I’ve just stopped by the website for this season’s performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at Chicago’s Lyric Opera, which I’ll be heading out to see in about a week. Many of the performers are the same singers I saw in the Met’s 2004 production: Jane Eaglen as Brunnhilde, Placido Domingo as Siegmund, and, of course, that professional Wotan, James Morris. But as is evident from the photos at the site, the costuming and scenery differs markedly from Otto Schenk’s hyper-realistic production. Instead, August Everding’s staging looks like it’s less influenced by Norse myth than by Flash Gordon and Tron.
Which, when you think about it, makes a certain kind of sense. It was only well after he’d written the Ring libretto that Wagner became steeped in the philosophy of Schopenhauer, with its distinction (borrowed from Kant) between the illusory, phenomenal world and the underlying noumenal reality, which Schopenhauer associates with the Will. Yet that idea of duality is in many ways at the heart of the Ring. Structurally, we see it in Wagner’s use of leitmotifs, which often hint at truths of which the characters are unaware—as when Brunnhilde sings to Siegmund of his father Walse to the tune of the Valhalla motif, letting us know (if we hadn’t guessed) that Walse is actually Wotan; or as the transition to Valhalla’s theme from the insidious Ring motif reveals that the apparently noble, stately power of the gods is, in a sense, just the flip side of the dark power Alberich gains through the renunciation of love (foreshadowing Wotan’s description of himself much later, in Siegfried as “licht-Alberich” or “light Alberich”).
But it’s also there at the plot level. Initially, Wagner had intended to tell the story of the Norse hero Siegfried’s adventures and eventual demise. But it is Wotan who, though he doesn’t physically appear at all in the final opera of the Cycle, ended up being the real protagonist of the story. And until at least the end of Siegfried, it can justly be said that the human characters are Tron-like avatars, pawns serving Wotan’s will to power. In theory, that connection is supposed to be broken when Siegfried shatters Wotan’s spear, symbolically seizing his own destiny. Yet in Götterdämmerung, we see Wotan’s nemesis, schwartz-Alebrich, appear to his son Hagen, clearly intent on using him as a proxy for his own scheme to recover the ring. And it’s not, I think, unfair to say that even the ostensibly free heroes there are still acting out the god’s will—no longer the will to power, but his will to self destruction. The turning point comes late in Die Walküre when, his plans at recovering the ring for himself gone awry, he reveals that he now desires only “the end,” which he confirms in Siegfried, singing “Um der Götter Ende grämt mich die Angst nicht, seit mein Wunsch es—will!”: I don’t fear the end of the gods, for my desire now wills it!
Most Ring criticism I’ve seen (which, admittedly, represents a few pages in a vast library) appears to take at face value the idea that by the time we reach that final opera, the human protagonists have broken their bonds to the gods and are acting autonomously? And yet, how does it end? With the fulfillment of both Wotan’s will to self-destruction and Loge’s prophecy, from the end of Rheingold of the razing of Valhalla by fire. These ostensibly rogue programs, Wotan’s daughter and grandson, end up bringing about precisely his deepest desire.
The Tron-like imagery, then, is pretty apt. The human conflict that drives the plot of ever greater portions of the last three operas amounts to a kind of shadow puppetry, a reflection of the conflict between the competing power lusts of Alberich and Wotan, the latter of which, by the second half of the Cycle, has become a will to renunciation.