Length: c. 150 minutes
About this Piece
Das Rheingold is simultaneously a free-standing, economical music drama (clocking in at 2.5 hours, it’s positively pithy by Wagnerian standards) and the launch of an extraordinary 17-hour musical and theatrical journey, the largest work in the Western musical canon. Its composer/librettist Richard Wagner (1813-1883), a leftist revolutionary in his early years, first imagined Der Ring des Nibelungen, the cycle which Das Rheingold opens, as a parable of contemporary political cataclysm in Europe circa 1848, but its resonance eventually reverberated more enduringly and much further, into philosophy, psychology, and literature, as well as music and theater themselves. The massive compendium of ideas that is Der Ring evolved along with Wagner himself during the 28 years between his first sketches of its texts (1848) and its world premiere (1876) at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, the theater specially designed and built to house it.
Das Rheingold was an ingenious afterthought. Wagner had conceived Siegfried’s Tod (later dubbed Götterdämmerung) as a single music drama, then added some backstory in a second work, Der junge Siegfried (later just Siegfried). In 1851, he stretched the chronology farther back, appending Die Walküre. Finally, he prefaced this triptych with Das Rheingold. The idea of a trilogy with an introductory evening came from The Oresteia (458 BCE) by Aeschylus, and like that masterwork, Der Ring begins with a crime and subsequent curse that trigger a long series of disastrous events, pitting gods against mortals (and in Wagner’s cycle, ultimately destroying nature both animate and inanimate). And like The Oresteia, Der Ring positioned theater as a rite of communal catharsis, not just a diversion. It was Wagner’s living manifesto for Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), a new (or, really, periodically revived) vision of theater striving to unite and balance all the arts.
Like Der Ring itself, Das Rheingold comprises a Prologue and three parts. Its mises-en-scène provide a perfect canvas for the most creative of theater artists and musicians: mythical places beneath and above the Earth including the bottom of the Rhine River, home of the three Rhine Daughters who guard a cache of magical gold; the mountain heights where the gods dwell; and the dark subterranean realm of the low-status Nibelungs, during a non-specific prehistorical era.
Das Rheingold introduces us to a dynasty of gods who seem all too human, as well as many of Der Ring’s most important symbols (the Rhine Gold, the Spear, the Tarnhelm, the Sword, Fire, the Rainbow Bridge, Valhalla, the Curse, the Ring itself) and the Leitmotiven (musical mini-themes linked to specific people, places, objects, or concepts) that represent them, which Wagner brilliantly weaves together to form the very fabric of the music drama.
From the first measures of Das Rheingold, we know that we’re entering preternatural territory. It begins with a stunning sonic delineation of creation, which the self-mythologizing Wagner claimed to have conceived in a sort of lucid dream. “The rush and roar soon took musical shape within my brain as the chord of E-flat major, surging incessantly in broken chords: These declared themselves as melodic figurations of increasing motion, yet the pure triad of E-flat major never changed. … I awoke from my half-sleep in terror, feeling as though the waves were now rushing high above my head.”
Primordial nature, not yet split into fire, water, earth, and air, is captured in a barely audible low E-flat in the double basses, which slowly opens out four measures later with a B-flat in the bassoons. Twelve measures later, a single French horn outlines an E-flat major triad up the scale for more than two octaves, then one by one, all eight horns join in for waves of arpeggios, all on the same E-flat major triad. After the cellos and eventually the whole orchestra enter, the chord that has been swelling for over four minutes (136 bars of unalloyed E-flat) finally blossoms into melody, like an organism multiplied from a single cell.
Since Wieland Wagner, the composer’s grandson, reopened the Bayreuth Festival after World War II in the minimalist, figurative “New Bayreuth" production style, Der Ringhas inspired as many looks and concepts as there were designers and directors to take it on. Many of their productions have sprung from one justifying passage or another from Wagner’s extensive prose writings. But ultimately, each creative team must decide which major threads of this prodigiously rich tapestry to highlight, identifying the work’s most urgent messages as they perceive them. That decision will naturally be colored by their own cultural frames of reference, their individual creative personalities, the times in which they’re working, and the particular challenges and opportunities of the performance space (especially in this case, when we’re working in an iconic concert space designed by a distinguished team member, Frank Gehry). A good creative team hopes that somewhere in their Ring production, you will recognize yourself, discern what unique role you personally play in the ongoing saga of creation and destruction, and perhaps make some important decisions based on that.
Cori Ellison, dramaturg