect work of art. I love it… and hate it. I am blown away, every time I make the effort to sit through its 16 hours of music, by much of it. But there’s always a nagging question in the back of mind my: Do I care? Do I really care about these people? And are they really people at all, or philosophical archetypes animated by the illusion of humanity? I’ve never made up my mind. For a long time I thought that was perhaps  a flaw in my understanding, a failure to adequately engage myself in the drama. But increasingly I think it’s a failure of the work. Not that there isn’t magnificence in it. But it is flawed, deeply flawed. I tried to work out my reservations in a piece for Opera News, which has already attracted considerable scorn on some of the opera blogs, especially among orthodox Wagnerians. Here’s part of its basic argument:


How much longer can Wagner’s Ring retain its exceptional status? Its enduring popularity runs so counter to the vast majority of cultural and artistic trends that it’s tempting to think of it the way many people thought of the boom stock markets of the Bush and Clinton years: somehow, for reasons beyond explication, it can only go up, stay up and never fall. But there is an Achilles heel to the Ring, a weakness that could suddenly deflate the singular and inspiring power it has retained despite all its absurdities, its extraordinary longueurs and its punishing demands on those who stage it, sing it and watch it.

Keep your eye on Siegfried. If the status of Siegfried begins to change for the worse, the whole Ring could come crashing down with him. He is the cycle’s most problematic figure, its most volatile element. For decades (especially since World War II), he’s been both its hero and its antihero, attractive and odious at the same time, and somehow perpetually in motion between these extremes. As long as we can suspend judgment about the character of Siegfried, the Ring can go on. But if, in the future, audiences reject him, Götterdämmerung for the Ring could come at the end of Die Walküre.

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1 Comment

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One response to “On Wagner’s Ring

  1. Siegfried is an obnoxious and annoying brat in the Ring Cycle, and the characterization by Wagner is a failure here. However, he is a needed –albeit very unsatisfying – link for the transformation of Brunnhilde from godhood to womanhood. To me Brunnhilde is the most endearing character I have seen in any work of art.

    I very much appreciate the drama in Wagner’s operas (he calls his works music drama anyway), but his libretto are usually dull and bland. I am judging from the English translation, not the original text in German, so my assessment could be missing the target a bit. But I am deeply impressed by the librettos of Richard Strauss’s operas, also judging from the English translation.

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