Review of 'Rhinegold' by Richard Wagner, English National Opera at the Coliseum
Wagner's music represents the high point of German Romanticism and gives powerful expression to German nationalism. In his early life, he was involved with a liberal nationalist organisation called Young Germany, and in 1848 he welcomed the outbreak of revolution throughout Europe with a poem celebrating the uprising in Vienna. When the revolutionary wave reached Dresden in May 1849 he became editor of a republican weekly and narrowly escaped arrest. Unfortunately, in later life Wagner became a virulent anti-Semite, and there has been much debate as to whether or not his music was misused by the Nazis. But as Anthony Arblaster emphasises in Viva La Liberta: Politics in Opera, Wagner always conceived of his operas as music that would speak to and for the people.
One of Wagner's greatest achievements is the cycle of four linked though independent operas known as The Ring of the Niebelung, a complex story drawn from German medieval mythology involving Rhinemaidens, gods, giants and dwarves, as well as humans. Its central theme is the struggle between love and power, the overthrow of a world gripped by greed and oppression, and its replacement by one ruled by freedom and benevolence.
Rhinegold is the first opera of the cycle and is Wagner's most political work. Its narrative centres around the struggle for the gold between the characters and the price they are prepared to pay for it. The three Rhinemaidens watch over the gold - however, they are interested in it not for commercial but for aesthetic reasons, admiring its radiance. Alberich the dwarf (Niebelung) makes a pass at each of the maidens in turn but is rejected by all three. One maiden lets slip that the gold possesses magic powers - whoever acquires and fashions a ring from it could make themselves master of the world. There is one condition, however: the would-be owner must renounce love. Alberich does so and seizes the gold. In a subsequent scene, he has used the power afforded him by the ring to enslave his fellow dwarves. In the dwarves' realm of Niebelheim, in the depths of the mountain, we see him driving them with a whip to mine gold for him. This seems a clear allegorical reference to the new industrial capitalism - whoever possesses the ring acquires supreme economic power, the power to exploit fellow humans. Rhinegold thus contains an explicit critique of the destructive effects of capitalist relations - love and capitalism don't go together.
Wotan, chief of the gods, and Loge, the god of fire (the gods represent an old leisure class), take Alberich prisoner and demand the gold in return for his freedom. They need it to pay off the two giants Fafner and Fasolt who have built Valhalla, Wotan's new castle at the top of the mountain. Not content with the gold, Wotan wrests the ring from Alberich's finger, whereupon the dwarf utters a curse on all who may possess the ring.
Rhinegold is full of music of immense lyrical and dramatic power. Wagner's originality is also evident in his use of the 'leitmotiv': the symbolic representation of different characters or elements in the opera by specific musical themes.
Director Phyllida Lloyd and designer Richard Hudson have given Rhinegold a contemporary setting - the Rhinemaidens are pole dancers in a nightclub, Wotan is an unscrupulous property developer and the giants are construction engineers, with the action taking place in Wotan's modern apartment. But this seems to diminish the work's universal theme, to deflect its message from the corrupting effects of the lust for money and power onto a narrower focus on property speculation. However, musically it is sung and played with considerable success.