For who could live without love? (Das Rheingold, redux)

So, remember how I mentioned those upcoming Big Games, the ones that likely mean we’ll be playing them for hours at a time and falling way behind in all of our TV-watching? One of these is the upcoming Elden Ring, From’s latest offering. This means we can expect the usual punishingly-hard combat, I’m sure – and this time it comes with a vaguely familiar premise:

A magical ring, now shattered, remnants of its power still clinging to the shards of it, power-hungry folk pursuing such fragments and jealously guarding what they have. A world tree – well, an “Erdtree,” anyway. There’s something a bit familiar about this, to be sure – but no, the world tree’s rather more Nordic

Ah. Of course. It feels very Wagnerian.

And so it is that we have, prior to the game’s release, embarked on the massive project of re-watching the Ring Cycle.

This time around, we thought we’d give the recent(ish) Lepage staging a look, with its notorious huge machine that (when it works smoothly) shifts and rearranges itself to form abstractions of the various landscapes we see in the show. Happily, the Metropolitan Opera has joined the video on-demand space, and a month’s worth of their subscription fee is plenty to let us see all four shows.

We begin with Das Rheingold, in which we learn how the Cycle’s eponymous Ring came to be: Once, long ago, the Rheingold rested somewhere deep in the bed of the Rhine river, guarded by the Rhinemaidens, who delighted in its light. Alberich, a Nibelung (translated in the libretto here as a “gnome,” though in the earlier production we saw he was much ore of a Gollum-like monster), watches the Rhinemaidens play with a kind of searing possessiveness. “If I could only catch one!”

…That’s right, Alberich is basically an incel. (One wonders what the “chan”-equivalent of the mythic age would have been like.) Since he cannot win any of the ladies he’s ogling, he instead steals the Rheingold from them, crafting of it a ring that should, in theory, allow him to wield the latent power of the gold and give him dominion over…well, everything, ultimately…provided that he renounce love for ever, for only one who has forsaken love completely may craft such a thing.

Meanwhile, the gods (that is, the Norse-Germanic contingent, headed by Odin and company – here with Germanicized names, like Wotan) have just had a spectacular home built for them by the giants Fafnir and Fasolt, and promptly demonstrate that they are spectacular assholes. Or at least Odin is, having promised the giants the goddess Freya in return for their labor (apparently without asking anyone including her), then promptly stiffing them when the expected outrage ensues.

Considering that one of the things Odin is known for is contracts and the honoring thereof, this seems like a bad sign.

Anyway, we learn just what a monumentally stupid idea this was when it is revealed that if Freya is taken, the gods immediately weaken, beginning to age and die without the influence of her apples of immortality. Helpfully, Loki (because of course Loki) knows somewhere they might be able to find enough gold for her ransom – after all, the Nibelungs have plenty.

And on that note, we’re off to the races.

What follows is a couple of hours of more leitmotif than melody and of characters behaving very, very badly. I mean, yes, Alberich is a power-obsessed asshole, but so is just about everyone else in this thing – the Ring Cycle is surprisingly light on sympathetic characters, and just in case we weren’t already fully aware of this, the gods’ majestic ascent to Valhalla is underscored by the Rhinemaidens lamenting that, basically, they’re dicks who can’t be trusted. (In this staging, Loki also looks on, having just pondered whether he might not just set everything on fire, who knows?)

The staging must have been really spectacular seen live – it’s essentially a huge conglomeration of…beams that reconfigure themselves into various shapes to set the scene. These are further enhanced by projections that appear to be either timed by the music or somehow are coordinated from up in the booth – the gravelly banks of the Rhine actually scatter stones as characters slide along them, for example. (Rehearsals must have been a beast.)

Here’s the thing about that set though: often, the surfaces it creates are just about vertical, and there’s nothing to hold onto. So a surprising number of the performers in this are kitted out with a flying rig, basically, allowing them to do things like “swim” directly upward, or (in the case of that final Bifrost crossing) walk directly up a wall. It is both very impressive and rather nerve-wracking to watch; I hope nobody was injured.

Anyway. It’s a fairly spectacular show, and the stage is definitely set. The ring, now cursed to incite ferocious greed and jealousy that will destroy both those who possess it and those who yearn for it, is in the hands of the giant Fafnir, who slew his brother for it. The Tarnhelm, which grants shapeshifting powers to the wielder (forged under duress by Alberich’s brother Mime) is lost to the giant as well. Alberich has slunk back to the underworld in shame and possibly minus a finger, and the gods have moved into their swanky new digs…though Odin clearly isn’t going to be able to stop obsessing about that ring anytime soon.

Next up: someone I can actually root for shows up, and it doesn’t go all that well.

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