Over the past week, PBS has been showing the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. While there is much controversy about this particular production, let alone the operas and the composer himself, that is not what I’d like to discuss.
Recently I reviewed Tolkien’s Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, which is both a translation and reworking of Norse and Icelandic legend. Ultimately, Wagner’s Ring was derived from the same sources, though also drawing from the High German Nibelungenlied. Yet, even though drawn from basically the same source material, and telling derivations of the same story, the two are of drastically different character.
Whereas the Eddas, and Tolkien’s poem enthrall the reader with little effort, Wagner’s Ring largely lacks this easy accessibility. There are passages of music which are truly thrilling, and yet the shear length and style of the tetrology can be very daunting. There is reason that to many new opera, the Ring Cycle is something of a musical Mount Everest. it is nearly 16 hours of music after all.
Using Tolkien’s analysis of Norse versus Old English literature, the approach and reaction to the Ring is largely that of the latter. In place of an immediate hook, the opera-goer finds themselves slowly drawn across a learning curve. In place of sudden delight and lasting study, the operas lend themselves more to study, then delight in discovery. The brilliance of Wagner’s work reveals itself gradually as the listener becomes more familiar with the work, its themes and his methods.
And yet, with the introduction of translated subtitles, something curious happens. We are told the story which so enthralls in the Edda or The Legend. Here we get the double whammy of Wagner’s tremendous music and the “demonic energy” of the Edda as Tolkien puts it. And so are opera-goers doubly hooked! To be enslaved to the retelling of a great piece of mythology and to be drawn to study and revelation in the music. It is a curious case, for in this synergy, the qualities Tolkien ascribes to Icelandic and Old English works are combined.