The Pittsburgh Ring
July 14 - 23, 2006
Conductor...Anthony Negus; Read an interview with Mr. Negus
Lighting Design...C&C Lighting
Scenic and Costume Designer...Danila Korogodsky
Brünnhilde...Deidra Palmour Gorton
Mime... Joel Sorensen
Twilight of the Gods
Rhinemaidens...Diba Alvi, Charlene Canty, Elizabeth Saunders
In our designs the operas are set in a place where time and space began, amid the sands of centuries, on the shoulders of eons of generations of species that have gone before.
The story lines of the four operas of Wagner’s Ring follow the dying struggles of an old corrupt order and the birthing of a new order. These death-and-birth-struggles focus round a central conflict: the love of power versus the power of love. Deeply embedded in the story lines are philosophical dilemmas of determinism versus free will and moral struggles of egocentricity versus altruistic love.
In the old world order, immortals and supra-humans compete to determine how the world will continue. The world has several different species of beings. There are gods (or perhaps more aptly named, since they enjoy no omnipotence, immortals) led by Wotan. It is Wotan’s job to maintain the order and balance of his world, which is held together by treaties and laws. Wotan has great power but is limited by the order he is in power to protect. He has to learn how to exercise power responsibly, with ethical consistency, and beyond the trammels of ego. There are Nibelung dwarves, led by Alberich, who briefly gains terrible power by forswearing love and forging the Rhinemaidens’ gold into a ring, and continues to represent a powerful malignancy throughout the cycle. There is Erda, a sort of earth mother and seer who interprets the fabric of the universe, reads the threads of time and destiny. She is a powerful counterbalance to Wotan – an anima to his animus, and with her ability to read the future, a pillar of determinism in a world reaching for freedom of will. The operas are also peopled with giants, an ancient race and declining part of the world compact, and other elemental and natural spirits, such as Rhinemaidens or wood-birds. All these lesser characters are largely unable to see beyond their own immediate urges and needs. And there are mortal humans, the new boys on the block. Innocent, free-acting humans are seen by Wotan as the only viable future opposition to Alberich. However the human race seems still to be in its infancy – it hasn’t developed yet to become a powerful part of a new world order – and hasn’t yet developed an ability to function freely without self-interest or self-deception, to act out of selfless love.
Wotan is the guardian of the laws of the existing old order, and his spear or staff is the codex of those laws. Wotan breaks his trust several times early on, most notably in seizing the ring initially for himself. To side-step the consequences of his misdealings he tries repeatedly to create new races to help defend and ultimately redeem the immortals.
The Valkyries are his daughters born of Erda, and Siegmund and Sieglinde are his twins born of the mortal Wälsung clan. Wotan cannot breed his new races alone, he is not an omnipotent god, and needs the female gods and mortal women too – hence part of the hold Fricka has over him: the mingling of genes is also governed by rules of moral consistency, by the dependence and responsibility of male to female, or of ‘marriage’.
Alberich becomes Wotan’s nemesis – and each antagonist sees elements of himself in the other. Wotan too forgoes love, even if he does not forswear it, and sacrifices Siegmund and Brünnhilde. Wotan begins to see himself as the Nibelung’s alter-ego, calling himself “Light-Alberich”. Alberich is a formidable and complex opponent: in his renunciation of love he is invested with magnificence as well as malignity. The similarity of the Valhalla and Ring motifs also might suggest that Wotan and Alberich are two sides of the same coin.
Sight, clear sight, becomes a key symbol in the piece: Erda has power because she is a seer, she has a sight that transcends that of Wotan. However, her vision is part of a determinist world – her view of the future ends, terrifyingly for her, at the point where Wotan decides to break with the old order and try to engineer a world where free will reigns. Part of Wotan’s early frustration is that he cannot see clearly; he sees enough to know he and his kind are doomed, and not enough to see a clear way forward – here he experiences terrible impotence and frustration. This makes him fractious, unpredictable, willful, destructive – carrying out dreadful vengeance on his half-breed offspring Siegmund and Brünnhilde. Part of his dilemma lies in his need to create a free being with free will who can redeem the gods – and his early inability to step back from intervening in that free being’s destiny. In Valkyrie he tries to load the dice in favor of his offspring. Eventually he realizes this is self-defeating: “A free man creates himself: those I create are merely slaves.” “I cannot father a son who is free.” His journey ends when he sets up a confrontation with Siegfried which Wotan plans to lose. Forcing Siegfried to defeat him and break the spear that enshrines the old order means Siegfried will have complete freedom of action to establish a new order – but, alas, Siegfried turns out not yet to have freedom from the deceptions and depradations of ego and passion, and many of the decisions he will make in the last opera will prove destructive.
The gold in the Rhine is a mysterious but not intrinsically malevolent force while it is left in its place, under the guardianship of somewhat silly, idle, playful water nymphs; however once it is removed from its safe source and refashioned it becomes a potent malevolence. It calls to mind the core of the atom: when held in balance in its natural place in the order of things it holds no danger. Split it, fuse it, reforge it, and it becomes explosively dangerous. Value misused becomes evil – and reveals and catalyzes the evil in men’s hearts. And what is the most potent form of evil? Most simply it is greed for power, dominion over others, naked egoism, without the mitigating influence of love.
Brünnhilde is the immortal who is deprived of her godhood and becomes mortal – and with it discovers the joys and terrible egoistic passions of human love. Apparently betrayed by Siegfried, she discovers a murderous need in herself for revenge. She struggles towards a more selfless love in choosing to sacrifice herself on Siegfried’s funeral pyre. Thereby she will also purge the ring of its evil and allow it to be returned to the Rhinemaidens. The flames of the pyre will also burn down Valhalla and the world of the immortals. And afterwards, what is left? In the story-line of the operas, Alberich survives – but remains mute. So, presumably, does Loge, half-god of fire. The immortals are gone. Siegfried and Brünnhilde leave behind no offspring. Is the new order one in which man has redeemed the gods? One where love vanquishes power, altruism liberates the ego? Or is it, in typical grand German Romantic style, a Liebestod – a love-death – in which consummation can only be achieved in oblivion? Would Wotan, I wonder, be proud of this world we inhabit, which mortal man has inherited and fashioned? There are no answers – but there is the music. And the music at the end of Twilight of the Gods is transcendent. Let us continue to hope.
Wagner began the text for his Ring cycle in 1848 a year of international revolution against aristocratic rulers which was followed, largely, by a reinforcing of the old order. His sources include five epic sagas, in Icelandic, Middle High German, and Old Norse, all dating from 13th century. Wagner also acknowledged the influence of Aeschylus Oresteia and Prometheus plays. The texts of the operas were written in reverse order, starting with The Death of Siegfried (which became Twilight of the Gods), then Young Siegfried (subsequently entitled Siegfried), then Valkyrie then Rhinegold. Having completed the first draft of the four operas he then retrospectively changed the ending, consigning the gods and their order to perish in the flames of Valhalla. The music was then written forwards , starting with Rhinegold in 1853. From start to end the overall composition took 26 years, with the first complete cycle being performed in 1876.