Vaguely Wagner

People have read everything from Marxist philosophy to Jungian depth psychology into Richard Wagner's operatic cycle Der Ring Des Nibelungen.
By Scott A. Rosenberg

People have read everything from Marxist philosophy to Jungian depth psychology into Richard Wagner's operatic cycle Der Ring Des Nibelungen. Not least among the difficulties of untangling its 16 hours of music and text are the contradictions which Wagner, bursting with knowledge in many fields and expert in none, wrote into his own libretto. Yet Wagner always insisted that his "poetry" was the important thing and that his music existed only to serve it.

English-speaking audiences usually sit through this marathon with only a vague idea of what's happening. They can tell the giants from the dwarfs, and maybe, after a couple of operas, they begin to realize the importance of that little gold ring. But unless you're willing to put in the time to read the entire libretto--and to study the leitmotif structure Wagner used to organize his music--the most you'll get out of the operas is a few gasps at the brilliance of the musical climaxes in between a lot of boredom. The subtleties Wagner took pride in disappear.

The English National Opera (ENO) has been plying a high-quality brand of Wagner-in-translation for almost a decade to combat this problem. Using Andrew Porter's excellent modern translation, the English singers under Reginald Goodall's direction have gained an international reputation for their production. They've also been recording the operas, one by one, from live performances, and with the release last month of their Gotterdammerung (in translation, Twilight of the Gods), the entire cycle is now complete, in English, on record.

Any project this enormous is a milestone, to be sure, but it doesn't accomplish its aim; you can't understand the words without the libretto, translation or no translation. Whether it is the over-resonant, mediocre engineering of the recording, the imperfect diction of some of the singers, or simply the nature of operatic singing that is responsible, the words are three-quarters unintelligible. Porter's skillful imitation of Wagner's alliterative verse style never has a chance. The translation works best in the long narratives, during which the characters stop to repeat parts of the story in new musical contexts.

The need for this whole recording is dubious, anyway. Translation makes good sense in the theater, where the listener has an immediate need to understand what's happening. But for home listening, it's easy enough to follow the German with the aid of a libretto. And doing so allows you to listen to singers and musicians of greater skill than the ENO group.

Goodall's conducting is in the expansive, slow-paced tradition of men like Hans Knappertsbusch. He has a touch for bringing out the counterpoint in Wagner's score, particularly in the popular orchestral segments like "Siegfried's Rhine Journey"; but often it's hard to tell just what he's doing with his orchestra, because the recording is so muddy.

Many of the ENO singers have gone on to careers in the world's major opera houses, but this recording shows them in a very bad light. Rita Hunter's light-voiced Brunnhilde and Alberto Remedios' Siegfried are effective in the more lyrical passages, but neither really withstands the strain of these most taxing of roles. Hunter turns shrill and Remedios' diction decays. Much of the supporting cast has the same trouble, or others.

But the real problem with presenting Wagner in translation is that it exposes all the confusion in Wagner's thinking. No one is sure just what he intended his mythological, melodramatic "music-dramas" to mean, and it's likely that he never knew himself. Das Rheingold, the first opera in the cycle, shows heavy socialist influence, and some critics say Wagner's early sketches of the character Siegfried were based on Mikhail Bakunin, the mid-nineteenth century anarchist. But in the decade between the composition of acts II and III of Siegfried, the third opera in the cycle--during which Wagner wrote Die Meistersinger and Tristan und Isolde--he latched on to Schopenhauer's eastern mystic fatalism, and suddenly the philosophy of the Ring cycle took a sharp turn to the right.

All this intellectual dilly-dallying left the actual story line in woeful shape. Particularly in Gotterdammerung, there are major inconsistencies--most spectacularly, it seems the gods who expire in a blaze of flame and music at the very end need not perish at all, since the ring which had doomed them is back in the hands of its rightful owners.

Translating Gotterdammerung just forces casual listeners to notice these troubles, which they could ignore when they weren't following the plot carefully and just revelled in the glorious music. The music is what we respect Wagner for today; his ill-conceived theories about unity of drama and music, based on very frail analogy to classical Greek tragedy, now find few admirers, especially since he himself failed to apply them carefully. And the music is much less well-served by this recording sonically and artistically than by Georg Solti's classic 1964 Decca set. If there is a need for Wagner in translation, it is in the theater, not on record.