Magnum Opus

Image credit of Teatro Alla Scala (teatroallascala.org)

Image credit of Teatro Alla Scala (teatroallascala.org)

Picture this: an opera house. Darkness. People are fumbling with programs, lost in the thoughts of conversations that grow dim as the lights are switched off. The clock above the stage silently shifts to show 6:30. As if by magic, applause erupts. It grows, becoming all the more powerful. And the orchestra, which has been hidden somewhere in the blackness before, suddenly comes to life.

The first sounds that you hear don’t resemble anything you’ve heard before. They haunt you. They disturb you. They make memories resurface. They shiver in fear and worry. And then: a trace of light, a ray of violin–hope. And back into fear and darkness again, before bursting into an elaborate orchestral relief full of light, life, and love. In the first few seconds of the overture, black and white have already been juxtaposed, melted and mixed with one another, resulting in an expression of what could be the definition of harmony. Unsettling and profoundly philosophical, this seems to be a pure musical idyll, consonant and controversial.

The vermillion curtain is propelled upwards by the force of the overture. And you’re lost. You’re thrilled. You’re captivated. You’ve got no words, no sense of time, no memories up to the moment when it goes down again, leaving you exhausted and ecstatic.

Richard Wagner famously remarked, “Even if I know I shall never change the masses, never transform anything permanent, all I ask is that good things also have their place, their refuge.” As last year marked the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth, opera houses around the world became “refuges of good things,” among which the monumental magnum opus, Der Ring des Nibelungen, known affectionately as Der Ring.

Imagine a cycle of operas that runs for seventeen hours. A cycle that, to be performed in full glory requires a quadruple orchestra, encompassing more than 100 instruments: 40 violins and violas, 10 cellos, 10 contrabasses, 8 French horns, 6 harps and a quartet of Wagner tubas. All of the above is true for the Ring.

In its fable-like magical realism, the cycle strips away the layer of deception it’s oftentimes difficult for traditional portrayals of life to avoid. Masters of all arts, be it literature, music, or painting, all too often fall in the trap of wandering away from reality, in pursuit of a narrative bearing a close resemblance to the truth. Forgoing the realism of action allows the realism in the Ring’s portrayal of feeling to flourish. The bitter veraciousness the composer aimed for – as evidenced by the letter to August Röckel, in which Wagner claims that the cycle “shows nature in all its undistorted truth and essential contradictions, contradictions which in their infinitely varied manifestations embrace even what is mutually repellent” – is what makes the cycle as captivating and relevant now, as it was back in 1876, the year of its premiere.

There is a common misconception that Wagner’s music is difficult to understand, and nearly unbearable to listen to. However, nothing could be further from the truth. I hold firmly to the belief that being exposed to even the tiniest bit of this magic—“The Ride of the Valkyries,” for example, would be more than enough to convert anyone to classical music. Impressive, fundamental and surprisingly modern in sound, it’s very close to what could be Wagner’s pièce de résistance, effectively summing up most of the composer’s ideas and discoveries in just five minutes.

Using the word “opera” to describe Der Ring is very wrong. I find that I’m in desperate need of a better term. There’re no recitatives, arias or quintets, nothing to distract from the powerful and seemingly infinite flow of music. These operas embody Wagner’s concept of a “musical drama,” built on the equality of music and words, singers and orchestra. This monumental torrent of sounds is regulated with mathematical precision. For the most part, the score consists of leitmotifs – melodies or musical phrases associated with certain characters or objects, intertwining and sometimes colliding to echo the meaning of the words being sung. The complex system functions without a glitch. No matter the mood or the main idea, if the poetry mentions the Rhein, the music follows, creating natural supertitles, a second layer of meaning, that can easily be comprehended by remembering a sort of a basic alphabet of tunes or melodische Momente (Melodic moments) associated with the principal characters, objects and emotions.

All through the 26 years it took the composer to create the chef d’oeuvre, his view of the final outcome was constantly changing. Initially, the epic was intended as a rather simple narrative of the life and actions of a naïve and fearless hero, Siegfried, the person held responsible for the impressive apocalypse – Gotterdämmerung (literally – the twilight of gods) that concludes the cycle.

What started as a depiction of an almost romantic fight of an individual against inescapable fate gradually became a complicated philosophical reflection. It’s an expression of the composer’s disappointment with the world. With its vices, crimes and sins, the human kind will never be able eradicate, however tempting a virtuous life might seem. The imaginary reality of Der Ring serves as a distorting mirror of the world we inhabit. It reflects human qualities and desires, inflating them to grotesque proportions beyond recognition, elevating the most common sentiments and aspirations to the level of an obsession. Alberich renounces love for the sake of possessing the ring. His actions are the epitome of greed proper, a manic fixation on a tempting object. Evidently, the only possible solution for such a fundamentally flawed structure is to collapse into non-existence.

The story that started in bright hues, both musically and emotionally, gets all the more tragic as the end draws nearer and the acts become longer. Siegfried, joyful and innocent in Siegfried, turns into a hero by the end Gotterdämmerung. The fate of the world is concentrated in his hands. Torn between dissonant feelings, he commits the ultimate sin. He forgets, having accidentally drunk the potion of oblivion. It’s not understanding and not remembering lessons of the past that essentially provokes the ignominious end. Siegfried perishes innocently, but his death doesn’t change anything. A dystopian end… Valhalla falls to the Earth, everything dies under its debris.

Only Rhine and its gold are left. Back to the very beginning. Back to the light and the sun. And the leitmotif of the Rhein is a sign of a new world and a new hope.

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